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Letter from the Past
Letter from the past describes life for Marco Polo passengers

by Erin Dwyer
Times Globe staff writer

    A copy of an 1852 letter describing the Polo's first voyage to Australia made it halfway around the world this year in much less time than the speedy sailing ship could have managed.
    Saint John High School teacher Barry Ogden recently received a copy of a letter written by an Irish emigrant to Australia. In it, J.M. Whelan described his journey aboard the Marco Polo, a ship that had been built in Saint John the year before the Irishman stepped on board.
    Mr. Ogden said he was fascinated by the letter, one of the first accounts he's read of that inaugural voyage to Australia. In the letter, Mr. Whelan talks of the fits of seasickness endured by the passengers, the weather and squalls they encountered, and even the type of food they were served.
    "I've read information about that first voyage, but I never read much first-hand," Mr. Ogden said in an interview. "This is something first-hand, so this is really something of value. "
    But he was even more impressed with how he came to receive the letter.
    In the small town of Newry in Northern Ireland, a patient turned last year to his family doctor - also a history buff - for advice on what to do with some old papers, among them an 1852 letter from his great-great uncle.
    "This old man said, 'What do I do with these?' Dr. Shortall said in a telephone interview yesterday from Northern Ireland. "He was going through a whole pile of papers and he wasn't feeling well. I dug this letter out and I said, 'You should forward it to public records, and let them have a look at it."'
    Before sending it off, however, the doctor made a copy of the letter, which he found described conditions aboard the ship that "weren't all that bad."
    The letter, dated Oct. 4, 1852, is written by J.M. Whelan to his parents and siblings back in Newry, Ireland. In it, he describes the voyage, which began on July 4 from the port of Mersey, England and ended on Sept. 20.
    "We then sailed up the Bay and on the 20th cast anchor being at sea only 77 days, the quickest passage ever made from England to Australia," Mr. Whelan wrote.
    Mr. Whelan describes how there were 960 passengers and 70 crew aboard the ship, captained by James Nicol "Bully" Forbes, when it left England.
    "Nearly everyone on board, with the exception of about 20, were sea sick more or less for the first week ... We had no fever of any kind during the voyage but measles set in at the first and about 50 children, chiefly infants, died. Only two adults died on the passage and these were women who had been sickly coming on board for the sea in such cases will either kill or cure. "
    Mr. Whelan, who taught the children aboard the ship for several hours each day, describes the provisions aboard the Marco Polo.
    "We had flour, butter, raisins and suet to make bread and ovens to bake it in ... We preserved meat which was very rich and nice presented in tins without any salt whatsoever ... We also had soup and 'bouile' preserved also in tins which required only warm water to be poured on it to make excellent soup."
    Dr. Shortall's patient died just before Christmas, but the physician's curiosity about the letter did not.
    Recently, he pulled out the 1852 letter and decided to find out more about the ship that ferried Irish immigrants to Australia. He turned to the Internet.
    "I was wanting something to do and I remember I said, 'I must look up the ship sometime, Marco Polo, and see what its track record was," he recalled.
    "I knew from the letter that it done a good time down to Australia, but I didn't know it was one of the fastest ships."
    A genealogical researcher, Dr. Shortall, 59, is no stranger to the Internet. He uses it quite often in the research of his family tree. But he knew nothing about the Marco Polo, where it was built or its fame. He began surfing the Web looking for information.
    "I sort of typed in Marco Polo and up came the site," he said. "It was a very good site, very elaborate. I just wanted more information. "
    For a dozen years, Mr. Ogden, a Saint John High School teacher, has campaigned for the construction of a Marco Polo replica that would grace Saint John Harbour.
    Constructed by James Smith at his Saint John shipyard in 1851, the Marco Polo became world famous upon its return trip in 1853 from its inaugural voyage.
    When it reached England, it had circumnavigated the world in five months and 21 days, the first ship to do it under six months.
    It was subsequently dubbed the "Fastest Ship in the World. "
    Mr. Ogden has pressed the city and the province to build a replica ship that would lure tourists to the city and the province. He has scaled down his plans for a sailing ship to one that would be remain ashore, and has applied to Ottawa's Millennium Fund for project money.
    His efforts are all documented at the site http: / /marcopoloproject. new-brunswick. net /index.html.
    So it's no surprise that Dr. Shortall, while surfing the Internet, would hit upon his web site.
    "The world is a lot smaller than the days of sail," said Mr. Ogden in an interview. "We are talking in about 150 years of two sailing stories and they are both connected to Saint John.
    "So it shows what a global city we are."
    Mr. Ogden thinks this is just more evidence that there would be worldwide interest in a replica of the Marco Polo.
    "It shows that we've got an international story here in terms of marketing for tourism," he said.
    "We've got something world-famous. This is further proof."

Click on the image for a larger view
The Marco Polo made the trip from Britain to Australia in 77 days.

On the Marco Polo to Australia
An Irish emigrant describes life aboard the 19th-century, Saint-built ship

    Barry Ogden of Saint John recently received a letter from Dr. Myles Shortall, a family doctor in Northern Ireland and a history buff. Dr. Shortall was given a copy of a letter by one of his patients. The letter was written by the patient's great-great-uncle, Y. M. Whelan, who detailed his voyage to Australia in 1852 aboard the clipper Marco Polo. To find out more about the ship, Dr. Shortall turned to the Internet and found Barry Ogden's site devoted to the famous sailing ship, which was built in Saint John in 1851. He forwarded a copy of the letter to Mr. Ogden.

Melbourne October 4th 1852
My Dearest Parents and Brother

    After many an adventurous scene, we have at last arrived safe at Melbourne and in good health.
    We sailed from the Mersey on 4th July in the ship Marco Polo [under] Captain Forbes.
    We had 960 souls on board and 70 crew, so you may guess that large as our ship was, it was pretty full. There were two surgeons on board, both Irishmen, of whom Dr. North was one of the finest fellows I ever met.
    Nearly everyone on board, with the exception of about 20, were seasick more or less for the first week. I was one of the exceptions, having never had an hour's sickness from the time I went on board till I left. After the sea sickness had subsided, dysentery set in and Mary had an attack of it but owing to Dr. North's unremitting attention, it was soon checked.
    Hugh Wallace and his wife had it, and Hugh's wife was very near going to Davy's locker by it; after Mary recovered from this attack she got excellent health. We had no fever of any kind during the voyage, but measles set in at the first and about 50 children, chiefly infants, died. Only two adults died on the passage and these were women who had been sickly coming on board, for the sea will in such cases either kill or cure.
    From the time we sailed, the weather grew hotter every day until we came to the line when it was most intolerable. You could compare it to nothing else but being in an oven.
    After we crossed the line, it grew cooler and after passing the Cape of Good Hope, the Captain ran out to the 52nd or 53rd degree south when it was intensely cold. The cold in Ireland could not at all be compared to it. Before and after crossing the line we had some squalls but they did the ship no harm. Their approach was always indicated by the ship's barometer and the Captain could thus be prepared.
    For about a fortnight whilst doubling the Cape and after while we were running south, we had very rough weather but the ship being so large and such a fine sailer was not much knocked about. She has sailed when under a strong breeze at the rate of 18 knots an hour and off the Cape in 24 hours sailed 350 miles.
    Our provision was of the very best description. We had flour, butter, raisins and suet to make bread and ovens to bake it in. We had preserved meat which was very rich and nice presented in tins without any salt. We cooked it various ways. We had also soup and 'bouile' preserved also in tins which required only warm water to be poured on it to make excellent soup. Our bacon was excellent being all cured in Belfast and we hardly ever tasted salt beef. We had plenty of tea, sugar, rice, oatmeal, spices, peas, pickles etc. so that as far as eating was concerned we were not badly off.
    I stuck to drinking water and indeed it was very good considering the length of time it had to be kept and we were provided with lime juice which when mixed with it makes a very agreeable drink. There was also porter, wine, and brandy for us - but we did not trouble it very much.
    I had to teach the children on board three hours in the day from 10 o'clock until 1 o'clock and again from 3 o'clock until 4. There were about 80 boys attending.
    On the 17th Sept. we came insight of Australia and on the 18th we took in a pilot and entered the bay. On going in, the ship stuck in a sand bank and was not got off till the 19th. We then sailed up the bay and on the 20th cast anchor, being at sea only 77 days - the quickest passage ever made from England to Australia.
    I did not leave the ship till the evening of the 25th and on the morning of the 27th I got a situation in the office of Messrs Bowler, Bennett & Co., solicitors, as coveyancer at a salary of 4 pounds a week.
    My employers are the foremost solicitors in Melbourne. I have taken a house and although it is not very large I have to pay 50 pounds a year rent for it as house rent is very high here. Flour, bread, clothes, eggs, fowl, and butter are also very high, nearly three times the price at home.
    The gold diggings are going on as brisk as ever. About 70,000 people are working at them and the town is full every day of persons going and returning from them. Many have made their fortunes at them, others do not make a halfpenny so that it is just a sort of lottery however it keeps up the prices of both labour and provisions here, tradesmen are remarkably well-paid. Anyone in fact that wishes to work is well-remunerated for it and can live better than at home. Every person here eats meat three times a day.
    When I look around me properly I will write again in about three weeks or a month and give you more particulars concerning the place. God knows the connecting link of a letter, poor as it will be, to us an invaluable treasure. Mary sends you all her fondest love.
    I remain, my dear parents and brother, Your affectionate son and brother

(J.M.) Whelan

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