The Sydney Cove Collection

Queen Victoria Museum at Inveresk

The Sydney Cove left Calcutta, India, destined for the British Colony of Port Jackson, New South Wales, on 10 November 1796.

The merchant ship was loaded with Indian, Chinese and European goods, including an enormous amount of alcohol.

On this speculative voyage, Captain Hamilton and his English officers and Lascar (Indian) crew would steer the refitted vessel on a route through the Indian and Southern Oceans.

Wild seas and gale force winds caused the Sydney Cove to begin leaking badly. The vessel rounded the south coast of Tasmania (which was not known to be an island at the time), and headed north, but the ship was taking on even more water.

In February 1797, the captain was forced to run the ship aground off a tiny island in the Furneaux Group, a collection of islands off Tasmania's north-east coast, some 1,000 kilometres from the vessel's destination.

The crew salvaged as much of the cargo as they could, set up camp on the remote island, and a tale of survival began.

Once the camp was established on the tiny island, which would become known as Preservation Island, a party of 17 men left in a longboat to find help.

The group had intended to sail to Port Jackson, but high seas forced them to land at Ninety-mile beach in present-day Victoria and trek through hostile terrain. Seventeen sailors set out to make the formidable trek to Sydney, 700 kilometres north, to seek help. Four months later, only three of the party arrived at their destination. The rest had succumbed to starvation and the elements.

A rescue party of two vessels was dispatched and on 10 June 1797 the remaining crew and what cargo had been salvaged from the Sydney Cove, were collected.

Adding further to a shocking tale of misadventure, one of the vessels, The Eliza, was lost at sea. 

Images: courtesy of Mike Nash, Parks and Wildlife. 

Although noted on a map by explorer George Bass in 1804, the Sydney Cove lay largely undisturbed in the icy waters of Bass Strait until 1977, when a team of dive enthusiasts examined the wreck. In 1978, in collaboration with the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, QVMAG took possession of an anchor and canon raised from the site. 

Over the next 16 years, culminating in an excavation program over the summers of 1991-1994, QVMAG became the repository of all excavated material, including Chinese ceramics, Indian pottery, bottles, parts of the ship, such as the rudder and rigging, leather hides and footwear, and foodstuff items, such as animal bones, peppercorns and tobacco. Also recovered were luxury goods such as spices and Prussian blue dye.

Within the materials recovered from the Sydney Cove are what is believed to be some of the world’s oldest beer, wine and spirits recovered from a shipwreck. Thirty seven intact glass bottles, of which 22 were still sealed with contents, were brought up from the excavation site. In 1993, the contents of some was removed and samples sent to the Australian Wine Research Institute in South Australia for analysis to determine their identity and condition. Rudimentary analysis was completed and the Institute’s report identified the samples as red wine and beer. 

Years later in a collaborative effort, it was decided it was time to apply new science to samples and scientists began by examining the bottle contents under a microscope. 

QVMAG and the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) scientists managed to isolate and extract live yeast used to brew beer, allowing a taste not experienced for centuries.  

Find out more about the Sydney Cove at the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service

The collection

The Sydney Cove Collection is on display at the Museum at Inveresk and represents significant examples of all excavated material from the wreck.

This includes parts of the ship, material used on board by the officers and crew, and importantly, examples of most cargo carried on board.

This cargo includes pottery, Chinese porcelain dinnerware, salted meat, leather, leather shoes, spices, Prussian blue dye and other luxury goods and very large quantities of alcohol, such as rum and gin in bottles and barrels. Due to the way the alcohol was bottled, some original beer or wine has survived 220 years under the sea.

In addition to the material from the ship itself, the collection also includes material excavated from the survivors' camp on the island, including bricks, pottery and animal bones. 

While QVMAG keeps a collection of a large number of objects from the wreck, much of the ship, including hull timbers, cannons and parts of its remaining cargo, remain on the sea floor. 

The beer

The Sydney Cove's cargo included tea, rice and tobacco plus more than 30,000 litres of highly-prized alcohol. The icy waters of Bass Strait allowed yeast in these sealed bottles of beer to stay alive for far longer than any previously known yeast.

Following excavation of the wreck between 1977 and the 1990s, QVMAG obtained the ship's objects, including beer bottles for its collection, many of which are now on display at Inveresk.

Years later the contents in the bottles were re-examined and QVMAG worked with scientists at the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) to isolate the yeast. Using skills honed working with wine yeast, the AWRI identified its genetic make-up and found it was a rare hybrid strain which differs from modern ale strains. 

The yeast was then taken back to the laboratory where experimental brews were born and the journey to commercialise the product began. Completing the final piece of the puzzle, QVMAG partnered with James Squire to produce a special limited edition beer made from the 220 year-old yeast, aptly named 'The Wreck - Preservation Ale'.

Brewers at James Squire's Malt Shovel Brewery rose to the challenge of creating a beer from yeast that had a mind of its own. After some trial and error using modern brewing techniques to craft the centuries-old yeast, the team delivered a Porter-style beer with hints of blackcurrant and spices, giving it a rich and smooth taste. This was released in 2018.

In 2019, James Squire later produced a further brew, called 'Survivors' Ale', aged in rum barrels.