52 Ancestors ….. Week 11.

The theme for this week is LUCKY.

My Great Uncle George Johnston 1855-1885 was born in Launceston, Tasmania a few weeks after his Glasgow-born emigrant parents arrived on the “Storm Cloud” in 1855 after a voyage of 71 days through the stormiest seas in the world. Perhaps that is why the sea fascinated him. He became a merchant sailor at an early age, the first seaman in the extended Johnston family for generations. He spent many years on cargo and passenger boats, both sail and stream, plying between the Far East, the UK, The Americas, New Zealand and Australia.

George loved his family and wrote frequent letters home, of which about 20 survive. In January 1877 he was visiting his uncle and family in London and wrote of a walk to the docks with his cousin and how he was lucky to secure a late berth on the 3-masted “Loch Ard”. He was still on that boat in November 1877 from Shanghai en route to Sydney then going on to Twatow and Amoy, and wrote of how they were lucky to evade a typhoon and how “the other ship which I at one time thought of shipping in came up 4 days ago with her topgallant masts gone – she lost them in a typhoon.”

Again luck favoured him and he did not remain on the “Loch Ard” much longer, as seven months later she was wrecked off Cape Otway on a voyage from London to Melbourne with the loss of 52 lives in a total of 54 passengers and crew.

George obtained his First Mate’s ticket on 25 October 1883 in London. Perhaps he decided then that he was tired of sailing the world and wanted to be closer to home and his family. He signed on with the SS “Cahors”, a new powerful screw steamer which carried about 200 passengers and cargo between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, making several record-breaking runs. In 1884 George became the Second Officer.

His family in Tasmania were doubtless happy to know he was relatively closer to home and no longer subject to the perils of the open sea.

But on 10 June 1885 George’s luck ran out. The “Cahors” ran onto a reef just 13 miles out of land, in a relatively calm sea. As reported in the Launceston Daily Telegraph some months later:

“ Mr. Johnston and the crew worked all night, aiding the passengers, who were at last transhipped to the steamer “Burwah” and landed safely. He was lightly clad in his under-clothing, wet and exhausted from over-exertion, but he went ashore in charge of the mails, which he landed safely at Clarence Head, and remained there during the night. Next day, the 12th of June, he was going back in a launch to the captain and part of the crew who remained in charge of the wreck, when a heavy sea struck the launch and she nearly foundered. Mr. Johnston was washed overboard, and as the launch could not be brought to or turned, he perished in sight of those who admired his gallantry and unselfish labours to save others, and who were most anxious to rescue him. The launch had, in fact, put out contrary to law, as the danger flag was flying at Clarence Head at the time.”

Photo: It is thought that the young man sitting in the foreground was George Johnston.

A fuller version of George’s story is at www.nancyvada.me/George-Johnston-sailor-boy

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