A recent housing development in a corner of Port Adelaide is the home to one of Adelaide's true hidden secrets - a shipwreck graveyard.
The attractive landscaping of a compact but pretty pocket park is only enjoyed by local residents - it does not appear on any map, nor is it located on any main road. But the park hides several shipwrecks which played a memorable part in South Australia's history.
A Hidden Interpretive Sign Overlooking the Ships' Graveyard
There are no signs or obvious indicators of the role this area took in Port Adelaide's past, but if you take a walk through unassuming undergrowth along barely marked paths, you will find a couple of interpretive signs to spill some of the secrets of Jervois Basin. Not only will you uncover the Jervois Basin Ships' Graveyard, but also part of the Port Adelaide Kaurna Cultural Heritage Trail which is at risk of being hidden by vegetation.
The Jervois Basin Ships' Graveyard is home to five named shipwrecks, but when a shipwreck was disposed of here there was seldom an intention to remember it. This corner of Port Adelaide was effectively a rubbish tip for South Australia's shipping industry, and attempts were made to eradicate any shipwreck left here.
PS Trafalgar The most visible shipwreck is that of the Paddle Steamer Trafalgar - built in 1877 at Echuca, which spent most of it's life plying the River Murray carrying both passengers and goods. On one journey it carried 208 prize Merino rams and a racehorse worth 800 guineas - a huge sum at the time. The PS Trafalgar measured 32.2m long, 5.8m wide and 2.4m deep. It was originally 228 gross tons, but when converted to a dumb barge in 1933 it dropped to 116 gross tons.
The Fitzjames - A Floating Boys' Reformatory From a darker period of South Australia's history, the shipwreck Fitzjames is also believed to have been disposed of at this place. Built in 1852 in Canada, it travelled to England before bringing migrants to Melbourne in 1854. In 1866 it was condemned as a hulk and in 1876 the South Australian Government bought it for use as a quarantine ship to be moored off Semaphore.
By 1880 the Fitzjames was being used by the Destitute Board as a floating reformatory for "uncontrollable" boys, although due to constant leaks the ship was not seaworthy - the bedding below decks was frequently wet due to the leaks, and constant pumping was necessary to keep the ship afloat.
Old Port Reach, Harts Mill and Hart Street Bridge are Nearby
Boys were given nautical training and schooling on the Fitzjames. They were under the control of a Superintendent, and made their own clothing and boots supervised by a tailor and a shoemaker. Only a small number of boys 'trained' on this ﬂoating reformatory actually went to sea. The majority were placed on farms after their release.
By 1891 the Magill Reformatory was built and the inmates of the Fitzjames moved. The Fitzjames was no longer required. It was towed up the Port River - beached and left to rot as a forgotten shipwreck.
The Trafalgar, Fish Market Pontoon, and the Alert Are Sometimes Visible
Depending upon the tides and time of day you may also be able to see the shipwreck of the 1872 wooden ketch Alert and a Fish Market Pontoon. I was not able to see them when I visited, and walking in the shallows is inadvisable due to deep mud. It is likely that the growth of vegetation is also obscuring the remains of these two ships.
The Boardwalk & Interpretive Sign Are Barely Visible
It was only after roaming through the shrubbery on the banks of the Port River that I discovered a boardwalk, bench and viewing platform hidden in the bushes - presumably they were intended for viewing the shipwrecks.
All that can now be seen are mangrove bushes. It seems that neither Port Adelaide Enfield Council nor Renewal SA have bothered to check the condition of this place for a long time since development.
Lip service was paid to the Kaurna people in naming of the roads nearby, but the cultural insights given by the Kaurna Cultural Heritage Trail weren't considered important enough to maintain. Perhaps they were funded by a Federal government program and the money is no longer available?
Passengers and Crew on the PS Trafalgar - River Murray 1908 (Image Courtesy of State Library of SA PRG280/1/4/438)
My great-great grandfather Duncan Morrison was a Captain on the "Alert" when she use to sail between Port Adelaide and Victor Harbour. Apparently a substantial part of her keel and centre-board casing is still visible....so when I am next in my home town of Adelaide (I now live in Kingaroy Queensland) I will definitely go visit this "hidden" spot. Thank you so much for your information and for the wonderful photos....
I really enjoyed this article Dave. Some fascinating history & interesting to read about the Trafalgar. I'm heading for Echuca soon the Cobb Highway & expect to see more shipwrecks (The Providence near Menindee I think) & old paddlesteamers. Love your insights & writings. Thanks for sharing.
It is ironic you have posted this. Yesterday I went to a talk ay the Adelaide Northern Districts Family history Group, by Robyn Ashworth on "The Garden Island Ships Graveyard". I had not heard of these before as I am not familiar with Port Adelaide. It was one of the most fascinating talks I have listened to for a very long time. She went into detail on the history of some of the ships journeys and life before being wrecked. We encouraged her to do some historic walks or kayaking tours for History Month next year. Robyn initiated and worked for the Government Department who recognised the historic nature of these areas in the Port.