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Illustrations of a range of artefacts recovered from S.S.Blackbird.
(Drawn by: Geoff Hewitt)
brief history and site survey with reference to Victorian support for steamers

 YOUR COMMENTS * Do you have any comments or questions regarding the S.S.Blackbird project report? The iron screw steamer Blackbird was built at Newcastle on Tyne in 1863 expressly for the Australian coastal trade in which she was engaged until wrecked on the Ninety Mile Beach in 1878. A brief account of the historical background to this incident is given and an indication is also given of the high standard of shore support available in Melbourne in contemporary times. An illustrated catalogue of material from the Blackbird site has been commenced and appears in part following.

The author wishes to express his thanks to Meredith Hewitt for her assistance with research and site work under unpleasant conditions. Also, to Mark Staniforth and Terry Amott for their assistance and encouragement. Also, to the Port Albert Maritime Museum, together with Messrs Szabo, Mills, Marks and Wells for access to their collections of Blackbird material, to Mike McCarthy for inviting Meredith and I to be part of the inspiring Xantho site seminar where this paper was originally presented and Jack Loney for his assistance with photographs.

SS Blackbird
The SS Blackbird was built by Mitchell and Co. of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1863 for Grice Sumner and Co. of Melbourne. She was an iron screw barque of 665 gross and 531 nett register tons; 196.4 feet long with a beam of 28.2 feet and 16.7 feet depth of hold (1). Rigged as a three-masted barque (1,2), Blackbird was built by Mitchell and Co. of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1863 for Grice Sumner and Co. of Melbourne. She was an iron screw barque of 665 gross and 531 nett register tons; 196.4 feet long with a beam of 28.2 feet and 16.7 feet depth of hold (1). Rigged as a three-masted barque (1,2), Blackbird was built by Mitchell and Co. of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1863 for Grice Sumner and Co. of Melbourne. She was an iron screw barque of 665 gross and 531 nett register tons; 196.4 feet long with a beam of 28.2 feet and 16.7 feet depth of hold (1). Rigged as a three-masted barque (1,2), Blackbird was fitted with a two-cylinder, direct-acting engine of 36 inch bore and 30 inch stroke, giving 80 horsepower. Her engine was built by R. Morrison and Co., also of Newcastle (3). Steam was raised in a 12 foot diameter horizontal Scotch-type fire-tube boiler and, according to Lloyds Register, her hull was subdivided by four bulkheads. The machinery was set well aft with the boiler uptake probably between the main and mizzen masts.
was fitted with a two-cylinder, direct-acting engine of 36 inch bore and 30 inch stroke, giving 80 horsepower. Her engine was built by R. Morrison and Co., also of Newcastle (3). Steam was raised in a 12 foot diameter horizontal Scotch-type fire-tube boiler and, according to Lloyds Register, her hull was subdivided by four bulkheads. The machinery was set well aft with the boiler uptake probably between the main and mizzen masts.
was fitted with a two-cylinder, direct-acting engine of 36 inch bore and 30 inch stroke, giving 80 horsepower. Her engine was built by R. Morrison and Co., also of Newcastle (3). Steam was raised in a 12 foot diameter horizontal Scotch-type fire-tube boiler and, according to Lloyds Register, her hull was subdivided by four bulkheads. The machinery was set well aft with the boiler uptake probably between the main and mizzen masts.
Blackbird was placed briefly on the Adelaide-Melbourne run to replace SS Penola, also owned by Grice Sumner and Co., during repairs to the latter vessel as a result of damage sustained in the collision which sank the SS City of Launceston in Port Philip Bay during November 1865. Most of her arrivals at Melbourne were from Newcastle and, probably, her major inward cargo was coal although it is known she also carried passengers. When she was lost on the Ninety Mile Beach near Port Albert Victoria in the early hours of Sunday 2nd June 1878, her cargo was reported as consisting of 800 tons of coal consigned to Lyell and Gowan of Melbourne together with three paying passengers (2).
SS Blackbird was purchased from Grice Sumner and Co. by Sydney interests during 1876, the new owners being Captain A. Campbell and others (4). Originally classified 9A1 at Lloyd's, having been built under special survey, SS Blackbird was surveyed at Sydney during October 1873 and registered there during 1874. She was granted official number 48,407 and port number 54 (5).

S.S.BLackbird. LaTrobe   Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria
LaTrobe Picture Collection,
State Library of Victoria

SS Blackbird and Engineering Support for Steamers
It may be said that sailing vessels are largely self-reliant and, other than the routine slipping for removal of fouling, recaulking where necessary and repainting or resheathing of the outer bottom, may operate with a high degree of independence from shore supplies. Sailing vessels are able to rely for long periods upon stores and spare gear carried inboard. This is not the case with steamers. Aside from the obvious necessity to refuel, the mechanical form of propulsion, in its early and usually somewhat crude form, called for a much higher level of technical skill than would normally be available under sail, in view of the improvisation, maintenance and repair required to keep it in working order. The successful operation of steamers was thus directly related to the merit of the engineering infrastructure offering support ashore and while it is certain that the marine steam engineer was expected to be capable of running adjustment and a great deal of making-do, inevitable wear and breakages would require the services of a superior blacksmith, a foundry or a machine shop.
In this context, it is interesting to briefly examine the maintenance capability ashore to Blackbird and her contemporaries. SS Blackbird underwent extensive repairs during February 1865 (5,6) before coming off the patent slip at Williamstown. She was on the slip again during July and August 1866 (7,8,9), during which time Fulton and Co. fitted a new screw and shaft. A further overhaul is documented in July 1870, when new pistons cast by the Atlas Company of Engineers together, with another new propeller cast by Fulton and Co., increased her speed by one knot (10).
Fulton's Foundry, occupying a site at 137 Flinders Street West, Melbourne, with a frontage of 66 feet and depth of 320 feet to Flinders Lane, housed a significant engineering capability within their three storeyed bluestone premises. Although a proportion of their efforts were dedicated to the production of award-winning wool presses, Fultons were deeply involved in building marine and other steam engines. This firm supplied the first engines, pumping and hoisting machinery erected at the Ballarat goldfield, together with engines and boilers for use in Murray River paddle steamers (11). It is interesting to note that PS Adelaide built at Echuca, Victoria, in 1866 and claimed to be the oldest surviving wooden paddler in the world, is fitted with a 30 nominal horsepower, twin cylinder, reversing engine by Fulton and Shaw (12). Fultons were responsible for construction of the engines fitted to the Government steamer Pharos. These engines had cylinders 28 inch diameter. Pharos was a wooden steamer built at Williamstown Victoria in 1864.
In 1868, Fultons were the employers of between 100 and 120 men and one 25 horsepower steam engine which drove, by means of shafts and belts, an impressive variety of machinery. The inventory included a dozen lathes, the largest of which was capable of swinging a shaft over 2 feet in diameter and 24 feet long! Fultons had nibbling, punching, planing, rolling, drilling, shaping and shearing machines, together with a boring mill able to machine the inside of a cylinder of 70 inch diameter. The foundry had four cupola furnaces with a capacity of over 12 tons and pattern making facilities were available in-house. A Naysmith patent steam hammer was a feature of the blacksmith's forge. Fultons claimed to be equipped with the capacity to build engines as large as those of Brunel's Great Britain. The Atlas Company of Engineers was established in 1868 by John Scott and George Young, occupying premises at the corner of Queen and Latrobe Streets, Melbourne (13,14), but much detail regarding this company remains to be discovered.
Despite the apparent effort directed towards maintenance and the satisfactory nature of the services offered, accidents continued to happen as is evident from the explosion of one of the Blackbird's two donkey boilers in 1866 (l5).

Loss of SS Blackbird
The tragic loss of the iron clipper Loch Ard near Port Campbell on Victoria's west coast during the early hours of the morning of the 1st of June 1878, caused considerable consternation in Melbourne. Within 24 hours, came news of yet another marine disaster, on the east coast, this time with no loss of life. The SS Blackbird had run ashore just after 3 am on the 2nd of June (2,16).
The Underwriter's representative appears to have reported (17) that the masts, funnel, two donkey boilers, chains and anchors only were salvable. This opinion was shared by the Argus correspondent (2), who considered that the Blackbird was in a bad position and that at high tide the sea rose over the deck and that in the event of rough weather, the chance of saving the ship was slight.
From a contemporary account of the circumstances surrounding the loss of the Blackbird (2), it is apparent that the officers and crew of that ship had scant clue of their whereabouts prior to, or even after, the wreck. Blackbird left Newcastle NSW on Thursday 30th of May 1878 at 5 am. Light westerly winds prevailed until Ram Head was passed about 9.30 pm on the Friday when the wind changed to SW by S and continued with heavy squalls of rain until noon on Saturday.
The distance between Newcastle and Ram Head is about 400 nautical miles and Blackbird covered this distance at a creditable average of 10 knots. Sailing conditions would have been good, with an off-shore wind and the ship on a starboard reach with the wind a little forward of the beam. With the wind change, the weather would have been largely "on the beak". The unpleasant conditions continued until noon on the Saturday when the wind veered to SSE and Blackbird was probably then close hauled on the port tack. The wind stayed in that quarter until the steamer struck. Ram Head is approximately 200 miles from Port Albert and that distance was covered in some 30 hours which indicates an average speed of less than 7 knots, which is consistent with head winds.
About 3 am on the Sunday morning, Latrobe Island Light was sighted but Captain McConachy mistook it for the light on Wilson's Promontory. Latrobe Island Light was inside Port Albert Entrance, on the north east tip of Latrobe or Snake Island. Mungall, the Mate, noticed the appearance of white water on the port bow, but in consultation with the look-out, dismissed this as a shoal of fish. Blackbird went aground immediately afterwards, probably near the seaward end of the east bar at the entrance, the end of which breaks continuously some two miles from a low and undistinguished shore.
The engines were reversed at full speed and the fore topsail yards put aback, freeing the ship from the sand. The Captain then came on deck and ordered the helm to be put hard down to back the steamer off into deep water. Blackbird continued to go astern for ten minutes but then orders were given to go full ahead and make sail, steering north to clear a supposed reef. McConachy here made a fatal error, for in less than a quarter of an hour, when the call came that breakers were seen on both bows, Blackbird was heading directly for the beach on Clonmel Island. Despite the engines being again put full astern and the helm hard a-port, the steamer struck on the beach. Blackbird swung broadside on to the breakers and stuck fast where she now lies, with her bow facing to the east.
Captain McConachy suggested that a heavy set of current to the west, together with error in the compasses, was the cause of the wreck. A court of Marine Enquiry was convened shortly after the loss of the Blackbird. On the 20th of June 1878, the Steam Navigation Board of Victoria took preliminary evidence (18). After further deliberation, the Board called both the Master and the Mate to answer charges of reckless navigation. Following a further hearing on the 27th of June, the Board found the charge against Captain John McConachy proven and suspended his certificate for 12 months. William Mungall, the Mate, had his certificate suspended for 3 months (19).

The wreck of the Blackbird lies some 300 to 400 metres from the southern shore of Clonmel Island in shallow water. The remains of the boiler steam dome is just awash at low tide and the wreck constitutes a distinct hazard to navigation in the area. The site is approximately 1.5 nautical miles NE of Port Albert entrance, at Latitude 38 degrees 43'45"S and Longitude 146 degrees 4l'45"E. The site is marked on two recent charts (20,21) and is quite close to the location of PS Clonmel (1836-1841), Australia's earliest steamer wreck.
The Blackbird wreck-site is often subject to poor visibility, strong surge and a current running parallel to the shore. Access to the site is severely restricted by weather and sea conditions, Port Albert having one of the most difficult and dangerous estuarine entrances on the SE coast. The sand bars and banks at the entrance, constantly shift and local knowledge is essential for safe navigation. From seaward, the coast is low and features are few. The site is exposed to weather from south to east.

The wreck of Blackbird lies nearly upright on the keel, parallel to the shore-line with the bow to the north east. The hull is intact to deck level at the bow and stern but is breached for most of its length. The hull is sunk into the sand to the approximate position of the light load water-line; a situation that, according to the observations of Riley (22), during inspections of iron steamship wrecks off the NSW coast, is not atypical of such sites.
A sketch of the Blackbird site, viewed from the south follows, but it is emphasized that little site measurement has been possible and the sketch is not intended as other than an indication.
A sketch of  the S.S.Blackbird site.         
Drawn by Geoff 
A sketch of the S.S.Blackbird site.         Drawn by Geoff Hewitt
Although examination of the site, other than in the region of machinery space, has been cursory, it is apparent that the vessel was built in that manner common to iron vessels, where the approach was similar to that traditionally used in wooden ships.
Instead of wood planks bolted and treenailed to wooden floors and frames, strakes of iron were rivetted to a transverse framework of iron ribs and floors, relatively narrow in section. This constituted a conservative approach that failed to take significant advantage of the potential structural efficiency of wrought iron as a shipbuilding medium as had been demonstrated by Brunel, 20 years prior to Blackbird, in the design of SS Great Britain (1843).
The remains of Blackbird suggest a wooden weather deck over iron deck beams but the deck is now missing. The bow and stern display the form typical of a sailing vessel, with a well-raked stem and beakhead certainly intended for a bowsprit. At the bow, anchor chains extend from the chain locker through openings in a wood deck within the forecastle, then descend from the hawseholes into the sand. Portion of the stock of the port anchor is visible close to the hull. Two iron davits are located at deck level, one on each side, above the hawseholes. The stern is rounded in plan with a marked overhang. The rudder post and the top of one iron propeller blade protrude from the sand. The remains of the steering gear stands on the poop. Within the stern, which is filled with sand to 1.5 metres below the deck beams, the afterpeak is lined with smoothly finished tongue and groove boards which remain in sound condition.
The machinery space after bulkhead is largely intact and immediately forward of this is the engine and boiler. Although the forward cylinder has been badly damaged, apparently by explosives and there is a great deal of jumbled debris in the area, sufficient remains of the engine to identify it (but not without some past difficulty) as not a compound and being entirely consistent with the description in shipping register entries (3,4).
Forward of the machinery space after bulkhead, the sides of the hull have collapsed outward, leaving the remains of the engine and the boiler exposed. Very little of the vessel forward of the boiler is exposed above sand level and with the conditions of visibility often prevailing on the site, there is a long swim, for a diver, between features in this region. According to local folklore, the Blackbird site, along with other wreck-sites in the region fell victim to salvors of non-ferrous metals during the l960s and rumour suggests that major damage from explosives occurred at this time. However, recovery of scrap metal could not have been especially thorough as much non-ferrous material remains on the site.
Blackbird has been regularly visited by sport divers and subjected to the usual looting. However, the souveniring does not appear to have been particularly thorough or destructive. Attractive artefacts are still regularly found on the site and there is little evidence, to date, of gross disturbance of the sediment within the hull.
While not pretending to be other than superficial, due to the obvious problem of tracing the current owners, a list of known artefacts from the Blackbird has been prepared and a selection of these are illustrated in the following pages. In general, the standard of workmanship in manufactured items is extremely high, is a further indication of the mechanical sophistication of the builders and maintainers of this ship.

The wreck of SS Blackbird is an attractive site. Indeed, in the author's view, there are few sites in Victoria, or elsewhere for that matter, that approach it from the considerations of aesthetic appeal and educational value. A dive on the Blackbird is a fine opportunity to see a mid 19th century steamship of traditional shape in a remarkably intact state. Although poor access and usually adverse weather conditions protect the site to some extent, it is felt that the site deserves some form of protection against aggressive looters although it is admitted that policing of any restriction would present grave difficulties. Despite this, it is intended that the site be nominated for provisional protection, without exclusion of recreational diving, under the provisions of the Commonwealth Act. This measure is perhaps not as important as the requirement for the site to be stabilized from the stand-point of corrosion. Blackbird is viewed as a prime site for the application of the principles of cathodic protection using galvanic anodes.

1. Lloyd's Register 1863-1864, Supplement B.
2. The Argus, Melbourne, Tuesday 4th June 1878, p.6.
3. Lloyd's Register of British and Foreign Shipping 1874-1875.
4. Lloyd's Register of British and Foreign Shipping 1876-1877.
5. The Argus, Melbourne, 14th February 1865.
6. The Argus, Melbourne, 24th February 1865.
7. The Age, Melbourne, 10th July 1866.
8. The Argus, Melbourne, 23rd July 1866.
9. The Age, Melbourne, 21st August 1866.
10. The Argus, 12th July 1870.
11. McLeod, Donald, 1868, Melbourne Factories, Walker May and Co., Melbourne, p.65-67.
12. Andrews, Graeme, 1984, Australia's Maritime Heritage, Cromarty Press, Sydney, p.56.
13. Sands and McDougall's, 1870, Melbourne and Suburban Street Directory and Guide.
14. Smith, J. (ed.), 1902, Cyclopaedia of Victoria, Vol.1, 1902, The Cyclopaedia Co., Melbourne, p. 1902-1905.
15. The Age, 5th October, 1866.
16. The Age,3rd June, 1878.
17. Australasian Shipping News, (1) 49 June 8th, 1878.
18. Australasian Shipping News, June 22nd 1878.
19. Australasian Shipping News, June 29th 1878.
20. RAN Hydrographic Service, 22nd August 1983, AUS 181, Approaches to Corner Inlet and Port Albert.
21. RAN Hydrographic Service, 26th January 1983, AUS 182, Approaches to Port Albert.
22. Riley, John, April 1985, remarks at SS Xantho site seminar, Port Gregory, WA. See also his paper on Iron Ship Disintegration.

Catalogue of Blackbird material known to author
Glass, soda water. Codd type. (Port Albert Maritime Museum PAMM) BB-4-44-00l-1
Glass, scent? Ground neck, Cut facets. (PAMM) BB-4-44-002-1 BUCKLES:
Brass, pressed, no maker's marks, 32 mm., (Wells) BB-3-32-001-l
Brass, cast, "G & Cie, SOLIDE, PARIS, 1872". 30mm., (Wells) BB-3-32-002-1
Brass, branded "MARKET CLOTH HALL, 484 GEORGE ST." 17 mm. (Wells) BB-3-32-003-1.
Brass, branded "EXCELSIOR". 13.5 mm. (Wells) BB-3-32-004-l Figure 11
Brass, branded "C.B. & Co. SYDNEY". 13.5 mm. (Wells, BB-3-32-005-1
Brass, no brand, 17 mm. (Wells) BB-3-32-006-1
Blue serge, officer's or engineer's, serge-covered leather visor. (PAMM) BB-4-47-001-1
Brass, 2 inch, plug, hydrant with screw cap. 250 mm. (author) BB-3-32-007-1
Brass, straight, plug, 120 mm. (Marks) BB-3-32-008-1
Brass, plug, pet, 100 mm. (PAMIM) BB-3-32-009-1
Brass, plug, pet, 80 mm. (PAMM) BB-3-32-0l0-l
Brass, boiler water level gauge 200 mm. (PAMM) BB-3-32-001-1
Length of glass tubing from boiler water level gauge, 350 mm (PAMM) BB-4-44-003-1
Brass, soldered, Has flat integral base and handle sawn from heavy gauge sheet metal. On the underside, portion of the word "NEWCASTLE" engraved in a semi-ellipse with 25 mm. letter and portion of a date "186" at the centre of the ellipse, suggesting that this item had been made from a manufacturer's identification plate. (Marks) BB-3-32-012-l
Nails, iron, bullet head, 25 mm. (Marks) BB-8-83-OOl-l. Quantity contained in BB-3-32-012-1
Woodscrews, brass, countersunk head, various sizes. (Wells & Mills) BB-3-32-024-1
Boots, leather, pr., elastic sided. (PAMM) BB-4-46-001-1 & 2
Boot, leather, laced. (Wells) BB-4-46-002-1
Slippers, leather, pr., (PAMM) BB-4-46-003-1 & 2
Brass, plain, cabinet. (Mills) BB-3-32-03-1
Brass, plain, cabinet. (Wells) BB-3-32-014-1
Brass, cabinet, ornamental. (Mills) BB-3-32-015-1
Brass, chest, ornamental. (Wells) BB-3-32-016-1
Brass, light gauge, pressed (Wells) BB-3-32-017-1
Key, brass, 33 mm. (Wells) BB-3-32-018-1
Keyhole plate, brass, 15 mm. (Wells) BB-3-32-019-l
Lamp, brass, "EXCELSIOR" brand, gimballed oil lamp with stylized dolphin mount. 200 mm. (Szabo) 13B-3-32-020-1
Lamp, brass, "E.MILLER & CO." brand, with indentations for gimbal. 130 mm (Wells) BB-3-32-021-1
Gimballed bracket, brass, 160 mm. (PAMM) BB-3-32-022-l
(this bracket is possibly complementary to BB-3-32-021-1).
China, white, relief pattern on edge. 150mm., (PAMM) BB-2-29-001-l
China, white, relief pattern on edge. 200mm., (PAMM) BB-2-29-002-l
China, white, relief pattern on edge, 150mm., incomplete. (PAMM) B B-2-29-003- 1
China, blue transfer pattern on white ground. 250 mm (PAMM) BB-2-29-004-1 RIVET:
Brass, decorated with geometric pattern, thin gauge, 25 mm. (Wells) BB-3-32-023-1
Scuttle frames, brass, with remains of bullseyes. 320 mm (PAMM) BB-3-32-025-1 & 2 Figure 12
Securing screw, brass, 95 mm. (PAMM) BB-3-32-026-1
Scuttles complete, brass, with bullseyes. 280 mm. (Wells) BB-3-32-027-1,2 & 3
Strip, brass, engraved with intersecting diagonal lines, fragment (Mark & Wells) BB-3-32-028-1 & 2.
Steering shaft, iron, with screw, nut & washer. 250 mm. (PAMM) BB-8-82-001-1.
Range, brass, with integral seat, lid with integral spindle, fragment of iron spring. (PAMM) BB-3-32-029- 1.

  • Do you have any comments or questions regarding the S.S.Blackbird project report?
  • If you have dived on the S.S.Blackbird have you any comments concerning the site?
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Your comments are appreciated.

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