New exhibition at Flagstaff Hill acknowledges “everyday victims” of shipwreck disaster

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Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village volunteers have spent 12 years working on a project to commemorate the 224 lives lost in an 1835 shipwreck.

The exhibition features bonnets, socks, beanies and waistcoats – all of which were handmade by the volunteers – with one item of clothing representing each victim of the wreck of the Neva.

The Neva was transporting Irish convict women and children on the way to Sydney and was wrecked off King Island between Victoria and Tasmania.

Only 15 people survived: nine crew members and six convict women.

Flagstaff Hill volunteer Pat Zaunbrecher suggested the idea for the exhibition to her fellow volunteers over a decade ago, and has been working away with her colleagues ever since.

“I read about the Neva and thought that it was so tragic,” she said.

“These women went through their trial, this horrendous journey that they would have been terrified on, then lost their lives in such a sad way.

“People have convict ancestors and they think “wow that’s so good” but they don’t understand what it would have meant for that person, what they went through.”

She said that the volunteers decided to make one item of clothing for each victim to help get across the scale of the disaster, as well as to remind everyone that these were ordinary people.

“With the items we chose to make, they’re such personal items. They’re everyday items and they were everyday people,” Ms Zaunbrecher said.

“That journey coming here was a great leveller. They were literally all in the same boat.”

This is the first temporary exhibition at Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village under the stewardship of newly appointed Curator Justin Croft.

Mr Croft said that the Neva is one of the worst disasters in Australian maritime history, but the story isn’t very well known.

“We wanted to introduce temporary exhibitions to help bring some more stories to people’s attention and activate the spaces here in different ways,” he said.

“There are human stories with every shipwreck that are fascinating, but sad at the same time.

“Because it went down so quickly and the area is so treacherous, there hasn’t been any diving to search for the wreck. So if it’s under the sea, it’s still sitting there.”

He said that there was one small positive to come from the disaster, with Margaret Drury, one of the convict survivors, marrying Peter Robinson, a crew member.

“These two survived the shipwreck, and there have been generations who have come after them, some who might know about this story, and some who wouldn’t.”

The exhibition officially opens on May 13 – exactly 187 years after the fateful shipwreck – and runs until July 12.

Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village is home to Australia’s richest collection of shipwreck artefacts and has an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars based on over 900 reviews on popular tourism website TripAdvisor.