The Tale of Captain Samuel

I won’t be mad if you quietly sing the Captain Scarlet theme under your breath (but only if you robotically say “and the Mysterons” out loud). Or even Captain Planet, if you’re gonna take pollution down to zero. But I digress. Sometimes you come across people who appear fully-formed in a set of records, whisked into existence as if by magic, because somehow they are where they are, but seem to have been nowhere before this. I suppose you could call this a brick-wall. However, today’s shining example of this isn’t an ancestor of mine – nor I suspect related to me at all – but his story was too extraordinary not to share – in fact, it made the annals of Australian maritime history!

I admit that Captain Samuel originally was slated to appear as part of my Holborows in Australia series, but the more I researched him, the more it became apparent that he wasn’t a Holborow at all. Not in a Holborow Neal way, and not entirely in a Holborn to Holbrow way.

He first leapt out in a newspaper article on Trove from 1920 recounting a shipwreck story from 90 years before. It is in this article that he is referred to as Captain Samuel Holbrow. An article from 1911 also names him as Captain Samuel Holbrow. I had to wonder if the death I found on Ancestry of a Samuel Holbrow in Liverpool, New South Wales in 1841 could be the same person. (Suffice to say he did not die in the shipwreck – but we’ll get there soon!) Liverpool was its own settlement on the Georges River up until the 1950s when Sydney’s urban sprawl engulfed it.

Liverpool, New South Wales 1825, by Joseph Lycett

Ancestry also suggested a Samuel Holbrow on a passenger list, arriving in Hobart Town, Tasmania on 5 December 1829 aboard the Calista, listed as a Cabin passenger with him being a Mariner.

However, if the shipwreck he was involved in was still being remembered and written about 90 years later, it must’ve made the newspapers in 1829, right? Right.

The article confirms the information held in the passenger list above, it also gives a hint at his plight: schooner Mermaid wrecked in Torres’ Straits.

A few weeks earlier, another article appeared in The Australian, which included some additional information:

The HM Mermaid was originally built in India in 1816, but was sold to the Royal Navy a year later and used for various survey missions around the coast of Australia until she was sold to the Colonial government in 1823. She was then used to run various errands, as she was on this trip when she left Sydney on 16 May 1829 bound for Port Raffles (more commonly known today as Fort Wellington on the Coburg Peninsula in what is now the Northern Territory). Unfortunately – although instructed to take the longer and safe offshore route up and around the Torres Strait – Samuel decided to stay inshore navigating across and through the badly-charted Great Barrier Reef. And at around 5:45 am on 13 June the ship ran aground on a reef. Although reported to be in the Torres Straits at the time, the coordinates provided by Samuel put the ship off the coast of Queensland. Just over 12 hours after her stranding, the ship tipped onto her side and foundered. The crew abandoned ship and took to the longboats with no loss of life. A very through telling of the wreck itself can be found written up in an interview undertaken with one of the dive team who rediscovered the wreck of the Mermaid in 2009, as part of an expedition run by the Australian National Maritime Museum.

The cutter, Mermaid

But Samuel’s story doesn’t end there. They were rescued by the Admiral Gifford and then transferred to the Swiftsure. On 4th July, however, this ship also ran aground in the Great Barrier Reef, approximately 7km off the coast. The legendary tale continues as the Governor Ready hove into view and rescued both crews. Sadly, this ship fell to the same fate as the previous and was wrecked – just three hours later.

The popular version of this story is that the the Comet plucked them out of the ocean before it, too, sank after five days, with all survivors picked up by the mail ship Jupiter which also sank, with the crews and passengers rescued by the City of Leeds who delivered them to shore – from where, one of the articles quipped, they all walked home. Could it actually be true that Captain Samuel was involved in FIVE shipwrecks in one journey?! Multiple sources (including the magazine article linked to above) will tell you this is what happened, some sources even swap out the Comet for the brig Amity.

But with all legends, stories and myths, the truth can turn out to be somewhat different…

For example, The Governor Ready, was lost on 18 May 1829 and therefore couldn’t have assisted with the rescue. That crew had made its way to Port Raffles already. The combined crews of the Mermaid and the Swiftsure were, in fact, picked up the Resource who took them on to Port Raffles, where the Amity was already docked, awaiting the Mermaid. We know this because a Dr. Thomas Braidwood Wilson of the Royal Geographical Society kept a daily log (later published in 1835) and had been the ship’s surgeon of the Governor Ready.

The Comet struck a reef on 5 May 1829, and that crew was picked up by the Fairfield, and the Jupiter had stranded on a reef on 14 May, but later made its way to Java and/or Calcutta, all before the Mermaid was lost.

Put simply, the chronology of events is as follows:

6 May 1829Comet wrecks (crew rescued by Fairfield)

14 May 1829Jupiter is proceeding to Calcutta for repairs

18 May 1829Governor Ready wrecks (crew eventually reaches the Amity 02 June)

13 June 1829Mermaid wrecks (crew eventually rescued by the Admiral Gifford, transferred to Swiftsure)

5 July 1829Swiftsure wrecks (crew rescued by Resource)

22 July 1829Resource brings crews of Mermaid and Swiftsure to port at Raffles Bay where the Amity is expecting the Mermaid.

Further firsthand accounts, including the account of the commander of the Raffles Bay settlement, Collet Barker, can be found supporting these events. Collet also wrote a letter in August 1829:

…loss of the Mermaid, which I regret to state was wrecked in Torres Strait on the 13 June. Her crew were all saved and were brought here by the Resource, the Master of which wished to have left them in consequence of being short of provisions and having with him the crew of another wrecked vessel, the Swiftsure. He consented however to take them except the Master, Mr. Nolbrow, on my supplying them with thirty two days provisions. I ordered Mr. Nolbrow on board the Amity and receiving an urgent request from Mr. Hastings, Chief Mate, and Thos. Long, Seaman, to be allowed to go to Sydney, I also ordered them a passage in the same vessel

Historical Records of Australia: Despatches and papers relating to the settlement of the states, Australia Parliament Joint Library Committee, at page 835, letter dated 22 August 1829

The Amity then went to Swan River, on the west coast of Australia. It was here that Samuel seems to have transferred to the Calista and travelled eastward to Sydney and then to Hobart, Tasmania.

Why such confusion over events? The newspapers of the day gave much space to the comings and goings of ships, but that does not mean they were always correct in their reporting, and even later articles in the same newspapers show discrepancies (for one thing, Samuel’s surname transmuting to Holbrow from Nolbrow). For whatever reason, an erroneous version was repeated and made its way into history books – often cited as the most unlucky rescue mission to happen at sea.

Prior to his captaincy of the Mermaid, the articles make reference to the Jessie, and we find a Captain Nolbrow in newspaper articles dating back to 1821 associated with this ship, and his arrival in Hobart in late February from England. Amongst the passengers is recorded Mrs Nolbrow. A month later, Samuel appears in the papers again, this time appearing in court as the victim of “battery” by one of his one crewmen, Thomas Read. It seems that Thomas was drunk and refused to go back onboard the ship and was himself struck by a constable, at which point he gave Samuel a smack that saw him fall from the wharf into the sea. The jury imposed a sentence of seven days solitary confinement, stating that this punishment did not meet the seriousness of the crime, but recognised that Thomas was reacting to having been struck by another.

Mrs Nolbrow appears on other passenger lists and arrival notices alongside her husband for many years, not least in June 1822 when she and Samuel arrive in Hobart from Isle of France on Samuel’s new ship – the Governor Brisbane. (I believe that Isle of France refers to Mauritius – although it had been known as Mauritius from 1810 when France had ceded it to the British). However, Mrs Nolbrow’s death announcement appears on 22 June 1822:

 Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen’s Land Advertiser, Saturday 22 June 1822

Whilst it is both typical and frustrating to not even know her name, even in death, the Tasmanian Library Archives has a record of her burial which gives her name – Amelia – and that she was just 29 years old.

In July, Samuel leaves Hobart for Port Dalrymple, on the north coast of Tasmania. However, in October a report was published showing that the Governor Brisbane got stranded on mud and stones at the mouth of the river Tamar. She was stuck for two days, but was repaired.

November 1824 saw more bad luck when the ship was “blown onshore, and stove, with the loss of her mainmast” at Mauritius during a hurricane. Samuel continues to appear on the Hobart to Sydney run, occasionally as a passenger, and in October 1825 appears as a passenger on the Phoenix, bound for England. However, he obviously returned to purchase the Mermaid before his fateful 1829 voyage.

He was also the 2nd mate aboard the ship Experiment in 1804, whose captain found an island in the Pacific whilst journeying to China, and named it Experiment Island. This was often misnamed in charts as Strong’s Island. The co-ordinates given almost match the location of the island of Kosrae in Micronesia. (The Experiment was later captured by French privateers in 1806 and taken to Mauritius, a later article states “the same accounts … speak doubtfully of the fate of the Experiment” – however, the ship was later recaptured by the British.)

However, it seems that Samuel eventually left the sea behind him. In 1833 he moved in with a Dr Bland at 104 Pitt Street, Sydney, and kept the doctor’s books for him for a number of years. Unfortunately ill-health caught up with Samuel and in 1841, he decided to quit the colony and return to England, requesting any debtors of Dr Bland to pay up:

Australasian Chronicle, 14th and 16th January 1841

However, Samuel was not to see England again:

His age would give a rough year of birth of 1783, and it seems he served the Honourable East India Company. HIs probate packet was settled over a year later, with probate granted on 3 March 1842. Unfortunately the Western Sydney Records Centre where it is located now remains closed.

This leads further back in time, to a list of ships he had served on:

Manship – 4th mate – 9 September 1801 – 1 June 1803 (the final voyage for EIC, travelling from Portsmouth to Bengal and back before being sold to become a powder hulk [floating warehouse]

Experiment – unknown rank – 4 December 1803 – 12 June 1804 (Cowes to Port Jackson [convict transport])

Experiment – unknown rank – 7 October 1804 – ???? (Port Jackson to Canton, China [Guangzho])

Experiment – unknown rank – 1805 – 1806 (transporting tea for EIC, Canton to England, captured by French privateer Napoleon – the ship, captain, surgeon and 4th mate [Samuel?] were taken to Mauritius, the rest of the crew were taken to the Cape of Good Hope and then to St Helena; in August 1805 the crew were aboard the African and taken back to England; the Experiment was later sent to Cape Town and recaptured by the British)

Sovereign – 3rd mate – 30 March 1806 – 9 September 1807 (3rd EIC voyage, from Portsmouth to Bengal and back)

Northumberland – 3rd mate – 15 April 1808 – 17 July 1809 (2nd EIC voyage, Portsmouth to Madras and Bengal and back)

Sir William Bensley – 1st mate – 13 April 1810 – 1 September 1811 (5th EIC voyage, Portsmouth to Madras and Bengal and back)

Earl Howe – 4 June 1812 – 1 August 1813 (8th EIC voyage, Portsmouth to Madras, then on to Diamond Harbour, lost in Hooghly River, West Bengal, all crew saved)

In 1813 a Samuel Nolbrow, “of Bishopsgate Street, London and late of Ship ‘Earl Howe’ in the service of the East India Co, mariner and merchant“, was declared bankrupt on 4 December. The creditors met for the last time in 1817. Just four years later he first appears as commander of the Jessie arriving in Hobart with his wife. He does seem to have continued to support whatever earnings he made from shipping with some mercantile interests. Indeed, the article announcing his docking in Hobart in 1821 states that he has arrived “with a choice and valuable investment”. However, on 14 March he sailed for Port Jackson (aka Sydney). A notice then appears in The Sydney Gazette on 7 April, cautioning the use of credit from any of his crew:

One week later, Samuel announces that he has various items for sale, primarily liquor, sundry food items (pickles, olive oil, sugar), paintbrushes, various items for your horse and carriage, stationery, shawls and guns – and even some hops. All of which are individually small, but can be packed together tightly and are easily transportable on a ship in quantities to make it economically viable.

I like to think that he’d learned a few things following his earlier bankruptcy – and he is never mentioned in such articles again, indeed, he seems to be held in some esteem as is called as a character witness in a few trials – and obviously his money-tracking skills were put to good use by Dr Bland later in life.

Samuel’s maritime career was certainly an interesting one, having travelled extensively between England, India and China, being captured by privateers, surviving bankruptcy and being wrecked all before becoming the master of his own ship! I do wonder if the four months he spent in Australia later informed his decision to move to that part of the world, first in Hobart and then in Sydney.

I have to say that I am somewhat disappointed that there is no connection (yet!) between Samuel’s Nolbrow family and my Holbrows!

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