Divers put lost passenger steamer in the picture

By Melissa Fyfe
October 17, 2005

IT WAS an impressive consolation prize. The shipwreck hunters had gone looking for a wartime submarine off Wilsons Promontory.

Instead they found an international passenger steamer, its cupboards still stacked with plates, that had sunk nearly 130 years before.

Amateur maritime archaeologists from Southern Ocean Exploration - who found the Gallipoli hospital ship TSS Kanowna in April - have hit the jackpot again in another major find off Victoria's coast: the SS Queensland, a passenger ship that left Melbourne on August 3, 1876.

The shipwreck hunters found the ship months ago, but have only now managed to photograph it - an exercise that revealed the ship's safe.

The Southern Ocean Exploration team initially set off with a secret file detailing a 1940s navy encounter with an enemy submarine. For years, rumours of a submarine wreck in Bass Strait had intrigued the diving community. Finding it would have rewritten wartime history.

But when diver Mark Ryan descended at the spot recorded on the documents, the depths of Bass Strait revealed no ship of war.

"I realised that it was an iron sailing ship and something that was old," he said. "I knew we had found something out of the ordinary."

The 99-metre SS Queensland was one of the finest steamers to visit Melbourne, according to a report in The Age at the time.

"This magnificent steamer, which only arrived on Saturday last from Foo Chow Foo with a cargo of tea, valued at about £150,000, after a splendid passage, has suddenly had her career cut short," it reported.

Under the command of Captain Robert Craig, a trusted officer, the Queensland left Melbourne with 105 on board, including 76 Chinese and Malay crew and one "lady".

"There was a bright moon shining, and fair easterly weather prevailed," said The Age . "To all appearances, everything was right and snug for the night."

What they hadn't counted on was the SS Barrabool, a smaller Australian ship with disastrously poor steering. Later it would sink two more ships and crash into another. Eventually it earned the name "the great Australian ram".

At 5.27am, the "ponderous iron stem of the Barrabool, deep in the water, coal laden, loomed ominously near the Queensland", according to The Age's account from survivors. "The Barrabool rushed at full speed, stem on, and struck the Queensland right amidships on the starboard side."

Captain Craig, later commended for his actions, ordered everyone into lifeboats. Meanwhile, in the engine room, water was rising over the engineer's ankles. As he climbed the ladder to safety, the water lapped at his heels.

Suffering a hole in her side, the Queensland sank, stern-first.

Eyewitnesses reported that the captain's dog escaped, as did a stowaway who dislocated his hip in the collision. Not so lucky was James Thompson, a young Scottish crew member who never emerged.

Another ship that passed that afternoon found nothing but floating hen coops, sheep pens and a small boat containing Chinese clothing. The captain saved the ship's log and papers, but all the passengers' possessions were lost.

The ship is now encrusted with soft pastel-coloured corals, but much of it is intact.

The divers have found two of the three masts, a box, a compass binnacle and the compass, a toilet, portholes, a stove, a crockery locker with at least 100 plates, coins, a steam engine, glasses, pots, old bottles, a capstan, sheets of canvas (possibly clothing or a sail) and a piece of railing. The safe, which is the size of a small filing cabinet, was the most exciting piece.

But like everything on the wreck, it is likely to stay where it is. Under Commonwealth law, the Queensland's booty must stay where it settled.

Heritage Victoria is particularly concerned that looters may steal the artefacts. Consequently, the wreck's exact location will remain secret.

"It is an extremely significant find archaeologically because we expect the ship, the cargo and contents to be quite intact," Heritage Victoria's Cassandra Philippou, a maritime archaeologist, says. "It is a pretty amazing find."

But the shipwreck hunters and Heritage Victoria still need definitive proof that the wreck is the Queensland. The engine has been identified as belonging to the ship, but proof positive, such as a plate with the ship's company insignia, is still to be found.

But what of the submarine? The navy was sure it had engaged a submarine at that site in the 1940s.

"We went hunting for a submarine and we found the SS Queensland," diver Greg Hodge said. "We have either busted the myth, or indeed there is a submarine still out there."

Reprinted with the permission of The Age Company Ltd.
© 2005 The Age Company Lt. All rights Reserved
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