Man O’ War Stairs today is a peaceful place to watch the harbour, under the gleaming white ‘sails’ of Sydney’s Opera House. Yet Man O’ War Stairs has seen its share of tragedy.
In 1927, on November 3, one of the the greatest maritime disasters to ever occur on Sydney Harbour took place when the Royal Mail Steamer Tahiti collided with the passenger ferry Greycliffe. Although the collision occurred off Bradleys Head (now Taronga Zoo), it was Man O’ War Steps which served as temporary hospital and morgue. The afternoon of the collision was beautiful, clear and sunny. There was no storm, no wind, no swell. Visibility was good. What went so very wrong?
Tahiti was a passenger steamer, bound for New Zealand and ultimately San Francisco. She was departing Sydney on November 3, being piloted by Captain Thomas Carson and under the command of Captain Basil Aldwell who had been Captain of the ship since 1922. Both were aware of other boats on the harbour, particularly the ferries Greycliffe and Woollahra and they assumed both ferries were equally aware of them. This was not the case and Greycliffe actually charted a course which would cause it to collide with Tahiti. Although Carson tried to avoid disaster, the Tahiti was going too fast to be able to swing away from the ferry. Tahiti sounded its horn, but Greycliffe seemed to be unaware that it was even in danger. Indeed, the sounding of Tahiti’s horn startled Greycliffe’s Captain, William Barnes. Although he spun the wheel hard to try to lessen the impact it was too late. Greycliffe was hit.
40 people of all ages and from all classes died in the tragedy and were laid out in the makeshift morgue at Man O’ War Stairs. Six school children died, as well as the Science Master from Sydney Boys High School. Also amongst the dead were three doctors (including N.S.W Chief Quarantine Officer), three Navy personnel, seven tradesmen from Garden Island Dockyard, six ‘tourists’ from N.S.W and Victoria, Australia’s first woman pilot, six times Mayor of Leichhardt, an architect, a retired Master Mariner, three retired gentlemen and seven housewives.