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January 2012 Meeting Report

Tony Moss on A Ship for the Australian Gold Rush

The ship was The Sussex, built for the Wigram and Green shipyard at Blackwall, exactly on the opposite side of the Thames from where the O2 dome now is. The centre piece of the talk was a magnificent scale model which Tony Moss (a member of the SVHS) and his father had lovingly restored from a bomb-salvaged 4 foot hull, given to his father by a Captain Midgely some years after WW2.

At the time of acquiring the model nothing much was known about the ship which was the subject for the model, but Tony was determined to find out. He was able to piece together most of the information about the vessel from visits to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. From the pictures of various Blackwall Frigates and noting the dimensions, Tony was able to establish that the ship was The Sussex, built specifically for the Australian gold rush passenger trade from the 1850s. The Sussex was a three-masted 860 ton vessel with a length of 172 feet and 32 feet wide. The model is 1/48 scale.

After making yearly voyages to Melbourne, the last one taking 89 days, on New Year's Eve 1871 The Sussex came to a tragic end. This was due to a fatal navigational error by the captain, John Collard, and the ship struck a reef near Melbourne. This appeared to have been as a result of confusion, with a bright light shining from the coast and wrongly identifying the correct light from Cape Schanck. A number of crewmen were drowned but fortunately all the passengers were rescued. Attempts to refloat the ship failed and resulted in the vessel breaking up.

One of the complicating factors in the restoration of the model was correct identification of the numerous types of ropes from the three masts. This was aided by referring to the excellent paintings and photographs of some of these handsome vessels and many good books on the subject. Some parts of the rigging had rather evocative names like “dead eyes”.

There was a welcome appearance by Rev Bruce Waldron from the Sawston Free Church who, coming from near Melbourne, was able to answer numerous questions relating to the Australian Gold Rush. Apparently, unwary walkers are still liable to fall down one of many surviving mines at Ballarat, near Melbourne.

At the end of this entertaining talk we had the opportunity to admire the superbly restored scale model of The Sussex.

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