A happy ending

SS Iron Crown orphans reunited at last.

Last December, Bill Stewart and his sister Beryl saw each other for the first time in nearly 80 years. They were separated in 1942 after their father died on SS Iron Crown, but a series of fortunate occurrences finally reunited them, writes Emily Jateff from the Australian National Maritime Museum .

Two people standing arm in arm.

Bill and Beryl Stewart reunited at last. Image courtesy Natalie Corbett-Jones.

The Australian merchant vessel SS Iron Crown was enroute from Whyalla to Newcastle, New South Wales, when it was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-27 on 4 June 1942. It sank within minutes, taking 38 of the 43 crew with it.

This included 64-year-old fireman Frank Stewart, who was born in London, England, in 1878. Frank and his wife Margaret Pearl had two children, William and Beryl. After Margaret died in 1935, and Frank joined the merchant navy, both children were sent to St Joseph’s Orphanage at Larg’s Bay, South Australia.

Following Frank’s death at sea, William and Beryl were adopted separately. This seems inhuman now, but at the time, it was believed that adoptees needed a ‘clean break’ from any remaining relatives. Family member Kylie Watson says, ‘I don’t believe there was legislation in place to support siblings to remain in contact. It is my understanding that it was quite the opposite and common practice to discourage any further contact with their past lives.’

Beryl was adopted at age seven by Walter and Rose Johnson and lived in South Australia for her whole life. Bill was placed with the Allen family in Adelaide when he was 14, moved to Sydney when he was 19, and is still resident in New South Wales. Bill and Beryl spent the following decades apart, not knowing where the other was, or if they still lived.

In April 2019, with the support of CSIRO Marine National Facility RV Investigator, a joint maritime archaeological research project by the Australian National Maritime Museum and Heritage Victoria located the last resting place of SS Iron Crown in 672 metres of water in Bass Strait.

On Merchant Navy Day (3 September) 2019, more than 50 descendants of Iron Crown’s crew gathered for a memorial event at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, Victoria. Brigadier David Westphalen, himself a descendant, had applied for eligible crewmembers to receive the War Medal and the Australian Service Medal, which were accepted by the descendants.

Two people standing in an outdoor setting.

Emily Jateff and Bill Stewart at the SS Iron Crown Memorial Service in September 2019. Image courtesy Natalie Corbett-Jones.

At this event, I met Bill Stewart, Frank Stewart’s son, and Natalie Corbett-Jones, Bill’s granddaughter. Bill Stewart said that the discovery gave him comfort because he finally knows his dad’s resting place, and that it brings peace to ‘the forgotten men of the war’.

This wasn’t the end of the story, however.

Although they had both tried to find each other, Bill Stewart and his sister remained separated. Then, more than a year later, an email from ABC journalist Rachel Mealey, who had covered the memorial event in 2019 , popped up in my inbox. She had received a message from Kylie Watson, grand-daughter of Ronald Francis Pavy, Margaret Pearl’s youngest son from her first marriage, who had heard of the discovery and thought she might be related to Bill Stewart.

Rachel asked me to connect the two, and with their permission, I did. And so, after 79 years, Bill and Beryl were finally reunited.

This isn’t what usually happens when you find a shipwreck. But I’m very glad it did.

Author Emily Jateff is the Australian National Maritime Museum’s Curator of Ocean Science and Technology. 

Thanks to Kylie Watson, who conducted the genealogical research
on Margaret Pearl, and to Natalie Corbett-Jones, Bill Stewart and all
the families of those lost on the SS Iron Crown.


Originally published in the Australian National Maritime Museum's quarterly magazine Signals, Issue 139 - Winter 2022: http://www.sea.museum/explore/publications/signals-magazine