Arni Olafsson Thorlacius

Early Years in Iceland

Arni Olafsson Thorlacius was born on a farm called Innri-Fagridalur on the west coast of Iceland.  He was born on the 28th of November 1836.  He is the fourth child born to his parents, who were Arni Olafsson Thorlacius (b. 1804, d. 1837) and his wife Helga Sigmundsdottir (b. 1805, d. 1865).  His father, Olafur was a farmer and also the chairman of the local council.  Olafur was the brother of another famous Icelander Arni Olafsson, merchant and weather observer in the town of Stykkisholmur.  It is worth noting here, that one of Arna Olafsson Thorlacius brother is the great great grandfather of the current Icelandic president, Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson. 

Arni Olafsson Thorlacius is only two months old, when his father dies on the 8th of February 1837.  With his fathers death, his wife, Helga fosters Arna out to a couple who lived on one of the islands just off the east coast.  Thus, in 1839, Arni is in foster care on the island Eilliday in Bredafjordur, with Pall Hjaltalin (b. 1787, d. 1843) and his wife, Gudny Palsdottir (b. 1789, d. 1847).  Arni´s mother Helga moved to the town of Bildudalur with the other three children and re-married the merchant Thorleifur Jonsson.  Arni is raised on the island Ellidaey until his foster father, Pall Hjaltalin dies on the 21st of July 1843, when Arni is only 6 years old.  At the time, his foster mother, Gudny Pallsdottir abandons the farm on the island and moves to the village of Stykkisholmur.  There she and Arni settled in a small poor mans cottage called Jadar.  Arni lives with his foster mother until she dies, only a few years later, or in 1847.  Arni is then 10 years old, taken in by his father’s famous brother,  merchant Arni Olafsson.  He then lived in what is called today the Norwegian House, which is still in Stykkisholmur and is now the local museum.  Arni lives with his uncle until he is confirmed at the age of 13 on the 2nd of June, 1850.  The priest notes about Arni say “he is quite intelligent, well learned and reasonably friendly”.  At the next census after the confirmation towards the end of 1850, Arni has left Stykkisholmur and the only note concerning him, says that he had left abroad.  It is quite likely that his uncle sent him to Copenhagen to study something.  This is the last known reference to Arna’s whereabouts in Iceland and for that matter in Denmark.  I have not found yet any records about him in Denmark.

Arrival In Australia

Arni must have left Denmark in 1855, because he shows up in Hong Kong in August 1855.  There he manages to get himself hired as an able seaman on a freighter called Abeona.  Abeona was at the time mostly sailing between Sydney in Australia and Hong Kong with freight.  Arni arrives in Sydney on the 15th of October, 1855.  He is then 18 years old and calls himself Antonio Woolier.  This is the name he adopted and used for the rest of his life in Australia. This is the name I will use for the remainder of this article.

Antonio must have liked Australia, because in august 1857, he is a watchmaker apprentice with a jeweller called Andrew Flower.  He had a jewellery workshop in Elizabeth Street, Sydney at the time.

Antonio The Hero Rescuer

The next big event in Antonio’s life is that he is involved in the deadliest maritime disaster in the history of NSW.  The passenger and freighter ship, Dunbar leaves Plymouth in England on the 31st of May 1857.  The destination is Sydney and it has 63 passengers and a crew of 59.  Dunbar was a 62m long, three mast schooner.  It was built from the finest hard woods available in England at the time.  It was used by the upper class for travelling between Australia and England. 

Photo of the ship Dunbar
‘The Dunbar New East Indiaman’, Illustrated London News (24 December 1853). ANMM Collection 00000957.

On the 20th of August 1857, after 81 day’s of sailing, the Dunbar arrives just off the east coast of Australia.  The ship sails north in order to enter the Sydney harbour, between the south and north heads.  The weather this day was rather bad, windy and rain with very low visibility.  As daylight faded, the Dunbar arrives at what the captain thinks is the opening between the heads.  He orders the ship to be turned into the harbour.  Unfortunately, he had mistaken the gap for the opening between the heads.  The gap is a deep recess in the 60m high cliffs a few hundred meters south of south head.  The recess ends in sheer cliff face and has rocks below it.  

Photo of The Gap
Looking north towards high cliffs that create The Gap near Watsons Bay. By Adam.J.W.C. – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

By the time the crew realize what is happening, the Dunbar has stranded on rocks near the cliff and rolled on to its side.  The weather pounds the ship and it breaks down.  Both passengers and crew are thrown overboard, and everyone dies, except one member of the crew called John Johnson.  He somehow manages to hang on to some pieces of timber and is then thrown up towards the cliff face by strong waves.  He manages to get onto the rocks and climb a bit higher to a ledge that was too high for the waves to reach.  His location is a ledge recessed into the cliff face.  That meant that he was not visible by anyone, neither from the sea or above.

It wasn’t until the morning after, when another boat arrived into Sydney harbour noticed all the floating wreck in the area, that an alert went out.  Boats were launched in search of survivors, plus to pick up the pieces of the wreck in order to find out what ship this was.  When it became known later in the day that this was the Dunbar, everyone was stricken with grief.  On the second day, more boats were still looking for survivors, collecting bodies, freight and passenger items floating in the ocean.  Thousands of Sydneysiders went out the gap to watch the proceedings.  Amongst them was Antonio, along with his master Andrew Flower. 

As they walked passed the lighthouse towards the gap, Antonio asked his master if he minded him climbing down the cliff face to get a better look at the wreck and the boats doing the recovery.  Andrew told him to be careful and not fall to his own death.  Antonio climbed a bit down the cliff face and got a better view.  He then saw a hand waiving a cloth far down in the cliff face.  With that he bolted up again and he and Andrew raised the alert that a possible survivor might be there.  Ropes were gathered and a frame was raised in line with where Antonio had seen the hand waiving the cloth.  Antonio is then lowered down on a rope to the ledge where John Johnson was located.  John is pulled up and later Antonio as well.  John was immediately taken to the nearest hotel and attended to by doctors.  He confirmed that the ship was the Dunbar.  All the other 121 crew and passengers perished in the wreck. 

Drawing of a man being hauled up on a rope from the Gap
‘The Sailor Rescued’ or ‘ The rescue of the survivor, Johnson’ engraved by WG Mason from a sketch by GF Angas, in ‘A Narrative of the melancholy wreck of the “Dunbar”, merchant ship, on the south head of Port Jackson, August 20th, 1857’ 1857

When Antonio was brought up again, he was handed some dry cloths and a collection was started for him.  In a very short time people on the gap had gathered 10 pounds which he was given.  He was reluctant to take the money, but did so in the end.  He is to have said in broken English “I did not go down for the money, but for the feeling in my heart”.  A few day’s later an account was opened in one of the banks in Antonio’s name and a collection started for the Icelandic hero.  All in all, Antonio was given about 100 pounds for his heroic act.  In today’s money as an income it is worth just over AUD $100,000.-

Photo of an article from the Sydney morning herald detailing the money collected for Antonio
From the Sydney Morning Herald, 17th October, 1857 (

At the time a well known publisher, Samuel Bennet wrote a long poem about the wrecking of the Dunbar, which he published and sold.  A section of the poem is about Antonio and his actions that day.  It goes as follows;

What daring heart will venture down to tell if yet,there be
A living thing amid those rocks, that wreck, and troubled sea,
Where billows, broken in their course, and baflled in their aim.
Against that face of stubborn rock run up like tongues of flame ?
Where leaping waters, high upborne, baulked of their human prey,
The frowning cliffs fling back in scorn, an avalanche of spray !
A stranger youth – a child in truth – from that far frozen shore
Where shivering Iceland to the sky lifts up her mountains hoar –
Where through long nights of winter the bright Aurora gleams –
Where burning Hecla to the sea pours down its fiery streams ;
Devoid of fear did volunteer to search that deep abyss,
If aught alive might yet survive beneath that precipice.
With iron nerve he did not swerve, or from his task retreat,
By slender cord that boy was lowered sheer down three hundred feet.
Where the briny spray was drifted like clouds against the sky ;
Where sheets of foam were lifted full fifty fathoms high !
Those anxious looks of deep suspense did still more painful grow
When from the lad the signal came, “A man alive below !“
What sight of joy for that brave boy, as o’er the surf he hung
To see in cavern dripping dark where the salt spray was flung
That lonely man whose aspect wan (in dread of fearful doom)
Told but for him that cavern grim had been a living tomb ;
And when the boy ascended, who such peril dire had braved,
His work of mercy ended— with that hardy seaman saved –
A deafening shout of joy rang out from all that eager crowd,
“Thank God ! the man is rescued,” from a thousand voices loud !
And praise was heard on every side, and gold was offered free
To him whose deed in hour of need saved from that raging sea,
But the boy replied, with honest pride, “I did not do that deed,
Nor risk my life, ‘mid the breaker’s strife, for gold nor love of greed,
From the honest feelings of my heart did I that danger brave –
Enough for me let the payment be – I did that sailor save.“

Antonio Goes For Gold

Antonio must have done well after his heroic rescue, because in December 1858, his jeweler master Andrew Flower is advertising for a new apprentice watch maker.  It looks like Antonio quit and began a new adventure with some of the money he was give for the heroic rescue.  Not only that, but also on the 28th of December 1859, Antonio marries a young woman called Sarah Fitch.  She was from Sydney and was under the age of 21, so her older brother John Fitch had to sign a special exemption so she could be married to Antonio.  At the time, Antonio is titled as a miner, living in the small town of NSW called Araluen.  Araluen is close to a bigger town called Braidwood. At the time there was a gold rush happening in the area.  Antonio must have left Araluen, because in early 1861 he is in the the Gulf Diggins (now the town of Nerrigundah, also near Braidwood and Moruya).   He and his new wife must have been very lucky, because in April 1860, there was a massive flash flood in Araluen that almost wiped out the town and killed 24 people.

Antonio and his partner set up a miners shop in the Gulf Diggins.  His wife Sarah settled in Moruya because on the 9th of June 1861, they have a daughter in Moruya christened Rosetta Woolier (Antonio used the name Antonio Woolier in Australia).  Unfortunately, the girl dies a few weeks later.  In July the same year, the newspapers printed the following from their correspondent; “On Monday evening last, Mr.Edward Smith and Mr. Antonio Woolier arrived in Braidwood from the Gulf diggings, bringing two large parcels of gold. lt is more nuggetty than any that has yet been obtained, and was purchased by the banks for £3 19s. per ounce. The two parcels weighed about 250 ounces;“ 

Unfortunately, Antonio and his partner didn’t become successful businessmen, because late 1862 their miners’ shop in the Gulf Diggins is declared insolvent.

Antonio Becomes a Bookmaker

Although the miners shop went into insolvency, Antonio seems to have recovered from that.  In the middle of 1863, he and his wife Sarah come to Sydney from Moruya via first class schooner.  A few months later, they move down to Melbourne.  Antonio then sets up a bookmaker’s shop in Bourke Street, where members of the public would come and place bets with him on horses.  Antonio also went to the races and took bets there as well.    Antonio is his own boss as a bookmaker for the next decade or so.  He often traveled between Sydney and Melbourne to attend races in either city.  He even tried as a jockey and a horse owner because the papers recite his attempt at winning on his own horse in the 1873 Caulfield Cup.  Antonio had bought a horse called Royal Charlie and was his own jockey.  In the start of the race, the horse fell and Antonio plunged to the ground.  Undeterred he pulled up the horse and re-joined the race.  He had fallen behind, but still came fourth. 

On the 14th of November 1868, Antonio and his wife Sarah have another daughter.  This daughter is christened Helga Florence Woolier. The name Helga is taken from Antonio’s mother, Helga Sigmundsdottir.  It is on their daughters birth certificate that Antonio reveals for the first time his original Icelandic name, Arni Olafsson Thorlacius. 

Photo of Helga Florence Birth Certificate
Helga Florence Birth Certificate, where Antonio writes his Icelandic name. (Victoria Birth, Deaths and Marriages)

During this time, Antonio began publishing and selling a “Backers Guide” annually.  It’s a guide detailing all the races, the horses, jockeys and such.  Intended for the betting public.  It’s probably one of the first of such guides ever published. 

Photo of a title page Backers Guide
Backers Guide, published 1874 by Antonio Woolier

The papers also note that in 1873, Antonio won 4,000 pounds in the races.   As an income today it equates to about $4 million dollars.  Antonio appears to have invested a fair bit of his money into mining shares.  It was said that all his investments went bad more or less. 

The third daughter is born on the 3rd of November 1870.  She is christened Alice Gertrude Woolier.  Alice dies only 15 months old.

In 1876 Antonio’s fortunes as a bookmaker begin to fade.  He is mentioned in a police report after having had a altercation with a baker in Melbourne.  The report describes Antonio as follows “Bookmaker, about 40 years of age; 5 feet 6 inches high; stout build, smart, active apperaance; fair complexion and hair; clean shaven.  He formerly kept a tobacconis’st shop in Bourke Street east, Melbourne“   It would appear that Antonio got off via paying a fine, because he is not sent to jail.  In 1877 his bookmaker license expires, so Antonio turns his focus in the gold rush again.

Antonio Back To The Gold rush

Early 1880, Antonio and a new business partner set up a new miners shop in the town of Temora in NSW.  Like before, gold had been found in the area and the town sprang up in next to no-time.  Antonio had his miners store in what was called Lower Temora, next to another store called Kybbi’s store. 

Old photo of Kibby´s store with miners in front from 1880
Miners outside KIBBY’S store in Lower Temor, 1880. Antonio’s shop was to the right of this one, but can’t be seen. (From the collection of the State Library of NSW)

However, only about a year later this adventure comes to a close as the store goes into insolvency.  Antonio then returns back to Melbourne.

The Last Years

It is said that Antonio was a heavy drinker during his last years.  He was given a job at the Congregational Church in Brighton, Victoria.  Antonio dies in Melbourne on the 5th of February 1889 at the age of 52.  His wife, Sarah and his only surviving daughter, Helga Florence, had already left him some time before and returned to Sydney. Antonio is buried in Sydney. 

When Antonio is mentioned in the media at the time, he was always described as a gentle soul, always willing to help.  One journalist even say’s that it was his good heart that was his downfall during his business adventures.

Sarah, Antonio’s wife dies in Sydney on the 2nd of March 1903.  Their only surviving daughter, Helga Florence married James Hitchen on the 7th of March 1874.  Helga and James have one daughter in 1895, which is also christened Helga Florence.  She is married to James Alexander in Sydney on the 4th of April 1920.  James had been fighting in the first world war, but had survived and come back to Australia.  I have been unable to establish if they had any children. Helga Florence Day dies in Sydney in 1969.

• National Library of Iceland; Ministerial Books, Parish Census, Census
• Hallbjarnarætt; published 1987
• State Library of NSW
• Birth, Deaths and Marriages of NSW
• Birth, Death and Marriage of Victoria
• ANMM (Australian National Maritime Museum