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Archives In Brief 56 - Shipwrecks

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A brief overview of the major sources held by State Records that relate to shipwrecks.

Introduction | Major sources of records | Further reading


Until the early twentieth century a journey to NSW involved a sea voyage. Travellers boarding a ship often faced the perils of fire, disease and shipwreck, and the Australian coast is littered with the wrecks of many ships that failed to safely reach their destination.

Major sources of records

Colonial Secretary's records | Marine Board | Court of Marine Inquiry | Navigation Department | Maritime Services BoardCourt Reporting Office | Judiciary | Vice Admiralty Court | Colonial Architect

Colonial Secretary's records

The main series of correspondence and the list of Special Bundles should be consulted for information relating to or concerning shipwrecks in NSW. Check indexes to the Colonial Secretary's correspondence under the name of the vessel. See Archives Investigator, and the Guide to the Colonial Secretary's correspondence. See also Archives in Brief 64, Archives in Brief 65, and Archives in Brief 104 (PDF).

Examples from the Colonial Secretary

NRS 906, Special bundles, 1826-1982
* Wreck of the brig 'Stirling Castle' and 'Mrs Eliza Fraser', 1836 [SZ976]
* Wreck of 'Lyee Moon', 1886 [4/871.1]

Marine Board

The Marine Board was established on 2 April 1872 under the Navigation Act of 1871. The Marine Board held inquiries into shipping casualties in all cases where a port of the State was the first entered after the occurrence or when survivors landed in New South Wales.

Reports of investigations by the Board are printed in the Votes and Proceedings of the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales. A return showing the time occupied by each of the Inquiries held by the Marine Board during the five years, 1892-96, listing date, casualty (ship and reason), time occupied and remarks is also available in Votes and Proceedings [1897 vol.7 p.487 Return No.17].

Researchers should consult Archives Investigator for records of the Marine Board.

Of particular note are:

NRS 9798, Reports and decisions of inquiries, 1879-95

NRS 9799, Report to the Legislative Assembly re inquiries held by the Board, 17 June 1880

NRS 9819, Record of investigations held by the Local Marine Board at Newcastle, 1873-99 [Reel 4042]

NRS 9818, Local Marine Board Newcastle, copies of minutes and reports of Marine Board inquiries, 1875-99

Court of Marine Inquiry

In 1900 the Marine Board was abolished and its judicial and administrative functions were separated. The Court of Marine Inquiry took over the judicial functions of the Board. The Court has power to make inquiries into shipwrecks and other casualties affecting ships and into charges of incompetency or misconduct on the part of the masters, mates or engineers of ships, either in the case of British ships on or near the coast of New South Wales, or on a ship registered in New South Wales. Records of the court are listed in Archives Investigator under Agency No. 515.

Navigation Department

The Navigation Department inherited the administrative functions of the Marine Board. Records of the Department that may be useful in researching shipwrecks include Register of investigations by the Court of Marine Inquiry, 1900-29 and Decisions of the Court of Marine Inquiry, 1900-34. Descriptions of these sources are available in Archives Investigator. Researchers may also wish to consult Navigation Department Special bundles, 1870-1924, full lists of which are available in the reading room.

Maritime Services Board

The Maritime Services Board was established in 1936 and combined the functions of the Navigation Department and the Sydney Harbour Trust.

Researchers should consult NRS 9851, Papers relating to inquiries conducted by the Marine Board of NSW and the Court of Marine Inquiry, 1872-1989.

An index to the papers covering 1872-1962 is available in the reading room at COD 400. Maritime Services Board special bundles may also contain reference to shipwrecks. A full list of titles is available in the reading room.

A series of glass negatives from the Maritime Services Board has been digitised and is available on Photo Investigator
The images record the construction of wharves and adjoining facilities in Sydney Harbour, as well as housing and buildings in the Harbour area, including many of the warehouses. Also included are images of the many different types of ships and vessels which operated on the Harbour. Although these images do not relate specifically to shipwrecks, they may still be of interest.

Court Reporting Office

Transcripts of evidence are typed verbatim accounts of cases heard, including the evidence of witnesses. State Records holds transcripts of cases heard in the Court of Marine Inquiry. They only include cases that had a court reporting officer in attendance. Transcripts may be arranged annually or by the name of the judge.


Judges notebooks are listed in Archives Investigator by the name of the judge.

State Records holds notebooks for Judges presiding over hearings in the Court of Marine Inquiry and the Vice Admiralty Court. Researchers should consult Archives Investigator. Tip: use Advanced Search - Person.

Vice Admiralty Court

The Vice Admiralty Court had jurisdiction over commercial disputes involving ships, collisions and salvage. Surviving case papers of the Court, 1826-1911 are described in Archives Investigator, under Agency No. 1048, Vice Admiralty Courts.

Colonial Architect

State Records holds papers relating to the Dunbar and Catherine Adamson Memorial, 1857-57. These papers include a list of passengers. Copies of the papers are available in the reading room at COD 393.

Further reading

  • Historical Records of Australia
  • Historical Records of New South Wales
  • Charles Bateson's Australian Shipwrecks
  • Jack Loney's various publications on Australian shipwrecks

Other records may be identified in Archives Investigator, and the Guide to shipping and free passenger records (Shipping Guide) which is available for use in the reading room. KeyName Search and the Guide to shipping and free passenger records (Shipping Guide) which is available for use in the reading room.

Researchers should consult the Register of Access Directions to confirm the public availability of records. State Records' staff can advise you on the availability of records if they are not listed on the register.

© State of New South Wales through the State Records Authority, 2003. This work may be freely reproduced and distributed for most purposes, however some restrictions apply. See our copyright notice or contact us.