Southern Cross Pearl
back from long exile

By Jennifer Moran

The story of the Southern Cross Pearl has been shaped by intrigue. Tales of superstition and awe attended its discovery and rumour and mystery dogged its long exile from Australia. Now the pearl cluster is back, on permanent loan to the Western Australian Museum, and some of its secrets can be pieced together.

The Southern Cross is Australia’s most fascinating, and its most famous, pearl formation. Hugh Edwards, in his history of Broome, Port of Pearls (Rigby, 1983) wrote: “There never was a pearl more talked about than this freak formation. It caused more arguments, more fights, more impassioned oratory for and against, than any other pearl found on the pearling coast.”

The Southern Cross is a natural, baroque Pinctada maxima cluster, a formation of nine pearls in the shape of a rough cross measuring 37.2mm in length and 18.3mm in width. It was found off Baldwin Creek in Western Australia in 1883.

A natural pearl begins with an irritant – a grain of sand or a piece of shell grit drifts in and the oyster, trying to stop the rough rasp on flesh, secretes nacre to coat the intrusion. Slow time washes over it while layer by nacreous layer the pearl grows. The smallest pearls doing duty at the clasp end of a long, graduated necklace probably took more than five years to form. Left to its own devices, Pinctada maxima, the silver lip or gold lip pearl oyster, has a life expectancy of about 20 years and grows the largest natural pearls of high quality.

Australian pearling has a long history. As Guy Wright and Leonie Stella noted in their report for the Research Unit of the National Native Title Tribunal, prepared for the conference on Indigenous Fishing Rights in 2003, “Aboriginal people were engaged in pearl shell harvesting prior to the coming of Europeans… It was also traded throughout most of the Australian continent.”

English explorer William Dampier had marked the presence of the small Pinctada albina albina shells at Shark Bay on the Western Australian coast when he visited in 1699, but it was not until around 1854 that settlers began to trade in pearl shell and pearls there. Commercial fishing for pearls gradually moved north and the enthusiastic growth of the industry around Cossack began around 1861 where the larger Pinctada maxima offered richer pickings. At the time, Cossack was still called Tien Tsin. It was also variously known as Port Walcott, North District and The Landing but in 1871 the name was changed to Cossack in honour of the ship that brought Sir Frederick Weld, the Western Australian Governor, to the port.

By the 1880s more than 80 pearling boats were based there. “At anchor in the middle of the creek, riding to the rising or falling tide, or high and dry on the banks of the western branch, lay the pearling fleet,” wrote Henry Taunton, in his book Australind: Wanderings in Western Australia and the Malay East (Edward Arnold, 1903). “These would come in, one after the other, at the end of the shelling season, after discharging the native divers at various points along the coast. Cutters, schooners, brigs, and luggers all were there, ranging in size from five or six to fifty, sixty, and one hundred tons register.”

Pearling might have been lucrative but it was not a comfortable life and for the divers, it was dangerous work. Sharks and cyclones took their toll and many divers were not willing recruits.

Wright and Stella point out that the “Master and Servant” legislation which operated in the 19th Century meant that an employee could be liable for imprisonment with hard labour for breaking a contract. “Whether as willing or coerced participants it was soon apparent that the fledgling pearling industry was reliant on Aboriginal people and the newspaper of the day reported that ‘by 1870 there were some 300 natives employed on approximately thirty boats by sixty-two whites’.”

Within a decade of this, the industry was also attracting divers from Japan, China, Malaysia and the Philippines. Cossack’s heyday was not to last long – as the pearl shells were stripped from the area the fleet continued north and by 1900 the industry was centred in Broome. But by then the Southern Cross Pearl had already won its fame, or notoriety, and a place in pearling history for some of those who had owned it.

Almost all accounts put two people centre-stage – master pearler James William Sherbrook Kelly, Shiner to his friends, and Tommy, the 15-year-old son of fellow pearler Jim Clarke.

According to J. E. de B. Norman and G.V. Norman, in A Pearling Master’s Journey: in the wake of the schooner Mist (Norman, 2007), Clarke and his brother Jack lived on the family schooner “plying the coast, ‘wood and water’ for the pearling fleet and dry shelling or shallow water pearling for themselves.

“By age 10 Tommy and Jack were sent south to further their schooling… Clarke left school in 1880 at the age of 12… By 1882 he was in command of a diving crew, and by 1888 was fishing 25 tons of shell annually.”

In 1883, young Clarke was with Kelly, his mother’s brother, who had taken his lugger Ethel from Cossack on a long pearling voyage. There were others there – Aboriginal crew – but no account names them, in spite of their close involvement in the story.

The West Australian reported on 7 July 1883 that the Rob Roy had brought from the North West a “most extraordinary natural curiosity”, a “conglomeration of pearls, forming an almost perfect representation of a cross”.

In The Inquirer the next day it was reported that the “cross is composed of nine pearls, each one being about the size of a large marrow-fat pea, perfect in shape and lustre. Seven of them form the stem of the cross, and two the branches.” The Inquirer went on to propose that “perhaps some wealthy Catholic will purchase it for presentation to His Holiness Leo XIII”. Thus was born one of the more persistent rumours, much speculated upon once the Southern Cross disappeared from view, that it was in the vaults of the Vatican.

In 1886 the Southern Cross Pearl, by then owned by a Western Australian syndicate, was exhibited at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London. The display at the Exhibition was reported in The West Australian on 2 August 1886, where it was described as “the treasure of the show… no freak, rather a faerie fancy, of nature… This lusus naturae which has been inspected by Her Majesty, the Prince and Princess, and all the Royalties who have visited the Colinderies, is valued at £10,000.”

In September that year, The Inquirer reported the pearl had been “put in the charge of Mr Streeter for disposal”. This was Mr Edwin Streeter, renowned London jeweller whose standing saw him mentioned by H. Rider Haggard in his novel, King Solomon’s Mines (Cassell, 1890), and whose business interests later spread to Broome. Streeter, in his book Pearls and Pearling Life (G. Bell, 1886), said that so far as was known, the Southern Cross “occupies an absolutely unique position in the history of Pearls”.

“The component Pearls are of fine orient, and would be of good shape were it not that by mutual compression during growth, they have become slightly flattened on their opposed sides, while some of them, though round in front, are distorted into drop shapes at the back.”

Streeter refers to F.H. Cheesewright who, he says, took the Pearl to London, apparently on behalf of a syndicate which included explorer, pastoralist and politician Maitland Brown. Streeter noted that the syndicate had valued the pearl at £10,000 “but this price is unreasonably high”.

Streeter exhibited the pearl at his shop in New Bond Street and invited “a large number of scientific and literary men, with many Colonists and Indians” to inspect it. The Pearl “was freely handled by the visitors; and to make the scrutiny more severe, a powerful lime-light was projected onto the Cross, while magnifying glasses of high power were provided to assist in the criticism… It is satisfactory however, to state that the Cross came out from the ordeal without a shadow of suspicion…”

All this no doubt enhanced the desirability of the Pearl but its accuracy was questionable.

Shiner Kelly lost patience with the many stories that had been circulating about the Southern Cross Pearl. In a letter published in The West Australian on March 18, 1887, he wrote: “Having had my attention drawn to two paragraphs published in the West Australian Catholic Record of the 14th October, 1886, in which it was stated that ‘Shiner Kelly’ was the finder of the now well-known pearl cross, and that he, through superstitious awe, buried it for a length of time, and also that Mr Alexander Forrest had seen it in Roebourne in the year 1879, I felt it to be my duty, being the person referred to, both to myself and to the public, such statement being wholly inaccurate, to give a true account of the facts of the case…

“I left Cossack on a pearling cruise on the 12th November 1882, and on the 25th March, 1883, I and three natives were out ‘beachcombing.’ I found one shell only, and the natives two, and I returned at night tired and so disgusted with my bad luck, that I determined to go back to my home at the Lacepede Islands. Next day, however, I was more successful, getting altogether about 200 pair of shells. During my absence, a boy named Clarke, in my employment, in opening one of the shells obtained the previous day, found the pearl above-mentioned. He said it was a perfect cross when he got it, but when he handed it to me, it was in three pieces. In this condition, i.e. in three distinct pieces, I sold it to a fellow-pearler, Mr. Frank Roy for £10, subsequently he sold it to Mr. Frank Craig, for £40. Mr. Frank Craig sold it to a syndicate of leading gentlemen in this colony… What I wish particularly to impress on the public is (1) that the pearl when sold by me was not a perfect cross, but was in three distinct pieces. (2) That it was not buried by me as stated, and (3) that as it was not found until March ’83, Mr. Alexander Forrest could hardly have seen [it] in the year 1879.”

But Kelly’s protestations did little to staunch the flow of storytelling.

Taunton offered a comprehensive account in Australind. He was a sceptic, and asserted that the Southern Cross was “mainly the work of the pearl-faker”.

Taunton claimed that when Kelly sold the Southern Cross to Frank Roy it “consisted of only eight pearls, and that to make it resemble a well-proportioned cross – the right arm being absent – another pearl, a match in shape and fit, was subsequently procured and fastened to the others”.

Taunton claimed to have seen the pearl in this state. “I also happened to be on a pearling cruise between November and April 1882-83, and had occasion to touch at the Lacepede Islands shortly after the ‘Southern Cross’ was discovered. When Frank Roy showed it to me it was in three pieces. These were afterwards joined together by diamond cement, and the pearl, still wanting one pearl to transform it into a shapely cross, was sold at Cossack at the end of the season.”

Taunton reproduced drawings of his recollection of how the pearl had looked in its various states. But Taunton himself probably erred, as later developments will show.

Scientist and author William Saville-Kent recounted, in The Naturalist in Australia (Chapman & Hall, 1897), that while in Western Australia he had “enjoyed the privilege of the possession of this wondrous Cross for two whole days and nights”, so that he might examine and photograph it. “Through an accidental fall since its original discovery, the two adherent pearl elements at the foot of the combination have become slightly loosened from the preceding five, but the manner in which the whole series fit into one another by reciprocal convex and concave surfaces, or, so to say, shallow cup and ball articulations, leaves little or no room for scepticism.”

The fame of the pearl spread worldwide. The eminent gemmologist George Frederick Kunz and Charles Hugh Stevenson, in The Book of the Pearl (The Century Co, 1908) said that if separated, “the aggregate value of the individual pearls would be small, and the celebrity of the ornament is due almost exclusively to its form”.

A number of accounts refer to at least two pearl doctors working on the formation. It was reported that Frank Craig, during his ownership of the pearl, had Horrie Sholl work on it, joining it together and setting it in gold. More than one source, including his descendants’ current gem dealership website, claim that Thomas Bastian Ellies, known as T.B., who had come from Galle in what is now Sri Lanka, and whose reputation for cleaning up pearls was unsurpassed, worked on the pearl.

Constant speculation about the condition of the pearl did not dampen the public enthusiasm for it. Following its exhibition at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886, it was shown three years later at the Paris Exhibition where it won a gold medal.

Its last public showing was at The British Empire exhibition at Wembley in 1924. Some time between the Paris Exhibition and the exhibition at Wembley, it seems that Maitland Brown’s syndicate sold the pearl. There were passing references to the formation being owned by timber merchant C.P. Bennett, or C. Peto-Bennett.

Then the Southern Cross Pearl disappeared.

For more than 70 years, false leads and frustration taunted those who wondered what had become of Australia’s famous pearl.

The story remained grist for a publishing mill.

In Full Fathom Five (Artlook Books, 1982), Sister Mary Albertus Bain recounted several versions of the story, including the “romantic” version which Bain says was favoured by Biddy Clarke, mother of Tommy who cracked open the fateful oyster.

In this version Kelly was beachcombing with Biddy’s husband Jim and their son Tommy, who was picking up shells, wrote Bain. “In one he found a natural cross-shaped group of pearls, with seven in the shaft and one on each side to form the arms. When it was shown to the two men they were panic-stricken and initially wanted to throw the shell and cross overboard.

“Returning to Cossack, and to Biddy, they were told, ‘You are to take this to His Reverence at once’. In this small port, all paths and tracks eventually came to two nondescript shanties known as hotels. Carrying their daily land allowance of twenty five cents, permitted by the matriarchal Biddy, the two men called in at the White Horse to display their treasure. The excited crowd named the pearls the ‘Southern Cross’ and after much haggling a well-known pearler, One-eyed Bob Sholl, paid £90 for the jewel.”

In Port of Pearls, Edwards had Kelly sail in to Baldwin Creek in a highly charged atmosphere of danger posed by Aboriginal people settled at the creek. “The passage is flanked by rocks, and it took a cool sailing-boat skipper to ride the surging tide through to the shelter inside. But Kelly knew what he was doing and handled his vessel splendidly.

“He was concerned more about the thin smokes he saw rising ashore than the black rocks at the entrance. It was 25 March 1883 and the Aboriginals of Dampierland were in an ugly mood. Too many of their [men] and young women had been blackbirded (a polite word for kidnapping) into forced servitude as divers in the pearling fleet. Some had died in the gruelling work and spearmen among their relatives ashore itched to settle the blood feud.”

Jean Taburiaux, in Pearls: Their Origin, Treatment and Identification (NAG Press, 1985) wrote that when Clarke handed the pearl to Kelly, “this superstitious man thought that it was a message from heaven and hurriedly buried it. After 18 months, when nothing unlucky had happened, he went to fetch the cross, which on all the evidence, did not seem at all maleficent. A few days later, he showed it to one of his friends who unfortunately dropped it and, a few days later, hurt his hand seriously.”

In 1992 Phillip Pendal, then the Opposition spokesman for Heritage in the Western Australian Parliament, launched an arts and heritage hunt called “Search the Earth” to find treasures from Western Australia that had been sent overseas. Pendal hoped to bring some of these treasures back for an exhibition to mark the centenary of the WA Art Gallery in 1995. As it happened, the search did not uncover the pearl, though Pendal approached sources in England and it was well publicised in Western Australia, and when Richard Court’s Liberals won government in 1993, the “Search the Earth” initiative was abandoned.

The renewed search for the pearl had, however, put paid to a persistent rumour. Bain’s book had Biddy Clarke claiming that the Duchess of Sutherland had paid $20,000 for the Cross to present to the Vatican. T. B. Ellies’ descendants reported the pearl on display at the Vatican. Edwards had said that it had been bought by English Roman Catholics who “organised a collection of a shilling a head among their church-goers in Britain until they had the price of the fabulous pearl. And so the pearl fished by Shiner Kelly aboard the Ethel… was presented to the Pope because of the religious significance of its crucifix shape.” The Vatican scotched the rumour in 1992 when it confirmed that the pearl was not within its collection.

Though hidden from public view for more than 70 years, the Southern Cross had surfaced briefly, if anonymously. In 1981 Christie’s in London sent a pearl formation to the Gem Testing Laboratory of Great Britain for scientific analysis. No sale occurred.

In its journal of July 1986, the Laboratory noted the findings of their examination. “If the group of pearls examined in 1981 is the ‘Southern Cross’,” the Laboratory opined carefully, “whilst all the pearls forming the cross are natural, there are now only two natural joints between the pearls…” A diagram indicates these two as Joint A and Joint B. “Joint A has been strengthened by the addition of some adhesive on one side and all the remaining joints are now artificial.”

The Laboratory’s diagram is a dramatic refutation of Taunton’s story. Joint A is the juncture where Taunton claims the ninth pearl was added to make the cross.

Of course, a thing thought lost is often perfectly familiar to those who possess it. And so it was with the Southern Cross Pearl.

Chris Peto-Bennett lives with his wife, Priscilla, in Auckland. He is the grandson of Charles Peto-Bennett. Chris does not remember his grandfather who died in 1940, when Chris was a small child, though he knows Charles was at his christening.

Charles, says Chris, was a timber merchant in Europe. “He had interests in Norway and in Poland, and then the Far East beckoned.” By about 1890 he had two companies – C. Peto-Bennett Ltd and North Borneo Trading.

Charles married late, at 49, to a much younger wife. Kristine Elizabet Gude was Norwegian, from Trondheim, and the couple married a week before her 18th birthday. Chris’s uncle, Alfred, was born in August 1905. The family travelled to Sandakan, to the headquarters for North Borneo Trading and, from there, with Kristine pregnant once more, they travelled to Perth where Chris’s father, also Charles, was born in 1906 at a house called The Grove, resplendent with Peppermint Trees, in Cottesloe (later to become the suburb of Peppermint Grove).

The elder Charles established business relationships in Perth – Chris believes he was connected with Millars Karri and Jarrah Company. He knew Lord Forrest and, the family history has it, had a road named after him – Bennett Street in East Perth.

Around 1906 or 1907, Chris believes, Charles became involved in a tontine.

Tontines are banned, now, in many parts of the world but in the early 20th Century they were still common. Named after the Italian banker Lorenzo de Tonti who is reputed to have invented the scheme in the 17th Century, tontines were investment groups in which people paid money to join, were paid dividends from the tontine’s investment whilst they were alive but, as each investor died, the shares were divided amongst the surviving members. The family does not know who else was in the tontine, but Chris believes that Charles was involved by the time the family was back in London. A commemorative cigar box still held by the family indicates that this would have been by Christmas 1907.

The tontine purchased the Southern Cross Pearl, and Charles, apparently the last surviving member of the group, ended up with it. At the time of its exhibition at Wembley in 1924, the Pearl was insured for £24,000, says Chris. When the stockmarket crashed in 1927, the cost of insurance became prohibitive and the Southern Cross Pearl was put in a safe.

Around 1935 or 1936, says Chris, his grandparents decided that the Pearl should be inherited by their two sons equally. Chris’s father, Charles, died in 1978 and, when his grandmother died two years later, Alfred had the task of sorting out the estate. He sent the pearls to be valued at Christie’s, hence their brief appearance in 1981.

From then until Alfred’s death in 1996, the pearls were kept in a safe at his home in Chelsea, London. The six grandchildren of Charles and Kristine – Anne, Lady Baker-Wilbraham; Caroline Culme-Seymour; Chris Peto-Bennett; Sue Prideaux; Thrine Benton and Guri Scotford – inherited the Pearl.

In 1998 when Chris and Priscilla travelled via Perth to England, they visited a pearl shop and were told by the shop staff that the whereabouts of the Southern Cross was the greatest mystery in the history of Australia’s pearling industry. They were surprised by this, having known nothing of the search for the Pearl.

The six grandchildren decided that the Pearl should be lent to a public institution so that it could be seen, rather than simply be left in a safe. Chris believed that the Pearl would mean much more to the people of Western Australia than to viewers anywhere else. Once everyone agreed, the Pearl was offered on permanent loan to the Western Australian Museum.

Caroline Culme-Seymour’s daughter Sasha, who is married to former Melburnian James Kennedy, brought the Pearl to Australia when the family visited at the end of 2005.

Then History Curator at the WA Museum Sue Graham-Taylor flew to Melbourne to pick it up, with some trepidation, given its history. “I felt honoured to hold something that had intrigued me in terms of the myths and legends surrounding it. It was a rather small package. I carried it in my handbag, well wrapped,” she said. “Because of the stories behind the Pearl, the myths and legends, it is obviously of great significance. I saw it as an interesting freak of nature with an intriguing story.”

The Southern Cross Pearl is currently on display as part of the exhibition Lustre: Pearling and Australia at the Western Australian Maritime Museum.

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