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Thomas Pearce, c. 1878

The Photographic Society of Victoria, Melbourne

albumen paper carte de visite (support: 10.2 cm x 6.5 cm, image: 9.1 cm x 5.6 cm)

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Thomas Pearce (c. 1860–1909) was a young apprentice on board the English merchant vessel the Loch Ard, which departed chilly Gravesend, England, for warmer climes in Australia in March 1878. There were 37 crew and sixteen passengers aboard. In stormy weather on 1 June 1878, just days from completing the three-month voyage, the captain of the magnificent iron-hulled clipper mistakenly thought the ship was 50 miles from the coastline when she was dashed by heavy surf onto the rocks of Muttonbird Island. Only two survived the wreckage: eighteen-year-old Pearce and eighteen-year-old Irish emigrant, Eva Carmichael. Supported by the upturned hull of a lifeboat, Pearce was washed ashore in a small cove, now known as Loch Ard Gorge. When he heard Eva Carmichael’s cries and saw her clinging to wreckage, ‘he at once divested himself of his unnecessary clothing, plunged in the sea, swam out to her, and brought her safely to the beach.’ Lauded for his brave and gallant act, Pearce was presented with a valuable gold watch and chain by governor George Ferguson Bowen as a ‘slight token of the respect and admiration in which your noble conduct is held by all classes in this colony.’ He was also presented with the first gold medal issued by the Royal Humane Society of Victoria. Popular sentiment was for a permanent union; but Eva returned to Ireland having lost her parents and siblings in the wreck. Pearce became a ship's captain. According to an ‘interview’ published in the Argus in 1934, Carmichael returned Pearce’s favour some years later when, ‘living on the Irish coast’, she and her husband Captain Townsend were called on to help survivors from wrecks and that ‘on one occasion who should fall into her care but Tom Pearce!’.

As sole survivors of the wreck, Tom Pearce and Eva Carmichael experienced a period of celebrity during which the sensational story of the Loch Ard created much fodder for newspapers. The 6 July issue of the Australasian Sketcher featured wood engravings of the scene of the sinking, an engraved portrait of Eva, ‘drawn from life’, and one of Tom based on this carte de visite, which was captioned as being ‘from a photograph by Mr Burman.’ There were four photographers named Burman in Melbourne in 1878: brothers Frederick, William and Arthur Burman, and their father, William Insull Burman, all of whom took photographs of Pearce and Carmichael. The Burmans were among the photographers later contracted to produce photographs relating to Ned Kelly’s activities, and many souvenir photos of him, his gang, his captors and the Glenrowan incident bear the Burman stamp. The Photographic Society of Victoria was formed in 1876 to ‘bring photographers together in a friendly spirit, in order to advance the art and science of photography in the colony.’ At the time of the first annual meeting on 9 March 1877 there were 61 members, five whom were ladies. Members included well-known Melbourne photographers Charles Hewitt and Charles Nettleton as well as Joseph Turner of Geelong.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Purchased 2010

Accession number: 2010.168

Currently not on display

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Artist and subject

The Photographic Society of Victoria, Melbourne

Thomas Pearce (age 18 in 1878)

Subject professions

Migration and colonisation

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