SS Xantho

Early Life

The Denny Shipbuilding Company built the SS Xantho in 1848 as a paddle steamer.

In early 1871 SS Xantho was sold to the 'metal merchant' Robert Stewart of Glasgow, who replaced the paddle engines with a second-hand Crimean War-era two-cylinder, non-condensing trunk engine built (or assembled) in 1861 by John Penn.

The refurbished SS Xantho was offered for sale in October 1871 and was purchased by Charles Broadhurst.

Water colour drawing of the vessel SS Xantho

SS Xantho Water Colour (Ian Warne)
Image copyright WA Museum 

The Xantho in the North and Mid-West

Xantho was brought to WA via the Suez Canal and the 'Straits Settlements' for use as a transport ship for both pearl shell and indentured 'Malay' divers, and also as a mother vessel for pearling operations. It became WA’s first coastal steamship.

Xantho subsequently made two round trips between Fremantle, Batavia (now Jakarta), Geraldton and Broadhurst's pearling camps at Port Hedland and Banningarra (on Pardoo Station). There he established camps for his 'Malay' divers. Xantho also transported a number of North West Aboriginal men from the Aboriginal prison at Rottnest Island back to their home near Cossack and Roebourne.

Broadhurst did not use Xantho as a full-time steamer. He used the engine solely to enable it to sail into difficult harbours and against wind and tide, or when close to Champion Bay (Geraldton) or Fremantle. Upon arrival, he would fire up the boilers to impress officials and a populace desperate for regular steam transport.

The cry 'steamer at last!' could be heard as he entered Champion Bay. In seeing yet another business opportunity Broadhurst hoped to use Xantho as a lever to obtain the lucrative concession to operate a steamer to a timetable along the coast.

When Broadhurst reached Fremantle after purchasing the Xantho he arrived to the news that his son Ernest had died at just 11 months old. This, however, did not prevent him quickly heading back north to try and secure the family's fortunes.

After a successful trip to Batavia where Broadhurst improved the vessel’s accommodation, replenished his coal supplies and loaded up with more ‘Malays’ and saleable goods for the return journey to his pearling bases, Broadhurst voyaged back to Geraldton.

In November 1872, soon after their arrival back in Geraldton, Broadhurst heard of a profitable sideline and took the Xantho a short distance north to Port Gregory to load a cargo of lead ore (galena) from the nearby Geraldine Mine.

Xantho sinks

Overloaded, its hull badly corroded and its deck planking opened by the tropical sun, Xantho began to take on water on the way down the coast. After turning back to Port Gregory in a sinking condition, the forward section of the ship flooded, and Xantho struck a sandbar. Water flowed back through three supposedly watertight bulkheads and put out the fires. The pumps stopped and the ship sank.

Broadhurst's crew were abandoned, and the 'Malay' crew were left destitute to wander around Geraldton. This created an uproar, and Broadhurst was again severely criticised in the press.

With the sinking of the Xantho, Broadhurst's far-flung North West pearling enterprises were robbed of their only link. Charles' plan to use Xantho as a lever to obtain the steamship concession sank with the ship underneath, leaving the way clear for others.

In hindsight, however, the loss of Xantho freed Broadhurst to concentrate his talents elsewhere, and after many failures, he eventually became one of WA's greatest entrepreneurs.

Map of where the Xantho wreck is located off the Western Australian coast

Xantho Wreck Map
Image copyright WA Museum 

Aboriginal interpretation of the Xantho

As the first steamship on the coast, SS Xantho would have had a considerable visual impact on the Aboriginal populations who came into contact with it.

It is not surprising to find rock art depicting Broadhurst’s ship. The first known example was located at an Aboriginal gallery on Inthanoona Station, inland of Cossack.

There, in 1985, archaeologist Robert Reynolds recognised the Xantho, which appears amongst other images showing men on horseback, sailing ships, and a woman in a long dress.

Rock art at Walga Rock

Dr Ian Crawford raised the possibility that a famous ship painting at Walga Rock, near the Murchison goldfields, may not be a representation of a VOC ship, as once thought, but rather a representation of the Xantho. Certain features, such as gun ports along the vessel’s side, helped to convince academics that the Xantho theory was correct.

The Walga Rock painting and the archaeologist's impression of SS Xantho compared

The Walga Rock painting and the archaeologist's impression of SS Xantho compared.
Image copyright WA Museum 

Sammy Malay, artist

Sammy Malay (also known as Sammy Hassan) lived for a while on Dirk Hartog Island, giving his name to Sammy Well on the north east end. Mid West historian Stan Gratte has shown that, around 1917, Sammy left Shark Bay and travelled to Walga Rock. He also dates the famous Walga Rock ship painting to that time, and it is now understood that Sammy Hassan is responsible for the image.

Sinking, discovery and conservation of the Xantho: timeline

  1. November 1872

    Xantho sinks after being overloaded with galena and striking a sandbar returning to Port Gregory.

  2. 1979

    The wreck of the Xantho lies forgotten until 1979 when, with the aid of local fishermen Greg Horseman and Robin Cripps, it is located by the Maritime Archaeological Association of WA, the volunteer wing of the Department of Maritime Archaeology at the Western Australian Museum.
    The site is inspected by Scott Sledge, Inspector of Wrecks with the Museum, and identified and declared historic.

  3. 1983

    Iron and steam shipwrecks are effectively a new class of maritime archaeological site at this time, requiring a new approach in both archaeological method and conservation science. This commences with a pre-disturbance survey, re-inspection, and test excavation, which are conducted by corrosion specialists, biologists and archaeologists.
    Recognising its importance, anodes are applied to the engine in order to slow down its corrosion and commence the treatment process. This is the first time anodes are applied to an historic wreck, a practice that would be copied throughout the world.
    The SS Xantho corrosion study (led by the Museum's chief conservators Neil North, and later, Ian MacLeod) is also the first to be conducted around the world, setting the benchmark for all that will follow.

  4. April 1985

    Utilising the skills of the Museum's chief diver Geoff Kimpton, the stern of the ship and the engine is removed from the wreck site using a thermal lance. It is then transported to a treatment tank at the Museum in Fremantle.
    A national seminar in iron and steamship archaeology is convened for the occasion. Sponsorship for the excavation, life, seminar and transport is substantial. A budget of $7200 is allocated by the Museum for the entire program, excavation, seminar, transport and a treatment tank, and this is not exceeded!
    On arrival at Fremantle under the direction of corrosion specialists Neil North and then Ian MacLeod, the engine is initially inundated in a solution of sodium hydroxide to prevent further corrosion.
    The engine is then 'excavated' by a team of archaeologists, conservators and volunteers.
    Once externally deconcreted, the engine is disassembled under the leadership of conservator Dick Garcia, who has considerable experience in dismantling and restoring arms from WWII. As they are removed each of the engine's components are individually re-treated before being sent back for the engine to be gradually reassembled in the Museum's exhibition gallery as a 'work in progress' display.

  5. 1988

    A working model of the engine is produced by Bob Burgess using engineering drawings of the original, produced by steam engineer Noel Millar.
    The model allows the Crimean War gunboat engine type, of which the Xantho engine is the only known surviving example, to be studied in operation.

  6. March 1993

    By this time, 2,500 kilograms of concretion has been removed, while 48 kilograms of chlorides has been extracted from the engine by electrolysis.

  7. 2006

    The conservation and reconstruction of the engine is complete. It is a conservation triumph, for the engine can be turned over by hand. An international seminar is convened for the occasion.

  8. 2011

    While it has undergone only one repair since 1988, in 2011 marine engine enthusiast Eric Coates refurbishes the engine.


Raising the Xantho engine

Raising the Xantho engine
Image copyright WA Museum 

The deconcreted engine

The deconcreted engine
Image copyright WA Museum 

Find out more about the Xantho here.