Logging a life at sea

"Sir George Grey the Governor of New Zealand arrived here today he is visiting all the ports....
"Sir George Grey the Governor of New Zealand arrived here today he is visiting all the ports. When he landed from HMS Brisk they fired a salute from the Ship & the shore too": Entry for February 14, 1867 from the sailor's journal. Alexandrina may be...
Anthony Tedeschi. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
Anthony Tedeschi. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
Sailing ships line up along the railway wharf, Port Chalmers, 1873. Photo by Da De Maus/Regional...
Sailing ships line up along the railway wharf, Port Chalmers, 1873. Photo by Da De Maus/Regional Maritime Museum, Port Chalmers.

A rare sailor's diary casts light on the reality of travel to the antipodes in the 19th century. Charmian Smith takes a look.

Life at sea in the 1860s was hard for passengers, as we know from many shipboard diaries, but there is little that records the even harder life of a sailor.

The extracts below are from a diary, written by a sailor, probably from notes taken while on a voyage from London to Port Chalmers and back in 1866-67.

It has recently been acquired by the Dunedin Public Library heritage collections.

Few sailors kept a journal of their life at sea, probably because many were illiterate, says Anthony Tedeschi, rare books librarian.

The name of the writer of this journal is unknown, but Mr Tedeschi and Delyth Sunley, who has transcribed it, have done some detective work and think it may be one William Edeson.

In the diary he is referred to as "Bill" and at one stage the second mate calls a list of names, one being Edeson, but this name is not mentioned again.

In Port Chalmers he meets a sailor from Kings Lynn, his home town, who asks if he knows the Eyres brewery there and Bill says his father was a brewer.

The librarians have found a William Edeson who was born about 1845 - in the diary Bill mentions October 19 was his birthday - whose father worked at the brewery.

He would have been in his early 20s on the voyage.

In 1861, William worked as an office boy and in the 1881 and 1901 census records was a maltster's manager in Worksop.

When Bill returns to London he finds his parents have moved to Worksop.

A great deal of the diary is devoted to the work on board: rigging, furling and otherwise wrestling with sails 150 feet aloft, both in fine and in heavy weather, struggling with anchors, enduring wet, cold and danger, fighting the wheel in heavy seas, and the interactions with the other crew members, who were a medley of races.

The passengers are seldom mentioned - although the pet racoon belonging to one of them causes a deal of trouble among the crew.

Sometimes Bill even mentions what they had for dinner - shark steaks when they caught a shark in the Atlantic, and pork sea pie, when they killed one of the pigs carried on board.

A sea pie is a layered pie containing meat or game of various kinds and topped with a dough of some sort, whether a suet crust or ship's biscuits.

On a visit to Dunedin he buys fresh bread and butter and relishes the change from hard tack.

The diary was spotted in an antiquarian bookshop in the US by one of Mr Tedeschi's former colleagues, who alerted him to its availability.

Purchases of items for the special collections are funded from bequests and trusts, not by ratepayers.

Several forward-thinking people set up such trusts, such as A. H. Reed who gave his collections to the public library so the public could have access to such items, according to Mr Tedeschi.

The full transcription of the diary will eventually be available on the library's website, but the original, and other items in the special collections, can be seen by making an appointment with him on the third floor of the library.

The sailor's diary starts with the Alexandrina sailing from Shadwell Basin, London on June 9, 1866, when "all the hands came on board most of them drunk", so much so that "the 1st and 2nd mates had to lend us (that were sober) a hand to rig out the jibboom".

A few days later a gale carried away the mizzen topsail yard, blew the sail to ribbons and forced the ship to shelter in Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

But by Friday, June 22 they were on their way with a fair wind.

"Saturday had a bad pain in my gills what they call ashore toothache.

The racoon (a wild animal belonging to one of the passengers) got out and bit two of the dogs, one of them a fine Shepherd Dog very severely.

Set Studding sails at night.

Fine fair wind."

"Friday [July] 6 in the Tropics to day so now we are in the N. E. trade winds & can depend on a little fine weather.

When we left London we were 2 men short so the captain shipped 2 fresh ones at Gravesend and neither of them have been to Sea before.

They cannot steer or anything so the wheels lookouts &c come round quicker & of course gives us a deal more work to do.

One of these men is a Frenchman, we call him Frenchy, so as he could do nothing the mate tried him at going aloft, so he sent him to grease down the main from the Royal truck down. & he went aloft and got as far as the Main Topmast Crosstrees & stuck there & dare not go any farther.

The mate wanted to go & drive him up but the Captain persuaded him not on account of the passengers.

So they called Frenchy down and gave him a job of cleaning the sheep and Pigs out.

Some Flying fish seen to day."

"Thursday 12 caught a shark & had shark steaks for tea.

The dog that the Racoon bit had 11 pups this morning such pretty little things they are.

Mending old sails.

Jack Williams & I at the Fore Royal.

Very hot indeed we are in the Doldrums now close to the line.

A brig in sight.

Saw the Southern cross last night so we now have lost sight of the north star."Besides fishing, sailors tattooed each other in their spare time.

"Sunday 15 very hot & calm sea just like glass.

The Sweed pricked a bracelet on my left wrist this afternoon."But as they sailed south the weather became colder.

Tempers frayed, food was not as good as it could be, and accidents happened.

"Wednesday 22 Fraser & I at the Fore Royal & when we came down the 2nd mate blew us up, for being such a long time, so of course I gave him some of his own back again & we got to words but some of the men came & took my part so he soon held his noise they say if he says anything to me again I must pitch into him or else they will into me.

Thursday 23 2nd mate, very good to me.

I kept 4 hour lookout this afternoon on account of the weather being very thick.

Friday 24 strong breeze & heavy sea.

I had to have another man with me at the wheel."

"Tuesday [August] 11 strong gale lost poor Bryan overboard . . . as we were getting the Rope &c out of the Forepeak I heard one of the men say something about overboard so I said what's overboard so they said Bryan had fallen from the Main Topgallant yard & that they sung out a man overboard but owing to the noise of the wind & water we could not hear them.

They said he fell quite clear of everything till he got to the Break of the Poop so he would most likely be dead before he reached the water.

Poor fellow only a short time before he was getting his dinner & joking with us & now he would be far away.

Well Brown & I were up aloft all the afternoon unreeving gear &c & I looked many a time astern to see if I could see anything of Bryan, but of course could not."A couple of days later "Bryans clothes chest &c were sold by auction among the passengers & crew & brought the amount of 14-some odd shillings.

"Finally, on September 20, Alexandrina arrived off Otago heads.

"Friday 21 got pilot & anchored near the light house.

Saturday 22 got steam Tug Favourite & towed to Quarantine ground & we have to stay here till we get all the [gun] powder out & we are not allowed to go near the port among the other shipping with powder aboard.

At night we have to keep anchor watch. 2 of us keep watch 2 hours & then other 2 for 2 hours & so on all night through to see that we dont drag our anchors.

About 1/2 past 10 at night we were all in our berths but Lewi a Sweed & Clements who were keeping watch, when all at once in comes Mr Racoon in the place where we all slept & caught Lewi by the leg.

He had a good pair of sea boots on but the Racoon held on so fast with his claws & teeth that allthough Lewi got both hands to try & drag him off he could not.

We were all awake in an instant, but the only light we had was a small lamp hung from the deck above, & it did not give much light.

Some of us got knives & boots & marlin spikes & threw them at the Racoon.

He let go his hold on Lewi & came in my bunk where I was laid down.

As soon as I felt him on the top smelling about I covered my head over with my blanket, & a man that slept above me tried to throw a blanket over it, so as to catch it & tie it up in the blanket & throw it overboard, but it slipped out of the blanket & then we gave it a shower of knives, boots, &c, &c & then it caught hold of Lewi again & bit him through his thick sea boots &c & let go directly just as Clements was going to drive a marlin spike through him.

So at last the Passenger hearing the row came to see what was up.

The owner of the racoon called it & it came to him & he put it in his cage, & told Lewi a glass of grog would put him all right.

So the steward bandaged his leg & gave him some grog, & Lewi said no more about it.

Got a letter & 2 Liverpool Mercuries [a newspaper] from Mother."

From the end of September until mid-February, Alexandrina remained at Port Chalmers.

Sailors were allowed shore leave - Bill and his mates visited Dunedin, but some ended up in "chokee" (prison), and most got drunk.

The wretched racoon caused them more grief, they saw the arrival of Governor Grey, who was visiting the provinces, attended a service on another ship, and transported passengers and officers ashore.

But most of the time was spent working, unloading cargo, working with the ballast, repairing, painting and refitting the ship, and loading a cargo of wool, which they pressed on board, for the return trip around Cape Horn.

"Nov 3 Varnished & painted bow sprit & jib boom.

Also greased the fore topmast fore topgallant & royal masts down.

The 3rd mate & I went ashore for the Captain we had to meet the Golden Age steamboat from Dunedin and we were about an hour to soon, so we went along the coast looking for sea horses & other curiosities.

We found 2 large starfishes and saw the little hut where the Darkie lives.

He is an old sailor and makes little models which he sells.

He has also 2 little boats in which he sails or rows about the bay, one is no larger than a common wash tub, and instead of oars he has a paddle similar to those used by the Malays at Singapore.

Well at last we saw the steam boat coming round the point and our Captain aboard of her so we pulled up close along side the jetty, and he stepped into the boat."

"13 Tuesday. Lorens Danyel Ruthström & I went ashore to day.

How jolly to feel that we are our own master, no officers to order us about &c.

Well before we leave the ship we each get a one pound note & put a good allowance of Tobacco in our pockets & put our best clothes on, & step into the boat.

The racoon and cage are also going ashore now.

The Captain sits on the stern starts steering.

The racoon is out of his cage with a muzzle on & lying down near the Captain with whom the racoon is a great favourite.

Lewi (or Lorens) pulls stroke oar, me second stroke, so L sits near the racoon & skipper.

Presently the racoon gets up smells about a bit & flies straight at Lewi but the Captain pulls him off & chastins him a bit but not before he has succeeded in scratching some skin of the back of Lewi's hand, which however got better in about a fortnight after.

So Lewi & I stepped ashore & the first thing we purchased was a box of wax matches, & then off we started for Dunedin 9 miles inland, a fearful walk for us, too it was, the first 5 miles up hill, sometimes so bad we had to go on our hands & knees.

We rested pretty often.

When we had gone 5 miles we got to Blue Skin road, where stands the half way house so in we go & get a glass of grog each & start off again. & on the road we pass a store where we purchase about 3lbs of soft bread & a lb of fresh butter 2/6 a lb, & we sit down on the grass & go a feed of soft Tack (bread) & butter.

How good it tastes after living on plates of pantiles [hard ship's biscuits].

Well we got to Dunedin about 1/2 past one having left Port Chalmers about 1/4 past 8 am.

We were very tired & thirsty, every thing very dear. we brg a few apples 16d per lb, figs 15 per lb &c. so our money soon goes, with drinking & eating, for we had a capital dinner, & then about 4 we found we had not enough money to pay our fare back again by the steam boat so we got another glass of grog & then walked back.

On our way we met some of the Olive Mount's crew going to be discharged tomorrow at the shipping office in Dunedin.

The Olive Mount left London before us but was caught in a heavy gale of [off?] the Cape & sprung her masts so had to make for Mauritus for to get new ones.

One of these men had been to Otago before & he said if L & I crossed the bush showing us where, it would save us about a mile & a half so we got into the bush & could not find our way out, it is very thick indeed & we began to feel exceedingly tired, thirsty & hungry, & we walked up & down but could not find our way, so at last we lay down under a small thick bush thinking of sleeping there till morning but being so very thirsty we could not sleep, so got up again to look for water but found none.

We found one or two trees that had been cut down & presently we could perceive the old marks or ruts made by wheels of some conveyance but nearly grown over & hid with grass leaves &c but by following it we at last got on the road & we got aboard again about 11 at night."

"Cook ashore to day, I am cook till he come aboard again, the saucepans, tins &c all slipping about with the ship rolling about so much, most ships striking Topgallant yards, masts &c, blowing very hard.

23 Cook not aboard yet, a deal more pleasant today than yesterday, the weather having moderated very much.

Cook came aboard at noon, so I turned to my old duty, went up on the foreyard, painting with 3rd mateIn the life boat at night waiting for the skipper we sang lots of songs, George promised to write me one or two.

I bought some soft bread & got some drippin from the cook & made a capital supper when we got aboard."

They prepared for the annual Christmas Day boat race, but to no avail.

"December 24 some singing &c in the House on deck at night xmas eve.

25 xmas day no boat race because there are no prizes except a glass of grog at the start & another at the finish & the pull is 18 miles (9 miles to Heads & the same back again).

So it did not come off, though the people ashore say there has been a race every xmas before.

More singing at night."

"January 4 went ashore last night with the boat, and about past 11 oclock two drunken sailors belonging to the Lombard Brig, asked us to put them aboard their ship but as we were expecting the Captn every minute we could not.

A policeman (or to use a colonial name Slop) came up & asked them what ship they belonged to, so they called him names, swore at him & got him vexed.

He tried to collar one of them but he jumped or tumbled into a waterman's boat & pushed off as well as he could, his companion tried to jump in the boat but fell in the water.

Our boat lay about 20 yards off so hearing a splash we pulled to see what was up, but the cold water had sobered the man a bit & he was hanging onto the gunwale of the boat, so we helped him in the boat & came back to the jetty.

Boat ahoy says the slop to us as we came near the side.

Haloo says our 3rd Mate.

Lend us your boat to follow those two men.

Not a lend said we, making the boat fast to the jetty.

Oh says the Bobby, I see its the Alexandrina's boat is it not, so they got into our boat & asked us to take them after the two men.

I won't pull says our 3rd mate, nor I says another, & the bobbys were shoving the boat off, so most of our chaps jumped ashore.

There was one & myself in the boat with the two bobbys.

Now pull after them my lads says the slops, but we got our oars but did not attempt to even put them in the rowlocks.

Won't you do as we tell you? Halloo who made you Captn says we.

Go after those men said they, or we will report you at the office, so they each got an oar, but did not pull far - they could not, so at last we shipped our oars & began to pull, not after the men but ashore so the bobbys jumped out when we came alongside the jetty.

Our men were on the jetty and had seen or heard all for it was a dark night.

One of the bobbys pulled out his book & began to write in it, muttering something about the Alexandrina's boat, when down the jetty we saw our Captn coming past the Tug office.

Here is our Captn says our 3rd Mate as we got into our boat to pull her to the steps, but they never spoke to him for our Captn was more drunk than either of the two men.

So we got aboard.

I don't know whether the two sailors did or not."

On February 20 the passengers came aboard and the following day they set sail.

When they got out to sea the diary records "lady passengers beginning to be sick".

"24 Sunday, a perfect hurricane, it began about 1/2 past 1 [?] a.m. we shortened sail, and about half an hour after, we carried away our Main Topsail sheet, so we got a shackle, cleared the sail up & put it right again, the wind still freshening, so at 4 a.m. it was blowing fearful . . . & as we were looking at it, a part of the sail had got foul of the reefing apparatus & soon a small hole got chafed through, which we scarcely found out ere the sail all went like a lot of large snow flakes, leaving nothing but the bolt ropes.

The Captn was glad it went, for if the sail had not gone, the mast & all would have gone.

The wind was now terrific, "Call all hand' says the Captn & furl the Fore sail, but we had no need to call them for they could not have had much sleep on account of the sail flapping & the sheet knocking so.

The men came to meet us on the Deck & various were their expressions as to the weather &c, but most of them seemed to know that no time was to be lost.

They saw the wreck &c about the Mizen Mast, some of the men were not dressed, save trousers & shirt, but they had no time to return for the rest of their clothes.

Some said this is a southerly buster for you my lads, some looked rather serious but never spoke while others & I must say the majority of them, cursing & swearing (as they usually do when they cannot have their rest,) & not appearing afraid at all, not that they were not aware of the danger. (for that could be seen as plain as a pikestaff) some of them cursing wind, weather & even the ship itself, that is just as they made their appearance.

Furl the Fore Topsail says the Captn & as we were getting the Halliards all clear, the wind came with another sudden rush & away goes Fore & Main Topsails we could do no good at all for as we went to do anything, one part of either rigging, or ship, was sure to be blown or carried away.

The passengers were praying in the Cabin & we were all near the Cabin door in a group with our eyes first on one part up aloft & then another as the wind now & then took some fresh piece of sail rigging &c, we were watching our good ship torn away from us bit by bit, it appeared as if some great fiend was hovering round us & torturing us by taking one thing after another before our very eyes & we could not prevent it. and that soon he would make a grab at us.

Every sail had now been blown away except the reefed Foresail.

We heard a crack, it was the Iron band that connects the Fore Topsail yard to the mast.

The wind had broke it & the yard was swinging about up aloft at a height of about 90 feet, & every now & then coming bump against the mast threatening it with destruction.

The Topsail yard would weigh 2 or 3 Tons.


Here was now another serious disaster, for the Foresail the only one left was set just under the Topsail yard, & if it was to knock the mast over the side, of course the Foresail would go to, & then we should not have a rag set to keep us before the wind & we should broach too & be rolled over & over till the ship either filled & sunk or got knocked to pieces.

We must secure that yard somehow, all the 3 masts (2 of them with not a stitch of canvas on them) were shaking & tottering fearfully.

Well we all went up the shaking Fore mast, it had the greatest strain on & shook worse than either of the others, but we waited for the ship being steady and keeping clear of the swinging yard we managed to throw a line over it & at last secured it with tackles &c. then we came down, most of us having lost our hats & part of our clothes even blown & torn off we got down on deck again & now thinking ourselves a little more safe, we began clearing the wreck of ropes &c off the deck & lashing various parts of the bulwarks boats &c (that had been partly carried away,) to make them more secure.

The ship now looked a perfect cripple & rolled & laboured heavily.

To make matters still worse as she rolled, the starboard Lift of the Fore Yard carried away & now the Fore Yard was swaying up & down like a plank over a barrel.

Our last & only chance of the Foresail not being blown away, seemed now to be almost gone & that our minutes even seconds were numbered. . . .

The Captn called the steward & told him to serve out some Grog & we wanted it too, for we had had neither Grog nor prog [food] since yesterday & it was now near noon, some chaps said let us go to heaven with something inside us to warm us on the road for if that Foresail goes, we shall all be at Davy Jones' before long I know.

I think the grog never tasted better it warmed me, and made me a bit more comfortable.

Well there we all were, till about past 2 p. m. when the wind lulled a bit, & then we got a bit of dinner & one watch the Port watch, went below till 4 p.m.

The sea now began to get up very quick & soon there was a very heavy sea running, the wind gradually going down.

There is plenty of work now, both for the Carpenter & us.

This is through sailing on a Friday."

"Mar 2 Saturday The Cabin passengers gave us a bottle of grog.

They are so pleased & glad that they have got over the gale of wind, so as we set sail again, they were listening to us sing as we hoisted the sails up & the Gentn. passengers even came and pulled & also as soon as they knew the chorus of the song they sung too.

So when we had finished we were coming past the Cabin door & they said as we sang so well they would give us some grog so we got a bottle.

The children passengers are allways playing at being sailors, singing & pulling together to perfection."

"4 strong breeze, no dinner to day.

Topham capsised the soup, the ship rolling heavily.

5 squally & wet, had to keep look out a day time, for ice &c beginning to be cold, we are about halfway to Horn.

6 looking out for ice.

Last night it was very cold, we thought we were under the lee of an iceberg.

I put rounding on Main Topgallant foot ropes, a nasty cold job."

They rounded the Horn during a lunar eclipse and a few days later came across flocks of birds.

"20 very fine. 2 ships in sight last night.

One in sight to day. & signalized her the Barry Dora from Swansea.

Grand eclipse of the Moon from 12 to 4 a.m.

It began soon after our watch came on deck, & being nearly full moon we had a fine view of it.

It won't be seen in England as it is day time there now.

"26 very dull & calm.

Yesterday the Sea was covered all over with birds, we must be near some Guano Islands.

I should never have thought there were so many birds in the whole world, if I had not seen this sight.

There were Millions & Millions again & again."

By May 20 they reached the English Channel and on May 26 Bill was steering up the Thames.

"Sunday 26 my wheel from 4 to 6 a m steering up the Thames passed Ramsgate & Margate & heard the church Bells ringing.

We was furling sails up aloft & getting jib boom in.

Captn of the Parisian came aboard & took his dog Opposum & I brought down the Main Topgallant stunsail Halyard block & pumped ship & got in dock at 10 to 7 p.m.

27 got John's letter & was surprised that F & M were at Worksop. & went to Madame Tussards

28 went through the Tower

29 got Paid off

30 got to Worksop".



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