SS Xantho Shipwreck

Sinking, discovery and conservation

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

Excavation and conservation of the Xantho and its unique engine

At the time iron and steam shipwrecks were effectively a new class of maritime archaeological site, requiring a new approach in both archaeological method and conservation science commencing with a pre-disturbance survey, re-inspection and test excavation, which was conducted by corrosion specialists, biologists and archaeologists in 1983.

Divers recovering the Xantho Engine

Xantho Engine
Image copyright WA Museum

After recognising its importance, anodes were applied to the engine in order to slow down its corrosion and commence the treatment process. This was to be the first time anodes were applied to an historic wreck, a practice now copied throughout the world. The SS Xantho corrosion study (led by the Museum's chief conservators Neil North and later Ian MacLeod) were also the first to be conducted around the world, setting the benchmark for all that have since followed.

In April 1985, utilising the skills of the Museum's chief diver Geoff Kimpton the stern of the ship and the engine was removed from the wreck site using a thermal lance. It was then transported to a treatment tank at the Museum in Fremantle.

Divers using thermal lances in the recovery process for the Xantho Engine

The thermal lance
Image copyright WA Museum

Divers using inflatible balloons to raise the Xantho engine

Raising the Xantho engine
Image copyright WA Museum

A national seminar in iron and steamship archaeology was convened for the occasion. Sponsorship for the excavation, life, seminar and transport was substantial. A budget of $7200 allocated by the Museum for the entire program, excavation, seminar, transport and a treatment tank, which was not exceeded!

On arrival at Fremantle under the direction of corrosion specialists Neil North and then Ian MacLeod, the engine was initially inundated in a solution of sodium hydroxide to prevent further corrosion.

Shipwrecked Xantho engine on the beach

Xantho on the beach
Image copyright WA Museum

The engine was then 'excavated' by a team of archaeologists, conservators and volunteers. By March 1993, 2,500 kilograms (5,500 lb) of concretion had been removed, while 48 kilograms (110 lb) of chlorides had been extracted from the engine by electrolysis.

A working model of the engine was produced in 1988 by Bob Burgess using engineering drawings of the original produced by steam engineer Noel Millar.

Scientist inspecting a cleaned engine

The deconcreted engine
Image copyright WA Museum

The model has allowed the Crimean War gunboat engine type, of which the Xantho engine is the only known surviving example, to be studied in operation. We estimate it has now done more revolutions in museum service that the original ever did in service with Charles Broadhurst. While it has undergone only one repair since 1988, in 2011 it was refurbished throughout by marine engine enthusiast Eric Coates.

Once externally deconcreted, the engine was disassembled under the leadership of conservator Dick Garcia, who had considerable experience in dismantling and restoring arms from WWII. As they were removed each of the engine's components were 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.

By 2006, the conservation and reconstruction was complete. It was a conservation triumph for the engine could be turned over by hand. An international seminar was convened for the occasion.

The archaeology and display of the Xantho engine.

Apart from the hull being 23 years-old and worn out, the engine was already ten years old when fitted to the former paddle-steamer, and it was found to have been running backwards to drive the ship forward resulting in increased wear.

When it was disassembled by the Museum's team, loose nuts were found lying in one cylinder and repairs to the engine were found to be very rudimentary.

The boiler relief valve (presently being rebuilt by conservator Alex Kilpa) was an outdated gravity variety and not the spring type generally used at sea to avoid problems as the vessel pitched and rolled. Also, there was no condenser for recycling the used steam back into the boiler.

All this made Broadhurst’s decision to purchase Xantho for use in very saline waters very difficult to understand, especially as it was to be used on a coast where fresh water supplies were practically non-existent and where there were no engineering facilities, the nearest workshops being in Surabaya or Melbourne.

This seeming illogical decision in turn required an understanding of his reasons both for purchasing the vessel and the manner in which he operated the ship. This in turn led to an attempt to understand his entrepreneurial style and given his remarkable propensity for failure, his staff and his support structures.

These included his family, notably his remarkably talented wife Eliza Broadhurst and their son Florance Broadhurst. One result of this archival research was a reassessment of C.E. Broadhurst, who like Xantho, had been roundly dismissed as two of Western Australia's greatest colonial-era failures.

In respect of the re-evaluation of the ship itself, the research led to a realisation that its purchase, despite its age and its many deficiencies, was a bold and logical stroke typical of an entrepreneur with great vision, but lacking the necessary access to finance and logistical support.

Being mass-produced, for example, spare parts were readily available (a spare connecting-rod was found in the ship's engine room) and being very simple, easily-accessible and compact, repairs could be effected with only a rudimentary knowledge of marine engineering.

On reflection it became apparent that Broadhurst also used Xantho primarily as a sailing ship and would not have used the ship's engine other than to assist him proceed when the wind was against him, especially when entering the often difficult tidal harbours on the north-west coast.

Further, with an eye to obtaining the lucrative subsidy for operating a steamer to schedule on the coast, Broadhurst also appears to have made a point by steaming into port and thereby impressing a colonial administration crying out for steam transport on the coast.

As a result of these findings, the Museum's exhibition on the SS Xantho entitled ‘Steamships to Suffragettes’ focuses as much on the people involved (including the Broadhurst's suffragette daughter Katherine) as it does on the engine and its conservation.

Dating back to the same era, itself a former engineering workshop, the exhibit is also consciously presented as a ‘work-in-progress’ with a vision to present the engine in the context of the hull, with a contemporary boiler (recovered from the bus depot at the foot of William Street), a contemporary workshop mirroring Penn’s in 1861. With the Xantho gallery being almost a direct copy of John Penn's original workshop the similarities between the two will be incorporated in the display.

The Xantho-Broadhurst program, the product of a very large number of specialists and volunteers, has been coordinated and led by museum curator M.McCarthy since 1983. It now stands alongside the VOC ship Batavia project as one of the museum's most popular attractions at the Shipwrecks Gallery in Fremantle.

Book page | Updated 12 months ago