John Grisdale – A Missing Mariner in Australia

Posted: December 29, 2013 in History
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Sometime in the spring of 1855 Betsey Grisdale decided that she must declare her husband John ‘missing’ in Australia. As she wrote her letter at her home in Lonsdale Terrace in Liverpool she was probably in despair. What had happened to her husband? What was to become of her and her children? Two years before, in February 1853, John, a Liverpool mariner, had boarded the new American-built sailing ship Eagle, bound for Melbourne, where he had arrived in May after an 88 day voyage. Betsey had received news that John had headed to the new ‘gold rush’ diggings in Bendigo, Victoria, and then – nothing.

Sailmaker

Sailmaker

Betsey had already written several letters to John. Perhaps telling him of the birth of their child Joseph in late 1853? Perhaps asking him to come home? She had had no reply. She arranged for an announcement to be placed in Melbourne’s Argus newspaper, which appeared on the 29th of November 1854:

John Grisdale lately sail maker in ship Reliance of Liverpool, lately of Bendigo – letters from wife. Apply to Joseph Pacey, Cambridge Street, opposite Cambridge Place, Collingwood.

The next year John’s brother and sister had also tried to make contact. An announcement in the Argus of the 27th April 1855 read:

If this should meet the eye of John Grisdale, that came out in the ship Eagle, from Liverpool in February 1853, he will hear of his brother and sister by writing to Portland Post Office and he will hear news from home.

Once John had been declared ‘missing’, one final announcement was to appear in the official Victoria Government Gazette on November 27, 1855:

Missing Person. John Grisdale, Victoria Australia. 20 Dec 1855. Sail and ropemaker by trade. Sailed from Liverpool 2.1/2 years ago on the Eagle.

the worshipfull company of coachmakers

the worshipful company of coachmakers

John Grisdale was born in 1815/16 in Cumberland, the son of the later ‘coachmaker’ William Grisdale and his unknown first wife – he was to marry three times. Shortly after John’s birth his mother obviously died. William remarried, his new wife being Emma ‘Amey’ Bell. They married on the 23rd March 1818 in the Cumberland village of Hesket in the Forest. The family lived in Penrith where William and Emma had their first child, called Thomas, in May 1821. Shortly thereafter the family moved to London, no doubt with John in tow. Three London-born children followed: Mark 1822 and twins Ann Bell and Eleanor Greenhow in 1824. Mark was baptized in St. Botolph without Bishopsgate in the City of London, while the twins were christened in   the church of Saint George the Martyr in Southwark. William was in all cases said to be a ‘Coach Maker’. Throughout their time in London the family lived in William Street in Kent Road, and it was there that young daughter Eleanor Greenhow died in early 1826.

Sometime thereafter it seems that William’s wife Amey also died, and William moved from London back up north. This time he managed to find work in his field of coach making in Salford in Lancashire. In Salford William married a third and final time. In October 1833 he married 37 year-old Sarah Payne in Salford.

But let us return to the subject of this story. John had no doubt moved with his father from Penrith to London and returned with him to Salford. It was most likely around the time of William’s third marriage in 1833, when he would have been 16 or 17, when John first went to sea – almost certainly becoming an apprentice seaman in Liverpool. There is no record of John in the 1841 census, implying I think that he was at sea somewhere in the world at the time. His father was at the time still coach making in Salford, living with his wife Sarah. But certainly in 1843, when he was about 26, John was back in Liverpool because on April the 4th of that year he married Betsey (Elizabeth) Bateman in the church of St. John the Baptist in Walton on the Hill in Liverpool. They both gave their address as New Mann Street in Toxteth Park.

Betsey was certainly already pregnant when she married John, because on 25th December 1843 she was delivered of twins Mary and William in Salford, where no doubt she had been living with John’s father William while John was again away at sea. The twins would be baptized back in Liverpool almost a year later, possibly when John was home. Two more children followed: Mark in 1850 and Joseph in 1853, both in Liverpool. John is continually listed as a ‘mariner’.

Embarkation of Emigrant Ship in Liverpool

Embarkation of Emigrant Ship in Liverpool

Which ships John served aboard during his first years at sea we don’t know. But we do know that by the early 1850s he was a ‘sail and rope maker’ on the 805 ton sailing ship Reliance, commanded at this time by Captain Henry B. Fell. This was a ship that was continually plying the ‘Australian Trade’, taking cargo and, more importantly, emigrants to Australia.

The story of one such trip in 1851, on which it is highly likely that John Grisdale was part of the crew, is worth retelling. Captains were always trying to make the fastest passage and often had bets with each other. In 1851 Captain Fell tried ‘the system of great circle sailing on the passage out to this colony’.

The Reliance tried the great circle sailing, and found it advantageous, having been, on July 30th, in lat. 27° 55′ S, and long. 32° 31′ W, and made Kangaroo Island on the 11th September ; doubling the Cape on 14th August, in lat 51°, and the highest latitude being 64° south. She never had to close-reef the topsails, and the thermometer was never lower than 31° at 9 o’clock in the morning.

Onboard an Australian Emigrant Ship

Onboard an Australian Emigrant Ship

But although the Reliance made a quick voyage by taking the Great Circle route, it wasn’t otherwise a very successful trip, at least not for the emigrants. In the South Australian Register in Adelaide on the 15th September 1851 the following report appeared:

THE EMIGRANT SHIP ‘RELIANCE’

The very unusual number of deaths (15) in proportion to the arrivals (313) on board the above-named ship, which arrived on Saturday from Liverpool and Plymouth, calls for some special explanation and comment, the particulars obtained by our reporter present the following sorrowful details:

July 17.  Mary Ann Bull, 24, disease of the heart. July 22. George Hunt, threw himself overboard whilst in a state of insanity.  Aug. 1 Janet Watson, 23, typhoid fever.  Elizabeth Clyne, 23, ditto. Aug. 7 Rosina Mott, 3, ditto. Aug. 10. Edwin Pople, 26, ditto. Aug. 15. Edward Thrower, 35, diarrhoea. Aug. 20. James Clyne, 21, consumption. Aug. 30. Rachael Grossman, infant, mesenteric disease. Elizabeth Reynolds, Montefiore Warren, William Lock, children of tender age, died from inflammation of the lungs. Sept. 2. Martha Reynolds, 18, typhoid fever. Sept.7. Mary Simpson, 30, consumption.    Sept. 10. T. Chapman, infant, inflammation of the lungs.

The cases of typhoid fever, of which it will be seen  that several terminated fatally, are attributed by the survivors to the offensive evaporations or rather the gases emitted by the quantity of patent fuel (350tons) forming so large a portion of the cargo. The unpleasant smell is much complained of, even by those who are in health, and we are told the com-plaint is by no means a new one, similar effects, though not followed by consequences so fatal, having been experienced on board previous arrivals partly laden with patent fuel.  We hope the Government will make the most careful enquiry into this serious matter with a view to put the Commissioners in England on their guard in the chartering of vessels in future, if these sad consequences are attributable to the large quantity of patent fuel on board. Judging from the names of the emigrants, as well as from the circumstance of the final departure from Plymouth, we conclude that emigrants were embarked at both places. This is a very objectionable arrangement, as involving tedious delay for the emigrants first embarked, and very possibly producing serious inconveniences which were felt throughout the subsequent voyage. The births during the passage out of six in number, viz.: – Four girls – Reynolds, Sutton, Pierce, and Pryce and two boys – Mott and Kirran.

But Captain Fell had other concerns. By 1851 the Victoria gold rush was just starting in earnest. In every Australian port ships were at anchor but couldn’t leave because the crews had deserted en masse, to try their luck digging for gold.  Such was the case for Captain Fell and the Reliance. Fell wrote to the Adelaide Times on the 27th November 1851:

THE ‘TIMES’ NEWSPAPER, AND THE SHIP ‘RELIANCE’.

TO THE EDITOR OF THE ADELAIDE TIMES.

Sir— I am sorry to notice in your paper of this day that great complaints are made of the detention of the Overland Mail by the Reliance, more particularly as it appears all sorts of rumours are in town as to the cause of the delay, which do no credit to the Captain. I will ask you, with all due deference, if any of the reports are relative to my not having a crew on board? Or whether my having brought out emigrants affords greater facility for keeping a crew ?The Reliance is not the only vessel in Port that has been most fearfully detained by the desertion of seamen. The Satellite now at the North Arm is an instance, and the Constitution, that sailed the other day, was upwards of three months here with few hands on board. I picked up one of my men at Gumeracka last week, and have him now in gaol; and so long as encouragement is given to deserters by secreting them, I see very little chance of vessels visiting this colony getting anything like quick dispatch. I posted two letters for my own mail some three weeks ago, thinking I would have been able to pick up a crew long ere this, but it is much easier said than done. Perhaps some kind friend who makes rumours that do no credit to the Captain will lend a helping hand to get a crew for me.

I am Sir, etc, Henry B. Fell. Reliance. North Arm, 27th Nov., 1851.

If John Grisdale was part of the Reliance’s crew in 1851 then he, it seems, didn’t do a bunk. Eventually Captain Fell did manage to scrape a crew together by paying enormous wages, and the Reliance returned to England. But the next August the Reliance was back in Adelaide. There were the same problems with the crew deserting and with crew wages. We know that John Grisdale was a sail maker on the Reliance and thus he was certainly a member of the crew in 1852.

Ships in the Yarra River, Melbourne in the 1850s

Ships in the Yarra River, Melbourne in the 1850s

John was back in Liverpool in 1853. We know this because it was then that his last child Joseph was conceived and, of course, it was in February 1853 that John boarded the emigrant ship Eagle for Australia, commanded by the famous Captain Boyce. As I have said, the evidence seems to suggest that during one or more trips to Australia on the ship Reliance John conceived the idea of returning to try his luck digging for gold. Hence rather than jumping ship we find him as an ‘unassisted immigrant’ aged 37 among the passenger list of the Eagle, which docked in Melbourne in May 1853. Perhaps he wanted to get rich quick and return home? A few did just this. Or possibly he thought that if things went well he could later bring out his Liverpool family to join him? We’ll never know.

What we do know is that one way or another he managed to tell his family that he had gone to the diggings in Bendigo, Victoria.

It is believed the first major discovery of gold in Victoria was in early August 1851 at Buninyong, near Ballarat. Two months later it was discovered at Bendigo. By mid-1853 around 60,000 diggers and their families were on the Victorian goldfields – nearly 23,000 of these were at Bendigo.

diggers on way to bendigo

diggers on way to bendigo

What was John’s journey like?

Men could generally be noticed trudging along beside the drays. Most of them wore moleskin trousers and gay-coloured shirts. They had heavy boots on their feet. They would pass bullock wagons which were loaded with produce such as flour, sugar and tea, destined for enterprising merchants who expected to make money, not from searching for gold, but by selling supplies to the diggers and their families.

One woman who arrived at the Bendigo diggings at around the same time as John wrote the following:

What a scene presented itself for my wondering gaze. I cannot describe it. … Heaps and heaps of newly upturned earth; deep holes out of which sickly looking men were drawing buckets more of it; while others, up to their waists in water, were washing pans of the sun-dried clay, and so close were the holes to each other, that there was hardly any room for one cart to pass between them, obliging us to make a constantly zig-zag track. How plainly it all seemed to speak of the grovelling nature of men. What, I thought to myself, can man stoop so low as to burrow in the earth in this way to risk health, and stand in the depth of winter, up to the waist in water, and such fleeting gains.

Life was hard in Bendigo. Not only did many of the miners die in accidents and through disease, but violence was also rife, particularly because of tensions between European and Chinese miners.

An angry group of European and American miners met in Bendigo in 1854 and declared that a “general and unanimous rising should take place… for the purpose of driving the Chinese off the goldfield”. Local constables acted quickly to prevent the uprising, by asserting their presence and warning the miners against any further vigilante action. The event was only the beginning of greater anti-Chinese tensions

Bendigo Diggers

Bendigo Diggers

At the exact time that John Grisdale would have arrived at Bendigo, in mid-1853, a petition was signed by over 5000 diggers on the Victorian goldfields who were angry about the mining licence fees imposed by the government and the system by which they were collected. The petition outlined the diggers’ grievances and called for a reduced licence fee, improved law and order, the right to vote and the right to buy land.

The petition was brought to Melbourne and presented to Lieutenant-Governor Charles Joseph La Trobe on the 1 August 1853. Most of its demands, including the reduction in the licence fee, were rejected. Eventually the diggers’ dissatisfaction erupted, culminating in the Eureka uprising at Ballarat on 3 December 1854.

So this was the life mariner John Grisdale had found. But what became of him? Had he died at Bendigo? Had he just decided to abandon his family back in Liverpool? We don’t know. Certainly there seems no future mention of him in Australia. I tend to think he died by an accident, disease or violence.

Liverpool Street in mid 1800s

Liverpool Street in mid 1800s

So poor Betsey back in Liverpool and John’s brother and sister never heard from John again. In 1861 and 1871, now said to be a widow, Betsey was still in Liverpool living with her children and older sister and working as a ‘Plain Sawer’, whatever that is.

I won’t follow the lives of John and Betsey’s children here, or that of some of his siblings. Regarding John’s Grisdale ancestors, it took me a long time to pin him down. But now things are clear, or clearish. John’s father William, the coachmaker, was born in 1786 in Watermillock, the son of Mark Grisdale (1760) and his wife Eleanor Greenhow. Mark had two Grisdale parents. His father was John Grisdale, born in 1708 in Dowthwaite Head in Matterdale, who was the son of Edward Grisdale the brother of the famous Rev. Dr. Robert Grisdale, the founder of Matterdale School. Mark’s mother was Jane Grisdale (born 1730 in Dowthwaite Head), the daughter of Jonathan Grisdale and Mary Jackson. Jane was also the aunt of Sergeant Major Levi Grisdale of Peninsular War and Waterloo fame. We can of course go back further.

And that, as far as I can reconstruct it, was the life of Liverpool mariner John Grisdale.

The Bendigo Petition, 1853

The Bendigo Petition, 1853

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