The South Australian Maritime Museum preserves the oldest nautical collection in Australia. In 1872 the Port Adelaide Institute began a museum collection to complement its library and its educational and social programs. That collection grew over the following century reflecting the seafarers and the ships that visited Port Adelaide. It is now held in trust at the South Australian Maritime Museum.

The Maritime Museum’s collections ranges from the Port Adelaide Lighthouse that was first lit in 1869 to a plaque that explorer Matthew Flinders left at Memory Cove in 1802 to mark the loss of eight seafarers. It includes figureheads, nautical instruments, bathing costumes, shipwreck artefacts, paintings, models and vessels.

Our scope is the maritime heritage of South Australia from the coast to inland waters. The collection of over almost 20,000 objects and over 20,000 images is at once a window to the heritage of the local community and to the ships of the world.

Ville de Bordeaux

Figurehead of the French trader Ville de Bordeaux.

Soon after its arrival at Holdfast Bay in February 1841, former whaler and French trader Ville de Bordeaux was approached by Customs officers for suspicious behaviour and possible violation of the Registry and Navigation Acts. After a heated confrontation with the Customs department, the vessel was claimed forfeit to the Crown.

On 14 February Ville de Bordeaux slipped out of Holdfast Bay with a South Australian customs official still on board. The paddle-steamer Courier gave chase, carrying Robert Torrens, South Australia�s Collector of Customs, Port Adelaide Harbourmaster, Captain Thomas Lipson and a local police contingent. Local press reported PS Courier could not keep up steam and the police men were forced to 'walk the paddles' to keep the vessel moving.

On 18 February a repentant Ville de Bordeaux sailed to Port Adelaide to return its hostage. Here the ship was formally seized by the Crown and condemned. Two court cases ensued and in November the ship�s owner was formally charged with undertaking trade between British possessions as a foreign vessel. Stranded following seizure, the vessel was used as a stores hulk and then moored at the entrance to the harbour as South Australia's second lightship.

Honorary Curator of the Port Adelaide Nautical Museum, Vernon Smith, discovered the figurehead on the basement floor of the National Gallery. They had no intention in displaying the figurehead and an exchange was arranged between the two institutions.

Caption: Figurehead , NORMA

AccessionNo: HT 1994.1009

Depth: 300 mm

Width: 660 mm

Height: 1700 mm

Material: Wood

Date Created: 1893

Physical Description:
Figurehead from the barque Norma, wrecked off Semaphore (Wonga Shoal) in 1907. The figurehead depicts its namesake - 'Norma' a druid priestess from Welsh mythology. Norma's figurehead is clad in a white flowing robe and clutches a flaming torch in its right hand. It is missing its head.

Figureheads, carved wooden sculptures which ornamented the bow of a sailing ship, embodied the 'soul' of the vessel and were believed to offer the crew protection and safe passage on the seas. They were also used to identify a ship, reflecting its function or paying tribute to a person connected with the vessel. The South Australian Maritime Museum has a collection of seventeen ship’s figureheads - the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. The figureheads were sourced and acquired by Vernon Smith, the Honorary Curator of the Port Adelaide Nautical Museum (from which the current museum evolved) over a period of fifty years. He thoroughly documented his search and as result, most of the figureheads are well provenanced with a recorded chain of ownership. The headless figurehead from Norma is a powerful reminder of the perils of shipping even in waters close to Port Adelaide. Norma and subsequently Jessie Darling sank as a result of freak accidents.

‘Norma’ was a four-masted barque of 2122 tons, built by Barclay, Curle & Company, Glasgow in 1893, which traded between Australia and the United Kingdom. On 21 April 1907, loaded with 31,045 bags of wheat, Norma anchored off Semaphore waiting for favourable winds. That morning, the barque ‘Ardencraig’, misjudging distances through the pelting rain, struck the Norma midships and sank it within fifteen minutes. All Norma’s crew escaped, except the ship’s carpenter who was missed in the chaos. Later that morning, the steamer ‘Jessie Darling’ misread the signals from the Ardencraig and steamed to its assistance. The shallow wreck of the Norma ripped a gaping hole in its hull and it too sank within eight minutes, settling on top of the Norma. The crew was saved and the vessel was subsequently repaired and re-floated within the next twelve months. Acknowledging the dangers posed by the wreck, authorities dynamited the site. It is not known whether the figurehead lost its head in the series of collisions or as a result of the detonation. Norma’s figurehead was discovered in the mangrove swamps of the Ships' Graveyard at Gawler Point and donated to the Port Adelaide Nautical Museum collection. Established in 1872, it is the oldest maritime collection in Australia and represents the Port Adelaide community, businesses and seafarers - some returning home from abroad and others passing through. Formerly located in the museum of the Port Adelaide Institute, established 1851, it was a part of the 19th century movement for self-education that led to the establishment of public libraries, schools and museums. The collection is now held by the South Australian Maritime Museum.