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SS Xantho, Western Australia's First Steamship - Scratchbuild - 1:100

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SS Xantho, Western Australia's First Steamship.




St George's Terrace is the main business thoroughfare of Perth and every 20 metres or so along its length, embedded in the footpath is a plaque similar to the one shown below. Each plaque commemorates a year in the history of Western Australia and the most eminent person in the state that year.   There are some names you may have heard of; Allan Bond, Dennis Lillee and Bob Hawke for example - I note that Rolf Harris's one has recently disappeared!?   But most of the names are those of administrators, academics or business people whose stories are now forgotten by all except their decedents or the most ardent of local history buffs. In the course of my years of work in this city I must have walked past this rather battered looking plaque hundreds - probably thousands - of times without noticing it or giving it a moment's thought. 


1870 - Charles Edward Broadhurst - Pearler...  




About two year's ago, on a lunch break, I dropped into my favourite bookshop and while perusing the local history section found this recently published book. The nautical cover caught my attention. I wondered if there would be schematic drawings inside. I'm always looking for schematic drawings.  




There were a few sketches in the book, but none of the four-view technical profiles and cross-sections I was hoping for.  There was however this artist's impression of a most fetching looking 19th century steamship; The SS Xantho.  I started to read and once I started into her story - and that of her owner Mr Broadhurst - I could not stop.




It turns out that this vessel - and a rather extraordinary vessel she was in certain regards - was Western Australia's first ever steamship. I'm not going to try to tell her history to you right now, because that would make for a very long introductory post and I am anticipating that this project could last for some time. We can discuss her history in detail later.  Suffice to say that this ship sank in November 1872 at Port Gregory, a tiny, tiny settlement 500 km North of the state capital Perth.  (See the map below.)  Fortunately no lives were lost.  




Following her loss she was essentially forgotten and sat undisturbed  for more than 100 years and was of no apparent significance beyond being a hazard to navigation. The red arrow shows the position of her wreck, right at the entrance to the harbour and the yellow arrow the site of the only jetty for scores of nautical miles in any direction.




But in 1983 Xantho was re-discovered by staff of the Western Australian Maritime museum and, due to a number of extraordinary and completely unforeseen factors she was about to be propelled to global fame - at least within the world's maritime archeology community.  In the words of Dr 'Mac' MacCarthy, the world's leading expert on Xantho - 'This ship is world famous -  in certain circles'.  


I think it's a shame so few other people have heard of her. Once the Avro 504 is finished I'm going to build a model!  Be warned though Britmodeller maritime folks I have great plans for this one, and I'm going to need all the help and expertise that I can get, because this promises to be a research nightmare! 



Very Best Regards,

Bandsaw Steve.



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2 hours ago, robgizlu said:

That is going tobe a BIG 1/72 build.



Xantho was only 37m long; small even by the standards of her time. At 1/72 the model will be 51 cm long.

36 minutes ago, bar side said:

What’s it going to be?  Full boat out of water or waterline model with one of your trademark waterscapes?

In this case I have no choice, it is mandated that the model be full-hull. This weekend I will follow up the opening post with one on the ship’s history and another on the planned model.

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7 hours ago, longshanks said:


Looking forward to seeing this develop



Excellent! I can see a use for a man with your in-depth knowledge of smallish, historical, civilian vessels on this project. 👍

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3 hours ago, Martian Hale said:

Up for this one big time. Following.


Martian 👽

Nice to have you along for the ride. Now you might better understand why I watched your ‘La Fauvette’ build with great interest.

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Gidday Steve, I've been to Port Gregory by naval patrol boat. The skipper (a Queenslander) took us through that gap in the reef, turned to starboard, then dropped the pick while we had lunch.

     I'll certainly be following this.

                                                            er, is it too early to mention   "lights"     ?    👉😣👈         Regards, Jeff.

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Thomas Edison took out his first patent for an ‘Electric, incandescent bulb’ in 1878. 

Xantho sank in 1872.


So yes - it is about six years too early to mention lights. 😀


Apparently the gap in the reef you travelled through is called ‘Gold Digger’s passage’ I don’t know why but I bet there’s a story behind that too.

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6 hours ago, longshanks said:

:hmmm:  Oil Lamps   :whistle:



Ok....Ok.... if it’ll keep you lot happy I’ll stick some navigation & cabin lights in this thing. 🙄


At least this Suggestion came up before I’ve built the ship rather than with Carpathia when everyone started screaming for lights after the thing was damned-near finished!

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SS Xantho – History


Before I start, I wish to make it clear that this summary of ‘Xantho’s’ history is collated from the work of others – notably Dr ‘Mac’ MacCarthy of the Western Australian Maritime Museum.  None of the original research behind this is my own.

I'm going to break this story into three parts - 'Success', 'Failure', and 'Resurrection'. Each with it's own post.  It's kind of 'The Rise and Fall and Rise' of the SS Xantho. 


Part 1 - Success


On 13 May 1848 – at a time when the art and science of iron-hull shipbuilding was still in its formative years -  a contract was struck between the famous shipbuilding company ‘Denny Brothers’ (later William Denny and Brothers) of Dumbarton Scotland and the ‘Anstruther and Leith Steamship Company’ who needed a paddle-steamer - with auxiliary sail - to run a reliable ferry service across the Firth of Forth between Leith (Edinburugh) and Aberdour. The contract stipulated that this small vessel – of just 157 tonnes and 101.3 feet (length between perpendiculars) would be completed in no more than four months.


The vessel was to be the PS Xantho.  Xantho is the Greek prefix meaning ‘yellow’ and although it is unclear why this unusual name was chosen, a common speculation is that it was due to the fact that the builder’s  contract specified that her decks would be constructed from ‘Quebec Yellow Pine’.


By the end of 1848 this brand-new paddle steamer was complete. The start of her career was met with a degree of fanfare and celebration from communities on the Northern Side of the Firth of Forth who were most pleased to have the benefit of a modern and reliable steam-powered ferry service. In addition, records indicate numerous visits and excursions to Anstruther and even as far afield as Scarborough, Wick and Perth.  (Perth in Scotland that is - not Western Australia!)  Indications are that Xantho excelled in these roles, and I know of no indication of any mishaps or misadventures concerning her operations in Scotland.


By 1871 however the ship was ageing and paddle steamers were becoming obsolescent. Screw propulsion was now widely recognised as superior in almost all regards.  Xantho was sold to a Glasgow based metal merchant, Mr Robert Stewart, presumably with the expectation that she would be scrapped.  But this did not happen. Instead Mr Stewart completely re-configured and ‘modernised’ the vessel. He added 3m to her overall length, removed the paddles and replaced them with a single screw and replaced the boiler and the engine. He then offered it for sale.


Meanwhile, Mr Charles Edward Broadhurst, a most adventurous and entrepreneurial individual born in Manchester in 1826 (but subsequently emigrated to Australia) was seeking to purchase a coastal steamer for use in Western Australia.  There were many good reasons that he needed a steamer, he had business operations - pastoralism and pearling - in the North Western corner of Western Australia and knew first-hand just how difficult communications and transport in this most remote and imposing region could be. The strong currents, extreme tides, few harbours, restricted harbour entrances and frequent cyclones made operating sailing ships particularly challenging and hazardous in this area.  A small steamship seemed like a good idea and there were none in Western Australia at this time.

The colonial government was of a similar view and offered a financial incentive for whoever could first set up a regular tramp steamer / mail service out of Fremantle.  This offer had not escaped Broadhurst’s keen eye for an opportunity to turn a profit.


And so it came to be that Mr Broadhurst purchased the now ‘SS Xantho’ and sailed this small one-time coastal ferry, all the way from Glasgow, through the Suez Canal, to Sri Lanka, the Straights Settlements (Singapore) on to Jakarta and – arriving in early 1872 - to Fremantle, Western Australia. He was met with a hero’s welcome.


Broadhurst lost no time in taking the Xantho North again and in 1872 managed two complete round trips between Fremantle and Jakarta stopping, of course, at any locations required along the way.  During this time Xantho carried a wide variety of cargos including livestock and produce from the North-West. He also experimented with using Xantho as a base for his pearling (more correctly mother of pearl) diving operations. He also carried passengers, including four indigenous elders who the colonial authorities had, uncharacteristically, freed from imprisonment on Rottnest island and were allowing to return to their ancestral homes.  Controversially he also used the ship to carry ‘Malay divers’ (generally young boys it seems) from Indonesia to Western Australia to work in his pearling operations.


At this point things seemed to be working out for Mr Broadhurst – Xantho was looking like a successful proposition. 

Things were about to change…

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Part 2 - Failure


In 1872 the great mineral wealth of this state was almost completely unknown. The only operating mines, except for scattered indigenous ochre pits, were a cluster of small lead and copper shows about 40km North of the agricultural town of Northampton and about 40 km inland from Port Gregory. The photograph below shows a surviving mine-shaft from this area and gives some hint of the hardship these miners must have endured. 




These mines, the largest of which was the Geraldine mine, not far from Ajana (see map below) were producing High-Grade lead ore – mostly in the form of galena – which is an extremely dense, heavy mineral.  Without rail transport, moving this product overland to either Geraldton or, worse still, Fremantle must have been a nightmare.

Charles Broadhurst saw an opportunity here. If the ore could be transported the shorter distance to Port Gregory his little steamer could collect it and ship it a mere 40 Nautical Miles along the coast to Geraldton.




From here it could be loaded onto large sailing ships that would gain stability from carrying dense lead ore low in their hull.   This was the best type of cargo possible; paying ballast! Everyone would win:  The mines would get their product to market quicker and easier, the sailing ships would benefit from a smoother safer passage and Broadhurst, finally, after many past mis-ques, would have a sustainable and highly profitable business. 


On 13th of November 1872, Xantho set sail from Geraldton (Champion Bay) to Port Gregory to pick up her first cargo of lead ore. Initially the trip was uneventful and by the evening of the 16th she had loaded 83 tons of ore and was ready to sail. At 9.40 PM the ship set off but only after the First Mate, Augustus Thistleton had mentally noted that the trim of the ship was incorrect. According to his testimony from the ensuing court of inquiry ‘She was down about five or six inches by the head. Her usual loading trim is 2 inches by the stern’.  His testimony does not record whether he raised any concerns to either the captain, the owner, or the port's pilot, all of whom were on the vessel at the time.


 Once out of the harbour, the ship turned towards a strong South Easterly breeze with an accompanying heavy sea. During his watch – which lasted to midnight - Thistleton noted that some water was being shipped through the forward part of the ship, especially through the decks that were known to be leaky since much of the deck planking had shrunk and cracked in the intense sun and heat so typical of  her new home waters. Initially he was unconcerned as he had seen this amount of ingress before and ‘did not consider it excessive’.  At midnight he was relieved by the captain and retired to his berth, but at 1.05 he was called back to duty by the alarmed captain who reported that in his assessment the ship was ‘in a sinking condition’. In Thistleton’s estimation the bow was now some seven feet lower than the stern with the forward compartments largely full of water.


The decision was made to turn back to Port Gregory and the ship’s pumps were started, but as they were all to the rear of the ship they made absolutely no difference. The crew started throwing ore overboard but Broadhurst forbade it, allegedly declaring that he would ‘rather lose the ship than the ore’.  Of course the irony was that only by saving the ship could the ore be saved.  The bows of the ship lowered further and by this stage it is estimated that at least part of the propeller must have been lifted above the surface and the rudder must have been becoming less and less effective.


Despite these difficulties the ship made it back to harbour and at about 3.45 AM entered port Gregory by the main Northern entrance ‘Hero’s Passage’. Now in more sheltered water and with only about a nautical mile to run to the jetty it must have seemed like Xantho’s luck had held.  But then, as she approached the headland adjacent to ‘Gold Digger’s Passage’ she ran aground, crashing into a sandbar that in normal trim she might well have passed over.  The impact of the collision shoved the water aft, overwhelming at least one of the two water-tight bulkheads and stressing the old and tired clinker-built hull, almost certainly opening up numerous cracks and fissures.


Slowly, gently, inexorably the ship settled deeper and deeper into the sea and the water crept further and further aft until eventually the boiler’s fires were extinguished and the pumps fell silent. By sunrise Xantho had settled on the bottom, sunk in a mere five metres of water with her masts still sticking up above the surface.  The ship’s crew made their way – perhaps by boat or perhaps by swimming – the 100 or so meters to shore.  No lives were lost.


For Broadhurst the sinking was an utter disaster. Xantho’s insurance had expired just two week’s prior and so he was fully exposed to the financial impact of the loss.  I have not determined whether he was liable for the loss of the ore but according to records in my personal library 83 tons represented several month’s production for the Geraldine mine, so the miners must have been livid. He was also responsible for paying his crew but now had no means to do so.  After the long overland trek back to Geraldton several of his previous employees became destitute and lived on the streets, or on the charity of an outraged local populous.




Charles tried to sell salvage rights to the wreck and made various proposals to have it raised, but the ship was a total ruin now and was effectively worthless. He also proposed to send some of his divers to recover the ore, but – ironically – without a ship from which to operate this was impractical. Broadhurst’s finances were in tatters and his reputation ruined.


Xantho was abandoned and quite quickly rotted away, forgotten by all but the small number of fishermen at Port Gregory who had to be careful not to accidentally run into the wreck when leaving or returning to the harbour. To this day it is marked on local maps as a hazard to navigation.







And here she sat - undisturbed - until 1983...




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