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Title: How the Wool Went Home Long Ago
Author: John Arthur Barry
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1301811h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  April 2013
Most recent update: April 2013

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How the Wool Went Home Long Ago.

(Written for the "Town and Country Journal" Christmas Number.)

Author of "Steve Brown's Bunyip," "In the Great Deep," and "The Luck of the Native Born."')

Published in the Australian Town and Country Journal, Sydney, NSW
Saturday, December 17, 1898

Well within the memory of people who still call themselves middle-aged, practically the whole of the Australasian wool harvest was carried away by a fleet of what were, perhaps, the finest sailing ships the world has ever seen. Of them, at the present day, almost all that remains to us are their names and the records of the splendid passages made by those old-time greyhounds of the sea, as they roared home, jammed to the squares of their hatchways with their brisk and lively cargoes, and leaving a wake of stun'sl booms from Antipodes Island to Gape Horn. From the time the clipper threw off the towline of the tug and spread her kites, either abreast of Sydney Heads or those of Port Phillip, or well down the Gulfs of St. Vincent or Spencer, the word was "What she can't carry let her drag." And how the skippers of the fleet, eager to be home for the February wool sales, did crack on in those days!—cracked on, and kept all standing after a fashion that would make the man who runs the tramp "sailer" of our times stare aghast and tremble for his steel topmasts.

"Keep all fast" was the nickname that one skipper went by, from his invariable formula on his officers reporting the weather to him through the night watches.

First call: "Looks bad to wind'ard, sir; and there's a heavy squall abeam."

"Ay, ay, Mr. Brown; keep all fast."

Later: "Glass falling, sir; looks very bad to wind'ard. Take the t'gallant sails off her, sir?"

"No, damn it, no! Keep all fast."

Later still: "Mizzen-t'gallants'l and outer jib just gone, sir!"

"Ay, ay, thought I heard 'em. Keep all fast—till I get on deck." Then the old man would stroll on to the poop in his drawers, and grasping the weather vane stand, and for a few minutes silently watch his ship as she drove through the night, roaring along in a smother of pallid foam, spindrift flying in sheets over the weather-rail, whilst she lay down to it like a dog at a bone. Then, just as likely as not, he'd turn round with, "The worst's over now. Why the h—ll didn't you call me before? Keep all fast!"

But to the shipmasters and strong-handed ships of those days a few sails or spars more or less meant nothing. Freights were high, and owners liberal with respect to stores; also, they encouraged their captains to make fast passages by the offer of handsome premiums. The vessels, too, were, in many cases, elaborately fitted up to carry passengers in two, or even three classes; and when steamers often took fifty days to come out, and a clipper rattled along at her heels in seventy-three, the advertisement covered the cost of a lot of gear. And the regular "flyers" used to do all they knew, as well out round Good Hope and across the Roaring Forties with a "general cargo" as they did homeward bound with wool. A pleasant sight it was to see the spacious saloon of an A1 clipper, in fine weather, with its soft carpets and easy chairs and lounges, ferns and flowers, pictures and piano; and at meal times the well appointed table, with, at its head, the old skipper, stout and bluff, and weather-beaten, doing the honors of the ship with generally one of the handsomest lady passengers at each side of him. Then, when the soft warm trades blew the huge pyramid of shining canvas along with everything set from her skysails down, "bonnets" on her topsails, "save-alls," "water-sails," and other contrivances for holding wind, whose very names are now almost forgotten, swelling out here and there about her, as I say it was pleasant to watch the sunshine through the open skylights dancing on the cut glass and silver and spotless napery and polished panellings of the smart sea parlor, and listen to the merry talk and laughter of the people.

Not so pleasant, perhaps, when the Old Man was "sending her," close-hauled, into a head sea; fiddles on the table, washboards at the saloon doors, the carpets rolled up, stewards falling in heaps to the sound of broken crockery; boys baling out berths, and green combers popping their crests over the fo'c'sle-head, and roaring away right aft to the break of the poop. Not over and above pleasant, of course, but even then better than any floating steam coffee-palace that was ever built! And now there are no ships like unto them, nor ever will be any more. The cargo carrier of to-day is simply a huge iron or steel box, with three or four iron or steel sticks stuck into her, and an iron or steel spike protruding from her nondescript bows, in place of the stout bowsprit and long, lancing, graceful jibboom of the old clipper. Her stowage capacity must be enormous to counteract the low freight; and the last idea in her skipper's mind is the attempting to make a record passage. In fact, he couldn't do so if he wished, in the majority of cases, because the ponderous and weighted fabric he commands takes little heed of her acres of canvas unless in a heavy gale. Then she'll do ten or eleven knots till they blow away. Then she stops, whilst the "crowd" of fourteen ordinary seamen gather the remnants together. This, remember, is the cargo sailer pure and simple—the tramp that takes anything that offers, from guano to coal, railway iron to lumber, at rates that about pay wear and tear and the crews' wages. There are, however, a few bona fide wool clippers yet left unsold to Scandinavian or Italian buyers, and running home with passengers and cargo from both Sydney and Melbourne. One of these you will see in our picture, casting off the tug, and sheeting home her topgallantsails as she clears the Australian coast, homeward bound. Fine, wholesome, steel-built clippers, modelled, some of them, on Aberdeen lines, with first-rate passenger accommodation, and all the newest patents for their working. But, without a doubt, their day is done, and it is only a question of time ere steam shall reign supreme, and the ocean lose its most picturesque adjuncts. As a good instance of how the sailing lines changed into steam, there existed in the sixties a fine fleet of small clippers trading to Adelaide for wool. The largest of them all was the Orient, of some 1200 tons or so. Then came the Murray, Goolwa, Yatala, Coonatto, Derra, etc., fast, fine-lined, London-built vessels of from 800 to 1000 tons, speedy but wet. Indeed, it was said of them that they took a dive on leaving the Channel, came up at the Cape for breath, and did not reappear until Kangaroo Island was in sight. This was perhaps an exaggeration, but their skippers drove them for all they were worth, and carried their maintopgallantsails when other vessels had their upper topsails off; also imagined the world was coming to an end, or that Australia had disappeared, if they couldn't find Cape Borda in anything under eighty days. In the great mail steamers of that same Orient line that now lie alongside Circular Quay you may at any moment see the evolution of canvas to steam in its widest and most complete and final aspect. Other fleets, as the White Star one, for instance, have not quite yet arrived at the termination of the process, and still own a few sailers out of the fine array of once famous Aberdeen liners—-the Damascus, Patriarch, Thermopylae, and others, such as the Centurion, Abergeldie, Maid of Judah, Windsor Castle, Nineveh, etc., whose names, as well as those of the Duthie's and Thompson's, are indissolubly bound up with the early maritime history of the colony. Now and again, perhaps, in one of the harbor bays, you may see a shapely old craft whose aspect seems in some way friendly and familiar, only that she flies a foreign flag, and has a foreign name upon the stern. Dirty, weather-beaten, forlorn as she is, with rusty rigging and paintless spars, nothing can disguise the old ocean aristocrat who a score of years ago was the pride of her captain, the crack clipper of her fleet and whose comings and goings were matters of moment, both on this side of the world and the other one. Now she lies there, a stranger, gaping blindly out of her hideous bow-ports at the place where she was once an honored guest; vomiting forth great logs, to the sound of alien gruntings, in place of the roaring chorus that used to make the Quay ring again as she straightened herself up for home with the first wool of the season.

In those days Circular Quay used to be fringed with tall and shapely clippers, whose house-flags were as well known to the average citizen as is the present G.P.O. Then a big steamer was a curiosity almost, and monthly mails the rule. Now, around the quay, smoke stacks and derrick-masts have taken the place of the lofty and tapering spars of the sailers, with all their graceful tracery of gear. And they are taking it all the world over, and will continue to do so until the world's seas become spotted with smoke, and canvas driven off them for ever. And for this reason it has been thought well to present in the Christmas number of the "Journal" a faithful picture of one of these fast vanishing fabrics that have for so long not only made commerce, but helped to beautify the world.

Few people nowadays take any interest in fast passages other than those of mail steamers; but as showing how consistently the "fast A 1 clipper built favorites," as the advertisements had it, kept up their records, I will just mention a couple of instances; the first that of the Harlow, which in eight voyages from London to Sydney, between 1866 and 1874, averaged 78 days from port to port. Then the Salamis, between 1875 and 1887, during thirteen voyages, made the magnificent average of 75 days. Some of the other voyages were "round ones," viz., China and home with tea, a favorite charter in those times. Thus the Salamis went from Sydney to Woosung in 43 days; to Shanghai in 37 days. Her last record was in 1888, from Melbourne to London in 88 days. Great sailing this! And fast passages are still made by strange ships, and pass almost unnoted except for a brief paragraph in the maritime reports. Thus a vessel, a few months ago, arrived from London in 78 days; but the general average of the few clippers still trading regularly to Australian ports, if worked out, would probably be nearer 100. At times a regular old-fashioned ocean race still takes place between ships; but all incentive to the cracking-on of past years has disappeared. Do what they may, their skippers know that steam will have anticipated them by weeks, via the Canal, for the February or any other wool sales. Then again, the modern clipper, in place of nearly all wool, as formerly, takes a tremendous lot of mixed cargo, such as hides, tallow, oil, lead, hundreds of tons of dead-weight, with perhaps only a veneer of 1000 bales or so of wool, in place of 8000 or 9000. Or it is quite on the cards that, no matter how fast or fine a ship she is, she has to fall back upon the universal refuge of the destitute, "Newcastle;" load coals for "'Frisco," a freight which, only to mention the possibility of, would have sent one of the old-time skippers into fits.

Melbourne, of course, in former years, had its lines of regular sailers, as well as Sydney and Adelaide, and amongst these were some notable performers. But, as a rule, the vessels, especially "Dicky" Green's Blackwall liners, which monopolised much of the wool-carriage, were of much larger tonnage, and, though handsome and stately fabrics, were built on less fine lines than those ships which made the name of Aberdeen famous all the world over, and whose headquarters on this side was mainly Port Jackson. It would be rather a difficult matter to say, with any certainty, which out of all the cracks, holds the record for the fastest passage between England and Australia. It has been asserted that when Forbes, who was to command her, saw the Blackball liner Lightning on the stocks, he swore a great oath that he'd either "send her to hell or Melbourne under 70 days;" and that on the 66th day out from London he sighted Port Phillip Heads. This, although without a doubt he did on several occasions, make a wonderfully fast run, is probably a fo'c'sle legend. For a steady and consistent voyage, however, and putting aside all exceptional single passages and voyages, I think that the two vessels already quoted would be very hard to beat.

On one occasion, I came myself from the Lizard to the Semaphore lightship at Port Adelaide, or, more correctly, Largs Bay, in sixty-five days. She was a full-rigged little flyer of not quite 800 tons, narrow as a wedge below, and square as a man-o'-war aloft. We didn't linger anywhere either; but, getting the winds, drove her along till her topmasts at times were buckled like a fishing rod with a ten-pounder on the hook. Aloft she was a maze of preventer-backstays and relieving tackles; on deck she was mostly water. Indeed we never got a chance to scrub it; all we could do was to throw sand about when the flood that filled it from fo'c'sle-head to saloon doors was rather shallower than usual. Running her easting down, the Old Man sweated her under a main t'gallants'l, with a living gale behind her. Carried it away, and sprung the yard. Fished it, and set a new sail; also the foret'gallants'l! I don't believe she did a day's work under thirteen knots an hour right across the Southern Ocean. And how the men cursed her! As also, did her passengers. But the skipper only laughed. He was in a hurry. He was engaged to be married to a girl at this end. The date was fixed, and he'd promised to be on hand. He was there to time all right. They don't build yachts of the sort any more. They paid well enough in those days of good freights. But they were far too small for comfort, either fore or aft.

The last time I ever sailed in a wool ship, we made a slashing run to the Horn; a hundred miles to the southward of which Christmas Day found us becalmed, without a breath of wind, and a great tumble of a sea running, in which we rolled and pitched, and played the most fantastic capers, that any ship could possibly do. She was a fine lump of a 1200 ton vessel, yet she was flung about like a straw in a whirlwind, and no man on board her could keep his feet. The cook and the Christmas dinner; just being dished up for the saloon, were shot out of the galley like stones from a catapult. Scarcely a piece of crockery was left intact in the pantry—plates and cups and saucers breaking even in their racks. And the din was something infernal as lashings came adrift, and casks, spare spars, hencoops, and sheep-pens took full possession of the deck, and charged wildly to and fro to the accompaniment of banging canvas, and rattling gear aloft. Underfoot, the planks seemed to literally dance, whilst the Ocean Queen pranced and wallowed, and tried to stand now on the end of her jibboom, now on the taffrail, in most unqueenly fashion. The oldest sailors on board were seasick, and turned inside out, by the dreadful, ceaseless motion. The aggravating part of the phenomenon—for it was surely worthy of the name—was that it was only a patch, about a mile or so square, outside of which the water appeared to be nearly calm. At midday, the long expected happened, and the fore and main topmasts came crashing about our ears, whilst the Queen rolled till she scooped the sea up by tons in the bights of her clewed-up courses. In the middle watch of that night, the bubbling, roaring cauldron we had got trapped in suddenly subsided, and gave us a chance to pick up the pieces. And a nice job it was! But there were sailor-men in those days, and forty-eight hours saw the Queen heading north, about, under three royals. She could sail, could that old boat, with her fine shapely entrance and beautiful run aft to the clean cut counter; and when you'd think she was lying idle, and the dog-vane was hanging up and down like a dead fish, the log would show three. It was in such weather that we overhauled a dandy American clipper, half asleep, with her clothes tucked up to stop the chafing. As she saw us come slipping by, she awoke, and in a few minutes covered herself with white cotton, and tried to find where the wind might be. She was the first ship and the last I ever saw with a main moonsail. She set t'gallant and royal stun's'ls; she set a jib-a-jib outside of her flying one; she set all sorts of curious sails in all sorts of curious places. But it was all to no purpose. The "Queen" under plain sail, and with only her royals full, slipped slowly past her, whilst the Yanks watched us in silence.

''Say," at length-hailed their skipper, "what's yer name?"

"'Ocean Queen,' of Aberdeen."

"Oh, I reckoned at fust ye might be the Flyin' Dutchman o' Amsterdam! Whar in h—l d'ye keep 'em?"

"Keep what?"

"Why, the en-gines an' bilers?"

There was a great laugh at this; and somebody threw the end of the spanker-boom sheet over board in gentle hint of towage, and we drew away and left him there becalmed with flapping sails—a pretty model of a ship, but too full in the bows and coarse in the run to ever be a flyer. It had taken British builders nearly half a century to usurp pride of place at sea from the Yankee merchantmen. And now British owners have collared Uncle Sam's carrying trade too; for at present there is only the merest shadow of an American mercantile marine.

We hauled into the South-West India Docks that passage in 88 days from the Heads of Port Jackson.

* * * * * *

Many years after this, on an evening, pulling a skiff across one of Sydney Harbor's most sequestered coves, I came across an old and battered hulk, whose shape somehow struck me as familiar. Her three lowermasts were still standing, gaunt and black and naked; great scars and chafes disfigured her tall sides; weeds and barnacles hid her copper. Still, as I sculled round her, while she swung to her rusty cable and the breeze from the gullies moaned through her slackened and broken rigging, doubt hardened into certainty, and memories come to me of stormy seas and great icebergs, of hot, stifling calms, and of roaring gales before which she flew like a thing possessed; of trade winds, warm and steady, and true by night as by day, blowing the good ship along with never need for weeks, perhaps, to touch brace or halliard, whilst by day the whirr of the spunyarn winch sounded along the dry, white deck, and o' nights men snoozed through their watches in odd corners out of the moonlight. No, there could be no mistake, for though the ship-knackers had patched her and hacked her about, and bolted a square name-plate across the elliptic stern, and called her the "Elizabeth Brown," the matchless art of the master-craftsman still spoke to the sailor's eye from every timber of her ill-used body. On deck I found they had cut her hatches nearly from rail to rail, leaving dark and yawning chasms through which to take in and discharge coal. Rubbing the thick grime off the big bell at the poop-rail, I read, although assurance of the lie astern was needless, "'Ocean Queen,' of Aberdeen." Descending the companion I gazed round the dim and squalid saloon which I had seen so often alive with cheery voices and lights and music. Spiders had spun their webs over the defaced and broken panelling; a big rat ran across the blackened floor; decay and desolation were everywhere apparent, and with a shiver I went out on deck, where as I sat musing, the old hulk seemed to fade away, whilst in her place stood a stately fabric—the splendid monument of man's ingenuity and skill she once had been. Once more, the tapering spars rose skyward covered with shining cloths stretching in symmetrical breadths from all her lofty heights. Once more I heard the rush of water past her sharp and curving stem as she sprung to meet the seas; saw again about her decks the faces of many a goodly but long-forgotten company that had sung and shouted and toiled and lived in her, and alternately cursed her and called her by words of rude endearment as the occasion took them, but treating her ever as a sentient and responsible being. And then, all at once, a great red moon peered over the wooded heights, and I started up and realised that I had been sitting on a corpse, and watching the faces of dead men, and listening to voices that should never sing or shout again, either at sea or elsewhere; and clambering down her sides I hurriedly left the remains of the last of one of the finest clippers that ever floated, or ever will float, to solitude and decay and the red moonlight.


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