Collection Highlights | Updated 2 years ago

Divers discovering artefacts from the Sepia shipwreck site
Relics from the Sepia wreck site
Photo by Patrick Baker

Sepia, a three-masted barque, was built by Denton, Grey and Company of Hartlepool and was owned by Bethell, Gwyn and Company, London. The vessel, well known as a trader on the Fremantle-London route, left London on 14 September 1898.

Aboard the vessel were twelve crew and a mixed cargo of 1,200 tons valued at between £1,200 and £1,400.

Travelling at ten knots on the evening of 28 December, the Sepia ran before a strong southerly wind under the main and top gallant sails.

Shipping was seen ahead of the vessel and this was presumed to be activity at the port of Fremantle. Although no danger was anticipated, as the order was given to haul up, the barque struck a submerged rock at the edge of Five Fathom Bank.

The vessel sank in less than ten minutes. The speed at which the Sepia sank made the task of rescuing the crew difficult. Heavy seas were breaking over the vessel and the cargo had begun to burst through the hatches. The loss of the vessel was said to have caused ‘a considerable amount of inconvenience to the firms mentioned, they are depending in great measure upon her for their regular supplies’.

This site is considered the most complete iron-hulled vessel in the area containing a well-preserved cargo. The Sepia is representative of the vessels visiting Fremantle, and the types of cargo imported, in the late 19th century.

Built in 1864, Sepia is a relatively small vessel compared with contemporary sailers shipping to other interstate and overseas ports. Yet, as a regular visitor to Fremantle, it is typical of a late 19th century cargo ship, and analysis of its cargo is expected to provide new insight into the nature of colonial trade to Western Australia.

Both the Maritime Archaeology Association of Western Australia and the WA Museum’s Department of Maritime Archaeology have conducted studies on the wreck.

A survey of a section of the cargo storage area of the Sepia has been undertaken to identify a comprehensive range of late 19th century commodities. It is anticipated that the position of objects found in situ may be related to those already in the Department’s collection, but extensive work is being conducted to compare artefacts from this vessel with other similar vessels, and also to assess the physical effects of seasonal change and human impact on the wreck site.

Maritime shipwrecks