"bloodcurdling screams": Shark Attack in Middle Harbour

I visited Waverley Cemetery in March 2018 and Walter C German’s headstone caught my eye. ‘Killed by shark, Middle Harbour’ it announced. Who was Walter C. German and what were the circumstances of his attack and death on 8 December 1916?

The Daily Telegraph of 26 December 2014 began by describing Sydney Harbour as a ‘sinister soup, swarming with giblets that kill’. Despite the age of 39 on his headstone, the article described Walter Cromwell German as a 41 year-old Torquay Point man who was swimming with his wife at nearby Middle Harbour when his left arm was bitten off above the elbow. His wife’s screams alerted neighbours who helped drag him ashore. The Telegraph left nothing to the imagination, noting that two women could see his ‘heart beating in his chest’. He died shortly after. Torquay Point, also known as Sugarloaf Point, is at Castlecrag.

The first known ‘requiem attack’ in Middle Harbour had been in 1907 when Henry Jones, Secretary of the Mosman Congregation Church tennis club was killed while swimming at Sugarloaf Point. Walter German was a motor engineer and died while swimming in front of his home near the same point in 1916. Gavin Souter’s book describes several other shark attacks. 1

In 1916 a public wharf, the first in Willoughby Municipality, had been opened at Torquay Point (Sugarloaf Point) on 30 November and the vendors of Torquay Estate contributed half the cost of the structure. A motor launch service operated from The Spit two days a week for many years with passengers able to connect with the tram to Spit Junction and St Leonards or Milsons Point. The wharf was demolished in the 1950s. 2

H.S. Hawkins, the City Coroner reported that on the day of his death Walter had been teaching his wife, Elsie, to swim when the attack occurred. 3 Elsie’s ‘terrible experience’ was even reported in the Bathurst newspapers where she was noted as ‘extremely plucky for an elderly woman’. 4 She was about forty! Perhaps to warn country people from swimming in Sydney Harbour or a fascination with being eaten by sharks, The Guyra Argus reported that ‘the shallow waters of the quiet bays seem to be the favourite resorts of the man-eating types of shark’. 5 The papers were fascinated and reports appeared in The Farmer and Settler, The Maitland Mercury, Goulburn Evening Penny Post, the Macleay Argus, The Singleton Argus and as far away as the Barrier Miner in Broken Hill. The Maitland Daily Mercury reported that fishermen in boats had scoured the waters the day after the attack but were unable to land the shark. 6
Walter was buried from the Mortuary Chambers of Mrs P. Kirby & Son Ltd, Funeral Directors, 7 Elizabeth Street, Sydney in the Church of England Cemetery, Waverley where his headstone still sits today. 7

Who was Walter Cromwell German? He appears in the Sydney Directories 1886 to 1890 living in Manly and his wife, Elsie, is there after his death in 1916 until 1929. Elsie had re- married to Samuel E. Gent in 1928 but was buried with her first husband at Waverley in 1973, as noted on the headstone.

For readers’ further interest there is a ‘shark’ file in Mosman Library Local Studies with a note from historian Gavin Souter listing fatal shark attacks in Middle Harbour, some of which have other information in the files:
21 Dec 1907 – Henry Jones at Sugarloaf Bay
8 Dec 1916 – Walter German at Sugarloaf Point
16 Jan 1942 – Zieta Steadman at Bantry Bay
26 Dec 1942 – Denise Burch at Bantry Bay
17 Jan 1955 – John Willis at Edwards Beach
5 Feb 1955 – Bruno Reutenberg at Sugarloaf Bay
16 Jan 1960 – Kenneth Murray at Roseville Bridge
28 Jan 1963 – Marcia Hathaway at Sugarloaf Bay

1 Gavin Souter, Times & Tides: A Middle Harbour Memoir, Xoum Publishing, n.d., won 2003 Isbaella Brierley Prize.
2 On line article on Castlecrag history, https://castlecrag.org.au/wp-content/uploads/History-1879-to- 1919.pdf
3 Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 15 December 1916, p.4.
4 National Advocate, Bathurst, 15 December 1916, p.2. The Bathurst Times, 9 December 1916, p.3.
5 The Guyra Argus, 14 December 1916, p.6.
6 Maitland Daily Mercury, 9 December 1916, p.4.
7 Funeral notice, Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday, 9 December 1916, p.11.

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