“Searching for the St Michael” Sunken Hulk at Morpeth 1841

“Searching for the St Michael“.

“Town of Morpeth formerly called Illulaung, 1834” (Courtesy of the State Library of NSW)


St Michael’s Hulk (1834)


Town of Morpeth formerly called Illulaung (1834) Overlay 2013 showing the location of the moored St Michael as it stood in 1834 (Thanks to the late Russell Rigby)
The St Michael was a hulk, later converted to a store-ship, that sank at Morpeth, New South Wales in 1841. She arrived in Sydney from Calcutta on the 30 October 1820, with Master Henry Marsh.

“This Ship rigged vessel was engaged on the Sydney run from Maitland in the early 1820s, carrying livestock and goods. Originally registered in Bordeaux, this 170 ton vessel, was armed with 8 guns and a crew of 30 when it was purchased by Capt John Beveridge, the vessel was used in the South Sea Island trade. In 1826, the vessel was used to transport prisoners to Newcastle (Stephen Berry Research Collection).

The vessel was converted to a storeship from in 1826 when it was purchased by John Cobb. The vessel was used as the supply depot for convicts cutting cedar, their soldier guards and bush constables. The vessel was increasingly used as the settlement developed, and a road was cut from Maitland to the Storeship by convicts (Stephen Berry Research Collection).

The St Michael was moored off Morpeth when she sank a few days before 23 November 1841 (Sydney Gazette, 23 November 1841). The ship was moored off Taggarts Point, on the opposite bank of the river.

The vessel was sold by John Wiseman to a speculator who planned to raise the vessel (Maitland Mercury, 2 March 1844) and use it in the coal trade, but the vessel was still in situ in 1844 (Stephen Berry Research Collection).

The vessel was reported in 1857 to lie alongside where the coal shoots were. Although attempts were made to break up the hull, only partial attempts were made, and she remained in situ until at least 1853, when a vessel loaded with coal sunk alongside (around 1853-4) – (Maitland Mercury, 9 July 1857:4).

The vessel lay on the riverbed sandbank after it turned turtle and It was reportedly later towed to the other side of the river where it covered in sand. Local researchers (Stephen Berry pers comms 2014) have identified that the vessel supposedly lies at a location known as McTaggarts Reef (sandbar).”

Heather Berry, member of the Morpeth Heritage Conservation Group; a team of amateur experts and Morpeth locals, under the guidance of Dr Brad Duncan, a Marine Archaeologist based in Sydney with the N.S.W. Heritage Office, have been searching for the remains of the St Michael through evaluation of available relevant literature within a surprisingly broad range of sources and field studies about the river, past and present.
In 2019 Dr Duncan, along with two fellow archaeologists, carried out a sonar search of the river floor. Unfortunately, this search did not produce any positive results.
The Team have continued to obtain as much information as possible to narrow down a serious search.

Heather is of the opinion the ship’s remains could perhaps now be under flood deposited silt on the river’s northern shore or bank approximately opposite where the 1834 map overlay (using an 1834 map of Morpeth) identified the moored vessel.

There are several early newspaper reports giving the general location of where the St Michael lies but these are proving difficult to narrow down to a definite site.

Heather now seeks discussion with a local skilled party, perhaps even within the University, with suitable equipment to conduct an archaeological examination of readily accessible river bank areas, adjacent the river to test her theory.  Maybe it might even appeal as a student study.

If so, Heather would like to meet such a party in Morpeth, explain her knowledge of the area, and introduce the site. If there is a suitable and capable party sufficiently enthusiastic to proceed Heather is personally willing to contribute financially towards a professionally conducted site survey.

A copy of the Morpeth Heritage Conservation Group’s research summary used to try and pinpoint the location of the St Michael has been provided:
“It could be in the river or under the land due to a change in the course of the Hunter river. Thanks for your interest to what we consider a very exciting project.”



  • The St Michael was a seagoing ship – origin unknown, possibly Bordeaux, France.
  • Calcutta 1818, then New South Wales.
  • Robson suggests:

 “she was originally a square-rigged merchant vessel which is unusual for her tonnage. It indicates foreign construction – similar to a French frigate, she might have had a figurehead at her bow”.

Approx. Dimensions

  • Length 77ft – Main Deck  19 x 22ft with crane complete. A retail store adjoining, sitting rooms opposite, bedrooms above and below.
  • Width 24ft – Loft capable of holding 20 tons.
  • Weight 171 tons – Hold for 200 tons.
  • Drawing 6-7ft – Lazaret
  • Keel to Gunwale  – 9ft


History from 1826 in New South Wales

  • 1826 Arrived Newcastle,
  • 1828 Moved to Morpeth, moored west of Tank St and used as a wharf and store.
  • 1831 Sophia Jane paddle steamer Sydney to Morpeth run. 126ft long  6ft draft.
  • 1832 Mar 23 The Australian: “William IV will discharge goods at Mr Walkers Store, on Mr Close’s land at Green Hills. Captain Taggart.”
  • 1833 Map – George Boyle White river depth survey which was requested by the Government to assess the capability of Hunter river at Morpeth to accommodate a Government Wharf and allow ships to turn in the river. St Michael shown at Rapseys wharf east of Tank St. (Ref: Govt correspondence dated 2 July 1833.)
  • 1834 Queens Wharf constructed.
  • 1834  N.S.W. Govt. Gazette: Morpeth Punt in operation
  • 1840 The Hunter River Steam Navigation Company began operating its new ships (Rose, Shamrock and Thistle) from a wharf east of Robert St.
  • 1841 Dec 11 Hunter River Gazette:  A sheer Hulk – “The St Michael, an old vessel of large calibre, stationed in the river at Morpeth as a store ship, has been allowed, by some mismanagement, to capsize, and will, we are afraid become useless as from her position and bulk, it is feared she cannot be righted, excepting by the expenditure of a large sum of money. To be sold at Morpeth by Mr Cornelious on 27 Instant.”
  • 1844 Mar 2 Maitland Mercury:

“We have often felt much surprise at the apathy of the proper authorities with regard to the wreck of the St Michael store ship, sunk 2 or 3 years ago off Taggart’s Point, on the opposite bank of the river.

It is some 2 years since she was sold by Mr John Wiseman to a gentleman of reputed considerable nautical and mechanical skill, who asserted that she would be afloat in a few days, and be engaged in the coal trade between this port and  Newcastle, but, alas: The best laid schemes….  So with our unfortunate speculator – but however, such obstructions ought to be at once removed. Correspondent.”

  • 1844 Map GB White – Hunter River survey of depths and obstructions from Newcastle to Maitland. The survey for this map was likely carried out in 1833.
  • 1844 Public Meeting in Maitland to organise a petition to the Government asking for the Hunter river to be dredged as ships running aground. No mention of the St Michael being an obstruction
  • 1857 9 July MM John Gilfillan of Narrowgut wrote: (There was The Great Flood in August 1857 which occurred just after this letter appeared in the newspaper).
    • SAND BANKS …and another sand bank is formed at Morpeth, of which I have seen no notice taken – I allude to the sandbank at the point opposite Mr Jacques’s upper wharf, and I beg to give you and the public at large my opinion how such a sandbank has formed at that particular spot (which now causes the steamers to ground in turning round). Well, gentlemen, I remember about 16 or 17 years ago, of an old store ship called the St Michael; it was moored alongside of where the coal shoots are now, and used as a store; it required something done to it, and was taken over to the other side, and was not properly secured when there, she was found the following morning canted over, with her deck to the deep water: she gradually settled down, and there her hulk remains, although it was attempted to break her up, and a number of planks and bolts taken from her. Yet her hull was still unbroken; and 3 or 4 years ago there was a craft loaded with coal sank close alongside of the old St Michael, and never any attempt made to raise her. Now I think I can account for the sandbank accumulating at the back of the two vessels – for I have seen something of the kind (but on a much smaller scale) when at the gold fields, both here and in Victoria…. Such I think is the way by which this sand-bank has accumulated at the old Company’s wharf. I fear unless something is done (and that soon) to remove the sand by dredging at the wharf, the evil will constantly increase.”
  • Circa 2000? Newcastle Herald: Harry Boyle – Maitland Historian In 1841 she broke form her moorings, drifted across the river and foundered in deep water. She lay there for 17 years, her hull intact, until the great 1857 flood when 2 metres of sand piled up against her and started the sand bar that has built up over 140 years to early close the river off today. Morpeth has the relic of a remarkable ship lying in the bed of the river.
  • 2005 The Herald – Mike Scanlon Article: Robson, who claims to have carried out extensive research, concludes:

“I think she may have been top heavy and just toppled over in the river. There would have then only been stumps of her 3 masts, one being used as a derrick to unload cargo.

Old river charts once showed an inlet in the high river bank. This has now been completely filled in, possibly around the remains of St Michael.

The Hunter river there has been dredged above and below the likely wreck site and I can’t find any reference to either ship having been removed, so it seem likely the St Michael is still lying there.

Old time farmers say successive floods over 200 years, and especially the major 1955 flood, have deposited at least 7 meters of silt on the floodplain.”

Robson’s suggested location of the hulk:

“I think she is still there, embedded, but back from the river bank at Phoenix Park across the water from Morpeth Township.

I think she is buried in the paddock now, on private land, as far back as the fence posts (maybe 8 metres) from the Hunter River.”

Other Variables to be taken into account  locating the site:

  • Location of river banks in 1841 – Might have been influential very soon after the St Michael foundered, before she sank far into the mud. Not likely to have been of importance since then. Floods might have shifted the wreck a bit, though, and if they did it would presumably be by pushing it a little way downstream and across toward the right (Morpeth) bank.
  • Depth of river in 1841 – 1833 river depth surveys by GB White. If the ship canted towards the centre of the river that is the deepest point on the curve of the river – 29ft 1833. After settling down the ship would have presented little obstruction to small vessels sailing to Port Maitland.
  • Tides – 1833 river survey indicates tide at Morpeth 4’3” to 3’3”.
  • Time taken to settle in the river – Gerald Nanson suggests the ‘settling’ would have taken only a year or two, after which it is hard to see what forces of nature could have moved it.
  • Change of the Course of the Hunter River at this location – Knowledge that the river channel moved east, probably in 1952 as a result of a large flood that truncated Taggarts Point and smoothed a previously quite sharp bend as the river comes in to Morpeth. The change means that there has been much (a few tens of metres) accretion on the former right (Morpeth side) bank (now Crown land), and some of our guesses have the wreck under that material.
  • River flows around the site.
  • Copper Sheathing – If the ship had been copper sheathed the remains of the sheathing could help find location.
  • Location of reed beds – Brad’s theory about sand build-up immediately upstream of wreck sites, leading to the formation of ‘land’ which might eventually be connected to the ‘mainland’ and become a favourable niche for reed bed development.

Heather Berry, on behalf of The Morpeth Heritage Conservation Group
5 October 2020

Anyone able to assist can contact archives@newcastle.edu.au And we will place them in contact with Heather and the Morpeth Heritage Conservation Group.

Gionni Di Gravio, OAM
University Archivist, Chair, Hunter Living Histories.

2 thoughts on ““Searching for the St Michael” Sunken Hulk at Morpeth 1841

  1. Another newspaper reference from February 1841 states the St. Michael’s main deck 19 feet by 22 feet with a crane, roofed in and fitted up as a dwelling house. It’s loft held 20 tons, an adjoining retail store, sitting rooms opposite main deck, bedrooms above and below deck, lazaret; storage for 200 tons of goods in the hold. Could be moved to any one on the Rivers. FP 13 Feb 1841

  2. last night attended a talk at Maitland historical society on the St Michael ship first time i new of its existence i am a 4th generation Morpeth resident would love the ship to be found is this something the time team television program could find with help of government grant

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