A ringing success: Kenn Reefs expedition, days 7 and 8

Lee Graham and his trusty tow-board. Image: Julia Sumerling/Silentworld Foundation.

Lee Graham and his trusty tow-board. Image: Julia Sumerling/Silentworld Foundation.

While the dive team was busy documenting sites KR10 and KR11 on the morning and afternoon of 14 January, the magnetometer team took advantage of the calm weather and sea conditions to run a survey along the outside of the entire Kenn Reefs system. The first area surveyed was along the outside fringe of the ‘foot and ankle’, with specific emphasis placed on detecting offshore components of known shipwreck sites (such as KR1, KR2 and KR4). Because sea conditions were calm, the team also ‘deployed’ Lee on a tow-board behind the magnetometer.

The tow-board (also known as a ‘Manta-board’) is a flat, hydrodynamic-shaped board with handles that is connected to a towing vessel with a length of line. The person using the tow-board grips the handles, is pulled through the water at low speed, and can visually search the seabed for shipwreck material. Most tow-boards are designed so that their users can turn, dive and ascend through the water column at will, simply by changing its orientation with the handles. Lee was positioned 10 metres behind the magnetometer in the hope he might be able to visually spot and identify any anomalies it detected.

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Kenn Reefs expedition, day four (continued) and day five

Silentworld Foundation CEO and project team leader John Mullen uses a metal detector to search for artefacts in shallows off Observatory Cay, while Jacqui Mullen (background) documents a find. Image: Julia Sumerling/Silentworld Foundation.

Silentworld Foundation CEO and project team leader John Mullen uses a metal detector to search for artefacts in shallows off Observatory Cay, while Jacqui Mullen (background) documents a find. Image: Julia Sumerling/Silentworld Foundation.

While the magnetometer crew conducted its initial search west of Observatory Cay, a second team embarked upon a metal detector survey of the cay itself and searched for evidence of survivor camps associated with the wrecked vessels Bona Vista and Jenny Lind.

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Finding Tingira: The search for the Royal Australian Navy’s first training ship

Oil painting of Sobraon (later Tingira), by William Barnett Spencer, c 1866. ANMM Collection 00009342

Oil painting of Sobraon (later Tingira), by William Barnett Spencer, c 1866. Image: ANMM Collection 00009342.

On a cold sunny morning in June 2016, Silentworld Foundation Director and maritime archaeologist Paul Hundley steered the survey vessel Maggie III into shallow water at the head of Berrys Bay on Sydney’s North Shore. Accompanying him were the museum’s maritime archaeologists Kieran Hosty and myself, staring intently at a laptop computer as it displayed readings from a marine magnetometer towed a short distance behind the boat. As Maggie III’s hull glided through water less than a metre deep, we watched for any indication that remnants of a unique sailing ship might lie buried in the silt below. Continue reading

Seals, sharks and shipwrecks: 3D mapping the Lady Darling shipwreck

The Narooma Bar on a very calm day with Montague Island in the distance. Image: Lee Graham /ANMM.

The Narooma Bar on a very calm day with Montague Island in the distance. Image: Lee Graham / ANMM.

New South Wales hosts a wide variety of historic shipwreck sites. These range from large, fully exposed and intact hulls to smaller, largely disarticulated, dispersed, and buried structural components and artefacts. The environments in which these sites exist also differ significantly in terms of seabed composition, water depth and water clarity.

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Japanese flapper lands on Australian shores!

Kono San at a Movietone event on board SS Sierra, 8 August 1929 Samuel J Hood Studio ANMM Collection

Kono San at a Movietone event on board SS Sierra, 8 August 1929
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

I am constantly amazed at the array of discoveries that are being made in the Australian National Maritime Museum’s collection. Some of them are just what you might expect from a maritime history collection, and others are just downright unusual. Until recently, the above photograph was catalogued as ‘unidentified Japanese woman’ posing on board the San Franciscan liner SS Sierra at an event celebrating the arrival of Australia’s first Movietone News truck on 8 August 1929. However, as one of our Flickr Commons followers demonstrated, Sydney photographer Samuel J Hood photographed his fair share of interesting characters from far away shores. Continue reading

Suitcases, boats and bridges

Last week I was invited to speak about the museum’s work at the Suitcases, boats and bridges: telling migrant stories in Australian museums workshop, organised by Dr Nina Parish from the University of Bath and Dr Chiara O’Reilly from the University of Sydney. The workshop brought together academics, museum professionals and museum studies students to discuss how migrant stories have been collected and articulated in a number of Australian museums, ranging from large government-funded institutions such as ours, to smaller regional, suburban or volunteer-run museums.

Suitcases and boats in Passengers, the museum's permanent exhibition about Australia's immigration history. Photographer Andrew Frolows

Suitcases and boats in Passengers, the museum’s permanent exhibition about Australia’s immigration history. Photographer Andrew Frolows

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Alone on the wide, wide sea : The voyage of the SPRAY

Mine was not the sort of life to make one long to coil up ones ropes on land, the customs and ways of which I had almost forgotten… I was born in the breezes, and I had studied the sea…

(Joshua Slocum Sailing Alone Around the World, page 4)

In the midwinter of 1892, a sailor by the name of Joshua Slocum arrived in the seaside town of Fairhaven, New Bedford, to view a ship. Heading away from the water, he set out to a nearby field where, propped up and under a cover of canvas, was an antiquated sloop called Spray. Continue reading

The Prosecutor and the Perpetrator: Murder in Melbourne…

'The Truth', 18 July 1942. From the State Library of Victoria’s Newspapers

‘The Truth’, 18 July 1942. From the State Library of Victoria’s Newspapers

She had a lovely voice. I wanted that voice. She was leaving to go to her house and I did not want her to go. I grabbed her by the throat. I choked her; I choked her. (Edward Leonski, quoted from trial transcript, National Archives of Australia Barcode 101035 p364)

In early 1942 two very different American soldiers arrived in Australia as part of a surge of United States troops based in Australia to fight the war in the Pacific. Hayford Octavius Enwall was a lawyer who was working as the Chief Legal Officer of the US Army Services of Supply and Edward Joseph Leonski was a problematic, troubled soldier with the US 52nd Signal Battalion. By the end of the war Enwall left Australia a married man, having fallen in love with Jean Kennett – a poster girl for Australian army recruitment. Leonski on the other hand did not leave Australia alive, and was executed at Pentridge Prison in 1943 for the murders of three Melbourne women. Continue reading

Canoes and reflections in Melbourne

Photo of

Canoe on display at ACMI

During a recent Melbourne visit I encountered a pleasant surprise among the intriguing cacophony that is Australia’s film and television history at Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) near Federation Square – one of the ten canoes from Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigger’s 2006 film of the same name.Nestled in a cove of green space is one of the canoes, a ngarrdin, made in 2006 by Yolngu men Philip Gudthaykudthay, Peter Djogirr, Bobby Bunungurr, Michael Dawu, Billy Black, Steven Wilanydjanu Malibirr and Roy Burnyila.

Ten Canoes was born of a dialogue between de Heer, co-director Peter Djigger and the Yolngu community in north-eastern Arnhem Land. It was inspired by a photograph taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson during a visit to their lands  Arafura Swamp in 1930s.

Photo of

Canoe and still images from Ten Canoes film at ACMI

The ngarrdin on display is made from a single piece of stringy bark with folded and sewn ends, with knowledge from Elders Peter Minygululu and Philip Gudthaykudthay, and reference notes and photographs from the visual treasure trove that is the Donald Thomson collection in Museum Victoria (Museum Victoria holds two other canoes made for the film).

At ACMI, Thomson’s black and white photographs are displayed with the canoe alongside colour stills of similar scenes from the film – a split vision of continuity and change.

The story of making the film is an important assertion of Indigenous voices in filmmaking as told at ACMI, while the recontextualised beauty of the canoe itself entices you in to its space, but also breaking out of the historical timeline presented in the exhibitions on the ground floor entitled Screen worlds.

LED light artwork

Jonathan Jones, untitled (muyan) 2011.
Glass, aluminium, light emitting diodes, electrical cable; designed by Marc Raszewski and Andrew Hayes; dimensions variable; installation view National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; commissioned by National Gallery of Victoria for The Barak Commissions, Felton Bequest; collection of National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Just across the ACMI foyer and courtyard in the Ian Potter Centre – NGV Australia I spotted the work of a speaker from our Nawi conference – Kamilaroi/Wiradjuri artist Jonathan Jones. During the Nawi conference Jonathan spoke to us about light, reflection, water and the passage of the canoe through the water as inspiration.

Jonathan’s fabulous work is nestled in the cathedral-like foyer at the Ian Potter Centre. It is made of LEDs in light boxes which references Victorian Wurundjeri leader, quiet activist, mediator and artist William Barak (1824-1903). In particular Jonathan was inspired by two of Barak’s paintings featuring fires at ceremonies. These paintings excited Jonathan’s imagining of light, reflection, its cultural resonance, and Barak’s role in history at a time of massive change.

The work is installed near the main stairway of the centre, in dialogue with another artwork by Brook Andrew entitled Marks and witness: a lined crossing in tribute to William Barak (2011) which scales the heights of the foyer and stairway.

In his artist statement Jonathan offers: ‘In early 1903 Barak predicted his own death, stating that he would die when muyan (wattle) bloomed.’

The work turns from white to yellow (muyan) in August to remind people of Barak’s importance. Wish I’d seen it in yellow!  If you visit this month, you’ll catch it as the wattle blooms.

Francis Birtles: From London to Melbourne by Car

‘I have to take a taxi to avoid losing myself in London, but I can find my way to Australia’.

– Francis Birtles in ‘Motoring to Australia: Francis Birtles’s Trip’, The Advertiser, 8 October 1927.

Australian adventurer, author and filmmaker Francis Edwin Birtles (1881-1941) made this remark two days before departing on what would become his most famous adventure – driving from London, England to Melbourne, Australia in his 1925 Bean racing car known as the ‘Sundowner’.

A veteran overlander, Birtles had cycled around Australia twice and crossed the continent seven times between 1907 and 1912, completed the first west – east crossing of Australia in a car in 1912, and set records driving from Melbourne to Darwin, and Darwin to Sydney in 1926. However it was his nine month 26,000km part-solo journey from London to Melbourne which is regarded by many as his greatest achievement, and one of the most remarkable journeys ever completed in a motor car.

Birtles’s first attempt to drive from England to Australia was in February 1927, in an experimental vehicle the ‘Imperial Six’, with Australian journalist M H Ellis, and Queenslander E W Knowles. The planned route was to cross the English Channel to Boulogne and drive through Europe and Asia towards Singapore, then to Port Darwin, Adelaide, Melbourne, finishing in Sydney. In early August after ‘considerable hardship’ the voyage was abandoned at Delhi, and the team returned to London.

Birtles in his 'Sundowner', Sydney July 1928

Birtles in his 'Sundowner', Sydney July 1928, ANMM Collection

Birtles’s second attempt saw him use the ‘Sundowner’ – his own 14 HP Bean racing car which he drove extensively throughout Australia. On 19 October 1927, Birtles departed London once again, this time alone and with a new route in mind which would take him through Europe, Syria, Iraq, the Persian and Baluchistan deserts, crossing the north-western frontier into India and Burma, then onto Singapore where his car would be shipped to Darwin, and ending his journey in Melbourne.

A young Canadian man by the name of P E Stollery joined Birtles in Calcutta, and by early June the pair had arrived in Singapore, after a ferry crossing from Pakokku to Nyaungu (Burma), and a brief voyage by ship from Mergui (Burma) to Penang (Malaysia) due to heavy rain. From Singapore Birtles, Stollery and the ‘Sundowner’ boarded the oil freighter UNDA and arrived in Darwin on 10 June 1928. From Darwin the pair proceeded east through Queensland to Longreach, and then southward along the east coast to Brisbane, arriving in Sydney on 16 July.

Birtles and Stollery in Sydney

Birtles and Stollery in Sydney, ANMM Collection

Upon their arrival they ‘drove straight to the head office of the Dunlop Rubber Co Ltd, in Wentworth Avenue, where a crowd gathered, and a brief welcome was tendered to the overlanders’ (‘Francis Birtles: Arrival in Sydney’, The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 17 July 1928, p 11). The car was exhibited for a week in Anthony Horden and Sons’ emporium at Pitt Street for public viewing.

On 25 July 1928 Birtles’s nine month 26,000km motor vehicle journey from London came to an end when he arrived to crowds at the Elizabeth Street post office in Melbourne at 1pm. The centre of the city was brought to a standstill as the car proceeded to Parliament House, where the Premier Mr Hogan welcomed the pair. In 1929, Birtles donated his ‘Sundowner’ to the people of Australia for a proposed national museum in Canberra. Today the vehicle is held in the National Museum of Australia.


Francis Birtles’s remarkable journey driving from London, England to Melbourne, Australia in 1927/1928 represents a pivotal era in Australia’s automobile history. The increase in availability of more sophisticated and practical vehicles and road services in the early 20th century contributed to the gradual decline of interstate passenger travel by ship in Australia.


Photojournalist Sam Hood photographed Birtles and Stollery upon their arrival in Sydney on 16 July 1928. These photos are just a few of the Australian National Maritime Museum’s extensive collection of Sam Hood photographs, which you can now browse on-line.