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Watercolour drawing of the SURPRISE by William Forster

Date: 1884
Overall: 560 × 744 mm
Image: 430 × 623 mm
Medium: watercolour and gouache on paper, cardboard
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Gift from Shane, Christopher, Mathew, Mark and Luke Doepel
Object Name: Painting
Object No: 00054367

User Terms

    This watercolour ship portrait shows the SURPRISE, a coastal vessel of the fleet of Doepel and Anderson which operated along the NSW coast in the late nineteenth century. The SURRISE was a sister vessel of the surviving ALMA DOEPEL built in 1884 with a shallow draft able to navigate the bar at Bellingen, and successfully plied cargo to Sydney. In 1891 the SURPRISE sank off Terrigal on the NSW central coast.

    This work is signed and dated by the artist William Forster, one of colonial Australia's competent port painters, and was most probably commissioned when the vessel was launched, to commemorate the event. Importantly the portrait was kept by the Doepel family, and along with other ship portraits and coastal shipping material helps form a picture of the development of communities reliant on shipping connections all along the Australian coastline.
    SignificanceThis watercolour by well known marine artist William Forster is an excellent example of his work. Most likely commissioned by the ship's owners Doepel and Anderson on the launching of the vessel, it highlights the pride and enthusiasm in the emergence of a small coastal fleet of trading vessels. A sister ship of this vessel is the restored ALMA DOEPEL.
    HistoryFrederik Doepel was born in Finland of German descent. He was working on ships from the age of 10, went to sea and jumped ship (the MERMAID) in Sydney in around 1870 aged 16, with Mick Leconen, known as 'Big Mick', a good friend also from Finland.

    In 1878 the two men settled in the Bellinger Valley on the mid-North coast of NSW. At that time there were British and Irish settlers in the Bellinger Valley who had planted maize, corn and sugar cane and felled timber (cedar particularly), all of which were in great demand in Sydney. The easiest way to have this sent to Sydney was by sea, or occasionally on horseback.

    Doepel’s first job was assisting with salvage work on the BLACKWALL wreck at North Beach (now Mylestom). Then he and Big Mick were assistants to a shipwright at Tucker’s Flat (now Repton). Next they built a wharf at Fernmount, and after that they took up droghing on the navigable part of the Bellinger River between Boat Harbour and Bellinger Heads.

    While there was a sawmill on the Bellinger River, the bar between Bellinger Heads and Boat Harbour was an obstacle to the delivery of goods including timber and maize, and later butter, to Sydney. So in the early 1880s, Frederik Doepel rebuilt the bow and stern of a drogher, and added a mast and sails.

    Doepel began building his own small fleet of coastal sailing vessels. Some were named after his daughters, including the VIOLET DOEPEL and ALMA DOEPEL

    The SURPRISE was built with a shallow draft able to navigate the bar, and successfully plied cargo to Sydney. The vessel was commissioned in 1884. Doepel’s partner in shipping, Mr John Ivan Anderson, worked in Sydney. In 1891 the SURPRISE sank off Terrigal.

    In 1883 Bellingen was connected to telegraphy which enabled predictability of local trade between Sydney and Bellingen.

    Frederik Doepel married Mary Ann McNally in 1886 and they had nine children.

    In 1886 Doepel and Anderson built a ketch named BELLINGER. In 1891 the BELLINGER was wrecked on Stradbroke Island and at this time Doepel began working as an agent for the North Coast Steam Navigation Company.

    The VIOLET DOEPEL, named after the eldest daughter, was a two-masted topsail schooner built in in 1898, and commenced its trade to Sydney in 1899.

    Doepel’s sawmill was in production in the 1890s. While Big Mick was a bushman, Doepel was the sawmiller. Big Mick was a woodsman, living 'as a hermit' in the bush, while also working with Doepel felling timber for his ship building enterprises. When Mick died in 1936 he was described as 'the biggest man in NSW'.

    The ALMA DOEPEL was built in 1903. It was named after the young daughter, Alma, also born in 1903. In Finland there had been a well known sailing vessel named ALMA, with some possible link with the Doepels, and this may have influenced the naming of the youngest daughter Alma, who was a new born child at the launching of her namesake, on 10 October 1903. At this time, Harry, the eldest son, was running the droghers for his father who, among other things, was a droghing contractor. The ALMA DOEPEL sailed between New South Wales and New Zealand, and then on the coastal routes in NSW, Tasmania during two world wars, until 1975. 1958 was the ship’s last full year of interstate trading.

    Before Alma started school, Doepel bought a launch, LILLIAN, which collected nuns at Urunga and took them to Bowraville. This launch was lost in flood waters.

    From: Alma Doepel, The History of an Australian Schooner 1903-1975 by Captain Ralph McDonell (date?) Printed in Australia by Brown Prior Anderson Pty ltd Burwood Victoria

    The artist of the ship portrait: William Forster 1851-91
    William Forster was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England in February 1851. In 1871 he travelled to New Zealand and established a career as a marine artist. Around 1879 he arrived in Sydney, Australia where he painted ships visiting Sydney Harbour and Newcastle. Throughout the 1880s Forster produced a prolific number of ship paintings of high quality. He had a distinctive style and brush stroke, and painted in watercolour.
    Ships and yachts were the only subjects Forster painted. His brushwork was distinctively delicate and the detail was technically of a high standard. He died on 17 May 1891 of diptheria and was buried in a pauper's grave.(Daina Fletcher, Australian Sea Heritage Number 22 pp26-27).

    The vessel in the ship portraits: SURPRISE

    The launch of the SURPRISE was reported in The Australian Town and Country Journal of 14 June 1884:


    LAUNCH.- Great excitement was manifested on Queen's Birthday by the inhabitants in this district in consequence of the launching of a new vessel, built here by Mr. Doepel -with the assistance of two mon. - Messrs. Doepel and Anderson are the owners. She is built of bloodwood, tallow-wood, ironbark, beech, and bluegum. Her length of keel is 90ft, deck 105ft, beam 22ft, depth of hold 6ft 9in. She is intended for the river trade, and is well fitted and commodious. Great numbers of persons congregated to witness the ceremony. The christening was performed by Miss M. A. McNally in the usual way in a very graceful manner, naming her the Surprise. The peg was marked out, and the vessel glided swiftly from the slips and floated in the river without any hitch occuring, amid enthusiastic cheers. Mr. McGillicuddy, of Fernmount, took several nice photographs of the scene, many of which will doubtless he preserved as mementoes. The owners provided an excellent luncheon, and music and dancing was kept up on board the vessel till 4 p.m., when the company dispersed.

    Both vessels fly Doepel pennants of red and white. The Bellinger flies the red ensign while the Surprise, the NSW Ensign / Australian Ensign.The SURPRISE is depicted sailing out of Sydney Harbour with Hornby light and a lightship marking Sow and pigs reef in the background. A steamship is shown in the distance.

    Note A flag chart contained in an 1832 book, New South Wales Calendar and General Post Office Directory included a flag that was captioned NSW Ensign. It shows a white British ensign with a blue cross overall upon which are five 8-pointed stars. This flag is believed to have been widely used as a local merchant shipping flag in Sydney and on the east coast of Australia, becoming known as the Australian Ensign. The flag however was unofficial and in 1883, the British Admiralty prohibited its continued use by vessels due to its claimed similarity to the Royal Navy's White Ensign.


    1886 'SHIPPING REPORTS, &c.', The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), 13 September, p. 8, viewed 20 September, 2012,

    1884 'BELLINGER RIVER.', Australian Town and Country Journal (NSW : 1870 - 1907), 14 June, p. 41, viewed 20 September, 2012,

    Additional Titles

    Assigned title: Two paintings by W Forster of Doepel vessels Bellinger and Surprise

    Web title: Watercolour drawing of the SURPRISE by William Forster

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