Monday, May 27, 2013

Trip of a Lifetime

Until recently, how the Topliss family arrived in New Zealand was a mystery. I knew it was some time in the early 20th century but detailed passenger lists were seldom published in the papers then and family stories were vague. Not being able to find out this pretty basic piece of information annoyed me so when I saw that had a database for UK, Outward Passenger Lists, 1890-1960, Topliss was one of the first names I typed in. To my delight, I quickly found Ada and her sons Lancelot (Lance) and James (Bert) on the 1910 voyage of the Corinthic.

Never satisfied with just names and dates, I then did a bit of searching on Papers Past to see if there was any information on voyage. Given that shipping to New Zealand was pretty routine by then, I didn't hold out much hope of finding anything interesting but I was very wrong. Turns out that the passengers of the Corinthic not only witnessed a full solar eclipse, but they also had excellent views of Halley's Comet. For two boys of eight and six, I would have thought that these events would be pretty memorable yet there seems to be no family stories that mention them. That omission has now been rectified.

Heart of the City by Lauren Bavin;
Chalkboard Wordart - Travel by Lauren Bavin
.Journalling reads:
In 1910, Ada Topliss and her two sons, Lance (8) and Bert (6), left England to join her husband James in New Zealand. They travelled on board the Corinthic, a relatively modern steam powered vessel built to transport both passengers and refrigerated meat (a practicality for a ship on the New Zealand run). On the way, they were treated to two astrological events. A solar eclipse occurred on May 6:

“The chromosphere was dark red, and exceptionally large, extending to one-third of the width of the corona. Half a dozen bright stars were visible up to the zenith almost, and the ship’s officers were able to take bearings. During totality, beautiful opalescent lines played among the clouds near the horizon, verying from purple to rose to gold. The light on the sea was of a greenish-grey colour, about equal in strength to the moon in her first quarter.” NZ Herald 16 May 1910

“The total eclipse lasted about four minutes, during which it was too dark to see in the cabins, though it was quite possible to move about on deck. The opalescent lights were very beautiful, and the sea took on a dark green hue, instead of the usual deep blue. Through glasses it was possible to see stars, but these were not visible to the naked eye.” . NZ Herald 17 May 1910

If an eclipse wasn’t thrilling enough, the family also had a very clear view of Halley’s comet. Although the comet’s return had been long expected, there was considerable nervousness because of speculation that the tail of comet contained poisonous gas that could extinguish life on Earth. No such doomsday occurred of course and instead the passengers and crew of the Corinthic were treated to an excellent view of the comet:

“She came up over the port bow regularly every morning, and as the weather kept pretty clear throughout we were never without our “coffee and comet”” said an officer of the Corinthic, which arrived from London via South Africa and Hobart yesterday afternoon. The sight of the great comet rising clear and clean out of the southern ocean is said to have been a particularly brilliant one, and those in Wellington who saw the comet yesterday morning can have no doubt as to the beauty and impressiveness of the sight. The ship’s report, always a very stiff and formal document, records that “an interesting observations made during the voyage was Halley’s Comet, which has been visible each morning at about sunrise since leaving Cape Town, sometimes the corona, shining very distinct and bright.” Dominion, 17 May 1910

The family’s arrival in Wellington must have been a little anti-climatic after all of this excitement!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Henry Heys, Reed Maker

I knew very little of Henry Heys' life before I stumbled over a couple of newpaper clippings from the Manchester Times. I knew he was a "reed maker" from census data but have to admit that I hadn't done much research on exactly what a reed maker was. That changed when I found a reply to a request for information on the man who taught Henry his trade:

Manchester Times January 27 1893

From this short clipping written by his daughter, I found out that Henry Heys had been apprentised as a young boy, what his nickname was and how he came to acquire his business. There is still much I don't know (the names of his parents and the maiden name of his wife Lydia for example) but it is good to celebrate small victories.

Page made with elements from Club Digital May 2013 by DSP Designers

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Another Beginning

I started this blog some time ago then let it languish. I was struggling to find a purpose and a structure for my posts. After much reflection, I realised that what interests me most about family history are the little snippets of information that you stumble across every now and again. I am hoping to share some of these in the coming months.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Westland - Journal of John Hillary, Emigrant to New Zealand, 1869

I picked up Westland by J H Hillary because one of my families came out to New Zealand on the Westland (although on a different voyage). The book consists of diary entries by John Hillary describing his family's journey to New Zealand on the Westland in 1879 (and their return to England in 1880 on the steamship the John Elder), interspersed with comments by his grandson, J H Hillary. For me the diary entries were by far the most interesting, although of course many were about rather mundane subjects. The contemporary author's comments on the other hand tended to be redundant, explaining things that didn't need explaining and interrupting the flow of the diary narrative. The times they did add value was when they touched on the personal. Mr Hillary junior was at pains to point out that his grandfather wasn't quite the purse-lipped religious fanatic he sometimes appeared to be and to me, this added a little more depth to his character.


My prime purpose for reading this was not to find out about the people, but to get more of an idea of what it was like to travel on a ship like the Westland. Not all that much fun in the Bay of Biscay from the sounds of things. This was the first day of the voyage:

"28 November 1879 ....The ship rolls and pitches fearfully, seas break over her and quantities of water come pouring down the hatchways. The few who can keep up are kept very busy ministering to the wants of the sufferers.... Some are very I'll, their upheavals being distressing to hear.... The hatchways are covered with tarpaulin to keep the seas out, and the effluvia between decks on account of the sickness is becoming very unpleasant."

Once through the stormy seas, progress on the voyage slowed with wind becoming less reliable. Lice made an appearance and the situation was dealt with quickly by the ship's doctor:

"8 December 1879 ....Doctor ordered their beds to be brought on deck and searched about eight times, and had their persons stripped and scrubbed in a large tub of water and disinfectants behind a screen."

The author notes that the doctor's prompt action probably avoided a serious outbreak of sickness. A ship that left two days after the Westland lost more than 100 of its passengers by the time it reached NZ.

Mr Hillary senior was most impressed with the Westland and it's provisions:

"10 December 1879 ....she is such a good sailor, so roomly between decks, and the provisions are so plentiful that we cannot use them all. We have fresh bread daily and fresh water. Milk (condensed) twice and preserved meat once for the children daily. Weekly we receive loaf and moist sugar, butter, flour, suet, raisins, rice, oatmeal, pickles, carrots, onions, soup, pepper, salt and mustard, preserved meat, salt beef and pork, also porridge (burgon) every morning. We often have to refuse taking articles as our tins are full. We can have anything we make cooked in a few minutes, and many are living better on ship than they did at home."

Once the ship reached the tropics, those on board struggled with the heat:

"30 December 1879 Having little wind the heat is terrible. Our day dress is approaching the primeval our night -dress being almost quite so."

The heat soon turned to cold as the ship reached the Southern ocean. While the ship's doctor dealt with a measles epidemic, the passengers amused themselves catching albatross. By the end of February they had landed at Lyttleton.

Sadly, the family's experience in New Zealand was not a happy one. Unable to get work, they were on their way back home in September 1880.