Diver on SS Xantho bow

A new visitor experience at the WA Shipwrecks Museum will open this Saturday 2 December with SS Xantho: unlocking hidden stories of our State which explores the amazing story of Western Australia’s first coastal steamship.

In this exhibition, visitors will engage in new multi-media and interactive platforms to explore the story of how one family and the SS Xantho were intricately linked to the social, economic, and cultural development of Western Australia in the late 1800’s.

New content highlights interconnected themes such as the importance of steamships to the development of Western Australia, the experiences of Aboriginal peoples and indentured Asian workers in the North West, and the internationally ground-breaking work undertaken by the Western Australian Museum to recover and conserve a rare marine steam engine.

An artist's representation of SS Xantho
An artist's representation of SS Xantho. Watercolour by Ian Warne.

The gallery’s centrepiece is SS Xantho’s steam engine which spent 100 years on the sea floor before being recovered from the wreck in 1985. It was expertly conserved by the Western Australian Museum’s Conservation and Maritime Heritage departments and a multidisciplinary team of professional and community volunteers, and due to this work, the restored engine can still be turned over by hand today.

Curator of Maritime Heritage at the WA Museum Dr Ross Anderson said Xantho was a seemingly inconsequential vessel hidden in the pages of history, until its wreck was discovered by the Museum’s research team in 1979.  

“The wreck was fitted with a surprisingly unique piece of marine engineering – an early British naval gunboat engine. Built by John Penn & Sons in 1861, it is the only known example of the world’s first mass-produced marine steam engine. This discovery led to decades of intensive research by the Museum to understand, preserve and interpret its significance,” Dr Anderson said.

Originally built in Scotland in 1848, the iron-hulled paddle steamer Xantho navigated sheltered waters and lochs using both sails and steam.

“After 23 years of Scottish service, Xantho was converted from a paddle steamer to a screw steamer by installing the second-hand naval gunboat engine. It was then purchased by colonial entrepreneur Charles Broadhurst, who brought it to WA to service his pearling and pastoral enterprises in the North West, making it WA’s first coastal steamship.

"Broadhurst was an enterprising, innovative, and at times controversial owner of Xantho, while his wife Eliza was a teacher who advocated for women’s advancement through education. This was quite progressive for this time in colonial Western Australia,” Dr Anderson said.

The WA Museum gratefully acknowledges the Foundation for the WA Museum for their support and partial funding for the gallery refurbishment and exhibition, which was provided through one of the Foundation’s 2022 Impact Circle Grants.

SS Xantho: unlocking hidden stories of our State opens to the public this Saturday 2 December 2023 at the WA Shipwrecks Museum. Entry to the Museum is by donation.