Essential Information

National Maritime Museum

03 Aug 2013

The Item of the Month is a newspaper entitled Sketches at sea issued on board the Young Australia during the passage from London to Brisbane, Australia in 1864.

The privately written memento of the journey bears a manuscript inscription: “To my dear cousin Maggie - from her affectionate relative William Smith. ” Edited by Smith, Sketches at sea appeared weekly and was made up of between two and four pages. The main pieces were humorous editorials, abstract of the week’s log, reports from the captain, reviews of events such as concerts, births, deaths, passengers’ contributions in verse and prose, a jokes and conundrums section and advertisements.

Onboard newspapers are great source when one wishes to explore everyday life on a vessel because official logs of British merchant ships are not, as many people assume, daily diaries of ships. They are more a ‘parish register’ for vessels, noting vital information about the crew and passengers, and only had to be kept if there were relevant entries to record. These include new arrivals on board (such as births), departures (death, disappearance and desertion), marriages, illness and any disciplinary action taken against a crew member. Sailing and arrival dates were occasionally noted but were not required. However, the first page of the Sketches at sea shows the Young Australia’s exact position (longitude and latitude) day after day, mentions vagaries of the weather such as wind directions and informs us how long the journey took (almost three months). 

Shipboard newspapers often provide excellent accounts and fascinating readings of the day to day occurences of the voyage. It is easy to see how many passengers took great pleasure in passing the time with such entertainment. As passengers usually had to bring their own books, and no doubt these were circulated, the Young Australia had its own library which contained such popular works as the novels of Dickens and Thackeray! The most widely read piece of literature nonetheless was the ship’s newspaper. Yet sometimes, the 'official' ship’s newspaper did not meet with the approval of some passengers who then might have started a rival journal. Our item, Sketches at Sea was set up originally under the title Etches and Sketches by William Smith, a fellow passenger and proved much more popular than the vessel’s official paper Young Australia Times!

Young Australia, itself has an exciting history, as it was laid down by Fernald & Pettigrew at Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1852 as Red Rover. Bought by James Baines & Co., the parent company of a fleet of packet ships running between Liverpool and Australia under the name of Black Ball Line, it was renamed Young Australia in 1861. Up until April 1870, it made many voyages for the Line from London to Queensland. Sadly, it was wrecked in Moreton Bay on 31st May 1872 , whilst on passage from Brisbane to London.

From 1860 the Black Ball Line was very prominent in London with its offices in Leadenhall Street and with its ships loading in the East India Docks. The three main ports of arrival in Australia were Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. One of the major disadvantages of Melbourne was the fact that there were no dry-docking facilities for vessels of the size of the Black Ball Lines. Instead the Young Australia had to continue to Queensland and anchor close to the spot of its eventual demise in Moreton Bay, with passengers and cargoes conveyed 45km by steamer to Brisbane, which could be both slow and expensive.

Many aspects of life of the two hundred and eighty-six passengers on board can be observed throughout the pages of Sketches at sea. For example, the number of passengers was soon increased by the birth of a fine boy on the second day out. Less happily, we are informed that the ship’s carpenter was washed overboard on July 8th and died at sea.

Some pleasing and melodious strains of concertina was playing ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘Limerick Races’, the’ Old Hundredth’  and ‘Dixie’s Land’ on May 9th up until 10pm when ‘lights out’ was called. On another page some humorous adverts wanted fair wind, a wife and a moment of quietness.

Sketches at sea is not only essential to genealogists but a fascinating reading. If you wish to find out more about life on board the Young Australia, we have two further accounts available among our holdings at the Caird Library. Extract from the journal of Richard Watt of Manchester was published in Sea Breezes journal and a whole chapter is dedicated to the 1864 journey in Cicely Fox Smith’s book Sailor town days. Last but not least, do not forget to look up Michael K. Stammers’ book on the history of the Black Ball Line of Australian packets. All available for ordering for viewing via the Library online catalogue at

 These include:

  •  'An extract from the journal of Richard Watt of Manchester, who took a passage out to Australia in the full-rigged wooden ships'. Second Cabin Passage In: Sea Breezes, Vol. 22, 1956.
  • Sailor town days / Cicely Fox Smith. London: Methuen, 1923 -  PBC6934 - 627.3(421)
  • The Passage makers : the history of the Black Ball Line of Australian packets, 1852-1871 / Michael K. Stammers. Brighton: Teredo, 1978. -  PBN0733 - 347.792BLACK BALL

Plenty to read, so we may aptly take leave of the Sketches at sea with the editor’s own words:

Gentle reader, adieu!

Gregory, Archive and Library

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