Thursday, December 11, 2008


SS City of Launceston (1863 - 1865)


Heritage Victoria
December 11, 2008

City of Launceston (1863 - 1865) was a 368 ton Clyde-built steamship from the small Scottish shipbuilding yard of Blackwood and Gordon. Built to order for the fledgling Launceston and Melbourne Steam Navigation Company. Its early role in colonial steam shipping was the forerunner of the modern Bass Strait ferry service between Tasmania and Victoria.

For two years, and without incident, City of Launceston carried passengers (it could accommodate 188), the Royal Mail and cargo across the Strait. On November 19, 1865, the vessel was under the command of Captain Thom. Within two hours of its 7.20pm departure from Melbourne to Launceston the ship was involved in a collision with the inbound Penola from Adelaide.

The 25 passengers and 24 crew were rescued by Penola before City of Launceston sank by the stern. In the following months attempts were made to salvage the vessel using lifting chains. As a last attempt the newly patented Maquay's lifting devices were unsuccessfully deployed and left on the wreck.

According to the Argus of September 26, 1866, the Maquay lifting devices consisted of a canvas bag with a cubic capacity of 5.75 ft, and an iron cylinder weighing three hundred weight (132kg) which were kept in their places by a light wooden frame. The cylinder contained zinc cuttings which were half filled with water, while a bottle of sulphuric acid was introduced and arranged so that by pulling a line from the surface it could be broken. When the acid came in contact with the zinc and water, hydrogen gas was evolved which flowed through a tube into the bag giving it enormous lifting power. Seventeen iron cylinders have been located on the wreck.

Found in 1980 by Maritime Archaeology Association of Victoria members Terry Arnott and Barrie Heard, and fisherman Bill Cull. City of Launceston became the first wreck to be listed and protected under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1981 (Vic) (now amended and incorporated into the Victorian Heritage Act 1995).

Intact from the keel to the deck and sitting upright in a silty seabed in 21 metres of water, the shipwreck has been the subject of intensive archaeological investigations since 1997, with funding provided by the Heritage Council. A national team of maritime archaeological and conservation experts under the direction of Heritage Victoria's Maritime Heritage Unit has conducted a deck and silt survey, trial excavation, stabilisation and a full corrosion assessment of the ship's hull.

Fieldwork in March 1999 recorded the lines of the vessel. Shipbuilding plans for City of Launceston have not survived, however the lines will allow a model to be built which will accurately reflect the vessel's hull shape.

Tremendous significance

City of Launceston has tremendous archaeological and scientific significance. The vessel is representative of a period in the steam trade and it was part of the flourish of activity stimulated by the Australian colonies forging strong independent identities. City of Launceston site is unique because of the extent of its structural integrity, and the substantial archaeological deposits it contains. It is the only steamship in Victoria (and possibly Australia) to have survived with such a degree of cohesion.

Silts in the Sight Glass: Protectors and Raiders of the SS City of Launceston (1865) containing the results of all research and site surveys to date (2000) has been published by the Heritage Council.

There are no ship's plans for this unusual ship whose owners made steerage accommodation as appealing as first class. Through the work of Heritage Victoria's Maritime Heritage Unit, unique information about passenger travel in the 1860s - the quality of cabin and saloon facilities, personal space and catering arrangements for voyages and across Bass Strait - will come to light.

Trial Public Access Program 2006

City of Launceston is a very important link to colonial Victoria, sharing stories of life in 1860s Melbourne through the interpretation of the preserved archaeological relics found on the site. It also holds a special place for maritime heritage enthusiasts and researchers as it was the driving force behind the Victorian Government’s decision to introduce laws to protect shipwreck sites in this state.

For over 20 years City of Launceston was off-limits to Victoria’s recreational diving community. A protected zone has been in force on the site since 1982 – prohibiting access to the area without a permit. The Heritage Council of Victoria funded several seasons of maritime archaeology fieldwork on the site so that archaeologists could to learn about the preservation of the site and about life aboard a luxury 19th century passenger vessel. More than 400 artefacts were excavated from the site, and data was gathered to learn how the ship was built, how the ship has been transformed into an archaeological site, and how it is deteriorating. Artefacts can be viewed by searching the Heritage Victoria's Flickr webpage.

In 2004 Heritage Victoria began investigating how the site might be opened to allow divers to experience this special place. After much community consultation, a Trial Access Program was commenced in March 2006, and ran for three months. Despite many windy days, almost 150 divers accessed the site during the trial period.


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