Saturday, September 14, 2013

Borealis 1864 - a tea clipper built at Nelson Dock

Nelson House, where William Perry was living
at the time of the construction of Borealis.
Thomas Bilbe, who has already been mentioned as the builder of the tea clipper Wynaud, and  was also responsible, with his partner William Perry, for the construction of the tea clipper Borealis at Nelson Dock. There is more about the remarkable Thomas Bilbe on my earlier post about Wynaud.

Nelson Dock was on Rotherhithe Street at Cuckold's Point (today's postcode SE16 5HW).  In the 1990s it was incorporated into the Scandic Crown Hotel (now the Hilton Hotel) on Rotherhithe Street, but parts of it have been preserved so that some of the original features, like Thomas Bilbe's patented slip, can be picked out.  Nelson Dock has been covered in detail by Stuart Rankin's booklet Shipbuilding in Rotherhithe - The Nelson Dockyard, soon to be published on the Docklands History Group website.  

A plan Stuart Rankin's booklet
Shipbuilding in Rotherhithe - The Nelson Dockyard
showing Nelson Dock as it was in 1862
Thomas Bilbe took over the Nelson dockyard in 1850.  As Rankin observes, Bilbe was not merely an inventor and ship builder, but was also directly involved in illegal opium running into China and shipping of Chinese coolies (unskilled labourers often used for loading and unloading ships in Chinese ports) for use as cheap labour. 

By the time that Borealis was built Bilbe had been in partnership with shipbuilder William Perry for around four years.  The shipyard at that time included the lip with its cradle running on wales with lock gates at the lower end, together with the engine house that held the original machinery that operated the cradle. The original machinery no longer survives but both the slip and the engine house are preserved today.  William Perry was living at the time in Nelson House, and Thomas Bilbe was living in Albion Street.   Rankin states that the rateable value of the site in October 1860 was £406.00.  Rankin's sketch plan of the site as it was in 1862 is shown here.

Borealis was a composite tea clipper (wood on an iron frame, like Cutty Sark), fairly typical of the mid 1860s tea clippers in emulating a general model of clipper design developed by Robert Steel and Co. in Greenock in Scotland, the most famous of which were the fabulous Taeping and Ariel

Borealis was particularly long, at 205ft (most ships before this date were shorter). Length could be considered a benefit not merely because more cargo could be handled but because pilotage rates charged for a ship entering a port were calculated on the basis of the ship's draft, not her length.  Longer ships of less draft were therefore charged less than shorter ships with deeper drafts.  Another advantage of a longer hull was that the foremast could be placed further aft, which reduced the pressure of weight on a ship's bows. She was 32ft wide and 21ft deep. Her tonnage was estimated at 920 tonnes.  

Bilbe and Perry's Argonaut, also in service
with Anderson, Anderson and Co. and similar to
the design for Borealis
So far I have been unable to find an image of her., but I will keep looking  The nearest I could get to was  Argonaut, also built by Bilbe and Perry and put into service with Anderson, Anderson and Co., and constructed along similar lines. 

Borealis was launched in 1864.  Her maiden voyage was to Hong Kong, arriving in early 1865. She was initially owned by William Perry and was sold to Anderson, Anderson and Co for the Orient Line in 1876 for the China tea trade.  Basil Lubbock, in The Colonial Clippers, says that the Orient Line "came to be known in Australia for the remarkable speed of its beautiful little composite clippers."  Bilbe and Perry built Coonatto, Yatala and Argonaut for the company as well. For more about the Andersons and the Orient Line (founding members of P and O) see The Allen Collection web page

Anjer by Abraham Salm, 1860. In the Tropenmuseum.
Photograph from Wikimedia Commons
In The Tea Clippers, David MacGregor says that none of her 1860s voyage times under the command of Alexander Henderson seem to have been recorded, but a fast run was recorded from Amoy to New York in 1875-76 (89 days) under the command of Richard Beard (or Bear)  leaving on the 29th December 1875, passing the Cape of Good Hope on 8th February, and arriving on 27th March, with the north-east monsoon.  Other recording sailings under Richard Beard (who also captained the Florence Nightingale) are: from Shanghai to New York in the 1871-2 tea season, Woosung to New York via Anjer in the 1872-3 season (93 days), and Shanghai to London via Anjer in the 1874-5 season (113 days).  David MacGregor in The China Bird says that in the 1871-2 tea season, Borealis, along with a list of other ships, was "loading for London at £3 per ton of 50 cu ft."  She earned a better rate in 1874 because whilst some had loaded at £3.00 Borealis and Wylo loaded slightly later in the year at £3.10s.

As the above list demonstrates, Borealis did a lot of runs to New York, where the American trade had an equally high demand for China tea.  Although the U.S. had an excellent fleet of her own, some British based ships also delivered to New York.  Like most of the British tea clippers serving the China tea trade, Borealis will have returned to Europe via the Cape of Good Hope, passing up the west of the African continent.  When traveling to New York another less popular but possible route, sometimes favoured by the U.S. clippers, was to cross the South Pacific instead, braving the perils of Cape Horn to pass into the Atlantic before traveling up the eastern coast of South America.   

Porters carrying tea chests
Borealis was consigned by Killick and Martin (KM and Co) to Jardine Matheson and Co in September 1864 and then again in September 1866.  As KM and Co is not one of the listed owners of the ship, it seems likely that she was chartered by them from William Perry, or Bilbe and Co.  The company Killick and Martin was established by Captain James Killick with James Martin. Jardine Matheson was a company operating out of Hong Kong and Shanghai, and a partnership appears to have been formed between Killick and Martin and Jardine Matheson from 1863 until at least 1875.  KM and Co supplied a total of 80 ships to Jardine and Matheson, which were chartered mainly for the tea trade. 

There is a disturbing reference to Borealis in David MacGregor's The China Bird.   On pages 34-35 MacGregor discusses letters and documents preserved in the Cambridge University Library's Jardine Matheson Archives.  In amongst the letters, one refers to, as MacGregor puts it "such items as the forty Chinese coolies sent out to Hong Kong as passengers in the Borealis, 'belonging to our mutual friends Thomas Bilbe and Co', the Dutch consul being asked to order their disposal" (letter 7643, dated 10th October 1864).  As stated at the beginning of this post, Chinese coolies were desirable as cheap labour, and Thomas Bilbe was involved in shipping them.  The reference to "their disposal" is slightly puzzling if not a little concerning. The term "disposal" can be interpreted in a number of ways - including redistribution to other traders and the more ominous sense of being eliminated.  Most coolies were little more than slaves, although the slave trade had been officially abolished in Britain in 1833, and huge numbers were transferred to sugar cane fields in Cuba (from where they were also moved on to work the Louisiana sugar cane fields), and the guano trade in Peru. Others left China to seek a better life in California and British Columbia. There's an excellent account of the Coolie trade, with reference to one particular ship, the Kate Hooper, on the U.S. National Archives website.  A number of tea clippers ended their days as slave carriers.  A classic story is that of Bald Eagle, which became little better than a slave transport, where the coolies on board revolted (there's a vivid account of the terrible story in Basil Lubbock's The China Clippers).  Another example is the Sea Witch, which sunk off Havana with 500 coolies on board in 1855.  However, in spite of searching I have been unable to find out anything further about this short reference to the coolies on Borealis.   

In 1884 she again changed hands and was owned by G.Brailli and Co, Trieste. She was registered at Orebich and renamed Marietta Brailli. Her transfer at this time was almost certainly a result of the joint pressures on sail ships caused by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the ascendency of steam ships.  All of the Brailli ships were named after family members, and the Marietta Braili joined other similar ships purchased by the Brailli family, including the 1859 Falcon, a fast clipper built for the tea trade in Greenock by Robert Steele and Co. that, under Brailli ownership, was named Sofia B.  
MacGregor says that after 1876 she was "in the Adelaide trade" but doesn't provide further details. 

Borealis was broken up in 1897, so had a good 33 year run.   

William Shepperd, long-serving Steward on Borealis
All information supplied by Ian Walters

It is always so difficult to find out about crew members so I am immensely grateful to his great grandson Ian Walters for letting me know that for around a decade the steward on Borealis was William Shepperd.  Ian has done a lot of research into Borealis and his great grandfather.  The particular interest of what follows for me is that it is fascinating to see what sort of life one of the crew members had after he left one of the China tea clippers.

It was very unusual for any ship's crew, apart from the Captain and sometimes the First Mate, to be associated with a single ship over a series of voyages.  The crew was generally paid off at the end of a voyage and sought work on other ships that were due to depart.  William Shepperd was one of the exceptions. Ian suggests that William, a Baptist and a lifelong teetotaler, may have been a sought-after candidate for the position of ship's steward by owners and masters intent on running a disciplined and sober ship. 

A steward was responsible for looking after the officers.  Depending on the terms under which he had been hired he might care exclusively for the Captain but at the other extreme he might also help out on deck.  The steward had the considerable advantage of being allocated his own cabin. 

All of the following research into William Shepperd was provided by Ian, with my very sincere thanks.

Mariners and Ships in Australian Waters
Borealis 1868
William Shepperd was born in Colchester in about 1842, although Ian has not been able to find a clear record of William Shepperd's probable 1842 birth, despite doing lots of research at the Essex Records Office.  In the 1861 Census he may be the William Sheppard born in Colchester and an 'Ord. seaman' on board the William Fraser of Colchester, or maybe he is the 'William Chas. Shepperd' born in Colchester, 'waiter' in a Colchester hotel.  He was married to Anna Maria at the Baptist Chapel in Colchester 28 December 1865 'age 22 years Ship's Steward'.

The first substantive record of William Shepperd at sea was found by Ian on the 'Mariners and Ships in Australian Waters' site from the 2nd May 1868 Crew List for Borealis of London, Alexander Henderson, Master. London to Sydney 2 May 1868, where he is is 'Steward, 26, Colchester,' a voyage on which there is one passenger recorded.  It is not known how he was recruited for work on Borealis.

Ian's research into Borealis provides a fascinating account of her comings and goings.  The Sydney Morning Herald of May 9, 1868 and the Illustrated Sydney News of 16 May 1868 list Borealis as 'from London 3rd February'.  The Herald and Illustrated Sydney News both agree that she left on the 24th June of that year but The Herald says she left for Shanghai' whilst the Illustrated Sydney News says that she called initially at Singapore, carrying 'Exports' of '1400 tons coal, 100 bags oats'.   She arrived in Shanghai on 28th August 1868.  Ian's research finds Borealis being  chartered by Jardine Matheson in Hong Kong for a voyage from Saigon to Yokohama 17 January 1870. The arrival is recorded in the Japan Weekly Mail as 7 April 'from Saigon, rice.' Next, the Mariners and ships in Australian waters list of 19th August 1871 records William as 'Steward age 28 Essex' on Borealis at Sydney from London, with two passengers, 1360 tons of coal 'Exports per Borealis, for Shanghai', arriving in Shanghai on 8th November 1871.  William was back again in Sydney from London on Borealis ('Passengers NIL'), on 13 August 1872. The Herald notes that Borealis arrived 'from Isle of Wight 83 days'. On 7 September the paper included an ad for "The A1 Clipper Ship Borealis being under charter ... For Shanghai Direct...  Has unrivalled accommodation for PASSENGERS, for which early application is necessary." [capitals sic]. As Ian says, it seems that a concerted effort was being made to make the passenger cabins revenue-producing after reporting 'Passengers NIL' from England. A Crew List transcribed to 'Mariners and Ships in Australian Waters', lists William as steward aboard Borealis arriving at Sydney from Adelaide on 2nd May 1874 with three passengers) from where she departed on 10the June  for Shanghai.  Borealis arrived in Sydney 26 July 1875 from London with six passengers, William as steward, with a German cook.

The former Temperance Hotel run by
William and Anna Maria Shepperd
West Devon Diary
William Shepperd's daughter Annie Emma May Shepperd was born in Colchester on 22 July 1868, whilst her father was en route from Sydney to Shanghai.  He and Anna Maria had two sons and three daughters, William, Percy, Florence, Annie and Lilian. 

In 1877 William opened a temperance cafe in the old Corn Market.  In 1878 William and his family became proprietors of the "British Workman" Temperance Hotel in Tavistock at 1 Kilworthy Hill, although the British Workman label, a brand created in 1867 in Leeds, was dropped. That would have been a long move away from roots in Colchester. William Shepperd became a "much-respected townsman" in the Tavistock community, and was at one time the vice-chairman of the Urban District Council. He was proprietor of (Shepperd's) Temperance Hotel for 34 years until his retirement in 1912.  The hotel survived under the name South Western Private Hotel until 1926.  For a while it became the district council offices and is now a pub called the Ordulph Arms, of which William was unlikely to approve.

William died in November 1922 at the age of 81
and was noted as "a sound business man... held in very high esteem by all who knew him, and was very conscientious and generous."   His wife Annie Maria (originally Anna Maria) passed away in September of the following year at the age of 78 and is recorded as a "kindly-hearted philanthropist... many of the local poor benefited by her gifts of money and necessities."

William's daughter Annie became a school teacher, first in the Cookham district of Maidenhead, and subsequently as headteacher at Milton Abbot girls' school outside Tavistock. She married John Walters in Tavistock in 1899. They had two children, Cyril Shepperd Walters and Ian's father Jack Dudley Walters.  Jack was born in London in 1904 and was christened in Tavistock at St. Eustachius, the same church in which Sir Francis Drake was baptized.  William's great grandson is Jack's son Ian Walters, who provided the information for this section of the post.   During Ian's childhood his father inherited some ornately-carved mirrored Chinese blackwood furniture and an ivory Chinese junk under a glass dome, which were almost certainly passed down through the family from William's days on Borealis.


Eric said...

Your research has really helped me, my ancestor was also a member of the crew of the Borealis 1875. Your research has saved me a lot of work and proved to be absolute. here is my crew member of the Bolearis 1875;
thank You

Andie said...

Hi Eric. Thanks very much for letting me know - I'll update the post about Borealis in the next couple of days to add John to the list. Lovely to have another name to add to her history.

Liz O'Connell said...

My mother was born Annie Grace Bilbe to the shipbuilder's family in Rotherhithe.Thanks for doing all the research. The opium running and slave trade is a bit disconcerting...


Andie said...

Hi Liz. It wasn't particularly unusual in those days, but of course from a modern standpoint it does give one pause. If you have any other info about the Bilbes do email me, because I would love to do a post about Thomas Bilbe and his family.

Jacqui Bilbe S-J said...

Hi Liz and Andie and Eric,

My mother was Gladys Bilbe, older sister of Annie Grace. My mother tried to research the Bilbe ancestry towards the end of her life (she died 1999) and we often visited Rotherhithe, but she found it difficult as the Family Bible was taken when her other 3 Bilbe sisters relocated to America after WW2. Maybe that Bible survived the house fire in NY State because I was told all the family history was stored inside that Bible, dates of birth, christenings, marriages and deaths, along with indentures, and company details. Hopefully, it's still in your possession, Liz?

Eric's information is fascinating, especially the Crew List with "Passenger Mr. Thompson", could he have been the father of our grandmother, Rachel Thompson? Also,
I own 2 wooden carver chairs, given to me by my mother. These chairs were apparently made by our grandfather, Thomas Bilbe, when he travelled as an Apprentice on "the Australia run" in the 1880s - but I don't know which Bilbe Clipper. Maybe it was another of the ships on which William Shepperd was Steward?

On a slightly different tack, you might be interested to know that I recently sailed on the newest P&O cruise ship "Britannia" which was recently launched in Southampton by the Queen. I was delighted to discover that Thomas Bilbe (our great grandfather) built "Orient" at Rotherhithe, which was the first clipper to sail for the Pacific & Orient Company (P&O) in 1856!

Keep in touch!