Sunday, August 12, 2012

Recovering HMS Sirius Artefacts


The HMS Sirius collection will be re-housed in the former Protestant Chapel/Youth Centre at the end of the year via a  project funded through a Commonwealth Your Community Heritage Program Grant and the Norfolk Island Government. We have been busy writing the interpretive panels that will form part of the new displays and researching the story of how the objects were recovered has provided some fascinating information.

Items were occasionally recovered from the wreck site during the 190 years from her wrecking in 1790. Some were washed ashore; others retrieved from the reef or, in the case of one anchor, deliberately blasted from the reef in 1905.  This anchor had remained visible on the reef at low tide prompting a New South Wales politician Sir Francis Suttor to request it be retrieved and shipped to Sydney, to be placed alongside Arthur Phillip’s statue in the Botanical Gardens. However when the anchor finally arrived in Sydney it had both flukes missing and didn’t look as imposing or attractive as Sir Suttor expected, so instead he had it positioned in Macquarie Place.
Recovered off the reef in 1905 and now in Macquarie Place, Sydney

The anchor had been blasted up from the ocean floor by members of the local Methodist Church. The Administrator at the time provided the explosives and the men carried out the exercise with the promise of a 20 pound reward.  They were reminded of their financial obligation to the Methodist Church in Sydney to encourage their involvement in this exercise!

Interest was revived in 1965 when a film crew from the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) arrived on the island. They interviewed locals to identify the wreck site and were taken out to the area just seaward of the surf zone. Diving over the area they saw copper fastenings bolts, rudder and stern post fittings, copper sheathing tacks, lead shot and a large anchor in-situ. Jack Doyle filmed a story which was aired on the 31st October 1965 in the Weekend Magazine segment. This was the first underwater footage of the Sirius site. The visit by the ABC film crew sparked a desire by locals and others to recover the anchor and other relics known to be on the reef.
Now on display in the Norfolk Island Museum

The anchor seen on the ABC footage was finally raised by locals in 1973 with the assistance of the SS Holmburn, a Wellington, New Zealand registered ship as captured in our photo. Apparently she nearly came to grief during the exercise and her master was reported to have been dismissed on return to New Zealand.
The Holmburn in 1975
   
Numerous objects were removed from the site by local divers particularly from the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. The introduction of the Historic Shipwrecks Act in 1976 with its aim of protecting the relics of historic shipwrecks prompted many locals to offer the items they had in their personal possession to the Museum and these items are now accessioned into the official collection. Relics may not now be removed from the site without a permit.

Five official expeditions to recover artefacts from the HMS Sirius wreck site were conducted between 1983 and 2002. In the lead up to the 200th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet in 1788, it was felt that a project that investigated the remains of the fleet’s flagship would be at the heart of the Bicentennial spirit. Jennifer Amess from the commonwealth department with then responsibility for historic shipwrecks, proposed the project. The Australian Bicentennial Authority provided the funds to conduct a survey to determine if the remains merited salvage and if they did a full-scale operation would commence.

The Western Australian Museum played a pivotal role, with personnel from the Maritime Archaeology and Conservation departments on all expeditions. Western Australia had been at the forefront of maritime archaeology after the discovery off the coast in 1963 of two seventeenth-century Dutch trading ships. The Western Australian Museum was given the responsibility for managing the sites and carrying out excavations, thus beginning maritime archaeology in Australia. The West Australians were therefore the most experienced marine archaeologists to undertake the Sirius project. The Western Australian Museum team were complimented in each of the expeditions with other experts from Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and Norfolk Island.

Diving on the wreck site is dangerous. The ever-pounding surf causes rapid shifts in the sand and the rubble cover in the lagoon, as well as the areas between the inner and outer reefs where the wreck occurred. Standing on the seawall at Slaughter Bay and looking out to sea across the wreck site, is to be looking straight down the Tasman Sea; the surf and the swell are nearly always from the southwest so there is rarely a calm sea. This makes exploration in this area very difficult.

As a result of these expeditions many remnants from the flagship of the First Fleet are now available for all to see and our understanding of the circumstances of the wrecking and the construction of the Sirius are better understood. The artefacts of HMS Sirius are the most significant array of First Fleet cultural heritage and as such they hold National significance. It is fitting therefore that they will be displayed on Norfolk Island in a museum dedicated to the Sirius celebrating her life, wrecking and recovery of her artefacts.

3 comments:

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