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From Lichfield to Australia 1883 - Part 2

When the 'Sobraon' sailed from Plymouth in September 1883, one of the passengers on board was a young man from Lichfield in Staffordshire.  He diarised his voyage, and his story ended up back in Lichfield and was published by The Lichfield Mercury just a few months later.  Part 2 completes the remainder of his 100 day trip to New South Wales via Melbourne.

From Lichfield to Australia in 1883 - Part 1 covers the first five weeks of the diary.


The Lichfield Mercury

Friday, April 4, 1884

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

(Continued from last week)


Sunday, Nov. 4. – I went to my bunk at 10 o’clock – my usual time.  Just when I had got comfortably between the blankets I heard the cry of “Man overboard” from the deck above, and the sound of hurrying feet to and fro.  I dressed myself quickly and went on deck.  I found the sailors pulling in the sails for the purpose of stopping the ship.  A boat was lowered at the same time, manned by the 4th officer and 4 sailors.  Probably 10 or 15 minutes elapsed before the ship became stationary.  In the meantime I learned that the missing one was a saloon passenger – a young lady of 17.  It appears that she had been somewhat intimate with one of the under-stewards and had given him her photograph besides writing several gushing epistles.  A passenger noticed them sitting together on the quarter deck last night and naturally reported the affair to her adopted father.  The latter reprimanded the young lady this afternoon.  It seems that she took it somewhat to heart and went on the poop about 10 o’clock, and when no one was looking climbed over the railings.  Just when she had got over her adopted father came up, and the man at the wheel turned round and saw her at the same moment.  Both rushed to the spot, but too late;  she had thrown herself into the water.  They threw life buoys to her, but the night was dark, the sea rough, and the ship going very fast, and they could not see that she did, or did not, catch one.  The ship was going at the rate of 12 miles an hour, and by the time the boat was lowered, she must have been a mile or two astern.  She is reported an excellent swimmer, but I am afraid it will not be of any service to her in such a heavy sea.  The boat came back in about an hour, the officer reporting that they could not find her.  The First Mate got into the boat and they again pulled away from the ship.  They searched for her till about half-past twelve, but it was of no use, they could not find her.  The affair has cast quite a gloom over the passengers.  The steward is blamed very much, and will probably get into trouble before the matter drops.

Monday, Nov. 5. – This is Guy Fawkes Day.  We had a blaze tonight.  A fire broke out in one of the saloon cabins, but was fortunately discovered in time to prevent mischief.  One of the passengers, who is suffering from a paralytic stroke, got tired of lying in bed unable to move his legs and one arm, and thinking he might end his existence speedily, he introduced the candle to the bedclothes.  It might have been a serious matter for the lot of us, but fate decreed that he should live a little longer.

Wednesday, Nov. 7. – The Volunteer Corps, formed 2 or 3 weeks ago, is a great success.  The first-class fellows are following our example, and have arranged with the Sergeant Major to give them the same drill.

Thursday, Nov. 8. – The ladies are getting jealous, and the drill is becoming more interesting.  The gentler sex having evinced a desire to show their skill in manly exercises, the Sergeant-Major introduced a special drill for them this morning, when about 20 ladies turned out.

Friday, Nov. 9. – The ladies are dissatisfied with their drill.  They wish to have exactly the same exercises as we have.  The Sergeant-Major, of course, gave way to their desires, and it was awfully laughable to see them.  When the Sergeant-Major called out “stand easy”, they stood in all sorts of attitudes, some of them in anything but easy positions.  But we ought not to poke fun at them, they will improve with practice.

Saturday, Nov. 10. – We were becalmed this morning.  A lot of birds were flying round the ship, which induced some of the fellows to ask the Captain if they might have one of the boats.  He gave them the required permission, and in a few minutes the boat was lowered, and four middys and half-a-dozen passengers scrambled into her, the latter taking guns with them.  They stayed out an hour and shot an albatross, a mollymoke and a Cape pigeon, and when they returned and brought them on deck, they naturally attracted a lot of attention.  The albatross was a noble looking bird, measuring 10ft. from tip to tip of the extended wings.  The breast was covered with a thick layer of fine down of snowy whiteness, which is, I believe, prized for making ladies’ muffs and trimmings.  The mollymoke resembled somewhat the albatross, but was smaller, and distinguished from it but a band of black, which extended across the back between the wings.  The Cape pigeon was much larger than the English bird, and the prettiest bird in the lot.  It had white wings, spotted with black and grey, in a manner which reminded one of the markings of a butterfly.

Sunday, Nov. 11. – We had another burial this morning at 6 o’clock.  A gentleman died last night, and was, as is usual, buried as soon as possible after death.

Saturday, Nov. 17. – The weather has been very rough during the last few days.  The breakfast things went off the table this morning with a rush.  It was laughable afterwards to see the fellows trying to keep sufficient dishes on the table to make breakfast from.  During the forenoon 4 or 5 ladies were sitting under the poop.  The vessel gave a sudden lurch, which sent them flying to the side of the ship, their chairs following them.  At the same time a tremendous wave came over, and before they had time to say “Jack Robinson”, were wet through to the skin.  They picked themselves up, looking like drowned rats, and apparently thinking they had had more than their share.  Just before dinner the vessel gave another great lurch, the cook went flying out of the galley with a dish of potatoes in his hand, dropped on his knees in a pious attitude on the floor, and the potatoes were sent flying in every direction along the decks.  His assistant followed with a tureen of soup, upsetting it, of course, and scalding the pair of them pretty well.  We were short at the table afterwards.  Passed the Cape of Good Hope to-day.

Tuesday, Nov. 20. – The paralytic gentleman who tried to set the ship on fire a fortnight ago, made another attempt to commit suicide to-day, by hanging himself, but was fortunately discovered in time.  His helplessness seemed to prey on his mind.

Wednesday, Nov. 21. – A dead whale floated past the ship to-day as we were getting dinner.  The beggar stunk enough to knock a cow down.  Upon my word, I don’t think I ever smelled anything so strong in my life.  I did not see it till it was well past the ship, but it appeared to be a very large specimen.

Thursday, Nov. 22. – I have not yet mentioned the songs, or as they are usually called “The Chanties” of the sailors.  Many of the songs are said to be ancient and to have been handed down from a remote generation of sailors.  They nearly all consist of a solo, alternating with a chorus, which, being very short, and recurring between each line of the solo, serves to mark the point at which all the men pull together.  It seems to me, however, that there is a vast amount of singing in proportion to the work done.  Many of the songs are in a minor key, and most of them are quaint and taking, and when hear either amidst the roaring of a gale, or in the stillness of night, they have a wild and impressive effect.

Monday, Nov. 26. – One of the passengers caught an albatross this morning by means of a line over the stern of the vessel, with a piece of fat port at the end.  One of the sailors took the skin off, and is going to stuff it.

Tuesday, November 27. – We are now 1,500 miles past the Cape of Good Hope.  The weather is very cold, which not only necessitates the wearing of warm clothing, but also renders vigorous exercise both pleasant and desirable.  Most of the fellows lie in bed as long as possible.  For myself I am glad to tramp up and down the deck for hours together to keep myself warm, and as may be imagined the keen sea air and the vigorous exercise combined tend to produce an enormous appetite.

Thursday, November 29. – Very heavy sea this morning.  The waves are grand beyond description.  It is really a treat to remain on deck and watch the magnificent spectacle of the vast towering waves and to admire the wonderful manner in which the ship rides over them as they come onwards as if to crush her.

Saturday, December 1st. – Saw several lots of whale birds this morning, there must have been thousands of them.  We have had a chess tournament on board these last few days, which was finished this afternoon, and, after a hard fight, I managed to come out second out of fourteen players.

Saturday, December 8. – Weather extremely cold, and to-day very foggy, which is due to the presence of icebergs in the neighbourhood.  Sorry we have not been able to see them.  Saw a lot of whales during the day.

Wednesday, December 12. – Another passenger died at half-past one, and was buried at six o’clock this morning.  We are now within 1000 miles of Melbourne, and if the wind keeps favourable shall see land soon.

Friday, December 14. – The weather is very much warmer to-day.  We had a bazaar this afternoon, the proceeds going to the benefit of the Merchant Seamans’ Orphan Society.  The goods were on view in the morning in the principal saloon.  The bazaar was not carried on in the usual way, but the things put up for auction.  The auctioneer was a very humorous young fellow, and caused a good deal of amusement in offering the articles, which, by the by, fetched much better prices than they would have done in the usual way.  For instance, cabinet photos of the ship fetched half-a-guinea each, a smoking cap worth 4s. or 5s. fetched £1, and a cigar case worth 8s. 6d. fetched 37s.6d.  The total amount of sales amounted to over £70.  Dancing in the evening on deck.

Sunday, December 16. – Services as usual to-day.  At the afternoon service two small children were christened, one being a child born on board, who received the name of “Amy Sobraon ------”.  At 5 o’clock we sighted land amidst general rejoicing.  No one who has not himself passed through the experience, can realise the feelings with which those who have been cribbed, cabined and confined within the narrow limits of a ship and have seen nothing but sea and sky and an occasional passing vessel for three months at a stretch, look upon the first sight of land.  From five o’clock up to dark I and the rest of the passengers passed the whole of our time on deck, watching the shores, which seem strangely beautiful to eyes wearied with the monotony of rolling waves.  Everyone seems excited at the prospect of standing once more upon terra firma and seeing a country that we have heard and read so much of.  We passed Cape Otway in the evening and saw several sharks about.

Monday, December 17. – Was up very early this morning.  We sighted the “Heads” as the two points of land on either side of the narrow entrance to Port Phillip are called at six o’clock.  At seven o’clock the pilot came aboard, bringing with him a bundle of newspapers, which, as may be supposed, were most eagerly devoured.  The pilot was looked upon almost as a kind of curiosity, probably because his was the first unfamiliar face we had seen since leaving England, and plied with questions as to the latest news from home.  In consequence of low tide in the harbour we were compelled to put out to sea again until eleven o’clock, when we passed through the heads.  The “heads” themselves are sandy, low lying necks of land, about a mile apart, with a lighthouse upon each.  The view of the shore is very pretty.  The houses have verandahs attached to them to keep off the sun, and look very picturesque nestling amongst the pine trees.  Up the harbour we could see the ships lying at anchor, of which there must have been some hundreds, of all sizes and nationality.  We sighted the city of Melbourne at two o’clock, and dropped anchor at 4.30 near Sandridge Pier.  Here we were boarded by the Medical Officer and the Custom house authorities, who remained about half an hour.  At 5 o’clock we were at liberty to leave the ship, which my companion and I immediately did, making for the first boat we could get.  Ten minutes more and we stood on Australian soil.  After purchasing some fruit we took our tickets (railway) to Melbourne, which is three miles from Sandridge.  On our arrival in the city we made tracks for Tankards Hotel, where we had been recommended to stay, and had a jolly good feed.

Tuesday, December 18, to Friday, December 21. – Melbourne cannot fail to strike a new comer with feelings of astonishment when he remembers that some forty years ago its site was occupied by a few wooden huts.  It now has a population of a quarter of a million.  The streets are very wide, quite straight and perfectly regular, and they intersect each other in every case at right angles.  The principal thoroughfares run east and west, and of these, Collins Street is the fashionable promenade – the Regent Street of Melbourne – and Bourke Street its great business thoroughfare.  The shops in the leading thoroughfares are equal to any in London, and the streets busy and thronged with passengers, who look marvellously like those to be seen in any large English town, excepting that here and there is a good sprinkling of coloured people and an occasional Chinaman trudging stolidly along with a long bamboo over his shoulder, at each end of which is suspended a huge basket containing vegetables, large quantities of which are cultivated by these people.  Their pigtails are usually hidden under their hats, but I have seen them twisted round the back of their heads.  The banks of Melbourne are numerous and magnificent, and are built of granite.  The public buildings are very large, and some of them imposing.  There is a good public library, open to all up to ten o’clock at night.  There is also a University and a museum.  The Post Office and Town Hall are large and imposing structures.  A feature of Melbourne which struck me most was the enormous size and width of the gutters.  So wide and deep are they in fact that little wooden footbridges are placed at all the crossings and at intervals along the streets.  The vehicle of Melbourne is the “buggy”, a kind of tilted cart on two wheels.  The driver sits in front, the passengers behind, as one does in the back seat of a dog cart.

Friday, Dec. 21st to Sunday, Dec. 23. – On Friday morning my companion and myself booked our passage to Sydney by the steamer “Gabo” to leave Melbourne in the afternoon.  After leaving the shipping office we went to Custom House to get our boxes, and after some little trouble we got our things away without our boxes being opened, our word that they contained nothing but personal luggage being sufficient.  The “Gabo” left the wharf at three o’clock, and in a very short time we were out of sight of the city.  The steamer was crowded with people out for their Christmas holidays, and was very uncomfortable in consequence.  To make matters worse, nearly all the passengers were unaccustomed to travel by water, and were sick all the way.  It was something pitiful to hear them nearly heaving their hearts up.  One poor girl, who was forcibly reminded that she was no longer on dry land, was very bad, and was continually moaning “Oh!  Oh!  I’ll die.  Oh!  Oh!  I’ll die”.  I was naturally very glad when we got to the end of our journey.  The weather was very pleasant all the way, and the coast scenery very interesting.  The coast is for the most part mountainous and barren, but as we went along we saw hundreds of bush fires raging amongst the gum tree forests.  As the neighbourhood of Port Jackson was approached the scenery became more bold and striking, and after passing through the narrow entrance of Sydney harbour with its rocky “heads” only three-quarters of a mile apart, the view that opens up is one of the most beautiful that can be imagined.  The calm smooth expanse of water stretching away into numberless bays and coves, the rocky points, clothed with foliage down to the water’s edge, the lonely little islands and the picturesque villas half hidden in semi-tropical vegetation; and lastly, the imposing city in the distance, with its white houses and tall spires, all combine to form a picture of dream-like liveliness, which is, I am told, scarcely to be equalled throughout the world.  We arrived in Sydney on Sunday evening, but did not leave the ship till Monday morning.

Monday, Dec. 24th to Tuesday, January 1st. – On leaving the ship we made tracks for a restaurant, and after a good breakfast, strolled round to the Post Office to secure our letters.  After this we went round to the Young Men’s Christian Association, the secretary being an old friend of mine, and he recommended us some rooms to stay at, and they turned out to be very comfortable ones too.  We were just in time for the Christmas festivities, and as there were four more young fellows staying at the house besides my companion and myself, as well as four or five grown-up daughters, we were rather a merry company.  Our Christmas dinner was one of the old-fashioned sort, consisting of a fat goose, a fowl, roast beef, and plum pudding.  During the disappearance of the latter a good deal of fun was occasioned by a thimble, a ring, a button, and a sixpence being found in it.  In the evening we went to church, where I was surprised to find that all the pews were furnished with fans.  I learned afterwards that they are used for keeping off the mosquitoes, which are very troublesome here.  Our beds, too, by the bye, are covered with mosquito curtains.  They say mosquitoes have a liking for new chums, but I know one new chum, at all events, who does not return the same feeling.  The city of Sydney, with its suburbs, is built upon the shores of numerous bays, coves, and creeks, and presents none of that unity of design that is seen in the arrangement of Melbourne.  The streets are in many cases irregular, and sometimes narrow, but there is, nevertheless some fine business thoroughfares, and these as well as the shops themselves have a far more English appearance than those of the capital of Victoria.  Sydney boasts some fine public buildings.  The Government House is very beautifully situated with a little bay of the harbour all to itself.  The cathedral is quite new, and is a large building in the perpendicular style, with a central as well as western towers.  The Town Hall and Post Office are very fine buildings.  The Museum, I am told, is the finest in the Colonies.  The Botanical Gardens are very beautiful both as to situation and arrangement.  They are placed in a magnificent position overlooking Sydney harbour, and contain in addition to a fine botanical collection, many interesting specimens of live animals and birds.  Although Sydney is the older city, it does not contain nearly so many inhabitants as Melbourne.  The people both in Melbourne and Sydney dress pretty much as they do in England.  Meat is very cheap here, mutton 2d. lb., chops and steaks 3d lb.

Tuesday, Jan. 1st, 1884. – Acting under the doctor’s advice, I left Sydney this morning for Bathurst (145 miles up the country) by train.  On the way we passed through dense forests of gum trees, some of the trees being a tremendous height.  By and by we came to the Blue Mountains, 4,000 ft. high.  The train passes over the mountain, part of the line being carried along the face of a precipitous mountain.  When the train was at the foot of the mountain and I looked up to the top, I wondered how in the world the engine could drag the carriages up, and when we got to the top and I looked down the other side, I thought we should never get to the bottom safely, but we did though.  This part of the journey is called the “zig-zag”.  First the train goes one way and then in a few minutes reverses the engines and goes the other, and so on most of the way over the mountain.  The scenery is of a wild yet grand character, and the view of the Emu Plains, seen from the top of the mountain is very fine.  It is really a wonderful journey, and the engineering difficulties must have been of a stupendous nature.  The weather has been very dry for some time now and the heat is very great.  I saw a lot of bush fires as we sped along, trees and fences blazing away like fun;  some of the trees were blazing away half-way up only, evidently just started, which gave them a wild and weird appearance.


I am interested in the identity of the mystery author of this diary, so I have compared clues from the content with passenger lists and censuses. Keep an eye out for Part 3 on this topic (or subscribe to email blog updates).  And do share this post or comment below if you enjoyed it!


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