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This year marks 10 years of the HMS Sirius Museum being opened to the public. This incredible museum located in the former Protestant Chapel in the World Heritage-listed site of Kingston and Arthur’s Vale Historic Area (Kingston/Daun’taun) is certainly a must-visit during your stay on Norfolk Island!
As the flagship of the First Fleet, the HMS Sirius played a significant role in the beginning of European settlement in New South Wales and Norfolk Island. The island was settled within six weeks of the arrival of the First Fleet and is the second oldest European settlement in Australia.
Originally named Berwick, the ship was constructed as a trading vessel before being purchased by the British Navy and fitted out as an armed store ship, used in the American war of Independence and trade in the West Indies. Chosen as the armed vessel to lead the First Fleet, significant time and money was spent re-fitting the ship, to bring her up to the standards expected of the flagship which was to lead the Home Office’s great experiment.
The First Fleet left Portsmouth on 3 May 1787, comprising of eleven ships: six transport ships to carry convicts – Alexander, Charlotte, Friendship, Lady Penrhyn, Scarborough and Prince of Wales; three supply ships – Borrowdale, Fishburn and Golden Grove; and two British naval ships – HMS Sirius and HMAT Supply. The journey covered 25,588km and took 36 weeks to complete, with the fleet landing at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788.
Less than six weeks after the arrival of the First Fleet in New South Wales, the HMAT Supply arrived at Norfolk Island to set up the first British settlement to ensure the Island and its natural resources would not fall into the hands of the French. On 6 March 1788, Lieutenant Philip Gidley King with a party of fifteen convicts and seven free men landed and began the difficult tasks of setting up the settlement that was soon called ‘Sydney’.
Supplies at Port Jackson soon dwindled, and while favourable reports regarding agriculture were received from Norfolk Island, the reality was that they were only just barely able to sustain their own local population. In 1790, both HMS Sirius and HMAT Supply would carry people from Port Jackson to Norfolk Island in an attempt to lessen the demand on the dwindling supplies. Not knowing the reality of Norfolk’s own supply shortages, 275 people were sent to Norfolk Island – 116 male convicts, 67 female convicts, 27 children and 65 marines. The original plan involved the two ships offloading their passengers and associated cargo at Norfolk Island, before HMS Sirius sailed to Cathay to obtain supplies for the two settlements.
Due to bad weather on arrival at Norfolk Island, the two vessels originally off-loaded passengers and some provisions at Cascade, but with changing conditions, they were unable to finish and a few days later approached the settlement site of Sydney (today known as Kingston, or Daun’taun). Supply finished unloading, and Sirius commenced unloading. A change in weather conditions resulted in the ship struggling against the wind and tide, only to be pushed onto the exposed reef. In a panic to save the vessel, heavy items were thrown overboard and the masts cut down in the effort to lighten the ship, but to no success as the ship was stuck firm on the reef.
Remarkably, not a single loss of life is recorded from this disaster, and Kendell’s K1 Chronometer – a clock that was precise enough to determine longitude was also saved. However, many personal belongings and the supplies were lost, placing the young colony under martial law with quarter rations to be issued. It would take the ship two years to finally sink below the waves, taking with it many artefacts that would finally be recovered some 200 years later. The wrecking of HMS Sirius was therefore a catastrophe for the two fledgling settlements, not only in terms of supplies and the continued suffering of the early settlers, but also reputationally for the British government.
Recovery and Restoration
Four main archaeological expeditions were undertaken between 1983 and 1988, funded by a grant from the Bicentennial Authority. These archaeological investigations would bring to the surface more than 3000 items related to the ship, forming the HMS Sirius Collection, which is one of the most significant collections of First Fleet cultural heritage material in Australia and its Territories.
Due to the nature of conserving shipwreck material, several items were taken to the Western Australian Maritime Museum for treatment, before being returned to Norfolk Island.
For many years, the collection was installed in the former Protestant Chapel, which formed part of the Prisoners’ Barracks (known today as ‘the Compound’), before being moved to the Pier Store Museum in 2004, to allow the ‘Trial of the Fifteen’ play to be performed in the Chapel. Aware of the significance of the collection, and to provide for the most environmentally stable display conditions, a plan was developed to renovate the former Protestant Chapel and return it to a designated museum for the Sirius. This significant project was jointly funded through the Australian Government Your Community Heritage program and the Norfolk Island Government, with 95 per cent of its budget spent on local builders, suppliers and contractors who expertly delivered a fine new museum. The play was moved to the Ferny Lane Theatre in Burnt Pine, where it is currently performed every Wednesday.
Moving the 1.7 tonne anchor certainly presented many challenges, both with its size, weight and narrow openings in convict-built structures. To assist the local team, a Display Officer from the Museum of Tropical Queensland travelled to Norfolk Island.
After a lot of hard work preparing the Museum space, building display cases, creating a custom stock for the anchor and installing the replica of part of the hull, in 2013 the new HMS Sirius Museum was officially opened by then Administrator Neil Pope and Chief Minister Lisle Snell, with more than 70 locals and visitors in attendance. Opening a museum dedicated to the Sirius created a wonderful opportunity to tell the story of the First Fleet journey and celebrate Norfolk’s role in the earliest settlement of the Nation. It is a museum that many local Norfolk Islanders can be proud of because of their role in preparing the building, creating the displays and safely moving the artefacts so they can be enjoyed by for generations to come.
This dedicated museum to the flagship of the First Fleet was designed to be a place of contact, connection and meaning for the many thousands of descendants of those who sailed on the Sirius and the other 10 ships of the First Fleet. In one sense, the Sirius is Australia’s Mayflower and the artefacts from the wreck are the most tangible links we have to the very beginning of British settlement of Australia in 1788. The Museum has a unique display listing the individuals on the First Fleet, biographies and folders for descendants to sign.
Today, we highly recommend visiting the HMS Sirius Museum and exploring its incredible story and artefacts. The Museum also features a 20-minute film which showcases the ship’s story and how many of the objects were recovered from the sea floor.
The Museum is open Monday to Saturday from 11am to 3pm. To learn more about this story, join the tag-a-long Tour every Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday for a guided tour (free with the Combined Museum Pass, available from all Museum venues, Visitor Information Centre, Pinetree Tours and Baunti Tours).
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 06 Issue 02, 2023. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.