Australian researchers confirm identity of 1850s-era shipwreck off Rye, Victoria

Photo: James Cook University/Maddy McAllister

Flinders University’s maritime archaeology researchers have helped reveal some more of the history of an early Australian-made timber shipwreck in Victoria.

Heritage Victoria recently partnered with the university’s annual maritime archaeology field school and the community-based Maritime Archaeology Association of Victoria to investigate a wreck near Rye Pier on the Mornington Peninsula.

The wreck is a small Australian-built ship believed to be the 1841-built Barbara, which sank in Port Phillip on August 6, 1852.

Barbara was built along the Tamar River in Tasmania by Joseph Hind and operated as a lime trader in Port Phillip.

The investigations revealed the wreck is a very rare example of a ship that was completed during the earliest years of Australia’s shipbuilding industry.

The team comprised members from around Australia and the rest of the world, including the USA, Thailand, Singapore, Japan, and the Netherlands.

Flinders University Associate Professor in Marine Archaeology Wendy Van Duivenvoorde says measured drawings, photographs, and underwater photogrammetry were used to record the wreck while a survey team mapped the surrounding land and seascapes.

Heritage Victoria’s vessel Trim was used to transport personnel and equipment to the wreck site and acted as a dive and safety platform for divers working on the site.

The wood, metal and fibre samples collected from the wreck have, so far, shown that the ship was constructed from different wood species of trees originating from the southeast (Victoria, New South Wales), northern Australia, and Western Australia as well as local Tasmanian blue gum.

Van Duivenvoorde said that this is possibly the first time such a wide variety of timbers have been found in one Australian-built vessel and indicates that early shipbuilders had developed a detailed knowledge of the properties of Australian timbers appropriate for shipbuilding.

The wreck, which was discovered around two years earlier, was originally believed to be that of Opossum, a Tasmanian ship built by prison labour in 1820.

The research team had first made this assumption after initial evidence revealed that both Opossum and Barbara were sunk by the same storm that had swept across Port Phillip in early August 1852.

All the data that were collected during this recent investigation of Barbara‘s wreckage will be included in Heritage Victoria’s records. A detailed report on the project will be compiled later this year.

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