Patrick Baker: Exploring the James Matthews

Video | Updated 10 months ago

The James Matthews was a colonial ship that was wrecked in 1841, about 8 or 9 km from the Fremantle Maritime Museum, at Woodman Point.

The ship was carrying a group of settlers coming out from the United Kingdom. They were, quite literally, as Patrick Baker points out, ‘on the doorstep of their new home’ when the ship sank.

The wreck was discovered by a group of sport divers who had an interest in underwater heritage. Mike Pollard, the group’s leader, had been researching various wrecks and had read about the James Matthews. The ships’ story sparked his interest and Mike and his team began a search for the vessel. They discovered it in 1973, and from that point on Graeme Henderson, the curator of Maritime Archaeology at the Western Australian Museum, began the excavation and extensive study of the James Matthews.

The settlers had brought many domestic items with them for their new lives in Australia, which makes it a fascinating wreck to explore. It is easy to imagine the people that were aboard the ship as we still have access to their personal belongings. These, along with the wreck itself, were carefully recorded and measured by the Department of Maritime Archaeology team.

One of the artifacts found at the wreck site were a set of chess pieces. The de Burgh family lost many things when the ship was wrecked, but Henry de Burgh recorded in his diary, which we are lucky to still have, that he spent a lot of time playing chess on the voyage.

Other objects found were irons, bottles, plates, pipes, a telescope, vases – these items gave the archaeologists an immediate connection to the people that were abroad the James Matthews. Every day, Pat would take new photographs that intimately recorded the wreck site of the James Matthews, which gives us, and generations to come, great insight into the story of the ship. This highlights the important role that underwater photography plays in the preservation of our maritime heritage.


The James Matthews was a colonial ship wrecked in 1841 at Woodman Point, that's about 8 or 9 kiometres from the south of where we are here at the Maritime Museum there are a couple of reasons why I really love working on this site one was it was very close to home we could live at home, drive down every morning beat shallows and spend five hours a day actually under water come up for lunch, but other than that just be continuously under water carefully measuring, carefully recording. But the particularily attractive thing about the wreck site was that the objects on board were things we could easily recognise, that were the objects that were if not in my parent's home, then my grandparent's home the plates, bottles, of the 19th century.

Because a group of settlers were coming out in the James Matthews that'd come all the way from the United Kingdom and they were wrecked right on the door step of their new home. It was discovered by sport divers who had an interest a group of them had an interest in underwater heritage the leader, Mike Pollard was researching various wrecks in the local libraries and so on and he read about the James Matthews and started to search for it in the vicinity of where it was known to be lost. They discovered it in 1973, and from then on. Graeme Henderson, a curator from Maritime Archaeology here began one of his major studies of his life's work, that was the excavation and study of the James Matthews these chess pieces are some of my favourite pieces from our wreck sites, I suppose because I was directly involved in the recovery of them and also they were something that we would recognise. It's actually a wonderful item, because the group of settlers that the came out, the De Burgh family, that were out on the shipwreck of the James Matthews lost many things when the ship was wrecked, they lost most of the objects they were bringing out to start a settlement, to start a new farm. But Henry De Burgh had his diary with him, he saved that, that still exists and it describes him playing chess it describes them on the ocean voyage playing chess, so it's nice to believe this is Henry De Burgh's chess set and we recovered most of it from the sands of Cockburn Sound just 8 kilometers away from here.

Amongst the other objects there's irons, there's the chess set itself shoes... bottles, plates there's a telescope which belonged to the family, he also saved the telescope, so that didn't come form the seabed but each day, finding objects that you could see what they were, added to our knowledge of the past, but it also gave us connections to those people they might have been a hundred-and-thirty years or so before hand, but archaeology does give you a direct connection with the past and with people from the past. That for me is one of the great pleasures working in under water archaeology, and providing photographic services for this museum department.

Every day we dive, we take photographs of the site and those photographs exist as a record now over thirty years ago of work that group of us were intimately involved.