Was it just happenstance that George Johnston was the first seaman in his extended family? His parents Alexander Johnston and Margaret Lyle of Glasgow arrived in Launceston on the Storm Cloud in 1855 after a voyage of 71 days in the stormiest seas of the world, and George was born only a few weeks later on 15 September 1855. He had 12 close uncles and aunts and almost 40 first cousins in Scotland but it was only his younger brother Alexander and Alexander’s descendants who shared George’s love of the sea.
A number of letters which George wrote to his family in Tasmania have survived and show that he spent many years on cargo and passenger boats, both sail and steam, plying between the Far East, UK, the Americas and Australasia. He had a firm clear handwriting and was of a literary turn of mind.
It is not certain when George first went to sea. There is a letter from him dated 5 September (no year given) from the Hawkesbury in Sydney, about to leave for Shanghai. George described it as a “flash trader”. ‘The Times’ shipping records show that the Hawkesbury, a Devitt & Moore clipper packet , did a regular run between London and Sydney; a voyage in 1874 arrived in Gravesend on 2 Jan from Sydney and departed again on 29 Feb 1874. Perhaps George was on this voyage. He would have been nineteen.
By July 1874 George was writing to his family from the other side of the world on board the Wimmera, a celebrated Aberdeen clipper and large passenger and cargo ship of 1008 tons, Lloyds class A1. She was sailing somewhere north east of the (River) Plate, which forms part of the border between Argentina and Uruguay on the SE coastline of South America, a famous nautical area visited by Sir Francis Drake in early 1578 and where the German warship Admiral Graf Spee was scuttled after fighting Allied warships in WW2.. They ‘spoke’ (met at sea) another ship which would have delivered George’s letter at its next port of call. The Wimmera had previously sailed from Calcutta on 13 Jan 1874 presumably to South America and then back ‘home’ (England) where it was reported anchored in the River from Deal on 17 Oct 1874, bound for Port Phillip and Geelong in Victoria.
Probably in late 1875 George transferred to the Peter Denny of the Albion Shipping Co., 998 tons, a fast sailer which engaged in the China trade and also took passengers to Australia and NZ. George wrote from Bluff at the southernmost tip of NZ on 23 Jan 1876 saying they were off to Rangoon. Within a few months the ship had turned around again and was in Bassen (near Goa, in what was the Portuguese East Indies and is now Gambia on the west coast of South Africa), from whence George wrote home on 2 May 1876:
“I have managed to make myself comfortable aboard the ship pretty well supplied with clothes and have a comfortable place to live in comparatively speaking so am Jolly as Mark Tapeley. “(Charles Dickens – Martin Chuzzlewit. Mark Tapley was Ostler at the Blue Dragon Inn and servant to young Martin Chuzzlewit. He accompanies Martin to America and later marries Mrs. Lupin, the Blue Dragon’s landlady. The inn is renamed The Jolly Tapley.)
George signed the letter:
I am, Dearest Mother, Your Sailor Boy George.
Then it was off again to Bluff in NZ (24 Nov 1876) and then Rangoon and after the East Indies going to either London or Liverpool. Hopefully the ship reached London in time for George to spend Christmas with his Uncle John’s family. He wrote from there on 5 January 1877, mentioning a walk to the dock with Maggie the eldest daughter, and how he secured a fortuitous late berth on the three-masted Loch Ard:
“I leave tomorrow morning or Sunday not sure which, but I have to go aboard in the morning. I was nearly losing the chance but the Captain behaved very decently to me and signed me. … I was going down yesterday but Maggie said she was going for a walk so I went with her and did not go to the dock. Tonight there is a party at our house so I made up my mind to stay in today and was going tomorrow Saturday the 6th to see when the Captain was to sign hands. He told me a week ago that he would leave here on the 10th and so sign on the 8th. But something turned up and he signed on the 4th.
I recd a Launceston Examiner from Glasgow this morning and looking over the Births Deaths and Marriages saw a notice of Milligans loss at sea he was third mate in the P & O. You know he and I were great friends when he was in the “Araunah” and his death so upset me that I had to take time out somewhere to calm myself. I was so grieved, so sorry poor lad he was, such a nice chap and so young only 24. I just went down to the dock thinking I might see someone on the P & O boats in port that knew him, and aboard the “Loch Ard” at the same time the Captain told me he had signed all yesterday, but as you went round there Johnston I will make room for you, sign here; All right! Thank you sir.”
He wrote from the Loch Ard in November 1877 saying they were in Shanghai en route to Sydney then going on to Twatow and Amoy. He mentioned evading a typhoon:
“I am now in China sound and hearty after a very fine passage of forty six days to the anchorage of Woosong. We had to lie there a week for the high spring tides and have been in Shanghai another week. The other ship I at one time thought of shipping in came up four days ago with her topgallant masts gone. She lost them in a typhoon, one of those fearful blows known only to the China Seas.”
Luckily he did not remain on the Loch Ard much longer, as seven months later she was wrecked on 1st June 1878 near Curdies Inlet, 27 miles west from Cape Otway on voyage from London to Melbourne, with the loss of 52 lives of the 54 passengers and crew aboard. In a later letter George mentioned having “run away” from this ship in Melbourne – more likely he signed off, or he would not have been able to claim sea time towards his mate’s ticket.
From then on it is not known which ships he sailed on, but he continued to write home at intervals. On 29 May 1878, writing from Glasgow, he called himself a ‘cocoethes scribendi’. He was previously in Greenock for 10 days –”a fine town”. Next voyage was to be to the Mediterranean and New York – a 3 month round trip. He said had written to the Registrar-General of Seamen – he was 6 weeks short of the required 4 years (for a mate’s ticket?).
On 12 July 1878 he wrote a long letter from Bombay. He mentioned having sailed there from Glasgow to Liverpool then to Gibraltar and the Mediterranean, then through Suez. He talked about Port Said and mentioned that they wore paper collars which could be discarded when they got too grubby. He gave news of Uncle George in Glasgow, and his father’s cousin John Muirhead from Glasgow now living in Bombay. (This information enabled the author to trace the family’s Muirhead connection. George’s paternal grandmother’s sister Bethia Lamont/Learmonth married a Muirhead .)
Another letter undated but probably late 1878 mentioned how Glasgow is changing. George was to sit his final seaman’s exam in Glasgow in July. He gave his Uncle George’s full address in Glasgow and said that Uncle Peter lived near the Necropolis and was preaching. (Thus providing wonderful corroboration for the author’s research using Census records – the surname Johnston being rather common in Glasgow!).
It is not known what happened to George in the next five years. He obtained his First Mate’s ticket on 25 October 1883 in London (what happened in Glasgow?). Perhaps he decided he was tired of sailing the world and wanted to be closer to home and his family, for whom he obviously had much affection. George’s eldest brother was by that time living in Sydney.
Possibly George was one of the crew of the steamer Cahors on her maiden voyage to Australia in 1884 and decided to stay with her when she became an interstate coastal steamer. The SS Cahors was a powerful screw steamer of 550 tonnage register and of 1200 tons gross, built in England in 1883. She carried about 200 passengers and cargo between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, making several record-breaking runs. About 1884 George became the second officer.
No doubt George’s family were happy to know he was closer to home and no longer subject to the perils of the open sea. But on 15 June 1885 the family received terrible news. Shipwreck!
The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) of Friday 12 June 1885 reported:
The steamer Cahors, from Sydney to Brisbane, ran on Evans’ Reef, 13 miles south of Richmond Heads, at 6 pm on Wednesday, while going at a rate of 14 knots per hour (sic). After continuous signally, the steamer Burwah, also bound to Brisbane, came up at midnight. She immediately lowered boats, and commenced transhipping the passengers from the Cahors which was accomplished with difficulty…. The steamer Tomki also stayed by the Cahors for some hours today, and succeeded in rescuing a horse which was swimming about. … there is little or no hope of the vessel being recovered, the water in the hold and engine-room being at tide level. Captain Walker and the officers and crew still stay by her.
The Illustrated Sydney News Volume 22, No. 7, 1885 published a “highly interesting narrative ….. supplied by a gentleman who was a passenger on the Burwah”, accompanied by the large half page pen-and-ink illustration (below). Interestingly, it was not ‘women and children first’, because it was still dark. “The men were let down by means of ropes into the sea, and were then picked up by the lifeboat”. Ladies and children were taken off in a coal basket, as reported in the SMH, but “… even this was not unattended with danger, owing to the heavy surf waves. One lady was ducked under water three times before the men were able to haul her into their boat”.
The next day it was reported that the Government steamer Dione followed the Burwah and later “ .. returned with 30 of the crew, the second mate (ie George), and 130 mail bags.” But then tragedy struck. As described six months later in the Launceston Daily Telegraph:
“ It will be remembered with regret by many of our readers that Mr. George Johnston, second mate of the Cahors, lost his life when returning to the wreck of that vessel … 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.”
The wreck occasioned a great deal of interest, the Sydney Morning Herald carrying the news story for many days. It was also the subject of several Editorials particularly when George’s death became known.
The first meeting of the Marine Board of Inquiry was on Monday 29th June 1886, with a full account published next day. It was stated that the Second officer (George) had been relieved of his watch when the vessel was a little to the south of Clarence Heads, so he was not personally responsible for any of the ensuing drama. Eventually the Board decided that the Master had navigated his ship too close to the shore and suspended his certificate for 6 months. The Chief Officer was also suspended for 3 months. The Cahors was sold as a hulk. (Jack Lovey, “Wrecks on the NSW Coast”, 1st Edition 1993.)
George was awarded a posthumous gold medal for bravery by the National Relief Society of NSW. The Mayor of Launceston wrote pompously to Alexander, in the language of the times:
“I need not say how deeply I sympathise with you and Mrs. Johnston on the loss you have sustained; yet you will derive some consolation from the reflection that your son died as a British sailor should die – at the post of duty, having endangered his own life in his efforts to rescue others. … I am quite sure that parents do not need a medal to perpetuate the memory of such a son …”
More friendly was a letter to George’s brother Alex from G D Clarkey of Kensington Hall, Melbourne where George spent his last night before sailing on the ill fated voyage:
“I trust that you will pardon the liberty which I, a stranger to you, am taking. Your brother whose sad loss we deeply regret was a great friend of ours and spent his last night at our house. We are very anxious to obtain his photo and should feel very much obliged if you could kindly let us know where we could get one…” (The author would love to hear from any Clarkey descendants, particularly if they have a photo!)
It was a great joy to the author when she discovered the medal and letters are now in the possession of the descendants of George’s brother Charles. The letters not only made it possible to piece together some of George’s travels, but gave independent corroboration that the extended Glasgow Johnston family has been correctly identified.
(c) 2015 Nancy Vada Gibb.
Amended March 2017.