The Stained Glass Detective
It could be mistaken for a detective novel, with a mystery stretching into three centuries – from the colonial days of the mid-19th century to the ultra modern world of the early 21st century.
It dates back to the night of August 20, 1857, when the sailing ship Dunbar was smashed to pieces as it attempted to enter Sydney Harbour. On board were 122 souls – 68 passengers and 54 crew. Only one would survive.
The 1186-tonne Dunbar was described as a first class sailing vessel. When launched in 1854, it was said to be the largest ever built in the north-eastern English centre of Sunderland. The ship was owned by Duncan Dunbar, whose fleet also included the Phoebe Dunbar, the Dunbar Castle and the eponymous Duncan Dunbar.
It had been at sea for 81 days on its second voyage from England when it approached Sydney Heads in treacherous weather conditions on the night of Thursday, August 20. Its skipper, Capt Green, decided to enter the harbour rather than ride out the heavy weather until morning.
Heavy rain obscured the cliffs at Sydney Heads and when Capt Green heard the shout ‘breakers ahead!’, the Dunbar was south of the opening and almost under the Macquarie Lighthouse. The ship was driven broadside into the towering cliffs and began to break up almost immediately.
In the hours that followed, all but one of the passengers and crew perished in the worst peacetime maritime disaster in Australia’s history.
The sole survivor, able seaman James Johnson clung to a ledge on the cliff face until he was rescued on the Saturday morning, 36 hours after the Dunbar ran aground. The search for other survivors continued for days, but only the bodies of victims could be found. Most could not be identified.A mass funeral was held on September 24. The interments took place at St. Stephen’s Cemetery, Newtown, where there is a monument to the victims. About 20,000 people lined George St for the funeral procession. Banks and offices closed, ships in the harbour flew their ensigns at half-mast and minute guns were fired as seven hearses and more than 100 carriages moved slowly through the city.
The red and white Hornby Lighthouse at the tip of South Head, was subsequently built to mark the entrance to the harbour. And a bower anchor from the Dunbar now sits atop the Gap at Watson’s Bay as a permanent memorial to the shipwreck.
The first Archbishop of Sydney, Archbishop John Bede Polding, commissioned a window to be installed in St Mary’s Cathedral in 1860. The window, a memorial to the wreck of the Dunbar, was donated by the Hon Daniel Egan in memory of his wife and two stepchildren who were among the 121 crew and passengers who perished. It consisted of three glass panels and was made by the John Hardman Studios of Birmingham.
The window survived the fire that destroyed the cathedral in 1865. The two side panels were moved to ‘Subiaco’, a house maintained in western Sydney by Benedictine monks and named after St Benedict’s first monastery, at Subiaco, in Italy.
The panels were later moved to the chapel of the Benedictine Monastery in Arcadia, near Dural, where they are now.
But what of the centre panel?
“The fate of the first stained glass window installed in St Mary’s is a long-standing unsolved mystery,” says stained-glass researcher Robin Hedditch. “In all likelihood, the centre panel didn’t survive the removal of the window to Subiaco, which is a great pity because the window is historically important and no one now knows what the whole window looked like.”
That was certainly the case for years.
As part of her Masters degree studies at Sydney University, Robin Hedditch spent two months in the British city of Birmingham, consulting the records of the John Hardman studio.
“Australia has a fantastic collection of stained glass which few people know about,” says Robin, “and for about 100 years the Hardman company exported hundreds of stained-glass windows to churches all around Australia.”
The firm began making stained-glass windows in 1845 for AWN Pugin, the great Gothic Revivalist, and became a major manufacturer of stained glass in the 19th century.
The Hardman records, held in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Birmingham City Library, are an invaluable source of information about Australia’s stained-glass windows and include letters, sketches and ‘cartoons’ – the full-sized drawings from which the pieces of glass are cut.
[image: Robin Hedditch and Glennys Wild study the original ‘cartoons’ for the cathedral’s Dunbar memorial window]
“Like so much research, you never know what you are going to find,” says Robin. “One day the senior curator (at the Birmingham Museum), Glennys Wild, handed me a rolled up cartoon simply labelled ‘Sydney window’.“We had no idea what it contained or even how old the cartoon was. As we unfurled it, I realised what it was.”
Inside the brittle, dusty roll, probably untouched for decades, were the original cartoons for the Dunbar window, and for the first time the design of the missing centre panel was revealed.
“It was so exciting,” says Robin.
“I’d read a description of the window from The Sydney Morning Herald published at the time it was installed in St Mary’s so I had a rough idea of what to expect, but it was the delicate rendering of the cartoon that really impressed me. It was so faint and ghostly; really beautiful.”
The cartoon shows a tall figure of Mary Immaculate with long hair and a serene face above a scene of the Dunbar during the fateful storm. On board are Daniel Egan’s wife, Marian, and her two children, Henry and Gertrude Cahnac, about to be engulfed by waves.
“Now we can reconstruct the design of the whole window for first time in a hundred years,” says Robin.
The two surviving side panels flank the centre panel and show large figures of St Henry and St Gertrude with smaller figures of Henry and Gertrude Cahnac. They kneel in prayer and face the central scene in reflected poses. They are appealing to Mary for help, demonstrating her role as human intercessor in times of need.
St Henry of Germany (972-1024) was both a German king and Holy Roman Emperor. Here he holds a model of Bamburg Cathedral where his remains have been interred since 1201.
St Gertrude (626-659) founded a monastery at Nivelles, and is a patron saint of travellers following the legend that she saved pilgrims from drowning when their boat was threatened by a sea monster. St Gertrude’s Day (March 17) continues to be associated with weather predictions.
“The choice of Mary and Sts Henry and Gertrude was obviously suggested by the names, Marian, Henry and Gertrude, and so this window is a self-conscious revival of the medieval practice of using people’s names to suggest saints and subjects,” Robin explains.
“One of the special features of the Dunbar window is its early representation of an Australian subject in stained glass, and one as tragic as the wreck of the Dunbar.
“Now that we know what the window looked like, there’s still one more unsolved mystery: the fate of t he missing panel.
“There’s a remote possibility that it survives in a church or chapel somewhere. If any one recognises it from the drawing, it would be great to know its whereabouts.”
[image: How the window looked before its removal from the old St Mary's Cathedral. The centre panel is from the cartoon discovered in the Hardman archives]