Rodney and Ruth Burton's Genealogy Pages

Family: George BURTON / Emma BURT

m. 30 Aug 1862


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500 Class, A Social History of George Burton and his Family: Chapter 2 The Drone of the Mighty Wind

Written in 1981 for the Burton Family Reunion held on 25th October 1981 at Walkerville, Adelaide, South Australia. Winner of the S.A. Family History Award for 1981.


Enforced idleness, the plain, rather cramped quarters of the boarding house with its shifting “here today, gone tomorrow” population of emigrants and the landlord’s news that their ship had finally docked that morning, guaranteed an enthusiastic response to George’s announcement that he was off for a walk to the docks. As the boys scuttled for their boots and caps, Emma, glad to be distracted from her post mortem on the possessions she and George had decided to take to South Australia, asked Isabella to fetch their shawls. They would all go to see their home for the next three months. Besides, Emma welcomed the opportunity to gaze for the last time on the people and buildings of this English port. As they approached the docks of Plymouth, whence Drake had ventured to smite the Spanish Armada in 1588, the boys came pounding back yelling that they had found her. Shortly, the whole family watched intently with wonder and a little dread, while the crew and dockers loaded the sleek, iron clipper with provisions, water and stores. “I’ve heard she’s got a good reputation as an emigrant ship,” father said reassuringly.

The Hesperus had been conceived expressly with the emigrant trade to South Australia in mind. On 23rd March 1872, the Yatala, the finest passenger ship in the Orient Line, returning from Adelaide, went ashore near Cape Gris Nez and was a total loss. The disaster could not have come at a worse time for the line as there was every indication that a new wave of emigrants was about to beat on colonial shores. The South Australian parliament had placed the statutory imprimatur on the colony’s returning prosperity by enacting, with little opposition, legislation for the resumption of assisted immigration. Stimulated by the commencement in the 1870’s of the long economic boom in the Australian colonies, the North Country was building iron clippers as fast as possible, ship owners realizing the advantages of these ships over the as yet still too slow and expensive steam ships. London ship builders found their composite, wood and iron clippers were no match for the products of the Mersey and the Clyde. Thus Anderson, Anderson and Company decided to replace the lost Yatala with two of the finest iron clippers possible. They engaged R. Steele and Company, Greenock, Scotland, foremost designer and builder of such ships in the world, to build the Hesperus and the Aurora. Unfortunately the latter was lost on her maiden voyage when, on 9th August 1875, returning home, she caught fire through spontaneous combustion of her cargo of Australian wool. She was replaced by the Harbinger. The Hesperus was launched in November 1873 and, unlike her sister ship, was destined for a long, distinguished and varied career.

The arrival of the Hesperus was timely for the Orient Line and she was quickly pressed into service. The new year promised much business and the veteran Captain Legoe was appointed first master of the ship in February 1874. Bound for Adelaide on her maiden voyage with 416 emigrants on board, the Hesperus proved a fine sea boat, stiff under canvas and easy to handle. Captain Legoe must have welcomed the more prosperous times when he recalled an earlier voyage in 1867 with just sixty-six emigrants aboard. The Hesperus was fast and made good, regular passages but was never raced. Her owners and masters preferred to return via the Cape of Good Hope rather than the more stressful Cape Horn. The experienced Captain Legoe was so attracted by South Australia and its prospects that at the end of the decade he established himself as a stevedore at Semaphore.

The master overseeing loading operations at Plymouth docks on the afternoon of 5th August 1878 was Captain Thomas Rowe Harry. Although he presented a rather remote, terrifying figure to the Burton boys, their parents hoped simply that he and his men knew their business. Knowledge of the activities of the previous week would have helped to ease their minds. In her home port of London, in late July, the holds of the Hesperus had been filled with the produce of the workshop of the world. It comprised cottons and woollens, to the value of £52; apparel, £14; wrought leather, £100; sewing machines, £100; agricultural machinery, £173; rails and general machinery, £2,519; books, £13; paper, 40 cwt; stationery, £28; toys, £45; chain and anchors, 50 tons; hardware and cutlery, £207; bar and rod iron, 207 tons; plate iron, 10 tons; galvanized iron, 56 tons; sheet lead, 13 tons; wire and wire rope, 25 tons; china and earthenware, £40; sawn wood, £124; rice, 200 cwt; white salt, 52 tons; bicarbonate of soda, 20 cwt; coffee, 60 cwt: confectionery and peel, 25 cases; tartaric acid, 10 cwt. The total declared value of the cargo was £6,100. George Burton, his family and their fellow passengers would be sleeping above a veritable storehouse of the industrial world. Duly laden with the material goods of British civilisation, the Hesperus left London for Plymouth to collect her human cargo. The captain reported

… leaving the docks in tow of a couple of steam tugs on July 30th and on reaching Greenhithe swinging his ship to adjust compasses. On the 31st one tug was discharged at Margate Sound east buoy and on reaching the North Foreland the other was let go and the ship proceeded. On the 1st August she was off Start Point and at 6.00 a.m. on the 2nd anchored in Plymouth Sound. The 3rd was taken up with an inspection of the vessel and her equipment, the seaworthy character of the boats being matter for special commendation as they were lowered from the davits and manned with proper crews much to the satisfaction of the inspector.

The officers and crew of the Hesperus already knew and the 593 emigrants waiting to board were to discover soon enough that Captain Harry was certainly master of his ship and very conscious of his responsibilities.

Early in the morning, two days after their first sighting of the Hesperus, George, Arthur and the younger George were back on the docks, upon Emma’s insistence, to check that their already delivered and labelled luggage was not left behind. It comprised three stout trunks packed with clothing, some materials, a selection of George’s tools of trade, blankets, best crockery and cutlery, documents, money and some small ornamental pieces of sentimental value to Emma. These possessions would be virtually inaccessible during the voyage. When they boarded, they would take with them a spare change of clothing, sleepwear, towels and soap, as well as their bedding and eating utensils. The parents had spent hours drawing up the two lists of luggage, checking them against the printed guidelines given to them once they had been accepted as fully assisted emigrants, and, finally, disposing of excess items in order to swell their cash fund.

Because of their evident interest and willingness to help, George and the boys were invited aboard. Taking care to avoid the toiling crew they walked around the main deck. The ship had a registered tonnage of 1,777, was 262 feet 2 inches long, 39 feet 7 inches in the beam and 23 feet 5 inches in depth. Arthur felt momentarily dizzy when he arched back his neck, squinted and peered up at the top of the main-mast towering over one hundred feet above him. Father grabbed his arm, called George who was leaning over the side, and followed their guide down the main hatchway to the second deck. Here, between decks, running almost the whole length of the ship, with the cargo and luggage hold below them, were the quarters where the 124 single women, 143 single men and 326 married couples and children would spend most of their time on their way to a new life in the southern hemisphere. Deserted, the quarters look spacious as they stretched away in the gloom. Arthur and George, fifteen and fourteen years respectively, were statutorily adults and officially described as a blacksmith and agricultural labourer. George’s occupation may have had some basis in fact, which was fortunate as any emigration agent realised the value of such labourers in a colony such as South Australia. Being twelve, Isabella was also officially an adult, thus, like her two brothers, she would sleep in separate quarters from her parents. Single women had their own quarters in the after part of the ship under the stern, watchful eye of a matron. At least Isabella would receive a full adult’s ration of food. A bulkhead separated the single women from the married couples’ and children’s quarters, where George, Emma and Thomas, aged ten, would have their berth. Finally, in this eminently sensible and respectable arrangement, another partition defined the beginning of the single men’s quarters in the forward part of the vessel. The segregation of the sexes, though children did of course mix with their parents during the day, impressed itself much on Isabella’s mind and she would recall it vividly years later, In each compartment, the Burtons found the floor space had been divided by wooden partitions into berths about six feet by six feet. In each berth, there were provided four bunks and a similar number in the second tier, about three to four feet above the lower berths. Their lives were going to be very public throughout the months to come.

When they emerged on the main deck, the fresh sea air was invigorating after the closeness below. It also heightened George’s awareness of the faint but peculiar smell between decks. A sailor confirmed his rural suspicion. Yes, the Hesperus backloaded wool and grain from South Australia, after knocking down all the temporary partitions, berths and bunks and selling the sawn timber.

One more surprise awaited George. On shore again, the emigration agent approached and announced he would like to recommend George, along with twelve other passengers, to the captain, to serve as constables on board the Hesperus for the duration of the voyage. Duties comprised taking charge of a mess to ensure the orderly and correct allocation of provisions; maintaining a sense of propriety, respectability and decorum amongst fellow emigrants; seeing to it that duties allocated to passengers were performed satisfactorily and that the safety and health regulations were adhered to. Due completion of these tasks would result in the payment of a gratuity of three pounds once South Australia had been reached. George accepted immediately. What news to tell mother. They were actually paying him to emigrate! Watching the broad retreating back, flanked by his boys, the agent felt happy with his choice. The respectable blacksmith and family man of solid build, large head, broad shoulders, huge hands and honest face would earn his money.

Excitement mounted the next day as the emigrants boarded the Hesperus. George settled the account with the landlord and joined the rest of the family as they trudged, each heavily laden, to the docks for the last time. After much coming and going, queueing, picking and choosing, making do, bemoaning forgotten items, sorting, losing, finding, stowing, stumbling and bumping of heads, the late afternoon final muster of all on board revealed the presence of 650 persons. That evening the passengers spent their first and calmest night afloat, eventually falling asleep now so very close to departure.

On 9th August 1878 the agent hurried ashore, the ship weighed anchor, was towed to an offing, made all possible sail and on the 10th took departure from Bishop’s Lighthouse. The mixture of optimism at starting anew and of nostalgia at leaving the old and familiar very quickly gave way to more immediate problems. The first few days were marked by strong breezes and, consequently, a great deal of seasickness among the vast majority aboard unused to anything more violent than a slow cart on a rough road. The master considerately shortened the sail to ease the pitching of the vessel until his human freight overcame the first bouts of seasickness. This took longer for Arthur than he would have liked and it was not until some weeks had elapsed that he began to feel more at ease and to take more interest in his surroundings.

Fine weather and fresh breezes ensured steady sailing but running down the trades the weather became very hot and constituted a new challenge to the intrepid travellers. George quipped it was worse than a forge. On 5th September the Hesperus crossed the equator in 23° with the usual hilarity and light relief to break the routine which had been established after three weeks at sea. Arthur and George, with many of the other single men, enjoyed a saltwater ducking by King Neptune in a series of barrels. Isabella and Thomas gravely looked through a proffered telescope at the line on the sea which divided the world into north and south! Refreshments and cordials were taken on the main deck in the shade of awnings erected for the occasion. Seventeen days of fine weather later, the Hesperus reached the prime meridian in 40° south and the weather was decidedly colder as she turned to pick up the roaring forties. Sailing further south to exploit even more wind, the cold became so intense that Captain Harry was obliged, for the sake of his passengers, to seek a more genial line of course further north.

In the new month fierce weather began, the memories of which became etched in the minds of the between decks inhabitants. On 1st October the Hesperus encountered very heavy weather with hurricane force squalls. The first few days of the voyage were as though becalmed compared to this majestic display of strength of a region of the world where but the tip of one continent dared interfere with winds and oceans. A day’s bewildered respite for anxious hearts followed as nature marshalled her forces. She decently sounded a warning. Heavy squalls were reproduced on the 3rd. The barometer fell very low. To the master’s experienced eyes and to his very bones, all other natural phenomena heralded such heavy weather ahead that he ordered sail to be reduced to storm canvas only and the hatches to be battened. Squalls, heavy gales, very high seas and thunder and lightning battered the iron clipper.

To those below, the storms which furiously lashed the Hesperus for almost the next three weeks must have been a nightmare. One traveller of 1852 who experienced similar conditions and state of mind wrote:

One day we had a hurricane that never ceased for a minute, so that when it grew dark we all fairly turned into our berths to avoid being knocked and battered to pieces against the ship and each other, and there we all lay wide awake, listening to the various effects — such as roars, howls, hisses, gushes, creaks, clanks, shrieks, flaps and flanks, rumbles and falls, and sudden shocks, with the steady, monotonous, vibrating drone of the mighty wind holding on all through, without intermission. This lasted in all its force through the night, till from sheer exhaustion by attending to it I dropped off to sleep. Sometime between twelve and two I awoke with a start, caused by a loud and violent booming blow, followed by a rush of water, which came dashing down the main hatchway, and flooding all the ‘tween decks, every cabin inclusive.

The Hesperus did not ship any heavy water or suffer any serious damage, unlike the South Australian which encountered the same violent Southern Ocean at this time and lost a portion of her bulwark planking as a result. But the experience encountered above took place in a wooden clipper. The Hesperus, being of iron, was stronger but tended more to sail through the water thus experiencing more shocks and shudders. Moreover, the “boisterous” weather encountered by the Hesperus in 1878 was prolonged. Little wonder that Isabella would later recall being kept under the hatches for six weeks. It must have seemed so long for a twelve year old. As well, Arthur would often use the phrase “wreck of the Hesperus”, no doubt referring to his own experiences in her and the chaotic state between decks during that tempestuous October of 1878. On deck at least two men battled the wheel of the vessel, a few paces behind them, Captain Harry advising constant adjustments of course to his helmsmen in order to avoid running beam on to towering seas pouring past in the same direction as the ship.

After passing below Cape Leeuwin, Western Australia, the Hesperus was slowed by three days of calm which afforded the battered passengers some respite, as well as opportunities to clean up and exercise on deck. Calmer thoughts turned to the prospect of landfall in about a week’s time. Many friendships had been forged in the close, communal environment of shipboard life and the common ordeal of strong weather. At least the fear of the spread of contagious disease had been without foundation except for a few cases of whooping cough, none of which proved fatal. The five deaths aboard had occurred from other causes. Many aboard, to whom this voyage would be their only encounter with the sea, were struck by the melancholy nature of the burials at sea. The impermanence of man’s hold on this planet seemed much heightened by the sombre ritual. Six births took place on the voyage and it seemed in all likelihood that all on board would arrive in South Australia in good health.

Discipline on board had been strict from the outset, maintained by the master, his officers and the surgeon, Dr. Morier. The rigid adherence to rules and regulations insisted on by the former naval doctor, was at first resented by a number of passengers, but as the voyage drew to a close the policies seemed vindicated. There was little on board in the way of amusements and the passengers learnt quickly to rely on one another, building friendships, and for many, strengthening family bonds as parents were forced to take more heed of their children and the latter, in turn, could appreciate better the hopes, fears and experiences of their parents. Thomas and Isabella had attended lessons given by the schoolmaster engaged for the voyage, Thomas Champion, and his daughter Lizzie Champion, who was officially sub-matron and monitress. Father had managed to acquit himself well as a constable. Either because of his joint efforts with his twelve colleagues or because their exertions were not really necessary, it was reported that “the conduct of the immigrants has been most exemplary, especially of the single men, who are very highly spoken of.”

On the morning of Thursday, 24th October 1878, the Hesperus, with a fair wind, sailed up St. Vincent’s Gulf. Many of her passengers were on deck to glimpse their first sight of land since clearing Bishop’s Lighthouse seventy-five days before. It was a clear, fine day with a maximum of 81o Fahrenheit. In the eyes of the Register’s shipping reporter, as the fine vessel “headed towards the roads, she presented a very handsome picture.” Having laid her head to the wind, Captain Harry received on board the officers from the station and then came into a good berth near the Bell Buoy and dropped anchor. Shortly after the immigration agent arrived, took a muster and completed arrangements for Friday. In the morning a steam tug took off the single women without families and they were dispatched from Port Adelaide to the Servants’ Home, Adelaide, on the 11.59 a.m. train. The Hesperus was towed into harbour at Port Adelaide on Friday morning on a calm but overcast day, one paper called it “gloomy”, and docked. She had brought yet again to South Australia goods to clothe, feed, house, amuse or employ its people, as well as the muscle and sinew to develop the colony further. The bulk of the males disembarking were labourers, including “pick and shovel” labourers, with a sprinkling of tradesmen, including George Burton. The majority of single women were destined to serve the middle class as domestic servants until they married.

The Hesperus continued in the Adelaide trade without a break until 1890. She brought just four emigrants in 1880, 602 in 1883 and 450 in 1886, on each occasion leaving late in the northern summer and arriving in time to pick up a cargo of wheat and wool. She was sold in 1890 by the Orient Line to Devitt and Moore who used her as a training ship for cadets under Lord Brassey’s scheme whereby they would sail to eastern Australia to return with cargoes picked up in Sydney or Melbourne. Sold in 1899 to Tsarist Russia, she remained a training ship, the Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna, until 1918. She then became British again as the Silvana and under that name was broken up in Genoa in 1923, her fiftieth year. In the Adelaide trade the Hesperus was regarded as a comfortable, regular passenger ship though Arthur Robert Burton would have taken some convincing as he disembarked about mid-morning on 25th October 1878. A poor sailor, his strongest memory of the voyage was of being “as sick as a dog.”

After anxiously waiting for officialdom to run its course, the family and their luggage were at last reunited on the wharf that afternoon. Between bouts of handshakes and farewells to fellow travellers they had come to know so well, the Burtons gazed around and let the knowledge that they had indeed arrived sink in. The seagulls looked the same as those half a world away but the men helping unload the Hesperus were different - browner, more athletic than the English dockers, they joked among themselves, swore and kept up a running banter with the crew. Their easy-going manner was reflected in the lithe, brown-faced, keen-eyed, grinning boys hawking fruit on the wharves or offering to carry cases and trunks for a threepence. Their replies when told to be off by the regular carriers were eye-opening to the Burton children and alarming to George and Emma. Clearly there was much to learn! As the family sat on their trunks and tried to accustom themselves to the sensation of not pitching, yawing and rolling, George with his sea legs went off, smoking his pipe to see about travel arrangements to Adelaide and accommodation for the night. The “holiday” was over, colonial days were upon them.

Owner of originalRodney Burton
File name500 Class, A Social History of George Burton and his Family: Chapter 2 The Drone of the Mighty Wind
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