It was probably with a mixture of hope and trepidation that William Grisdale boarded the 1300 ton sailing ship Genghis Khan in Liverpool docks on 23rd of March 1853. Accompanied by his wife Sarah and their recently born baby Elizabeth, they were bound for Australia and a new life – a life that would take them via Melbourne to the newly discovered gold fields of Victoria. But first they had to survive the journey, which, as we will see, they nearly didn’t.

The Genghis Kahn

William was the second child of William Grisdale, originally of Matterdale, and his wife Elizabeth Charter. William senior had become a “Dancing Master” in Penrith and William junior was born and christened there in 1817 – he himself became a “drainer”. William senior was the brother of the Wilfred Grisdale who had emigrated to Canada in 1816/7 and about whom I wrote in the last article. The older brother of William the Australian emigrant was another Wilfred Grisdale, he is my own 2nd great grandfather.

The family were assisted emigrants; the Colony of Victoria paid their fares, perhaps sponsored by early Melbourne settlers who were short of labour.

What had prompted William and his wife to make this hazardous journey we don’t know. All around England posters were appearing in villages and towns offering the prospect of a new life down-under. Newspapers had also recently started to print stories of gold diggers who had got rich quick, such as this one which appeared in the Liverpool Echo:

Men that were never worth five pounds in their lives are now possessed of fortunes, and the yoke is burdensome, and they scatter their money like chaff. The whole country for hundreds of miles is one immense goldfield.

Whatever the Grisdales’ reasons there was quite a procedure to be gone through. The Victoria Colonial Secretary’s Office worked in conjunction with the British Emigration Agent in London, “assisted by locally appointed Immigration Agents”.

These agents had to ascertain that the applicants were “of sober habit, industrious and of good moral character, and have certificates to this effect, signed by two respectable persons (but not by publicans or dealers in wines and spirits)”.

They had to give the agents their dates and places of birth, literacy, their trade if they had one, their present employment and any debts they may have.  Also they needed to produce a doctor’s report confirming that “they were free from infectious or contagious disease, had either had or were vaccinated against smallpox”.  Adult males were also required to be physically capable of the labour of their trade.

 Once the emigration Commission received and accepted the application, with its various forms and affidavits, the next thing was to wait for an embarkation order.  Applicants were advised not to give up their employment until they received this order, as it may be some time before passage space became available.  When this order was received, it was accompanied by a list of things they were required to supply for the journey, clothes for both hot and cold climates, towels sheets, etc.

Obviously William had been able to supply all this because on 15th March 1853 William and his small family boarded the Genghis Kahn with all the other passengers.

It was to be over a week before the ship sailed. On 22nd March the livestock for the voyage was brought on board: “ducks, fowls and sheep”, and the next day, the 23rd, the ship cast off and was towed into the Mersey by a steam powered tug.

All these details of the voyage, and the ones that will follow, are the result of one passenger named Joseph Tarry who kept a very detailed diary; his observations were subsequently published: A voyage to Australia in 1853 : the diary of Joseph Tarry. I don’t yet have an original copy of this book and thus I have relied heavily on, and am indebted to, a précis written by a family historian researching another Genghis Khan passenger called William Lee. I think it worth quoting this précis at some length:

The moderate easterly soon died down, leaving the vessel briefly becalmed in the Irish Sea, with a memorable view of the Welsh mountains.

 The first few days at sea were horrific, storms and gales tossed the ship about, water poured down the main hatchway into the steerage, and crockery and tin ware, clothing and food, were scattered in confusion all over the passengers’ deck.  This would have been a terrifying experience for William and Elizabeth, as they would never have been to sea before in their lives.  The damp conditions added to the emigrants’ discomfort, for most were miserably sea sick.  “If we did not sleep in boxes”, wrote emigrant Joseph Tarry, “we should be tossed out of bed…”

 As the weather and their health improved, passengers adjusted to shipboard life.  The men made out a roster so that two were awake at all time during the night to assist any sick passengers and prevent irregularities. Soon passengers and crew were reporting thefts to the Master, who announced a thorough search of all luggage on arrival at Melbourne, the thefts stopped immediately.

 The early April days were pleasantly warm as they approached the equator.  Most passengers had written letters, in case they met a homeward bound vessel, but none were sighted.  Entering the South Atlantic so as to follow the Great Circle Route, the ship once again ran into bad weather.  About 30 feet of her top mizzen mast being lost in a storm on April 7th. Soon icy gales and mountainous seas caused the loss of 60 feet of her main mast and damaged her foretop mast.  Even experienced seamen were afraid to go aloft and eventually the Master himself began to climb the rigging, calling on his crew for “the best men among you” to follow him.  Much later, in better conditions, the Master told the passengers that in twenty years at sea he had never experienced such a storm.  The deck was strewn with smashed and splintered timber, torn canvas and broken ropes.

 Passengers were confined below as heavy seas washed over the upper decks, frequently splashing down the main hatch in spite of its canvas cover.  They were cold, often hungry and frequently ill.  The cooks could not keep water in their boilers because of the tossing of the ship.

 The cooks’ fires were constantly being doused with sea water.  When hot food could be prepared, the English emigrants complained that puddings cooked in sea water were unpalatable.  The Scots and Irish were sometimes able to bake oatcakes from their ration of oatmeal, on a griddle provided for their use.  

 The t’weendecks was overcrowded.  The passengers became tired of each other, and even such minor and familiar nuisances as lice contributed to make conditions intolerable

 There was a great deal of illness at sea. Many of the small Scottish children were suffering from malnutrition before the voyage began, and had little resistance to the measles, scarletina, diarrhoea and typhus which swept through the steerage compartments, taking 30 lives

 On May 23rd , a large piece of floating ice struck the ship.  Visibility was poor, and when Prince Edward Island was passed it was completely hidden in thick fog.  Antarctic gales increased, breaking a yard arm.  Waves struck the ship with the thunder of cannon balls.  An officer described the “Genghis Khan” as being “almost a wreck”.  The Chief Mate, held in esteem by all the passengers for his seamanship and courage, was suddenly demoted.  After too much alcohol he had become insane, threatening to sink the ship.

 The Great Circle Route was terrifying not only for the rough weather, darkness, and prospect of meeting icebergs and uncharted islands, but also for its intense loneliness.  No other ships were seen on this route, no friendly greetings, no visits of crews from passing ships.

 As the “Genghis Khan” neared Port Phillip, Joseph Tarry wrote of the growing excitement amongst the emigrants “and no wonder after being shut up in this floating prison for a quarter of a year without      having seen a speck of God’s fair earth or a green leaf and for many weeks not even a ship.”

 On the evening of June 24th the cry of “Land Ho!” brought everyone on deck.  Cape Otway was clearly visible to the north, bathed in moonlight.  Next day the  “Genghis Khan” with the aid of a pilot entered the Heads, anchoring at the Quarantine Station on Ticonderoga Bay, where two families suffering from scarletina were taken on board the hospital ship “Lysander”.

Ticonderoga Quarantine Station used when the Grisdales passed through

The Portsea Quarantine Station (“Ticonderoga”) on the Mornington Peninsular had been established the previous year as a response to the arrival of the “fever ship”, the Ticonderoga. The Health Officer based there was Superintendent of the Sanitary Station. He was charged with boarding every inward bound ship to ascertain the state of health of its passengers and crew and where necessary to place the ship in quarantine.

 Fresh beef was brought aboard, and appetites revived amazingly.  Their strength renewed six seamen deserted during the first night, bound for the goldfields.  A day of absolute calm at the Heads had been followed by a storm so rough that it was impossible to sail, and the “Genghis Khan” finally reached Melbourne a week later, on a beautiful clear winter day.  In spite of the storms and epidemics 256 of the passengers could count themselves fortunate that they had lived to arrive in the colony.

Melbourne in 1854

Passengers were then transferred to land in small boats and then either paid for transport up the River Yarra to the small town of Melbourne or they had to walk.

The Melbourne that confronted the Grisdales was a rough old place. In the same year they arrived William J. Wills wrote home to his father:

I do not like Melbourne in its present state. You are not safe out after sundown and in a short time you will not be safe during the day. There were some men taken out of the river drowned, suspected to have been murdered, and several attempts at robbery, while we were there.

It was in this Melbourne that immigrants such as the Grisdales completed the formalities of their passage in the Immigration Depot on Collin’s Street and here they usually found their first work.

William and his family had survived all the perils of the journey to Australia but their adventure was only just beginning.

William and Sarah Grisdale’s grave in Mansfield cemetery

Whether William first worked in Melbourne or moved straightaway to the booming gold digs in and around the Upper Goulburn River is unclear. But by 1857 at the very latest he and Sarah were living and having more children in the gold fields, first in Mansfield and then in Jamieson, both entrepôts servicing the exploding gold rush settlements. In total William and Sarah had seven more children in Australia and many of these were to work in some of the many “diggings” in the area, including Wood Point, Ten Mile and Gaffney’s Creek. They weren’t only miners, but farmers, lumbermen and labourers as well. Near Wood Point there is even a “Grisdale Creek” – not a coincidence I’m sure!

But that story is for another time.

William Grisdale died in Mansfield in 1886 and is buried in the cemetery there with his wife Sarah. They must have done well because such a grave stone would not have come cheap.

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Comments
  1. Jeremy W says:

    An excellent account of the journey. It filled in some of the gaps from another of my sources (an excerpt from Florence Chuk’s ‘The Somerset Years’) rather neatly. My interest in this article was turned on by my cousin’s grandparents (no blood relation, but we’re by no means strangers). His great-grandfather, John South, also traveled on this voyage with his wife and two young daughters (1 and 2 years old).

    I did spot one small but important misquote. If I am correct, it means the difference between life and death for 270 people. According to Florence Chuck, 526 of the original 536 passengers arrived safely at Melbourne, not 256. An easy mistake to make, but it marks the difference between “early passenger ship” and “death-trap” for the Genghis Khan.

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