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The Great Clipper Ships Collection from the Franklin Porcelain Collection

The Trials of a Gold Rush Immigration Officer
from Darren Watson
Victorian Office
National Archives of Australia

   This article recently submitted by Mr. Darren Watson of the Victorian Office of the National Archives of Australia is another look into the era of the famous ship Marco Polo. The article below was first published a year or so back (Ancestor, Quarterly Journal of the Genealogical Society of Victoria Vol. 25, No.7) and is based around a letter concerning this ship's arrival into Melbourne on 22 October 1854. The Letter Book from which this is taken is in the collection of the National Archives of Australia.

   The Victorian gold discoveries of 1851 created the atmosphere of a global great race, with prospective diggers from around the world desperate to reach the goldfields and secure their fortune before the imagined tide of wealth receded. For ship owners, however, the rush was an opportunity for returns both greater and more assured. In response to the unanticipated demand for passage to the colony any ship that would float and might stand the journey was pressed into service, wonders of resurrection being achieved as ancient hulks were refitted, repainted, and their makeshift and airless accommodation crammed with immigrants for a voyage of up to four months or more.

   Under such circumstances it is remarkable that so few ships were lost, but passenger mortality from disease was sufficiently high (5.5% amongst assisted immigrants in 1852) to persuade government to strengthen existing legislation regulating their conveyance. Under 'An Act to Amend and Consolidate the Laws Relating to the Carriage of Passengers by Sea' of 1852 (known simply as 'The Passengers Act') the Imperial government set out specific standards of accommodation, victualling and accountability that British passenger ships were bound to comply with. In Victoria a local Act of the same year extended many of the former's essential elements to cover ships arriving in the colony from non-British ports. Amongst the extensive requirements of the Imperial Act were the following: the Master of the vessel should maintain, and have available for inspection at the port of discharge an accurate passenger list (the 'Master's List'); every passenger should be issued three quarts of water daily; sleeping berths should be not less than six feet in length and eighteen inches in width; and, crucial to the policing of the Act, the Master should afford emigration officers in Her Majesty's dominions "every facility for inspecting such ship, and for communicating with the passengers, and for ascertaining that the provisions of this Act ... have been duly complied with".

   The Immigration Officers of the Colony of Victoria were vigilant in enforcing these Acts, and in 1854 alone thirty-nine prosecutions were instituted against ship's Masters for infringements. The financial penalties could be stiff, as Captain Yachtman of the 'Malvina Vidal' would have acknowledged, having through one of these prosecutions been fined almost £500 for supplying unwholesome provisions to his passengers. He had, doubtless, run afoul of one of the three Assistant Immigration Officers operating from Williamstown that year: John Wilkins, Charles Broad and George Ashton. On any given day, from dawn to dusk, and in most weathers, one of these gentlemen would be stationed aboard the government schooner 'Empire' off Queenscliff, with a small boat and oarsmen ready to pull away and intercept every new arrival in turn. Those ships entering the bay from overseas ports, having come under the control of a pilot outside Port Phillip Heads, were obliged to heave to and wait to be boarded and cleared. Until this clearance was given the blue flag proscribed by the Harbour Regulations was flown at their masthead, and no passengers could be landed. In 1854 the Assistant Immigration Officer was accompanied by the government's Health Officer, although the following year the two duties were merged. Procedure dictated that the Health Officer board first, his precursory inspection determining if the ship and its occupants required consigning to the limbo of weeks in quarantine. If it were found that the vessel was free of any threatening disease the Immigration Officer would then come on board. His administrative tasks involved the inspection and, if accurate, certification of the ship's passenger lists, and the collection of the passenger rate (effectively an immigration tax) calculated according to the number carried. As stipulated by the Act, he was also to have free access to the passengers, and to make a preliminary investigation of any complaints they might raise touching upon its requirements. Should the Immigration Officer find cause to suspect that the Act had, indeed, not been complied with he was to refuse certification of the passenger lists, and order the continued flying of the blue flag until a more thorough investigation was carried out by officers at Hobson's Bay or Point Henry.³

   The instructions to Immigration Officers stated that they should endeavour to detain vessels as briefly as possible in the performance of their duties. Unfortunately, actual circumstances did not always permit a speedy inspection, and the resulting delays were a frequent sore point with ship's captains and pilots. One of the latter, John Nicholson, complained that the 'Australia', having entering the Heads under his charge on 30th April 1855, had been forced to wait forty minutes to be boarded. Almost a full hour elapsed before the ship was finally cleared, "the vessel all this time drifting up with the tide and losing the fair wind", so that "by the time I got to the outer entrance of the South Channel it fell calm, and I was obliged to anchor in a very critical position to prevent the vessel being drifted ashore". Ultimately the inspection resulted in delaying the ship's arrival in Hobsons Bay by several hours.

   Of course when a number of vessels appeared at the Heads at roughly the same time there was little that could be done but leave captains, pilots and passengers all to stew while the government's officers methodically made their rounds. This is precisely what occurred late on the afternoon of 22 October 1854, when the officer on duty, George Ashton, was confronted with four ships arriving in rapid succession. These were the 653 ton 'Oest Indian' and the 575 ton 'Willem III', both Dutch owned barques carrying merchandise from London, the 1,625 ton clipper 'Marco Polo' from Liverpool with 609 passengers, and the 1,286 ton 'Hornet' also out of Liverpool and carrying 467 government sponsored immigrants. If the consequent delay were not bad enough, however, Ashton appears to have compounded his sin by not strictly adhering to the order of arrival in his inspections. The result seems to have been one particularly agitated clipper captain.

   Patience was not a quality greatly sought after in clipper captains on the passenger run to Australia, but rather dash, authority, and the skill and nerve needed to drive their ships through the high seas and frequent gales of the lonely subantarctic latitudes favoured by the Great Circle route. A fast passage not only benefited the fortune seekers being conveyed, but also lessened the risk of illness taking hold and increased the profits of the owners. Consequently a captain could found his reputation on a single record breaking run. The most audacious became celebrities, like the notorious James 'Bully' Forbes who, in the very same 'Marco Polo' that Immigration Officer Ashton was now working towards, had shattered the record with a seventy-six day voyage in 1852. His slogan was "Hell or Melbourne", and he habitually gave his passengers a generous preview of the former through his hunger for speed. An apocryphal story has him padlocking the sails during a gale to prevent any of the more timid in his crew hauling in the dangerously strained canvas. 'Bully' ended up driving one of his subsequent commands, the fine new 'Schomberg', onto a reef near Moonlight Head in 1855 through a display of exaggerated nonchalance that brought charges of negligence.

   The current Master of the 'Marco Polo', Captain William Wild, had served under 'Bully' Forbes as First Officer, and it can be assumed he shared something of Forbes' temperament. Frustratingly though, on this his first run to Melbourne in command of the celebrated ship the voyage had stretched to ninety-two days; a respectable passage time for most ships but well below the average set by the sleek, fast clipper on its three previous trips. Wild laid the blame on the fresh water tanks with which the ship had recently been fitted. These iron tanks had a capacity of 50,000 gallons of water, however much of the contents had leaked owing to the man holes not being properly secured. In addition, the compartments into which the tanks were divided had proved too large; allowing what remained of the water to roll about excessively. As a result the ship's steering was made crank and erratic. A further consequence was a shortage of drinking water for the passengers - and the possibility of unwelcome attention from the Immigration Officer.

   The details of the ensuing encounter between government officer and ship's captain were set down in a letter by George Ashton to his superior the following day. It highlights a clash of personalities that resulted in moments of high farce. It also captures the chaotic and exuberant atmosphere of a crowded immigrant ship newly arrived at Port Phillip Bay - in all probability not having sighted land since leaving her home port several months previously.

Govt Schr "Empire" off Queenscliffe
Oct 23rd 1854


Sir,

   I have the honor to inform you the following vessels arrived yesterday at the Port Phillip Heads about 4pm in this rotation: "Oest Indian" from London for Geelong: "William 3rd" from London for Melbourne; "Marco Polo" from Liverpool for Melbourne; "Hornet" from Liverpool for Geelong with upwards of 400 government immigrants. This latter vessel was boarded by the health Officer and myself at 4.50pm, being close to the boat as we were leaving the "William 3rd", the "Marco Polo" having gone past us a long distance up to the Quarantine Grounds. Had we boarded her in rotation it is quite certain the "Hornet" would have been detained until this day. As it was , after being inspected etc. the ship proceeded on her way with a good breeze. At the same time it was clearly perceptible the Pilot of the "Marco Polo" intended anchoring that vessel. On searching her ['Marco Polo'] I found the Captain evidently much excited, and considerable confusion amongst the passengers. On going below to examine the lists etc. I found several deaths had taken place, which had not been taken off the lists as usual. I requested the Captain and Surgeon to point the same out to me, but after waiting a considerable time I found it useless. I went on deck to examine the ship, and enquire of the passengers whether they had been comfortable and well treated on the voyage; but such was the confusion amongst them and the noise caused by the band of musicians, who would persist in playing, although requested by me more than once to desist, I could scarcely make myself heard. One person of the name of Scarlett wished to prefer a complaint for himself and seven others, on account of a short supply of water. He hesitated in laying the charge, the Captain coming up tried to prevent his doing so, but on my requesting Captain Wild not to excite himself he called out for all hands to cheer, and for some time the noise was perfectly deafening. Another man came to prefer a charge [that ?] his sleeping berth was not the proper size; a similar scene to the former ensued, the band playing. I was again under the unpleasant necessity of calling Captain Wilds attention to these annoyances, and told him he was by no means facilitating the departure of his ship; that it was not my wish to raise complaints, but if they were made it was my duty to attend to them; his language and conduct being at this time anything but calm and collected. I procured a measure and went below to take the dimensions of the bunk in dispute, and found the same fully 6 feet by 20 inches. On coming up again I saw Mr Scarlett and told him his case should be investigated on arrival in Hobsons Bay as the Captain had acknowledged, from an accident, he had been obliged to issue for some time a short supply of water. Returning to the cabin to see whether the Passenger List had been corrected, as previously requested, I could obtain no further information, all the Cabin Passengers being at dinner and Captain Wild, from over anxiety, unable to do it. The Health Officer at the same time sending to me, saying he was anxious to leave, there being another vessel to visit and quite dark at the time. I therefore left the list unsigned, writing a memo for Mr Broad to examine the same and informed the Pilot he must fly the Blue Flag on arrival in Hobsons Bay and not allow anyone to leave the ship until boarded by that officer.

   As it is not improbable an enquiry may be instituted I have taken this early opportunity to inform you of the leading facts in the case.

I have the honor to be
Sir
your most obedient servt.
Geo. Ashton
Assistant Emigration Officer
(To) The Immigration Agent, Melbourne

   Contrary to Ashton's prediction, no enquiry appears to have taken place. His letter, however, now forms one of the more lively components of a collection of correspondence by Health and Emigration Officers which found its way into the National Archives' Victorian office via the Quarantine Branch of the Department of Trade and Customs. Cumulatively this collection gives an insight into the processes and problems - not to mention personalities - associated with that great influx of population that Victoria's gold rushes provoked.

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