Pearling lugger photogrammetry

by Kate C
Publish date
24 February 2012
Comments (9)

Curator Michael Gregg, of the Maritime History department of the Western Australian Museum in Fremantle, recently visited the Scienceworks collection store to take highly specialised photographs of a model ship in our Transport Collection.

Michael Gregg with the pearling lugger model Michael Gregg with the model of pearling lugger Mary.
Source: Museum Victoria

The model is an exact replica of the pearling lugger Mary that operated out of Broome and Darwin in the 1920s and 30s. It was commissioned and partly constructed by Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Ingleton RAN in the 1930s to document a uniquely Australian type of vessel that was rapidly disappearing.

In 1913, the pearling industry was worth a fortune to Western Australia in exports. As Michael puts it, "Australia didn't ride on sheep's back, it was on the pearl oyster's back." In one year alone, 300 new luggers were registered. "At one stage, the guy who built this boat was turning out a new lugger every 14 days."

Michael is interested in the model because it captures details of design and construction that have been lost with the demise of the pearling lugger. "There are no Fremantle-built pearling luggers still in existence in their original form," explains Michael. This is in part due to mechanisation; the original Mary was herself fitted with an engine by the 1930s. But more significant was the illegal rebuilding of luggers and recycling of registration numbers by unscrupulous operators. World War II took a toll on the lugger fleet also, as boats were requisitioned by the Navy or destroyed ahead of a feared Japanese invasion..

"There were all sorts of shenanigans that went on with the pearling industry," Michael says. "The best way to run the industry economically was to import Malay and Japanese labour. Come the early 1900s, the White Australia Policy meant you could bring in indentured seamen to work on ships for up to two years but they were only allowed to work as crew, not boatbuilders." Pearling masters got around this technicality by signing up imported labour as crew, but quietly issuing them boatbuilding tasks as 'maintenance'.

There were three distinct types of pearling lugger built to cope with the different conditions in Broome, the Torres Strait and Shark Bay. The nature of these vessels – rapidly built to a standard pattern and considered reasonably expendable – means they were rarely preserved in model form. It was only Ingleton's interest in recording history that inspired the construction of this model, and it's being used now exactly as Ingleton intended.

Detail of pearling lugger model Detail of the Mary model showing its beautifully detailed rigging and fittings.
Source: Museum Victoria

"We were just gobsmacked when we discovered this model because we thought we knew of all the significant lugger material in Australia," says Michael. "We regularly trawl the net looking for references to pearling luggers. Because there was sufficient information in your Collections Online and it's searchable, it popped up in Google." One of the most exciting prospects for the model, and the reason for Michael's visit, is that he's using it to help develop photogrammetric software and techniques that will conserve Australia's maritime technology.

Michael Gregg taking photos Michael Gregg at work taking photos of the pearling lugger model in the Scienceworks collection store, experimenting with a 3D camera.
Source: Museum Victoria

Photogrammetry uses a series of photos analysed by a computer to build a 3D virtual model of an object. According to Michael, it's commonly used by police to help reconstruct road crashes. "It's great for working out the distance between two points in space, but we're really pushing the boundaries of what it can do." While the process will be most useful in recording full-sized ships, the Mary model invites some experimentation; he was using a 3D camera see if it would help simplify the laborious process of matching target points between different photographs. "It's much easier to work on a full-sized boat because you can stick targets all over it and nobody minds. With a museum-quality model, we can't do that. This is the first time I've recorded rigging simultaneously, too."

Michael sees photogrammetry as an incredibly useful tool for museums and more. Ultimately he hopes the software and techniques he and his colleagues are developing can do something absolutely extraordinary: use historical photographs to create something you can hold in your hand. The craze for stereoscopic photographs around the turn of the century produced countless images of one view from two slightly different angles, and these might one day allow 3D recreations of long-gone ships, buildings, artefacts and more. "It's very, very exciting."


Western Australian Museum - Maritime

Pearl lugger Mary on Collections Online

Comments (9)

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Lucy 24 February, 2012 16:04
You need a "like" function on this blog! I always want to "like"... Great post!
Ian MacLeod 28 February, 2012 16:48
This is a simply brilliant story and Michael is a most talented curator
juliet 5 May, 2012 18:42
wondered if you can find the real name of a pearling lugger.she the called flavio now but cant find out her name before 1942
Kate C 9 May, 2012 14:01

Hi Juliet,

We don't have any information about your pearling lugger but you might try contacting the Western Australian Museum - Maritime. They have the local expertise on this topic. Good luck!

Natascha Wiegand 9 November, 2013 19:43
Hi :) I'm hunting for the type of wood used in the construction of the Torres Strait luggers, specifically The Melbidir. I'm guessing that the hull would have been constucted from Huon pine? And the decks from Beech or Huon. Have tried to find the info on the net but no joy. If you know off the top of your head ~ would love a reply. Thanks kindly, cheers Nat.
Discovery Centre 14 November, 2013 13:04
Hi Nat - I'm sorry to say that we can't guve you the answer to this, but we are confident the staff from the Maritime Museum should be able to help, you can contact them via the link in the article above.
Michael 28 August, 2014 23:48
Hi Nat, Which of the three MELBIDIRs are you interested in? MELBIDIR (1) was built in 1900, MELBIDIR II in 1928, and MELBIDIR III in 1942 (under the name GENERAL MacARTHUR). Different species of wood were used for different parts of the hulls, but what was used changed over time according to what was available, and the builder's preferences, hence the question. Huon pine was in fact rarely used in luggers as it was always an expensive "premium" timber, and these boats had a rough existence and weren't expected to have long working lives.
Mori Flapan 29 August, 2014 00:55
Hi Natascha There were two luggers that I am aware of called Melbidir, the first dating from 1900 built by Booth of Brisbane, the second built in 1928 by Norman Wright at Brisbane. Both were built for the Queensland Government. Contemporary reports for the earlier vessel described the construction as being NZ kauri planked on Australian hardwood frame. I suspect the deck would also have been kauri. I have never come across a reference that indicates huon pine to have been used in the building of pearling luggers.
Tony 1 September, 2014 12:02
Hi Nat I can't add much to the answers about the kinds of wood used in the construction of the three Queensland Government vessels named MELBIDIR. that Michael and Mori have already supplied. The only extra point I would make is that they weren't really luggers. The first MELBIDIR, rigged as a cutter I believe, was about the size of a large lugger but the second and third MELBIDIR's were a good bit larger than luggers and were really auxiliary ketches. They were official Queensland Government vessels, I don't know if they worked in the pearlshelling industry (as luggers) after they were retired from Government service. Cheers Tony
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