Collision Sank The City of Launceston
By James Donahue
The two-year-old steam ship City of Launceston, Captain William Nelson Thom, was on the first phase of a trip from
Melbourne, Australia to Tasmanian ports when it was sunk in Port Phillip Bay after a collision with the incoming steamship
Penola on November 19, 1865.
The 368-ton steamer was no match for the larger, 500-ton Penola, which drove its bow into the starboard side of the
City of Launceston, flooding the hull. The collision occurred at 7:20 p.m., which was probably at dusk.
The Penola stood by, taking all 38 passengers and 24 crew members to its decks before the doomed steamer sank. The
vessel took with it a general cargo of brandy, port wine, rum, tea, cigars, boots, hats, drapery, glassware, sheep wash, lead
and 62 cases of English and Victorian mail.
The ship’s owners, the Launceston and Melbourne Steam Navigation Company, launched salvage efforts within two
days after the disaster. The English mail and a few other cases of merchandise were recovered by divers but most of the cargo
For months after this, salvagers launched a dramatic effort to recover the wreck, using techniques that were almost
unheard of in that time. The Melbourne newspaper Argus reported how a special lifting device, using chains, was being used
to attempt to lift the wreck from the bottom.
The story described the device as a canvas bag, apparently wrapped around the hull. The bag was in some way attached
to the chains that were pulled by three hundred weight iron cylinder. A mixture of sulphuric acid, zinc and water was in some
way used to produce hydrogen gas that filled the canvas bag, thus making it buoyant. Unfortunately the invention failed and
the City of Launceston continues to rest on the bottom of Port Phillip Bay to this day.
The wreck is today protected under Australia’s Historic Shipwrecks Act and is a favorite visitation site for
sport divers. It rests upright, still intact, in 21 meters of water. Maritime archaeological and conservation work has been
conducted on the wreck, and 473 artifacts have been recovered for public viewing.
The items recovered from the wreck include crockery found stacked inside the remains of a cupboard, a porcelain vanity
basin, chamber pots and chests filled with cargo including fabric and liquor.