19 February 2011

Horror on the high seas

Shielswood Farm
In December 2010 it was 147 years since my maternal great-great-grandparents arrived in New Zealand. James Johnstone was a shepherd at Shielswood Farm in the Scottish borders when he signed a contract with W.C. and A.P. Walker, the owners of a sheep station at remote Lake Heron in South Canterbury, New Zealand. James, his wife Mary and their four children, ranging in age from 9 years to 11 months, departed London on 25 July 1863 on the Brother’s Pride, a Canadian-built sailing ship just 180 feet long. The ship carried 371 people and, by all accounts, the four-and-a-half-month voyage was horrendous.

According to evidence presented at the provincial government enquiry in Christchurch in January 1864, sickness raged through the cramped and squalid conditions of the steerage deck, where most of the immigrants were housed, almost from the start of the voyage. When the immigrants were inspected at Gravesend, before leaving England, one child was found to be dangerously ill with scarlet fever and, though he was sent ashore, eight members of the family almost immediately fell sick with the disease, which then spread to the other passengers.

A few weeks later a large number of children developed typhoid, which many did not survive. The limited supply of rudimentary medical supplies was rapidly diminishing, so the ship’s captain decided to call in at Cape Town, South Africa, in mid-October for replenishment. Less than a week later, an even more virulent form of scarlet fever broke out on board, causing further deaths and misery. By the time the ship arrived in Lyttelton, New Zealand, 44 people had died, including the Johnstone’s youngest child John. It was the greatest number of fatalities of any immigrant ship to New Zealand and, to make matters worse, the passengers were quarantined in very primitive conditions until all signs of illness had abated.

At the enquiry passengers complained of filthy and overcrowded living spaces, of damp bedding due to leaking decks, of inadequate cooking facilities and a stagnant water supply, and of a drunken doctor, who apparently ignored some requests for treatment. Others complained of the stench of the pigs and sheep, allowed to roam the deck when their pens were being cleaned, and of at least seven dogs. Five of those dogs actually belonged to James Johnstone and had been smuggled aboard, but one passenger reported that his dogs were washed every morning – and what is a shepherd without his dogs?

Mary Miller Johnstone (nee Little)

James Johnstone

Though their relief at finally arriving in New Zealand must have been palpable, the Johnstone’s journey didn’t end with the ship’s arrival in Lyttelton. In his 1930s history of South Canterbury, author John Brown tells of correspondence from Margaret Hood, one of the Johnstone daughters. ‘She cannot remember coming off the ship at Lyttelton [she would have been five] but ... she remembers quite well the trip from Christchurch to Lake Heron in the bullock wagon driven by ‘Yankee Tom’, an old hand at the job. They got along all right over the Selwyn and the Rakaia [rivers – no bridges in those days], and stayed a night at Anthony Thompson’s boarding house ... [then] went straight on – camping out when they had to – till they reached the lake.’

Clent Hills Station

The Johnstone family didn’t stay long with Walker Brothers at Lake Heron, as the property was sold in 1866. James was offered the position of head shepherd and overseer at nearby Clent Hills Station, their home for the next thirteen years. The family lived a tough life in a one-room sod hut deep in the mountainous South Canterbury high country, where James and Mary went on to have another nine children. After leaving Clent Hills, the Johnstones bought their own farm, which James and his sons broke in. Mary passed away in 1901 and James finally died in 1915 at the age of 79. All of their children grew up to be successful citizens of their new country.

I can only admire the strength and tenacity of my pioneer ancestors!