Friday, January 24, 2014

"Orient," built by Bilbe and Perry at Nelson Dock, 1853-1879

Orient by Thomas Goldsworth Dutton, 1853.
National Maritime Museum.
In her day, the clipper Orient was a well known name, partly due to her speed and her role in the Crimean war, but most significantly because she was the first ship to serve in the passenger carrying Orient Line, a company that was eventually absorbed into the PandO empire. 

Built by Thomas Bilbe in 1853 at Nelson's Dock (or Cuckold's Point) she was constructed for Anderson and Thomson by Thomas Bilbe, for use in the Australian gold boom.  Gold had been found in Australia in 1851, and by 1852 the fortunes being made in mere weeks attracted unskilled workers from the British Isles, all hoping to make their own fortunes.  As speed of arrival in Australia was an important factor for these prospectors, the basic clipper design was still appropriate even though the cargo was now human.  In response to the increased number of families emigrating, the government introduced new regulations to improve conditions on board ships carrying emigrating passengers.   

Thomas Bilbe, who specialized in tea clippers, has been mentioned on previous posts about Wynaud and Borealis, and he was a most remarkable man.  As well as tea and wool clippers, he built a ship that was armed and designed to operate in the illegal opium trade, he transported Chinese coolies as cheap labour, and pioneered a new method of hull framing and invented a mechanical slip, which he patented.   The slip can still be seen today immediately next to the Hilton Hotel's car park on Rotherhithe Street, its engine house preserved immediately behind it, facing onto Rotherhithe Street.

It is unclear how Bilbe became involved with the owners of The Orient Line, but he built a number of clippers for them (under the names James Thomson and Co. and Anderson, Anderson and Co.) at the Rotherhithe yard, beginning with Celestial, which he built for James Thompson and Co. in 1851 and ending with Yatala in 1865 and Argonaut in 1866, both of which Bilbe built with his business partner, the former shipmaster William Perry.

Orient in Port Adelaide
Orient had a registered tonnage of 1033 tons, she was 184.4ft long, with a beam of 31.7ft and a depth of 21.1ft.  Her hull was a composite of wood on an iron frame, and she had three masts.  Because she was destined for the Australian gold rush, beneath a 61ft poop she was fitted with cabin space that had not been factored into any of the earlier Bilbe designs.  Orient's first sailing as a passenger carrier was in 1856 from Plymouth to Australia under Captain A. Lawrence.

She had only been operating for a year when she was chartered to take troops to the Crimea, and in the September of 1854, referred to as Transport 78, she safely delivered members of the  she 88th Connaught Rangers.  Remarkably, she survived a gale that wrecked over 30 ships at Balaklava that saw the loss of over a thousand lives.  She continued to be employed the military between 1855 and 1856 when she served as a hospital ship. 

Following her service in the Crimea Orient became the first ship to operate for the Orient Line. The Orient Line began its life as a ship-broking company, established by James Thomson in 1797, which invested in a small fleet of its own that expanded steadily through the first half of the 19th Century, its ships sailing all over the world.  In 1829 James Anderson joined the company in a senior capacity, eventually becoming lead partner.  Anderson's nephew, also James Anderson, joined the firm in 1828.  In 1854 the company was renamed Anderson, Thompson and Co, and in 1869, after the death of the last Thompson to be involved in the company, it became Anderson, Anderson and Co.  The clipper Orient, already equipped to carry passengers, was the first ship to serve the new The Orient Line of Packets (better known simply as The Orient Line), which was established to carry passengers and some cargo, mainly wool, to and from Australia. 

Orient spent 21 years operating between England and Australia, completing a voyage every year until 1877.  Even though the East Indian routes had fallen to the far more efficient steamships that could make use of the Suez Canal since its opening in 1860, the steamers were unable to carry or source sufficient coal for the trip to Australia, so the clippers continued to have an important role carrying Australian wool and passengers.. 

Orient, commemorated on a stamp
In January 1862, en route from Adelaide to Plymouth, she caught fire. In spite of the inspired direction of her Captain and the work of the crew, the fire took hold and spread during the course of that day and the following night.  The decision was taken to offload the female passengers onto a Dutch ship that was standing by, but eventually the fire was extinguished and the ship limped into Ascension in the South Atlantic Ocean for temporary repairs.  She then returned to London, where the ship's insurance underwriters rewarded Captain Lawrence, his officers and crew, with plate worth £900.  

Orient's fastest passage time was in 1866, when she completed the journey between Plymouth and Port Adelaide in 72 days under her second commander Captain Harris under whose captaincy she achieved her fastest times, although her average was around 95 days.  As usual on this route, she normally stopped off at Capetown and St Helena on her return journey. 

One of the famous contemporaries of Orient, on the same route, was the clipper Lammermuir.  In 1873 Lammemuir departed Blackwall without the ship carpenter's tool chest, a vital component if the ship ran into trouble. The Blackwall-based owner of the great ship,  John Willis, anxious to reunite the ship's carpenter with his all-important tools, entrusted the chest to Orient's Captain Mitchell.  His initial instruction was simply to deliver the chest to Lammemuir when both ships arrived in Adelaide. But Captain Mitchell promised that he would overtake Lammermuir before she reached the Equator, so in fine good humour, John Willis wagered Captain Mitchell £5.00 that he would not be able to do so,  which probably seemed like a fairly safe bet as his own ship already had a ten day start.  But Orient was able to make the delivery successfully, making up the two week gap before Lammermuir reached the Equator, and Orient's captain won his wager with John Willis.  Orient actually arrived in Adelaide six days earlier than Lammermuir, effectively putting the icing on Captain Mitchell's cake. 

In 1879 Orient was sold to Cox Brothers of Waterford in Ireland.  She sailed for them from British west coast ports to Canada and the United States. In 1891 she was again sold on. She was de-masted and converted into a coal hulk off Gibraltar, an unusual fate for a former clipper.  She was only broken up in 1925.

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