The Lost Treasure of the S.S. Seydlitz
I first read about the story of the lost treasure of the Seidlitz in Byron’s book on lost treasure of Australia. He used as his source an article which appeared in the Sydney Sunday Herald 10th January 1938 under the head line.
Search for Buried Treasure Fails Again.
Another attempt to find treasure which is supposed to be buried on a beach near Ballina has ended in failure. Two men, both Germans, drove from Halls Creek in W.A. in a utility truck to Tweed Heads but they parted soon after their arrival..
Byron then supplies a little more detail to the story of the rumoured treasure, which went back to 1914:
In 1914 a German passenger and mail ship scheduled to sail at 2 p.m. on the 5th of August suddenly left Sydney Harbour on the 3rd of August, 36 hours before Britain declared war on Germany and World War two commenced. Instead of sailing, as she was programmed to do, to Melbourne then Adelaide and Perth she headed north. The next day Australian destroyer Parramatta, with twice the speed in the water, was sent to capture the Seidlitz and take her back to port (she was the last German ship to leave an Australian port before the end of the war).
Somewhere on the far north coast of N.S.W. the Captain of the Seidlitz, aware that he was being pursued and almost certain to be captured, sent a boat ashore which a copper sea chest containing around 3,000 gold sovereigns, jewels (reportedly diamonds)and important documents given to him by wealthy Germans living in Sydney. The chest was buried somewhere behind the beach with the plan that it would be retrieved when Germany won the war. Of course Germany did not win the war and, although the Seidlitz did manage to escape the Parramatta (no radar in those days) she did not make it back to Germany but became involved in the decisive “Battle of the Falkland Islands”.
As I mentioned, it’s a good yarn with a nice sized treasure attached, 3,000 gold sovereigns and a horde of diamonds would have to be worth millions of dollars in today’s money. Better still buried in a copper chest in sand; what a target for a metal detector! Even two meters down it would have to give decent signal on a good sized coil. But was the story true; that was the question? So many buried treasure stories are just so much bull dust but what I liked about this one was that there were a number of claims that could be easily checked by a bit of sleuthing in the archives.
As was wisely said, “A few hours wisely spent in research can save months of wasted time in the field.”
First stop the micro-film archive of the Sydney Morning Herald August 1914; and bingo on August the 4th the Herald carried the story of the Seidlitz leaving Sydney prematurely.
Quote: Sydney Morning Herald 3rd August 1914
German Steamers Leaving
The German mail steamer Seidlitz cleared Sydney Harbour unexpectedly at one p.m. today, although not due to leave till Wednesday. As the vessel proceeded down the Harbour the ship’s band played the German National Anthem and there was great enthusiasm amongst the crew. Although the vessel’s destination is supposed to be Hamburg via Antwerp it is doubtful whether she has sufficient coal to take her that far.
The German steamer Elanas also received peremptory instructions from her owners to leave Sydney tomorrow.
However no more steamers were allowed to leave Australian ports, the big guns mounted on the Sydney Heads did the talking.
Two days later the same paper was reporting:
It was reported this afternoon that the German steamer Seidlitz, which left Sydney suddenly on Monday, had been captured by the destroyer Parramatta. The message states that the liner was secured north of Sydney although she left for Bremen via Melbourne.
This was interesting as Byron’s story said that the Seidlitz escaped but further research, in which I acquired copies of the Parramatta’s log books for August 1914 showed that she did not capture the Seidlitz although she was headed north and did pass Ballina on the 5th of August. Yet there was a connection, an inference that the Seidlitz had been seen in northern Australian waters. So far the story was holding up.
I decided to check the local Ballina papers and here I hit the jackpot. A 1938 article covered the story of the two Germans arriving from Halls Creek in much greater detail.
From the Northern Star:
Treasure Trove at Ballina
Another attempt to find the supposed “treasure trove” relic of early World War days on the beach near Ballina, has ended in failure.
It has been reported that two men, both Germans, who drove from Halls Creek in W.A. to Tweed Heads in a utility truck with the intention of unearthing thousands of pounds worth of jewellery and cash from a hiding spot on the beach, parted soon after their arrival on the North Coast without having fulfilled their mission.
The history of the treasure has for some years past been the subject of gossip and has been referred to in newspaper articles. The story is, briefly, that several days before England declared war on Germany in 1914 the German Consul in Sydney and a number of wealthy German residents despatched in the German steamer Sedlitz (sic) a copper box containing 2,500 sovereigns and also a quantity of valuable jewellery and private documents.
The master of the Sedlitz, fearing capture, decided to send ashore on the North Coast, supposedly near Ballina, and bury the sovereigns and jewellery. They were meant to be retrieved after the war. The Sedlitz was not captured and reached Germany safely.
According to the latest reports a German, a member of the crew of the Sedlitz, was arrested in Germany by the secret police in connection with the affair about a year ago, but escaped.
Joining a ship at Antwerp, in Holland, he sailed to Australia. He landed at Fremantle and eventually reached Halls Creek, W.A. which is a small but rich mining centre in the north of that State. There he met a butcher from the Wyndham Meatworks, who, while the meatworks were in seasonal recess, was trying his luck on a “show” he owned at Halls Creek.
The former crew member of the Sedlitz became friendly with the butcher, and told him of the Sedlitz affair and said he knew exactly where to find the buried treasure. He said that all the other members of the crew of the Sedlitz had since died, and that he alone knew the spot where the copper box had been buried.
The two men decided to motor across the continent. The butcher from Wyndham agreed to use his utility truck for the purpose, and scraping together all the money they had the two provisioned themselves for the 3000 mile trip.
On reaching Tweed Heads they pitched camp. The following morning when the butcher awoke he found that his companion had left. The other had shown a plan of the locality which he said he had carried with him since the treasure was buried. Later that day, however the man from Wyndham found the other on the road between Tweed Heads and Byron Bay and they joined forces again, after some quarrelling and mutual explanations.
For two days they searched near Byron Bay without success.
Then they decided the treasure must be closer to Ballina, and after a search in this direction had failed also, the owner of the plan – who had continually expressed a fear that he might be arrested- suggested searching near Evens Head. They stayed three weeks at Evans Head, searching between there and Ballina. Again their search was fruitless and, with tempers frayed, they had another quarrel.
Trying to Dump Me
According to the man from Wyndham the other man knew well where the treasure was, and he accused him of trying to get away from him. Eventually the owner of the plan left the camp and did not return. His companion, realising further searching was useless, gave up the attempt.
The owner of the utility truck said afterwards, in relating his experiences that his companion had referred on several occasions to two other Germans who had known of the treasure, and who, he said, had tried to find it. He was sure however that they had failed. These two Germans, he said, were responsible for the beaching of the boat at Ballina some years ago.
Now 3000 miles from his starting point , and none the richer for his long trip and the money he had put into the venture, the man from Wyndham has decided that if there is buried treasure on the coast of N.S.W. between Tweed Heads and Evans Head, he at least, has no chance of finding it.
It is implied in the above newspaper article that the reporter has actually interviewed the German butcher from Halls Creek, however the journalist in no longer alive and so his notes, the name of the German from Halls Creek and other details that might help track down what happened next are not available. However when I tested those facts that were able to be checked they all stood up. There was even a record from the lighthouse keeper at Cape Byron noting an unknown steamer with one red funnel heading north on the right day. The Seidlitz had a single red funnel. The next thing to do was have a search. I reasoned that the weather on that day would affect where the Captain of the Seidlitz could get a long boat onto the beach so I checked out the weather for that week. All week, seas were calm, swell small and winds light from the west. They could have landed on any beach no problem. Next I reasoned that they would only run a boat up on a beach that was a long way from any settlements. That did narrow things down a bit but not a lot. To cut a long story short I spent many, many pleasant days wandering around the sand hills of beaches between Ballina and Byron Bay. Obviously there is a lot of small rubbish; particularly aluminium cans, ring pulls and the usual junk behind the sand dunes, the results of beach parties, fishing camps and so on. To get past these I turned to my Gemini 2 twin box detector, I was looking for a big target, a copper box with gold in it, probably buried a meter or two deep. The Gemini would not pick up anything smaller than a drink can and, as the sand was clean without salt, mineralisation was not a problem. Eventually, after digging up a number of caches of neatly buried cans, parts of old cars and other metal muck that had accumulated over the 20th century I decided to narrow down the search area and have another serious think about where I should be looking.
In the end I decided that the most likely place to bury the treasure was Seven Mile Beach north of Lennox Heads. It was a long way from any settlements, no houses at all there and sheltered from view from the lighthouses at Cape Byron and Ballina. But the bad news was waiting for me there, when I arrived I discovered that most of the dunes had been sand mined back in the 1970’s, though the most sheltered, hidden section of the beach, up the north end had not been mined. I spent another 4 days searching there and was feeling pretty good about it. Everything felt right, it just looked like buried treasure country. I even dug a hole and buried the right sized sheet of aluminium at a meter and a half depth to test out how the Gemini would go on a target that deep. No Problems.
On the 5th day of searching Seven Mile I came across a disturbing feature, a 6 meter long trench dug in the sand about 150 meters in from the beach, in thick bush, a long way from the nearest track, then another one a few meters away from it. The trenches were about a meter and a half deep and three wide, with the over burden piled around them; probably they had been about 2 meters deep when they were dug. Palm trees about 20 meters high grew out of the centre of the trenches. They had been dug a long while back; the 1930’s? A sinking feeling grabbed me; the more I looked at those trenches the more they looked like what someone would dig if they were searching for something that they knew was buried about there but not exactly where. The more I looked the more I felt it. I searched a bit longer and the Gemini gave a mighty squeal, I scratched around and found a very old, rusty iron camp oven, about 30 meters from the trenches. Long ago someone had camped near the trenches and left, leaving their gear behind.
It’s the trouble with treasure, you just never know if someone has already found it. Had the German crewman from the Seidlitz, after giving the Halls Creek butcher the slip, returned to 7 Mile Beach and dug up the copper chest and used his wealth to slip quietly out of Australia just before WW2 started? Or had the German butcher, in a fit of rage after spending his savings and driving 3000 miles for no reward, killed the sailor and buried his body in the dense bush behind the beach at Evans Head? There were a lot of questions and no answers.
A Brief Summary of the Origins and End of the Seydlitz
Seydlitz was built by the F. Schichau shipyards at Danzig, Germany for the North German Lloyd Lines (Norddeutscher Lloyd) and was launched on December 25, 1902. 7,942 gross tons.
On August 5, 1903 she started her maiden voyage from Bremen via the Suez Canal to the Far East. She was 450.1 feet long (143.15 metres), had a beam of 55.5 feet (16.88 metres), two propellers and triple expansion engines. And, as you can see above, she had one funnel and two masts. Her service speed was 14.5 knots, and she could carry 2,050 passengers - 101 in first class, 115 in second, 134 in third and 1,700 in steerage. Her crew was between 155 to190.
In the years before she was rebuilt - at Newcastle in 1906, Seydlitz completed many roundtrips from Bremen - 6 to the Far East ( to Shanghai to Yokohama in December 1906) and 18 to Australia, all via the Suez Canal. And between March 1906 and the summer of 1914, Seydlitz completed 7 trips to New York, one to South America, and just one trip to Philadelphia.
On August 3, 1914, with WW1 in progress, she fled Sydney, Australia for Valparaiso, Chile. She acted as a support vessel for the Graf Spee Squadron for the Battle of Coronel and the Battle of the Falklands. In late 1914 she took refuge at San Antonio Este, Argentina. There she was interned and in 1917 her crew is reported to have damaged the engines to prevent her seizure by Argentina and her charter to the Allies. Repaired, and perhaps still under German command, she sailed on July 24, 1917, from Bahia Blanca to Bremen via Montevideo and St. Vincent. After the Armistice, she resumed South America service in late 1921, and then switched to the Bremen-New York service through September 1927. In the next years she travelled via Halifax, Canada to New York or Galveston.
It is believed she was scrapped at Bremerhaven in 1933.