This article was first published in March 2008 in Ancestors, a magazine, now, alas, defunct, published by The National Archives.
‘From old Scotland’s shore a vessel set sail
Old ocean to cross mid tempest and gale
Full laden with souls bound to a strange shore
Australia’s bright land never seen before’
The vessel was the India, sailing from Greenock on 4 June 1841, bound for Australia. Among the ‘souls’ aboard were my great-great-great-great grandfather, Phillip Shillinglaw, and four of his children. I trace my descent from a daughter who, already married, remained in Scotland. Although, in the course of research for books and articles, I have spent years investigating the history of others, only recently have I looked at my own family. I was delighted to discover this Australian link, no hint of which had passed down to me. After a little internet detective work I had the amazing good fortune of making contact with a (very) distant Melbourne relative, Margaret Ball. With her help I have been able to piece together a remarkably full picture of the Shillinglaw family’s traumatic voyage and their subsequent life in Australia.
The above lines open an epic poem describing the disaster that befell the India, the near miraculous rescue of the majority of its passengers, and their eventual arrival at Port Phillip, then in New South Wales. The author of the poem was Phillip Shillinglaw’s grandson and namesake. The manuscript, as in all the best tales of genealogical research, lay unregarded in a tin box until inherited in 1984 by Margaret Ball, great-great-great granddaughter of Phillip Shillinglaw the emigrant. She wrote that ‘This tin box started me on a great chase and a love for family history which is never ending’ and of the poem, ‘It took me a while to work it out but when I started to check public records it all made sense’. It is certainly unusual to be able to trace so dramatically the experience of steerage emigrants of this period. Much of the information in the poem tallies well with that held in public records. Phillip Shillinglaw the versifier was, of course, retelling the story he had heard from his mother and father, who had both, then unmarried, travelled out on the India, rather than recounting an official history. I am very grateful to Margaret Ball for permission to quote from the poem.
The Shillinglaws represent the ‘everyman’ and ‘everywoman’ of the mid-19th century emigrant movement to Australia. Indeed the year 1841 has come to be regarded as a watershed in the peopling of Australia. The colonies were keen to break from their convict-peopled past and introduce a different kind of settler. Britain’s industrious, virtuous working-class, suffering in a severely depressed economy, provided the ideal candidates.
The cost of a steerage passage to Australia was around £17, almost the average annual wage of a rural labourer and about twice the wage of a young female domestic servant. In order to supply Australia with this type of worker a series of schemes were devised to assist their passage, all requiring candidates to fulfil occupation, health, age, and character criteria set by the colonial legislatures. There was a bias towards family groupings, ‘protected’ single females, and those from rural counties.
The Shillinglaws certainly qualified on that score. They were travelling to Australia from Aberdalgie, a village in Perthshire. My suspicion, mentioned when this article was first published, that Phillip Shillinglaw worked in some specialist area of horticulture, perhaps fruit growing, rather than as a general agricultural labourer has proved correct. In 1826, for instance, as gardener to the Earl of Kinnoul, of Duplin Castle, Perthshire, he was awarded a prize for his ‘Queen Pineapple’ and an extra medal for ‘uncommonly fine Black Hamburgh grapes’ by the Caledonian Horticultural Society, meeting in Edinburgh . Two of the daughters he left behind in Scotland were married to estate gardeners and, as we will see, when they reached Australia it was as gardeners, rather than as agricultural labourers or sheep hands, that both he and his son found employment.
Phillip was born in Berwickshire in 1777, probably moving to Maidstone, Kent, with his parents and siblings in the mid-1790s. Certainly he was living in England when he married in St Martin’s-in-the-Fields on 25 October 1807. Several of his older children were born in Kent but the birth in Perthshire of the younger ones indicates that the family had returned to Scotland around the mid-1820s. It was at Aberdalgie that three of the older daughters were married. I have found no trace of their mother’s death, but assume that in 1841 Philip was a widower. The little I have been able to deduce from this genealogical study suggests that Philip Shillinglaw was not a man to limit his horizons and that he could write his name. I might have been able to discover more about the family were it not for the irony that the India set sail a mere two days before the taking of the first census.
Of the Shillinglaw party, Phillip’s son, William, and two of his daughters, Martha and Elizabeth, appear in the Index to Assisted British Immigrants, although with their surname rendered as ‘Shillingham’. William was in his mid-20s. Elizabeth’s age was given as 21 on her arrival, although she may have been considerably younger. Martha’s age is recorded on arrival as 16, which tallies with her death at the age of 65 in 1891.
A slight mystery surrounds the identity of the third female member of the party. Her name is clearly written as ‘Catherine Shillinglaw’ on a list of passengers. However, nothing is known of a family member of that name and Caroline Shillinglaw, one of Phillip’s elder daughters, certainly did travel to Australia. Caroline would have been 31 in 1841 and it is possible that the fifth named member of the party, James Shillinglaw, was her illegitimate son. Neither Catherine/Caroline nor James is recorded on arrival as an assisted passenger.
Phillip, too, is missing from this record, his absence explained by the fact that, at 64, he was well above the qualifying age. It was considered part of the success of the emigration scheme that ‘ship-room’ was given to elderly family members. This was important in persuading the younger people to emigrate. In this case, however, I rather think that Phillip may himself have been a driving force. He could quite well have stayed quietly in Perthshire with his married daughters.
How would the Shillinglaws have heard about the possibilities of emigration and of the bounty scheme? Emigrant guides, aimed at the working class, had been published since the 1830s. It is quite possible that the Shillinglaws had studied one of these. Also at this time the emigration scheme was being vigorously promoted in the various regions of rural Scotland. The official responsible for selecting emigrants travelled around, holding meetings, posting broadsheets and distributing circulars.
It was no simple business to apply for an assisted passage. Medical certificates and references were required, as well as money for a deposit, specified clothing and equipment, and the cost of travel to the port of embarkation. But well-informed, self-selecting, literate individuals with initiative could, and clearly did, overcome bureaucratic hurdles.
The voyage of the India was handled by Glasgow shipping agents McNeill and Somervall. The ship, described as ‘A 1 copper-bottomed’, was a three-masted barque of 493 tonnes, relatively new, having been built in Greenock in 1839. It had already completed one round trip to Australia. Passengers in 1841 were advised to be in Greenock by 28 May, ready for the 4 June departure.
It has been calculated that 172 passengers embarked. The ship had a poop cabin, accommodating 20 passengers, but the majority of the emigrants, including the Shillinglaws, travelled steerage. Thus, around 150 men, women and children lived and slept on the lower deck, in what was in effect one dormitory. Although the exact layout of the interior of the India’s steerage accommodation is unknown, it was usual for married couples and children to be housed in the centre, with the single women and girls in the ‘after berths’, and the single males and boys in the ‘fore-part’. Headroom was just over 6 feet, allowing for two tiers of bunks running along each side of a central table. These berths, usually fitted by the ship’s carpenter, were temporary so that they could be removed to make way for cargo on the return journey.
The passengers formed themselves into messes of six at meal times, with a mess captain appointed to collect the rations and take them to the galley for cooking. The India was well supplied with fresh meat, having live chicken, geese, pigs and sheep on board.Life in such close quarters could be fraught, but also led to friendships and, indeed, marriages. Seven months after their arrival at Port Phillip, William Shillinglaw married Jean Blamire, a fellow passenger. Their son, Phillip, the versifier, was born three months later.
The motion of the ship, causing, for many, incapacitating sea-sickness, the noise from wind, waves, sails and creaking wood, the threat of disease, and the increasing heat from the sun, combined with the discomfort of living packed together in such a confined space, made life on an emigrant ship at best uncomfortable. The passengers on the India were later to look back on the early stage of the voyage as blessedly uneventful.
The first indication that this journey was not to be without complication came when, according to Phillip’s poem, the crew mutinied. There is no mention of this incident in official sources, but I am prepared to give credence to his report that:
Now mutiny comes: crew refuses to work
So passengers have to handle the Barque
The crew’s dissatisfaction is unexplained and, according to the poem, the mutiny collapsed when they realised the punishment that would result from endangering the ship.
Near two hundred souls on that vessel’s deck
Having no knowledge of how life to save,
Constitutes a crime most fearfully grave.
After mutiny, the India and its passengers next had to contend with the threat of being pillaged by a Spanish pirate ship, the Gabriel.
Soon sea robbers hove in sight of the ship
But do not molest, though round her they slip
For, having established that the India carried a worthless cargo – emigrants – the Gabriel lost interest and sailed away. Shortly afterwards, however, she was involved in a four-hour gun battle with HM Brig Acorn and her crew captured.
It was about a fortnight after this encounter that, on 19 July, the India met its nemesis. As Phillip Shillinglaw put it:
At two of the clock, on the India they dined.
At six of the clock she was left behind
A glowing ball, burnt down to the water
To disappear, when the winds had caught her.
The disaster, he wrote, was due to the actions of the second mate (another report says the third mate), ‘a drunken fiend’, who went into the hold to fill a two-gallon measure with rum for the occupants of the state cabin.
But he could not stand
Steady, staggering with candle in hand..
At last he let fall
Seizing the full measure with might and main
He dashed its contents right onto the flame
So quickly it caught, blazed up and flared
Beyond all control. For no-one dared
To face that inferno
The rather more prosaic report in the Times, provided by a cabin passenger, corroborates this story. The ship, 600 miles from the nearest land, was quickly ablaze. Death would have been inevitable for all had it not been for the fortuitous presence, about nine miles away, of a French whaler, the Roland. Even so, the blazing India was only spotted when the Roland’s carpenter climbed its rigging to make a repair. The Roland hurried to the rescue, lowering all her boats. The India’s boats, too, had been launched, but the first upturned when swamped by those desperate to clamber aboard, drowning 17 passengers and the boatswain. There was, anyway, only capacity for a third of the India’s passengers in its own long-boats. The India’s first mate then took charge of a second boat and used it to ferry passengers to those of the Roland.
To the ship they rowed
Returning-discharged-taking load after load,
Until, all were saved from the wreck, at last.
A fearful ordeal. But now it is past
Both my Father and my Mother were there
But they were not yet made into a pair.
The Times reporter wrote that ‘all was one scene of confusion and despair, the women were wringing their hands in the most heart rending manner, and this, mingled with screaming of children, presented a scene it would be vain to attempt describing.’ He also noted that the long-boat had to be cleared of ‘pigs, goats, &c., which were tossed overboard. ‘He described how, with his fellow passengers, he had doubted that the Roland would reach them in time as the India ‘was now one glowing mass of flame from stem to stern below, and rising through the hatches, and running up the rigging with incredible velocity. In less than one hour from the commencement of the fire her mainmast was lying over her lee-side.’ The surviving passengers were eventually picked up, many naked. Steerage and cabin passengers alike, they had lost all their possessions. It is salutary to note that during the 19th century at least 26 ships foundered on the voyage to Australia. Click here to see the watercolour of ‘The Burning of the Barque India of Greenock’, painted by Samuel Elyard and now in the Australian National Maritime Museum
On deck of the Roland, now, safely they stand
In mid Atlantic, a fortunate band…
Rio-Janaro’s the port – the name of the town
Where landed, and left to wander alone.
The Roland arrived at Rio de Janeiro on 26 July. There the emigrants were fortunate to be looked after by a remarkably considerate consul. Robert Hesketh’s correspondence with the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, records the effort made to ensure the comfort of the survivors and to find and equip a ship to carry them on to Australia. Hesketh found lodgings for all and, as he reported, ‘The British residents most charitably and liberally contributed Clothes’. For the sum of £1549 he chartered another ship, the Grindlay, writing to Palmerston, ’I shall have to draw on Her Majesty’s Treasury for the Sum, and also for the cost of Victualling the Emigrants during the Voyage. The expense of lodging, Victualling and Clothing in the place will form another item for which I shall also have to draw on Her Majesty’s Treasury. By thus acting, I hope to afford the assistance required from me by those unfortunate individuals in a manner that will meet your Lordship’s approval.’ Palmerston did not approve. However wiser counsels prevailed. It was pointed out that if this group of emigrants was left destitute in Rio all schemes for colonial emigration would be brought into disrepute.
The Grindlay sailed from Rio on 22 August. The widows of three drowned passengers returned to Scotland with their children. In addition, three women and two men had ‘absconded’, presumably tempted by the bright lights of Rio.
Hesketh appointed one of the India’s passengers, William Lilburne, as Superintendent of the Grindlay, giving ‘him charge of all the provisions, furnishing him with General Instructions, and with a set of regulations and Diet Scale which were notified to the Emigrants’. Hesketh wrote to the Governor of Port Phillip, ‘I consider myself fortunate in having had the assistance of such a person as Mr Lilburne to superintend on shore, in this Place, such a collection of persons under such trying circumstances, and his respectability, Discrimination and firmness makes me confident that the Passengers will be comfortable.’ Lilburne, who had been born in Perth in 1811, was given a testimonial to further his prospect of employment in Port Phillip.
It is noteworthy that Hesketh considered Lilburne better able to ensure the welfare of the passengers than the ship’s surgeon, Mr Houston, to whom, as was usual, they had previously been entrusted. Houston later appealed against the loss of gratuity resulting from this demotion, finally being offered half the money he might otherwise have received. William Lilburne received a free passage and a gratuity of £36.
British residents in Rio had raised a fund which provided the emigrants with clothing, some tools and Mr Houston with some medical instruments. The fund must have been substantial because a balance of £501 7s was left to be divided amongst the emigrants on their arrival at Port Phillip. A sum had also been given to the returning widows. The master of the Roland was presented with a gold chronometer and his crew a reward, shared between them, of £40.
There were no more adventures and the Grindlay disembarked at Port Phillip on 22 October 1841, one of 42 ships, carrying 7716 emigrants, which arrived that year from Britain.
Glad were they to rest on Australia’s shore.
But thankful indeed, the voyage is o’er.
Some came as servants, engaged ere they came,
As station hands some, all treated the same.
‘Tis a wild new land: Native tribes abound
“Plenty Blackfellow”, there wand’ring around
Port Phillip, soon to be renamed Melbourne, was clearly very different from Aberdalgie.
Phillip worked as a market gardener at Merri Creek, on the outskirts of Melbourne, until his death in 1852. In 1847 William was a gardener to ‘Government gardens’, the precursor of what is now the world-famous Melbourne Botanical Gardens. Caroline married in 1843 and had at least four children before dying in 1856. Elizabeth married in Melbourne in 1846, with her father present at the wedding. William Lilburne, a widower when he embarked on the India with at least two of his children, had married, soon after his arrival at Port Phillip, a fellow passenger, Christina Mcdougall. They had three children before divorcing. In 1853 he married Martha Shillinglaw.
The Shillinglaws thrived in Australia, the family increasing rapidly down the generations. Phillip the versifier settled in the Melbourne suburb of Eltham, where the brick house in which he and his family lived has been restored and preserved as Shillinglaw Cottage. In 1991 Margaret Ball organised a reunion for the descendants of those Shillinglaws who had, ‘with hearts all elate at what is before’, endured such danger to travel to that ‘wild new land’.
Taking It Further
Index to Assisted British Immigrants 1839-1871 http://www.prov.vic.gov.au
Australian Family History and Genealogy. http://www.nla.gov.au/oz/genelist.html
Australian Vital Records Index 1788-1905. Available for purchase on CD, or can be freely accessed at The National Archives, Kew
Read More About It
M. Cannon, Perilous Voyages to the New Land, Today’s Australia Publishing Co, 1997
R. Haines, Emigration and the Labouring Poor: Australian recruitment in Britain and Ireland 1831-60, Macmillan, 1997
R. Haines, Life and Death in the Age of Sail: the passage to Australia, NationalMaritimeMuseum, 2003.
#1 by jingsandthings on August 30, 2015 - 3:36 pm
Phillip Shillinglaw is also one of my ancestors. His daughter Jane, who as far as I know didn’t travel to Australia, was my great, great grandmother. So wonderful to have this information to add to what I already have.
#2 by Gaye on April 8, 2019 - 1:48 am
I am a descendent of John and Mary Hamilton who were also survivors from the India, along with 3 children aged 10, 4 and 18 months. Mary was also 5 months pregnant at the time of the burning of the India.
Thank you for your interesting work.
#3 by womanandhersphere on April 8, 2019 - 3:45 pm
Good to hear from you. I was amazed to find such an incredible story lurking, unsuspected, in my family history…even though it was not my immediate ancestors that set off on that perilous voyage.
#4 by Elaine on April 11, 2019 - 6:38 am
Thank you for providing a fascinating account of the voyage. I am a descendent of Charlotte Tait, who married William Baldy, both survivors of The India. Charlotte’s brother, Andrew, drowned. Her sister, Catherine, was also a passenger but I have been unable to trace her after the arrival of the Grindlay. Perhaps she stayed in Rio? Charlotte lived until the age of 92, mainly in the Skipton area of Victoria.
#5 by womanandhersphere on April 11, 2019 - 4:05 pm
I’m delighted you enjoyed the article..it was so interesting to research. And your ancestors, like mine, were one of the groups of siblings that made the bold move to emigrate to the other side of the world. Presumably Andrew Tait had attempted to leave The India..which turned out not to be a wise move. And I do wonder about those who remained in Rio…I imagine, with no knowledge of Portuguese, it was more a fear of further misadventure on the high seas than any attractions the city might have had.
#6 by Elaine on April 12, 2019 - 7:18 am
Would it be possible to add the poem to my tree? Thanks, Elaine