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From Lichfield to Australia 1883 - Part 1

In September 1883, a well-educated young man from Lichfield in Staffordshire embarked on a lengthy voyage that he would likely remember forever. He left England on the 'Sobraon' and sailed for a far away land of prosperity and hope - Australia.  I have transcribed the full account of his voyage, as printed by The Lichfield Mercury in two parts in March and April, 1884.

Given the length, I have split it into two posts, and a third post will examine the passenger lists of the Sobraon and the Gabo in an attempt to determine the identity of the mystery author.


The Lichfield Mercury

Friday, March 28, 1884

From England To Australia – The Experiences of a Former Resident of Lichfield

The diary kept by a young man, a former resident of Lichfield, who has gone out to Australia, has been handed to us.  Our correspondent made the voyage out in the ship "Sobraon", and the narrative appears to us of a very interesting character: -

Sunday, Sept. 23. – This was the first Sunday I ever spent on board ship, and one that I shall not readily forget.  After breakfast I went on deck and found we were passing Portland.  Several sails were in sight.  At eleven o’clock divine service was held in the principal saloon with sermon by one of the rev. passengers.  After dinner the wind got up; and in the evening we had quite a gale.  I went to bed quite early, but could not get much sleep owing to the rolling of the vessel.  Overhead I could hear the waves dashing over the decks.  Below things were very lively.  Passengers’ boxes were rolling about the cabins, water bottles and crockery smashing, and louder than all could be heard the groans and rumbling voices from most of the cabins around.  At length I succumbed to the all-powerful influence, and leaned my head over the side of my bunk and ---- I need not describe what took place.  Suffice to say that I felt considerably better after it.  At seven o’clock the rocking gradually ceased, and I found upon going upon deck that the sails had been taken in, and that we were in Plymouth harbour.  I learned afterwards that we passed the harbour at midnight, but the sea was too rough to go too near the coast, the pilot being compelled to stand out to sea and take us in the daylight.  I guess I don’t care about storms at sea.  With the exception of this gale, our run down the channel was a very pleasant one.

Tuesday, Sept. 25. – We left Plymouth harbour to-day at twelve o’clock, a tug towing us along.  Just before leaving one of the saloon passengers, left the ship under the doctor’s advice, who considered him too far advanced in consumption to undertake the voyage.  Two under stewards also left us.  They had quite sufficient sea sickness from London to Plymouth to last them for a while, and they begged to be excused from going to Australia.  Chicken-hearted “duffers”.  The two left us when opposite Eddystone Lighthouse, after which all sails were unfurled and we were fairly launched on the bosom of the mighty ocean.  We soon saw the last of dear old England, and many of us wondered when we should see those green fields, woods, and tall cliffs again.  In a short time we could see nothing but the rolling waves, and as we got further out the weather became quite rough, and we had a night of it.  Nearly everybody was sick.  I am glad to say, however, that my companion and I were not troubled with that same feeling, but slept soundly all night.

Thursday, Sept. 27. – Weather still rough.  Towards the evening we got into the Bay of Biscay, and the weather became something awful.  The vessel rolled from side to side and pitched and tossed, and the waves came over the sides, nearly drenching those who were well enough to be on deck, myself amongst the number.  During the night the boxes were moving about, small articles like brushes, combs, and soap were flying in every direction, children screaming, people groaning in their cabins, and other sounds suggestive of sickness could be heard in every direction.  Upon my word, I think it was the liveliest night I ever spent in my life.

Friday, Sept. 28. – Still in the Bay of Biscay and still rough.  I found dressing a difficult process to go through this morning, and washing next to impossible.  Very few of us turned up at the breakfast table.  Some of the passengers seem to feel it very much.  One of the saloon passengers offered to give the Captain £100 besides forfeiting his luggage and passage money if he would put him on dry land to-day, which, of course, was quite out of the question.  I don’t suppose any of us will put our feet on terra firma until we get to Melbourne.  At noon the first observation was made by the Captain, and it was found that we were 300 miles from Plymouth.

Saturday, Sept. 29. – As I lay in my bunk this morning, I could not help thinking how strange it was to hear the waves dashing against the side of the ship, and at the same time hear the crowing of the cocks, the cows bellowing, the sheep bleating, the dog barking, the cats (3) mewing and other home-like sounds.  We passed Cape Finisterre during the day.  We had it very rough in the night, when several sails were torn into shreds.  On Sunday afternoon we were on a line with Lisbon.

Monday, Oct. 1st. – We are now getting into a warmer climate and pleasanter weather.  The gray clouds and turbid sea of the Channel and the Bay of Biscay are replaced by a blue sky and bright blue waves.  Quoit playing on deck this afternoon for the first time.  The quoits are made by the sailors, and consist of circles of stout rope about 6in. in diameter.  Each player has two quoits and throws from a given distance at a ring with a dot in the centre chalked on the deck, which takes the place of the peg in the original game.  The quoit nearest the dot scores one, and if over the dot two.  A great point in the game as played on board ship is to attempt to drive an adversary’s quoit form an advantageous position.  It requires some little skill to allow properly for the force of the wind and the roll of the ship.  On a line with the Straits of Gibraltar in the afternoon.

Tuesday, Oct. 2. – We sighted Madeira in the afternoon.  From a distance the Island looks like a vast mountain.  On getting nearer we saw that the Island was built on solid rock, as far as we could judge, some 40 or 50 miles half round.  The effect was something grand and well worth seeing.  The ship was signalled from the top of the immense rock, and replied to by the first officer by means of flags.  Here and there were white houses, which looked very pretty in the sunshine.  By the aid of a good class we could make out several churches and a lot of brown buildings used for making and storing wine.  We were within four miles of the Island.

Wednesday, Oct. 3. – The sun feels very hot now.  My face is brown as a berry, and the skin on my forehead is cracked with the heat and inclined for peeling off.  I have now got thoroughly used to the motion of the vessel, and rather like it than otherwise.  Life is not so bad on ship board after all.  I have spent most of the day lying on my back on the deck reading and playing chess.

Friday, Oct.5. – At ten o’clock this morning we were alarmed by the awful cry of “Fire”.  In a moment all was confusion.  Sailors, officer, and passengers flung their coats, and looked as if they were ready for work.  Another moment and three pumps were at work.  The fire was in the hold amongst the cargo.  The officers, sailors, assisted by the passengers, worked for dear life, some getting the boxes, barrels and packages up from the hold, some working at the pumps (amongst them ….. and I) others carrying buckets of water, everybody doing something.  The fire fortunately was soon got under, but the general alarm did not subside for sometime, most of the passengers being upset by it.  It came out afterwards that it was part of the carpenter’s duty to go down the hold occasionally and see that everything was right.  On this occasion he had gone down with a naked candle instead of a guarded lantern.  Creeping amongst the boxes, he put the candle on top of a barrel, and knocking a box over, the barrel rolled away, the candle going amongst some straw and igniting it at once.  The man tried to smother it quietly, and got his hands and face burned severely in the attempt.  Part of the cargo was damaged.  Had it been a little more serious we should have had to take to the boats and watch here blaze away, for when once fire gets a thorough hold of a ship there is no saving her.

Saturday, Oct. 6. – Saw several shoals of flying fish during the morning.  There were hundreds of them together.  Several flew on board and soon ended their existence.  They seem to be about the size of a mackerel, which fish they resemble in colour.  Their fins are much larger than those of other fish of the same size.  It is interesting to watch them in the water.  The awnings have been put over the decks to-da to keep off the sun.  We are now in the tropics, and it is really very hot.  Broad-brimmed hat and light clothes are now quite fashionable.  In the afternoon we had a cricket match, between officers v. passengers.  The game was not finished owing to both bats (made by the ship’s carpenter) smashing.  Several balls were lost overboard.  The balls are made by the sailmaker, and supplied to the passengers at 4s. a dozen.  Much amusement was caused by the strange localities into which the balls were sent.

Monday, October 8. – Saw a lot of stormy petrels, or “Mother Carey’s chickens”, as they are called, this afternoon.  Two or three flew on deck later on, and of course got into the hands of the passengers.  They are pretty little birds, about the size of a swallow, with little delicate black feet, which are webbed like those of other aquatic birds.  Many of the passengers sleep on deck during this hot weather.  It looks somewhat romantic to go on deck late at night and see dark forms lying here and there with their rugs around them, and above one’s head hammocks continually on the swing with the motion of the vessel.

Tuesday, October 9. – In the morning saw several whales sporting themselves in the water.  A little later on our first officer, Mr. Young, caught a shark, by means of a bait of fat pork, and with the help of several of the passengers, pulled him on deck.  Mr. Shark did not appear to care about being taken and struggled a good deal.  One of the sailors gave him a few knocks on the head and cut off his tail – a blow from which would break a man’s leg – but it was sometime before he consented to die.  The fish was cut up and the heart taken out.  To the surprise of most people the heart continued to beat for several hours after being severed from the body.  It naturally caused quite a sensation on board.  When measured, the shark was found to be 7ft. long.

Thursday, October 11. – I witnessed at six o’clock this morning one of the most solemn and imposing sights to be seen at sea – a burial.  A passenger (a lady) died last night, and as is usual on shipboard, was buried as soon as possible after death.  The body was sewn up in canvas, and laid on a board covered with the Union Jack, with a similar flag over the body.  The Rev. Mr. Cooper read the burial service, and at the words “We commit this body to the deep” the board was raised, and the body – weighed with lead – slid into the sea.  Some fifty or sixty of the passengers and crew were there.  I don’t want to see another.

Monday, October 15. – Cricket match this afternoon between officers v. passengers, won by the latter.  After it was over various athletic sports were held, including singlestick and boxing.  I spent the evening and many other evenings, whilst in the tropics, in looking over the side of the ship at the phosphorescence of the sea.  It is a pretty sight, every ripple of the water producing vivid sparks, sometimes silver or pale blue, and at other times fiery red.  It appears that the phosphorescence is in every case due to the presence of organic matter, either living or dead.

Tuesday, October 16. – Saw a lot of porpoises sporting in the water.  These fish leap clean out of the water, and at a distance look as if they were playing at leap-frog.

Thursday, October 18. – A collection was made this afternoon for a festival which is to come off on Saturday called “Burying the dead horse”.  It appears that when sailors join an Australian vessel, they receive a month’s wages in advance, and they celebrate the end of that time by “burying the dead horse”.  With their advanced pay they are supposed to have bought a horse which died at the end of the month.  A dummy horse is made, the foundation consisting of an old barrel.  It is stuffed with straw – the shape of the horse pretty well defined – and neatly covered with canvas.  After painting the nostrils red and the feet black, and fixing a flowing mane and tail of spun yarn, finely corded, a hole is cut in the back of the horse in the usual place of the saddle.  This horse is put up by auction, and anyone is allowed to bid until it reaches the amount collected, when it is knocked down.  I learned in the evening that £15 10s. had been collected.  This amount was put into the Captain’s hands, and will be distributed amongst the sailors at the end of the voyage.

Saturday, October 20. – In the evening I witnessed the curious custom called “burying the dead horse”.  At eight o’clock all the passengers and officers were assembled on the quarter-deck.  Presently we heard a dismal chant proceeding from the forecastle, consisting of a solo and chorus, one of the refrains being “poor old horse”.  Gradually the sounds drew nearer, and a procession was revealed, headed by half-a-dozen mock policemen, armed with staves, with which they dealt resounding blows on any spectator who blocked up the way; a groom attired in a red jersey, white breeches, cap and top boots, leading the horse, a splendidly got up animal, but by no means a dead one, to judge by his prancing legs, ridden by a jockey dressed in white tights and red cap, whose body fitted through the hole cut in the animal.  A number of other characters then appeared, including the auctioneer and auctioneer’s clerk, the latter superbly got up in a black suit, white tie, collar half-way up his face, and a silk hat.  The procession went slowly round the deck, singing a ditty about the animal.  The auctioneer then mounted a barrel on the quarter deck, and made a most eloquent and amusing harangue about the good qualities of the horse, and the famous races it had won.  The bidding commenced at £5, bid up to £6 by Charlie Bradlaugh, £6 10s. by the Grand Old Man, and finally knocked down to Ally Sloper for the £15.  After this the procession again went round the deck, and came to a stop near the mainmast.  A solemn chant was then sung, and the jockey fastened himself into a seat at the end of a rope, which was attached also to the horse.  A blue light was then fired, which lit up the whole ship, and gave a wild and weird appearance to the scene.  The man and horse were then hoisted up the yard end.  At the last line of the chant the jockey cut the rope, and the “poor old horse” fell with a great splash into the sea.  The jockey came down the rigging, and was soon on deck.  Three cheers were given by the sailors for the captain, three for the officers, three for the passengers, and three more for the “poor old horse”.  I enjoyed the affair immensely.  Everything went off well.

Thursday, Oct 25. – Amongst the second class passengers is an old soldier.  The past two or three days he has been arranging a Volunteer Corps.  Twenty promised to join, myself amongst the number, and we had our first drill this morning.  He put us through a lot of exercises, some of which were amusing owing to the rolling of the vessel.  For instance he shouted “attention”.  The vessel gave a lurch at the moment, and the ranks were immediately broken, one of the fellows rolling over a coil of rope amidst shouts of laughter.  We are to have two drills a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and are to be called together by a bugle, belonging to a little fellow, who plays it very well.  These drills will be of great service, as most people on board ship are apt to sit and lie about too much.  Passed Ascension Island in the morning.

Friday, Oct. 26. – Passed an American vessel in the afternoon, named “Sal Thacker”, bound for St. John’s which we signalled in the usual way, by code.  The order of signalling is as follows: – First the ensign is hoisted, usually the smaller vessel takes the initiative.  This means “I belong to such a nation, what is your nationality?”  The next proceeding is for the first ship to hoist her “number”, that is a combination of flags that signifies her name.  Every Captain is furnished with a list in which the combination which constitutes each ship’s number is placed opposite her name together with her tonnage and other particulars.  When the number has been responded to by the answering ship, the first ship hoists a combination of flags which stands for the port to which she is bound, then the number of days out.  After this flags are hoisted which signify “All well on board”, if such is the case.  Finally the ensign is dipped three times as a parting salute, signifying “We wish you a pleasant voyage”.  All this of course is carried on with both ships in motion, perhaps 5 or 6 miles away.

Wednesday, Oct. 31st. – During a long sojourn on board ship one naturally becomes interested in everything connected with her.  Her rate of sailing, her demensions (sic), the height of her masts, the number and size of the sails, all become objects of interest.  The “Sobraon” is a “composite” ship, that is, she is built of solid teak, with iron beams and framework.  She is 2,130 tons register, 3,500 tons burthern.  Her length is 300ft, breadth 40ft, depth of hold, 28ft.  The height of the mainmast, which in common with the other masts is of wrought iron, is 189ft.  The mainsail weighs upwards of a ton, and the cost of a new one is nearly £100.  Altogether there are 7,056 yards of canvas, or nearly two acres.  The poop is 18ft long, and contains the officer’s cabins.  Near this is the handsome staircase leading to the saloon.  The principal saloon is nearly 80ft in length, panelled in polished teak and maple.  It will dine 60 people comfortably, presided over by the Captain.  There is also a prettily decorated ladies’ saloon, near the stern of the ship.  Also a forward saloon, which was made originally for second class passengers (at that time they carried third class passengers, now they go in for first and second only).  It is not so nicely decorated as the principal saloon on this account.  About 20 dine here, presided over by the first officer, and it is known as the “bachelor’s quarters”.  The second class quarters (built for third class passengers) are more forward still.  The cabins are very small, mine being 4ft by 6ft 3in., and having to accommodate two of us.  At the forward end of the principal saloon is the pantry, also the bar, with the head steward’s cabin immediately alongside.  The gallery or cooking house is on the foredeck, and is very small.  It is really marvellous how all the various dishes are cooked in such a small space and so short a time.  A ton of coals is used here every week.  The engine house is next aft to the gallery, in which is a condenser, worked by a small donkey engine of 4-horse power, the boiler being 12-horse power, and consumes on average 3 tons of coal per week.  The quantity of sea water distilled by the condenser per day is 700 gallons.  The water is distributed as follows: – 100 gallons a day to the saloon passengers, of which 30 gallons go to the filter for drinking, the remaining 70 the cabins (2 gallons allowed to each); 40 gallons to the second class passengers; 30 gallons to the crew; 150 gallons into the gallery for cooking purposes; 130 gallons to the livestock, which of course, as killed off, reduces the quantity of water required for them, so that latterly the engine was run only four days a week, condensing 2,450 gallons of water per week.  The solid matter which is left after the after has been distilled is thrown away, for besides common salt, it contains various other salts, notably Epsom salts, so that it could not be sued for domestic purposes.  The water is very soft, and like rainwater to the taste.  The fresh water thus produced is stored to large tanks, made of galvanised iron.  Between the mainmast and the engine house is the companion hatch, leading down to the for’ard saloon.  Further for’ard is the hatch which leads to the second class.  The stairs of these hatches are almost perpendicular, and in rough weather it is most difficult to go up and down them.  Further forward again are the middys’ quarters; then in the bows of the ship are the sailors quarters, called the forecastle.  On the forecastle are a couple of anchors, which weigh three tons each.  On both sides of the ship near here are the cow houses, one on either side, inhabited by a cow each.  Over the middys’ quarters are three Shetland ponies, part of the cargo.  On the top of the galley, and in other apparently strange positions, are the pens containing the sheep, pigs, geese, ducks, and hens.  The following hands are employed on the ship: – Captain, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th officers, 9 middys, 4 quartermasters, boatswain, 20 able seamen, 3 ordinary seamen, surgeon, sailmaker, carpenter, baker, cook and 2 assistants, butcher, and two butchers mates, chief steward, 17 under stewards, stewardess, and 4 boys, altogether a crew of 76 all told.  On this voyage there are 80 saloon passengers and 47 second class.  We have breakfast at 8, dinner at 12.30, tea at 5, and supper at 8.30.  The saloon breakfast at 8.30, lunch at 1, and dine at 6.  The ships stores are as follows: – 140 sheep, 24 pigs, 500 fowls, 312 ducks, 180 geese, 48 2lb tins ox-tongue, 100 tins of herrings, 200 tins of oysters, 2 cwt salt ling, 50 2lb kippered herrings, 50 2lb smoked haddock, 24 2lb red herrings, 4 cwt treacle, 20 cwt peas, 20 cwt oatmeal, 1,100lbs butter, 4 cwt salt suet, 672lbs roast coffee, 200lbs green coffee, 500lbs tea, 1 cwt rock cocoa, 6 cases milk, 5,000 preserved eggs, 7 tons flour, ¾ ton jam, 6 tons potatoes, 1 ton onions, 100 doz bottled fruit, 2½ cwt muscated raisons, 3 cwt valencias, 1 cwt French plums, 1 cwt prunes, 6 cwt currents, 100 2lb tins carrots, 100 2lb tins turnips, 100 2lb tins parsnips, 16 cwt moist sugar, 16 cwt lump sugar, 7 cwt rice, ½ ton marmalade, 2 cwt cornflour, 50lbs ground rice, 56 lbs each sage, tapioca, macaroni, and vermicelli, 26 tins, 8lbs each, fancy biscuits, 6 cwt cabin bread biscuits.  The Sobraon cost £40,000.  Amongst the novelties on board ship one of the first to attract one’s attention is the method indicating the time.  Every half-hour one of the middys’ strikes “the bells”, which by no means coincide with the striking of the clock.  Thus, at 8.30 in the morning one bell is struck, at 9 two bells, at 9.30 three bells, and so on up to 12 o’clock noon, when eight bells are struck.  They then begin again in the same order from one to eight.  Eight bells therefore always indicate 4, 8, or 12 o’clock, and is the signal for changing watch.  But from 4 to 8 in the afternoon the order is a little different, because the watches last only two hours instead of four, and are called “the dog watches”.  The order of the bells is then 1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3, 8.  The strokes are struck in pairs, i.e. five bells are struck thus: 1, 2, –3, 4, –5.  I have not wound up my watch since passing Madeira, as I can always tell the time to a few minutes by the bells.  If I did keep it going there would be the trouble of changing it every day at 12 o’clock, when an observation can be made, as the difference of time for each degree of longitude is 4 minutes, and when running before a strong wind the clock will sometimes have to be altered 20 minutes at a time.  Some of the passengers have not altered their watches since leaving England.  I hear that if they keep them going until they reach the Antipodes they will by that time have corrected themselves, because the difference will then be twelve hours.  One of the greatest events of the day is the taking of the noon “sights” for longitude.  Most of the officers then turn out upon the poop or forecastle, and with their sextants take frequent observations of the sun until he passes the Meridian.  These observations, in connection with others taken earlier in the morning for latitude, give the exact position of the ship at 12 o’clock, and as a deduction the distance she has sailed since noon on the previous day, or as it is generally called “the day’s run”.  The result is chalked on a board for the benefit of the passengers.  The noon sights also determine the exact time by the sun.

(To be completed next week)


The National Library of Australia holds in its collection some sketches and watercolours by Harold John Graham, 1858-1929, who travelled out to Australia on the Sobraon in 1881. His paintings include "The Sobraon", 'Procession of the dead horse", "Throwing the dead horse overboard", a "Chart of the world showing the track of the Sobraon", "Hoisting the main topsail" and various other paintings, songs and diagrams.

Continue to Part 2 at From Lichfield to Australia in 1883 - Part 2


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