The Story of SS Xantho: WA’s First Coastal Steamer

Article | Updated 4 years ago

SS Xantho

The paddle steamer Xantho, one of the world’s first iron ships, was built in 1848 by Denny’s of Dumbarton in Scotland. Like most 19th century steamships, Xantho was driven by both sails and steam.

In 1871, after 23 years of Scottish coastal service, Xantho was sold to Robert Stewart, ‘Metal Merchant’ (scrap metal dealer) of Glasgow. Rather than cut it up for scrap, he removed the old paddle wheel machinery and replaced it with a ten-year-old propeller engine built by the famous naval engineers John Penn and Sons of Greenwich.

Stewart then offered the ‘hybrid’ ship for sale in the apparent expectation, it would be used on sheltered rivers or lochs with a fresh water environment, or where water was readily available. This was because Xantho was not fitted with a condenser for converting waste steam back to fresh water and as a result, it would have to fill its boiler regularly from either tanks on shore or from the water on which it floated.

Water Colour depicting Xantho with false gunports (Ian Warne) compared with the

Water Colour depicting Xantho with false gunports (Ian Warne) compared with the Walga Rock painting
Image copyright WA Museum 

Charles Broadhurst brings Xantho to Western Australia

SS Xantho’s new owner was the colonial entrepreneur Charles Edward Broadhurst, a 'pioneer’ pastoralist and pearler who visited Glasgow partly to purchase a steamer as part of his vision to introduce steam to enable him to navigate among the difficult inlets and tides of Australia’s north west. He also planned to introduce a new source of labour to the industry in the form of indentured (i.e. on a wage) ‘Malay’ labourers. (‘Malay’ is the name then commonly, though incorrectly, used to describe people from the lands and islands north of Australia). Sadly, soon after they arrived in the north-west, the effects of introduced diseases and the pastoralists and pearler’s demands on the local Aboriginal population had seen their numbers diminish, requiring a new source of labour to be found.

After travelling through the newly opened Suez Canal to Fremantle via Galle (in Sri Lanka), Singapore and Batavia (now Jakarta), Broadhurst hired his new labourers and went down to Banningarra (a sheltered inlet on present-day Pardoo Station) where he had earlier established a base. There he operated Xantho, transporting boats, shell, divers and equipment to and from Batavia and Fremantle. At one stage Broadhurst brought 140 ‘Malay’ boys aged between 12-14 years out in the Xantho, necessitating the fitting of a ‘distiller’ to provide them with enough fresh water for the voyage and perhaps to top up his boiler.

When not needed for pearling, Broadhurst also used the ship as a ‘tramp steamer’, carrying livestock (including prize rams for the north-west sheep stations), general goods and passengers. Many of them were bound for the newly-proclaimed regional centre of Roebourne and its port of Cossack, including four Aboriginal convicts who were being returned to their lands after serving their sentences at the Aboriginal prison on Rottnest Island. In standing up to the Europeans as they encroached on water sources and sacred sites, these would have been senior figures in Aboriginal society.

In November 1872 on her way south from the pearling grounds Xantho called in to Port Gregory and there, ignoring his captains pleas, Broadhurst overloaded his ship with a cargo of lead ore. On the way south to Geraldton the worn out SS Xantho began to sink, and in the ensuing melee during the race back to shelter, the captain apparently ‘lost his presence of mind’.

Broadhurst, who was on board, made the situation worse by preventing the throwing of the cargo of lead ore overboard, stating ‘he would rather save the lead than the ship’. Soon after entering Port Gregory, they hit a sandbank and the water already in the ship tore through three supposedly water tight bulkheads, entered the engine room and doused the boiler fires. This rendered the pumps inoperable and the ship slowly sank, coming to rest in 5 metres of water, about 100 metres offshore. Despite salvage attempts the wreck filled with sand and became a total loss. Ruined in the north-west pearl fishery, Broadhurst took all his Malays to Shark Bay to concentrate on pearling there.

Finding the wreck

The currents, suspended seaweed, poor visibility, and swell that regularly affect the site defied the efforts of early salvors, and have regularly served to hide the wreck from view such that in modern times few people knew of its existence at the entrance to the port.

In 1979, when searching for the Xantho for Graeme Henderson, the Museum’s head of the colonial wreck program who was researching the very late transition from sail to steam on the WA coast, volunteer divers from the Maritime Archaeological Association of Western Australia (MAAWA) were led to what they knew as the ‘boiler wreck’ by Port Gregory identities Robin Cripps and Greg Horseman. A wreck report from the MAAWA team was filed, together with artist Ian Warne’s impressions showing how the wreck had disintegrated over the years.

Artist Ian Warne’s impressions showing how the wreck had disintegrated over the

Artist Ian Warne’s impressions showing how the wreck disintegrated.
Image courtesy Ian Warne (MAAWA) 

The Museum commences its recording and analysis: a unique find

In 1983, following reports of looting at the site, the task of examining and protecting the site was given to the Museum’s Inspector of Wrecks, M. (Mack) McCarthy, who has coordinated all aspects of the project ever since.

The subsequent pre-disturbance survey and preliminary excavation of the perimeter of the site, showed that while the wreck was ‘sterile’ and in poor state, its boiler which was intact drove a rare, and totally unexpected horizontal ‘trunk engine’ that was normally only found in a naval context. An electrochemical analysis conducted by diving corrosion specialists, Ian MacLeod and Neil North, assisted by biologist C.J. Beegle showed that most of the metal was in very poor physical condition with the exception of the engine, the thrust-block, shaft, propeller and lower hull.

Museum chief diver Geoff Kimpton’s superb underwater record was then sent to the team reconstructing the HMS Warrior’s horizontal trunk engine at Portsmouth, to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and the British Science Museum, Kensington. Their replies indicated that we had in the Xantho engine a unique piece of marine engineering— not just a trunk engine, which was rare enough, but a Crimean War-type gunboat engine. Ours, they said, was the only known example of the first high pressure, high revolution engines ever made. Assembled using Joseph Whitworth’s famous thread, it was also the only known example of the first mass-produced marine engines ever made. As a result and for the first time in the world, anodes were attached to the engine to help preserve it and to minimise further corrosion.

Underwater cutting, lift and removal

Given the importance of the engine and its amazing state of preservation, in January 1984 a small team returned to the site and cut the engine free from the hull, using thermal lance (3000°C) cutting equipment and manual methods. The engine was then allowed to settle into a pre-positioned set of wooden bearers in the vessel’s bilge, in readiness for the final lift. This was timed for the first few weeks of a month-long excavation program conducted in April-May 1985 that used large amounts of sponsorship, volunteers and professionals from all over Australia. They also came to attend an onsite practical and theoretical seminar on the then new field of iron and steamship archaeology.

Using the heavy lifting and problem–solving skills of Museum chief diver Geoff Kimpton, who also led the cutting phases, the engine was raised using eighteen lifting bags and tubs. It was then towed to the beach, grounded on a pre-fabricated sled lying in shallow water and then was towed ashore using earthmovers borrowed from Main Roads Department and the local garnet mine.

Raising the Xantho engine (WA Museum)

Raising the Xantho engine (WA Museum)
Image copyright WA Museum 

On-site conservation and transfer to the Museum

After being covered in a protective layer by corrosion specialist Ian MacLeod and on-site conservator Jon Carpenter the engine was lifted and transported to the Museum’s Shipwreck Galleries using a crane and truck provided at token cost by United Transport. There it was placed in a specially designed treatment tank, built with the assistance of Alcoa of Australia and the State Engineering Works. With the generous and varied sponsorship the excavation, engine removal, costs of a one-month seminar, excavation and engine removal (including tank) were kept within the originally budgeted figure of AUD $7,200.

An isometric projection of the Xantho wreck

An isometric projection of the Xantho wreck
Image c
ourtesy John Riley

The treatment phases

All the copper piping and brass fittings, taps and cocks and lubricators were easily removed, their threads looking almost as good as they were when the ship sank over one hundred years earlier. Then came the very difficult and arduous task of removing over 1.5 tonnes of rock-hard ‘concretion’ (a rock-hard matrix of corrosion products, shells, sand and marine life) by a team of maritime archaeologists, conservators and volunteers under the direction of Ian MacLeod.

The embossed maker’s plate bore the legend John Penn and Son Engineers, Greenwich, found still proudly attached to the fore valve chest. The stamps ‘58-30F and 58-30A’ appeared amongst other places, indented on the valve chests, trunk packing glands, big ends and on the spare connecting rod big end. These indicated that we had engine No. 30 of a group possibly prefabricated in 1858, with each part labeled fore and aft, depending upon where they were to be attached. Conducted from 1985 to 1992, the de-concreting process, which involved using hammer, chisels and pneumatic tools, saw the engine, which originally weighed 7.5 tonnes, looking almost new.

Conservators from around the world (those here are from France, Brunei & Canada)

Conservators from around the world (those here are from France, Brunei & Canada) joined Museum staff in deconcreting the Xantho engine.
Image copyright WA Museum 

Disassembly and reassembly of the engine

While its external surfaces were near perfect, the engine was still corroding from within and in 1992 specialist conservator R. (Dick) Garcia (who had a long experience in dismantling heavily corroded WWII materials) was asked to lead the team in dismantling the engine. This was a process that took another three years. As the crankshaft was removed and the cylinders entered, each part was sent back to the treatment tanks for further conservation. Recording and analysis throughout this time was done by the archaeologists assisted by heritage steam engineering adviser Noel Miller. He also produced an engineering quality record of the engine and this in turn was used by model-maker Bob Burgess to build a 1:6 working scale model of the engine. After disassembly each part, beginning with the engine bed, was sent for rebuilding in what became the Xantho-Broadhurst gallery, thereby allowing visitors to watch the process and interact with the staff. By then it was 1999. With the assistance of local documentary makers Prospero Productions, led by Ed Punchard and Julia Redwood, former BBC documentary maker Ray Sutcliffe produced a film on the project. This has been spliced with news segments from Channel 7 and the ABC for showing in the gallery. TAFE graphic art students under Darryl (Thornton) Hick, whose distant relatives once owned the Xantho, also helped to design the exhibit.

In recent years conservator Alex Kilpa joined the team, assisting greatly in the treatment and reassembly of the engine and in the rebuilding of the Xantho’s weighted boiler pressure valve. In having little or no internal strength, it fell apart soon after its protective layer of concretion was removed, but on looking at it now, one has no indication at all of the complexity of the 3D jigsaw puzzle Alex had to solve in reconstructing the valve. As a result we have left his reconstruction of the ship’s distiller, which was in hundreds of pieces, incomplete to give visitors an idea of Alex's achievement.

They and many other volunteers involved (now numbering in their hundreds), including the Institute of Marine Engineering (IMarEST) who assisted in building the engine room exhibit, and former RN stoker Eric Coates, has maintained the working model for well over a decade now. All, in total, have provided thousands of hours of time and extraordinary expertise gratis (though Bob Burgess did charge $46 dollars for the scrap metal he needed to build his model).

In 2013 archaeologist and 3D specialist Kevin Edwards joined the team, providing his recording and 3D printing skills to the project, adding to maritime historian Michael Gregg’s earlier visualisations and helping solve many problems relating to how the ship was configured and showing on YouTube and the web how the engine worked. His 3D printing of machinery and other materials has also helped transform Joel Gilman’s interactive shipwreck model in the gallery. Kevin Edwards and maritime archaeologist Nicolas Bigourdan also helped Alex Kilpa finish the ‘under deck’ scene in which the engine is housed and to present numerous other features to the visitor.


Volunteer Marine engineers join museum staff in helping develop the engine exhi

Volunteer Marine engineers join museum staff in helping develop the engine exhibit
Image copyright WA Museum 

The extraordinary Broadhurst family

To understand Charles Broadhurst’s strange decision to bring a worn out former paddle steamer, powered by a 10-year-old former RN gunboat engine, with no condenser requiring great amounts of fresh water to feed the boiler, that (as we later found out when we opened it up) was falling to bits and being driven by a propeller rotating backwards to drive the ship forwards, we had to learn more about him. Subsequent research showed that he was the creative hard working and, equally controversial, forerunner to Western Australia’s best known entrepreneurs; Claude de Bernales, Laurie Connell and Alan Bond. These technical and historical studies led to many honours, masters and PhD students completing their degrees by researching the Xantho and the Broadhursts.

From the beginning Mrs. Marjorie Darling (Charles and Eliza Broadhurst’s last surviving granddaughter) provided her every support to the Museum throughout and as the engine was being rebuilt, others of the Broadhurst family—with Jenny Davies, Jane Brummitt, and Margaret Brinsden prominent—began slowly gathering around, donating materials and providing family reminiscences. Foremost was a copy of Eliza’s scrapbook revealing her interest in feminism and leading us to her children, including Florance Constantine Broadhurst, whose fabulously successful guano mining on the Abrolhos led to the finding of the VOC ship Zeewijk (1727) and indirectly to the location of the Batavia (1629). We were also led to Katharine Elime Broadhurst, a suffragette in England and one of the 12 women who led to the founding of the Karrakatta Club that proved crucial in the granting of the vote to Western Australian women in 1899. Hence ‘Steamships to Suffragettes: the extraordinary Broadhurst family’ as our gallery banner.

The Broadhurst Family: donated by Jenny Davies of the Broadhurst family

The Broadhurst Family: donated by Jenny Davies of the Broadhurst family
Image copyright WA Museum 

Find out more about the Broadhurst family here.

Aboriginal depictions of the SS Xantho

Once thought to be a three-masted Dutch East Indiaman (possibly Batavia or the Zuytdorp) it is now evident that the famous ship image at Walga Rock near Meekatharra is a depiction of a two-masted 19th century steamship. Rather than the lateen sail common on all VOC ships on their mizzen masts, its shows a 19th century sail aft, ratlines for climbing the masts, a high segmented funnel common to early steamers, and what appear to be gun ports on the sides. Rather than indicating a heavily-armed ship, these may equally be false gun ports, as was the fashion throughout the mid-to-late 19th century for aesthetic reasons and as a deterrent to pirates; one local example being the sailing ship City of York wrecked on Rottnest Island in 1899. SS Xantho also could have had false gunports, or equally, it may have been fitted with rectangular scuttles (portholes), for in its 1848 builder’s contract there is reference to PS Loch Lomond, whose contemporary model depicts them along its hull. In examining how a ship came to be depicted so far inland, mid-west historian Stan Gratte has traced the painting from 1917, the same year Sammy ‘Malay’ left his out-camp at the north east end of Dirk Hartog Island (Sammy Well, near Dampier Landing) to join the Aboriginal group at Walga Rock. Sammy (also known as Sammy Hassan) was one of the many ‘Malays’, who after they ceased being employed in the pearling industry were abandoned, destitute and not repatriated home, or who elected to stay. Either way, the mystery may never be completely solved and while there appears no doubt a steamship is depicted, lines of writing under the Walga Rock painting have continued to prove baffling, though recently a group of visitors from Malaysia suggested it might be Jawi, an Arabic-Malay script.

Three Aboriginal depictions at Indanoona Station east of Cossack show a two-masted steamship, with smoke billowing from the tall funnel. In one case there appears to be an anchor line (or chain), a figure seated on the boiler casing above the deck, and what appears to be an animal being hoisted on the mizzen gaff, its fore and hind legs tucked in as it is hoisted clear. As horses and cows were usually pushed overboard to swim ashore, the animal depicted is believed to be a sheep. Reasons for believing that Xantho is depicted are:

  1. Xantho took four Aboriginal slaves back to Cossack from the Rottnest Island prison and we expect their safe return to have been a very significant social event
  2. Equally significant to the Aboriginal population would have been the the first steamers into their region—and these were the two-masted Xantho and the three-masted Cossack, that carried the governor and gave its name to Roebourne’s port,
  3. Xantho's boiler was so large it projected above the deck, and
  4. Xantho carried four rams for the pastoral industry inland of Cossack.
Rock art at Indernoona belived to show SS Xantho

Rock art at Indernoona belived to show SS Xantho
Image courtesy Al. Paterson 

Apart from those mentioned above and the hundreds of volunteers who have assisted over the years, in the water, in the treatment tanks, in the gallery and in the archives here and overseas, the Museum wishes to acknowledge the sponsorship and assistance of the groups listed below.

Commonwealth Dept of Arts, Heritage and Environment
Alcoa of Australia
State Engineering Works
Bill Busby, Budget Truck Rentals
Perth Diving Academy
Queensland Museum
Maritime Archaeology Association of WA
Maritime Archaeology Association of South Australia
Court Marine
Main Roads Dept
Target Minerals
United Transport
Ansett W.A.
Coates Hire
Canberra TV

Words thanks to Dr M. McCarthy, Curator of Maritime Archaeology at the WA Museum