From the deep: revelations of the sea

Heritage Victoria

This is a ghost ship.

An imaginary ship.

A recreation of a saloon table on board a C19th passenger ship.

The saloon was the focus of shipboard life for first class passengers. A place to gather for sumptuous meals and socialising by gaslight, while surrounded by velvet pile carpets, mahogany tables, mirrors and soft furnishings of gold satin damask.

This experience was not enjoyed by everyone on board a ship. Sailors and steerage passengers endured far rougher passages.

In the end, the violence of a shipwreck and the decay of years in sand and saltwater put an end to velvet carpets and gold damask, leaving less fragile materials on the ocean floor.

Artefacts from seven Victorian shipwrecks are at this dinner party. Each of them has their own story.     

S.S. City of Launceston (1865)
No expense was spared when fitting out the S.S. City of Launceston for its journeys between Melbourne and Launceston. In the saloon, an extendable mahogany and American pine table was set with crockery branded by the Launceston Melbourne Steam Navigation Company. Wine, spirits and soft drinks were served in crystal and first class passengers dined on roasted meat, cakes and jelly while surrounded by red velvet upholstery and teak panelling.
The ship was wrecked on a clear starlit night, shortly after dinner when the captains of the City and the S.S. Penola mistook each other’s signals and the Penola’s bow embedded itself in the side of the City. While the Penola managed to stay afloat, the City of Launceston sank quickly to the bottom of the bay. The passengers and crew of the City were rescued by the Penola’s lifeboats and taken back to Melbourne, with only a few crewmen left behind to shine a warning light and prevent another disaster. 

Plates and tumblers from the wreck of the S.S. City of Launceston

Light of the Age (1868)
At the height of its fame, the Light of the Age was described as a "splendid first class clipper". It was fitted out with lavish amenities, such as an ornately decorated day cabin for the ladies and a dining table, some 30 feet in length, in the main saloon. The ship regularly transported first class passengers from England to Australia. One of these passengers, Annie Ford, described musical evenings in the saloon ladling mulled port and eating fancy biscuits. 
From 1863, things changed for the Light of the Age. The ship was re-fitted to carry twice as many passengers and sold to the White Star Line. Many of the passengers during these later years were government subsidised immigrants travelling in steerage. Conditions were reported to be filthy, overcrowded, uncomfortable and lacking in any privacy. On the vessel's final voyage, Captain Porter was reportedly drunk even before the Light of the Age left Liverpool. Cabin passenger, Miss Elizabeth McCandlish, suggested he was "unpleasantly associated" with the only other first class passenger, Miss Hampshire. On its final night, near the dangerous entrance to Port Phillip Heads, the Captain and members of the crew were again reported as dead drunk. The Captain was seen lying on deck while the steward served grog from a pannikin. The ship had outdated charts and no proper lifeboats.The crew sailing the ship misunderstood navigational instruments and Port Philip pilot instructions and ran the ship onto Point Lonsdale Beach. 

Ladle from the wreck of the Light of the Age

P.S. Clonmel (1841)
The paddle steamer Clonmel was the pride of the colony, fitted with the latest technology for a fast journey. The saloon was furnished with turned wooden chairs with velvet seats and liqueurs were served in decorative crystal glasses. The Clonmel's saloon passengers were all influential society people.  On 30 December 1840, newlyweds Michael and Betsy Cashmore boarded the luxury paddle steamer in Sydney for a honeymoon cruise to Melbourne. They were on their way to set up a draper’s shop, at the premium address of 1 Collins Street. The Clonmel carried all their possessions and the entire stock for their shop. 
On New Year’s Day, the passengers were suddenly awakened at 5 am by the ship striking sand near Corner Inlet in Gippsland. It soon became apparent that the Clonmel had to be abandoned. The passengers were ferried close to shore in whale boats and each of the ladies on board had to be carried through the heavy surf by Mr Simson, a fellow passenger. Once on land, the ladies were accommodated in tents made from sails and awnings from the ship. They ate fowl mixed with saltwater from tin plates and suffered from exposure, dysentery and terrible sand flies. This was not the honeymoon Betsy Cashmore had expected -  although she ensured her wedding cake was with her when she abandoned ship. As East Gippsland was still uncharted by the colonists, the survivors of the wreck were camped there at least a week before they were rescued and taken to Melbourne.      

Champagne bottle from the wreck of the P.S. Clonmel

Sacramento (1853)
The Sacramento left London with between 300-450 passengers. Five of these were cabin passengers, while the rest were accommodated in steerage. These were assisted government immigrants, sponsored to leave home to ensure the colony was well supplied with labour. The Sacramento had nearly completed a “pleasant voyage” according to Captain Holmes, apart from the death of several infants, as well as that of the Ship’s surgeon from “an affection of the throat”. On a clear moonlit night, when only the lights in first class passenger Harriet Pound’s cabin were still burning, the Sacramento drifted onto Lonsdale Reef. 
No lives were lost but the new immigrants lost almost everything they owned. The passengers could only save small things that they could carry onto the boats, and the clothes they were wearing. Most of the women were wearing only their night dresses. The shipwrecked passengers crept onto shore at Point Lonsdale, and while some were fed, others were scattered along the beach in the dark, “wringing their hands in despair" and trying to find family members among the crowd. All were eventually accommodated in a Melbourne immigrants home, but as the government offered only meagre support, most were left destitute. 

Candlestick from the wreck of the Sacramento

Fiji (1891)
The Fiji had no passengers. It carried a crew of 26 and a cargo that included engraved wine glasses, toys, pianos and dynamite from Hamburg. These were European goods carefully packed for middle class Australia. On the morning of 7th September 1891, an exhausted sailor reached the shore at Moonlight Head on Victoria’s west coast to raise the alarm. Overnight, the Fiji had been dashed against the rocks.   
Lifesaving equipment was sent for – but only part of it arrived. What happened to the rest is unclear, but it was suggested in the press that camera equipment may have taken its place on the transport. This left the Fiji’s sailors stranded, but it also meant that their last hours were captured in this image. Twelve sailors didn't make it to shore. The beaches near the Fiji were littered with toys of all descriptions after the ship broke up on the rocks: rocking horses, dolls, rubber balls and miniature ships that sailed on the waves. The sea was strewn with fancy goods. Locals filled their pockets with all the toys and cargo they could and the drowned sailors were buried in coffins made from the ship’s timbers.       

Unable to swim in the rough waves, the sailors can be seen crowded onto the bowsprit to avoid the huge waves breaking over the ship.

Liqueur glasses from the wreck of the Fiji

Loch Ard (1878)
The saloon passengers on the Loch Ard had retired to bed after a party celebrating the last day of their long voyage from England. Hazy weather and faulty instruments meant that the Loch Ard’s Captain, George Gibb, thought he was still far off the Victorian coast. But when the fog lifted, rugged cliffs were revealed close by. The crew attempted to save the ship, but it was too late and the Loch Ard was dragged onto a reef and wrecked. 
All the crew and passengers were lost with the exception of two 18 year olds. Tom Pearce was a crew member who managed to swim to shore. When he heard a voice from the water, he swam out and found first class passenger, Eva Carmichael clinging to a spar. He helped her to shore, gave her some brandy washed up from the wreck and then left her in a cave while he scaled the cliffs to seek help. After the wreck the coast was littered with cargo that had been intended for the Great Exhibition of 1880, including silverware, tiles, gas light fittings and a beautiful and fragile Minton ceramic peacock, still packed in its crate.

Cruet stand and condiment bottles from the wreck of the Loch Ard

S.S. Cheviot (1887)
As the S.S. Cheviot left Port Phillip Bay, the steerage passengers were in their cabin. The saloon passengers were in the back section of the ship, where some ladies had retired to bed and others were listening to Mr Pitchforth play the piano. All felt the jolt of the ship as it lost its propeller in The Rip. No longer able to control the ship, Captain Richardson gathered the first class passengers in the saloon. Beds were made up for the ladies on the floor and they were given brandy for sea-sickness and warmth. As the ship drifted onto the rocks of Cheviot Beach, they were moved to the poop deck at the back of the ship, the ladies still wrapped in blankets. The First Mate was sent for the steerage passengers – but he never returned.  
The forward part of the ship was battered by heavy seas and was violently wrecked against the rocks. The crew and steerage passengers were trapped on the forecastle at the front of the ship as the Cheviot broke in two. They attempted to lock themselves in the deck house, but the violence of the sea meant that gave them no protection. They had no lifebelts and none survived, meeting “… their fate dauntlessly, preserving their fortitude to the last” (The Argus, Friday 21 October 1887). The first class passengers were winched to safety in a boatswain’s chair, dragged through the waves until they reached shore where they were cared for by Drs Browning and Griffiths at Point Nepean Quarantine Station.

Serving spoon from the wreck of the S.S. Cheviot laid on a ceramic plate from the City of Launceston

Heritage Victoria
Credits: Story

Generously supported by the Commonwealth Department of the Environment.

Installation design: Thylacine

Artefact photography: Martin Zweep

Photographed at the Mission to Seafarers, Victoria
Curated by Annie Muir and Jane Mitchell

Historical images from the collections of the State Library of Victoria and the National Library of Australia

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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