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2006-03, 349, Australiana, Neil A Radford

Uncovering Hidden Travellers’ Accounts of Australia

ONE OF THE THEMES of my collection is published accounts of visits to Australia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wealthy Americans, in particular, travelled here and either published their letters home or published accounts of their travels, often just for limited circulation among friends and family. Some of these travellers were missionaries reporting back to their flocks at home about how they were succeeding in bringing light into the antipodean darkness. Some were sailors, recounting their adventures as a way of escaping retirement ennui. Some were just travellers who came here for adventure.

Some of these books are focussed upon the author’s experiences in Australia, or Australasia, or the South Pacific including Australia. They are easily identified because they have “Australia” or other obvious words in their titles or sub-titles. Others are ‘round the world’ accounts in which Australia is covered in a chapter or two. Often they have “Australia” in their sub-titles. Any researcher seeking travellers’ accounts of Australia would surely consult such works, to see whether the author came here on his or her voyage.

But many accounts of travels to and in Australia are effectively hidden in books with unlikely titles, books which would generally be ignored in any search for travellers’ comments on this part of the world. Looking through my collection I found about thirty volumes in this category, and I have chosen five to represent the genre of unexpected, and therefore largely unknown, travellers’ accounts of Australia. For want of a better classification scheme, I will discuss them in order of their authors’ arrival here.

Eastwick, Robert William, Master Mariner, ed. Herbert Compton. (London, Unwin; New York, Macmillan, 1891)

Robert William Eastwick (1772-1865) was eight years old when Cook’s ships Resolution and Discovery returned to England with flags at half mast, bringing the dreadful news that Cook had been murdered in Hawaii. Young Robert was in the crowd to welcome them home, and the tragic scene remained vivid in his mind all his life. Undeterred by Cook’s fate, Eastwick went to sea as an apprentice in 1784, at the age of twelve. During the next forty years he had many adventures, rising from apprentice to ship’s captain, and he retired from the sea in 1825. He became blind several years later and in his sixties he dictated his memoirs. They were put away carefully and were not found again until his grandson discovered them among a box of old papers about twenty years after his death and decided they should be published.

The Australian interest in Eastwick’s memoirs concerns his account of events in Sydney in March 1804 when he was captain of the Betsy, a merchant vessel bringing cargo from India. Sydney had only been founded sixteen years earlier, and was still primarily a convict settlement. For several years Irish nationalist prisoners, banished from their homeland after the Irish rebellion of 1798, had been causing trouble, and rumours of planned mutinies and uprisings had led the authorities to disperse many of them to outlying posts at Parramatta, Castle Hill and beyond. At 8pm on Sunday night 4 March 1804 the convicts at Castle Hill mutinied and, with stockpiled weapons, began a march to Parramatta. Their objective was to take Parramatta, then move on to Sydney where they would seize ships in the harbour and escape. News of the uprising reached Sydney about midnight. Eastwick, who was lodging on shore, says he was woken by gunfire and the beating of drums. He quickly dressed and went out into the street where he was told that the convicts had mutinied and were in possession of part of the town. There are vivid descriptions of the confusion and chaos in Sydney that night. Eastwick hastened to his ship, armed the crew and told them to repel any attempts to board her. He says there were eight soldiers already on guard, four of whom he left there and the others he took to his house to guard $8,000 which he had been paid for the sale of his cargo. Then he went to Government House to find out what was happening. Governor King had already left for Parramatta and Mrs King was there alone with the servants. She was frightened for her safety, so Eastwick took her to the house of the Lieutenant Governor, Colonel Paterson, where there was a military guard. He then went to the jail where the troops had been assembled to put down a threatened uprising, and during the night there was gunfire and chaos before the soldiers prevailed and calm was restored.


As we know from our history lessons, the real action took place on the road from Castle Hill to Parramatta, and is known as the Battle of Vinegar Hill (near present day Rouse Hill), where about twenty rebels were killed. But there was an attempted uprising in Sydney, too, and Eastwick was there to record it.

In April 1804, after the rebellion had been put down and punishments meted out, the Betsy was chartered by the government to take some of the Irish convicts to Norfolk Island, including Joseph Holt, one of the leaders in the fight for Irish nationalism, but not, apparently, a leader in the convict uprising, though his role remains uncertain. During the voyage Eastwick says that he got to know Holt quite well and was favourably impressed with him. When they arrived at Norfolk Island, Holt was put to hard labour and Eastwick says that he successfully interceded with Joseph Foveaux, the Norfolk Island commandant, for more lenient treatment. This has been noticed by Foveaux’s biographer, Anne-Marie Whitaker, who, I suspect, would have traced it through the ship’s name, and records of ships in Sydney at the time would have given her the captain’s name, then she would have found his memoirs. She deserves praise for unearthing Eastwick’s account in her research. No-one else seems to know about it.

Indeed, Eastwick’s eyewitness account of what was happening in Sydney in the early hours of 5 March 1804 seems to have been completely overlooked by historians. Although his book is held in several major Australian libraries, it remains largely unknown as a source of information on this incident. Its title, Master Mariner, gives little hint about its contents, and the subject headings in library catalogues are entirely unhelpful — the State Library of NSW catalogues it under “Sailors Biography” and “Seafaring life – Biography”; the US Library of Congress merely classifies it under “Adventure” which is useless. No wonder it has been overlooked.

Gambier, J W, Links in My Life on Land and Sea. (New York, Dutton, 1906)

This is also a book of memoirs by a ship’s captain, this time a Commander in the Royal Navy. Gambier, who was born in 1841, joined the Royal Navy as a boy of about 13. His family was a naval one, one of his uncles being Admiral Lord Gambier (1756-1833). In 1857, as a young midshipman, Gambier was assigned to HMS Iris, a sailing frigate of about a thousand tons, with 26 guns, which was bound for the newly-established Australian Station.


A word about the naval defence of Australia during the nineteenth century is appropriate here. For about the first half of that century Britain customarily assigned one or more warships to Sydney, which was a part of the Royal Navy’s East Indies Station, based in India. In the 1850s the Australian Station was established in its own right, based in Sydney, and British warships were assigned there on a rotating basis, under the command of a resident British Admiral. The Australian Station covered all British territories in the south Pacific—Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, and various Pacific islands. This arrangement continued until the Royal Australian Navy was formed in 1910.

The Iris was the first flagship of the Australian Station. She arrived in Sydney on 1 July 1857 and for the next four years, Gambier got to know Australia well, and his memoirs are full of interesting insights into Sydney society which would certainly be of value to any social historian of the period, if only anyone knew to look in his book. He was related to the Deas Thompsons—Sir Edward Deas Thompson was the NSW Colonial Secretary, Chancellor of the University of Sydney, and a leading figure in the colony. Through him Gambier moved in quite high circles, for a humble midshipman in his late teens. He drops the names of a number of prominent citizens with whom he became friendly, not least the Governor, Sir William Denison. He tells of numerous parties and dances at Government House, riding (on a horse lent by leading businessman Thomas Mort) with the Governor’s daughters, and so on. He comments on the class distinctions within Sydney society—the Insiders and the Outsiders, the Officials, the Squatters, the Urban classes, and those tainted with convict blood. Today it is often a source of pride, or at least considerable interest, to be able to trace one’s lineage back to convicts, and it surprised me to read Gambier’s comment that, in the 1850s, “it was rather a social distinction to be descended from some notorious highwayman … who had ‘come out’ amongst the first convicts to Botany Bay—say in 1788 with Governor Phillips [sic]”.

After a stay in Sydney the Iris sailed for Norfolk Island, taking the Governor who had the task of inaugurating the settlement there of Pitcairn Islanders, descendants of the Bounty mutineers, who were being relocated from Pitcairn because their numbers had exceeded that island’s ability to sustain them. Sir William Denison appointed Gambier to accompany him while on shore, so Gambier obtained a privileged insight into the nature of the Pitcairners (“harmless”, “ingenuous”, “simple-hearted folk”) and there are many pages describing Norfolk Island and its new residents.

He tells, too, of a visit to the New Hebrides, on one island of which the natives had recently killed a missionary. The navy was sent to investigate the killing and, as he puts it, “to enforce the sanctity of white life on these savage minds. So, with this moral object in view, we landed a strong force, set fire to their villages, shot as many savages as remained to be shot, and carried off a chief …”

Visits to other Pacific islands followed, then the Iris returned to Sydney and Gambier spent two weeks’ leave with a wealthy squatter’s family on the Hunter River, about halfway between Singleton and Muswellbrook, west of Newcastle. As soon as he returned from leave, the crew of the Iris were involved in the search for survivors from the wreck of the Dunbar on Sydney’s South Head; out of 122 passengers and crew they found only one.]

The following year (1858) the Iris was sent to Queensland to quell civil unrest on the goldfields at Canoona, about 60km north-west of present day Rockhampton. Exaggerated reports of the amount of gold discovered quickly attracted 15,000 miners but the gold soon petered out leaving the miners stranded and desperate. It was the most disastrous gold rush in Australia’s history. There was killing and looting, and ships in Keppel Bay were seized. The police were outnumbered and powerless to intervene. Gambier’s connections led to him being asked to accompany Sir Maurice O’Connell, the Deputy Governor, to the goldfields, and his eyewitness account of the disorder and desperation in the mining settlement, with thousands facing starvation, is extraordinary. But is it known to historians of the gold rushes, or of the Rockhampton area, buried away in Gambier’s memoirs? The histories of Rockhampton and the Canoona gold rush which I have examined seem not to be aware of it.

The Iris also visited New Zealand, about which there is much interesting information. Gambier happened to be related to the Governor, Sir Thomas Gore Browne, who he accompanied on several official visits to different parts of the country. The Maoris at that time were in a threatening mood, resentful about what they saw as inequitable treatment and dispossession of their lands. The Maori War broke out while Gambier was there, and he and his fellows played a minor role. His extensive travel in New Zealand, and meetings with many Maoris, enabled him to make many observations on their culture and attitudes, again surely of great anthropological interest and importance, but which appear to be largely unknown.

He returned to England with the Iris in 1861 and was assigned to the Mediterranean Fleet for several years. Then, by coincidence, he met again in London the head of the family of squatters whose Hunter River property he had stayed at during his leave in 1857. Invited to return, and get some experience of life in the Australian bush, he secured a year’s leave from the navy and returned to Australia. He describes a year of life on a New South Wales sheep station, including the dangers of bushrangers, fire and flood. Again, some interesting information for social historians of bush life in the 1860s. He did not much enjoy this experience and returned to London and rejoined the Navy. Much later he was invalided out of the service with typhoid contracted in Malta, and later became the naval correspondent for the London Times during the Russo-Turkish War in the 1870s. His memoirs contain much interesting material for Australian historians, but seem to have been overlooked.

Roberts, Morley, Land-Travel and Sea-Faring. (London, Lawrence & Bullen, 1891)

Morley Roberts (1857-1942) was a prolific English novelist and journalist. Miller & Macartney’s Australian Literature lists more than sixty books of fiction published between 1890 and 1932 and fifteen non-fiction works. Some of his novels and short stories use Australian themes and draw on his experiences in Australia in 1878-80. Land-Travel and Sea-Faring, despite its prosaic title, is in fact a book entirely devoted to describing his experiences here, apart from the first and last chapters which describe the voyages out and back, respectively. It should have been entitled “Two Years in the Australian Outback” or something of the sort, for that is what it is. One would never know from the title, or from the unhelpful library catalogue subject headings assigned to it—“Seafaring Life – Great Britain”, and “Voyages and Travels”—that it is a treasure trove of information about outback life in the south-west of New South Wales in the late 1870s.

Roberts was from Manchester, and in 1878, at the age of nineteen, he arrived in Melbourne where he worked for a while loading goods trains at Spencer Street Station then decided to take a train to Wodonga, “the end of the line”, and try his luck in Albury. He secured a clerical job with a stock and station agent, which led to a job as a boundary rider on a sheep and cattle station 40 miles up the Murray River.



For the next two and a half years he travelled extensively through the Riverina area of New South Wales working on sheep and cattle stations as a labourer, boundary rider, musterer, and general farm hand. He would typically stay somewhere for a few months then move on. Almost the entire book is devoted to his accounts of these travels, and it provides a fascinating view of life in the New South Wales outback in the late 1870s. He names most of the stations on which he worked, the towns he stopped at or passed through, the rivers he crossed; it is easy to trace his travels on a modern road atlas of the area, though some of the settlements he names seem to have disappeared long ago. It was a remarkable odyssey, but no-one knows about it.

According to Ferguson’s Bibliography of Australia Roberts’s book is widely held in major Australian libraries, but its value as a source of firsthand information on outback life seems to be largely unknown. I have not found it referred to in any of the histories of the Riverina that I have examined.

Burge, C O The Adventures of a Civil Engineer. (London, Alston Rivers, 1909)

Burge, an Irishman, who was born about 1840, specialised in building railways. This work took him to India, South Africa, the USA and Australia. He was in Australia in the 1880s and 1890s, attached to the New South Wales Department of Railways, surveying the routes for new lines, building them, and supervising the building of bridges, most notably the railway bridge over the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney. Three chapters of his memoirs are devoted to his time in Australia.

He gives few dates, but I infer that he arrived in Sydney about 1885, armed with a letter of introduction to the NSW Premier, Sir Henry Parkes. This led to his appointment with the state railways to survey the route for a proposed railway in “the Bush”, though he doesn’t say where. He makes many interesting and perceptive comments about bush life, country towns, squatters, and so on. He was also responsible for naming and laying out towns to be established around proposed railway stations along the line, though, frustratingly, he doesn’t say which ones.

Then he was appointed resident engineer in charge of the construction of the Hawkesbury River railway bridge and there is a great deal of technical material about the construction process which would surely be of interest to engineering historians. It was, he says, “the largest work of the kind in the Southern Hemisphere”, and very difficult to achieve because of the steep and rocky land and the depth of the river. In June 1887, a train of holidaymakers from Sydney lost control on the steep incline into Brooklyn, the station on the southern bank of the river, and smashed into a stationary train with loss of five lives and dozens more injured. Burge, as engineer supervising the construction of the railway bridge from Brooklyn across the river, witnessed the whole thing and played a leading role in the subsequent recovery of the dead and injured. There are other eye-witness accounts of this disaster, but Burge’s is apparently unknown to most historians. It is reprinted in John Cook’s A Book of Australian Railway Journeys (Sydney, Collins, 1985) only because I know John Cook and pointed it out to him; perhaps this will give it a wider circulation.

The bridge was opened in 1889. Burge comments, bitterly, that at the ceremonies all the speeches praised the “politicians whose share in the work was infinitesimal, and never mentioning anyone who had anything to do with its construction.” Does that sound familiar?

Burge then spent several years investigating possible railway routes in the outback of New South Wales, and, later, as Assistant Principal Engineer, supervising their construction. He devotes a chapter to this work, again in unidentified parts of the outback, and as well as technical railway commentary, he gives many interesting assessments of bush life at the time, Australian politics, the treatment of aborigines, religion, social customs, and so on. His book must be a treasure-trove for social historians as well as historians of engineering and railways, but unfortunately it is largely unknown. The title does not reveal its true contents, and library cataloguers have given it the unhelpful subject heading, “Civil Engineers – Biography”.

Burge seems to have been in Australia, based in Sydney and working for the NSW Railways, for nearly twenty years. He arrived, I surmise, about 1885. He was elected to the Royal Society of NSW in 1891 and served on its Committee for a while. He was on its register of members as late as 1903. In his memoirs he says that he returned to “The Old Country” after seventeen years absence, so that makes his time here about 1885-1903. It is a great pity that his account of his life and work here is not better known.

Poore, Ida (Lady Poore), Recollections of an Admiral’s Wife 1903-1916 (London, Smith Elder, 1916)

Ida Poore was the wife of Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Poore, Bt., (18531930) who, in 1908, was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’sAustralian Station. For three years (1908-11) they lived in Admiralty House, a splendid mansion on the shore of Sydney Harbour, now the Sydney residence of the Governor-General.

Lady Poore’s Recollections include 200 pages of her impressions of Australia at this time, a valuable insight into the higher echelons of Australian and Sydney society, but one which seems to be hardly known. She says that, as the wife of the Naval Commander-in-Chief, she was “the third lady in the official world of New South Wales”. I assume that the other two would have been the wives of the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor (who was also the Chief Justice). So she moved in high circles and, ex officio, was involved in many charities and ladies’ committees. It was a full social life in those days—dinners, lunches, balls, and attending the races at Randwick “with their Excellencies”. She attended school prize-givings, meetings of the Seamen’s Institute, and various women’s committees for charity. It was a tiring round of obligations, and she says that “after the first six months I had to give up opening bazaars. They were too numerous.”



Lady Poore comes across in her memoirs as something of a snob. Among her many observations on the social life of the upper classes in Edwardian Sydney, she makes many patronising comments about Australia and Australians, concluding that they are not quite up to British standards. For example:

“People of comfortable means have only three maids, where five would be considered necessary by an English family of equal position.”

“The perfection of domestic service, as it is to be found in the great houses of England, cannot be looked for in Australia.”

“Australian women … have still a good deal to learn as regards the decoration and furnishing of their houses.”

By virtue of her position Lady Poore met all the important visitors to Sydney during her years here—including Lord Kitchener, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Dame Nellie Melba—and she has interesting comments on all of them. There are pages of comments and anecdotes about the Governor of the time, Sir Harry Rawson. The Poores toured country districts and stayed on sheep stations and other farming properties. There are lots of comments on life in the bush, as seen by a society lady, which would be potentially of interest to social historians. The same applies to comments from her visits to Hobart, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. But they are effectively hidden from view.

Concluding Comments

These are but five examples selected from my own modest collection of Australiana. It is clear that there is a large, and largely hidden, amount of potentially useful information about early Australia in books written by travellers to our shores in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In another context this has been referred to as “undiscovered public knowledge”. The information is in the public domain, in that it has been published and is available in libraries, etc., but those who would benefit from it are unaware of its existence. Why? I suggest two reasons

    • the books in which this information resides have titles which do not suggest to the browser that they are likely to contain relevant material;
    • librarians have failed to analyse the books’ contents in sufficient depth in their subject cataloguing, so as to bring the books to notice by anyone searching for material on a subject.

I cannot envisage a wholesale re-cataloguing of Australiana collections in our major libraries. If recent proposals to digitise all the books in all the world’s major libraries were ever to be realised, then computer searching of their contents on a subject basis would indeed reveal enormous amounts of important material. Will this ever happen? I am doubtful, but we should perhaps revisit this problem in, say, fifty years, and see whether and to what extent technology has managed to solve it.

Neil A Radford



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