Chapter 2: The Stag

The Stag Diary - Passage to Colonial Adelaide 1850


Chapter 2: The Stag


And now the gallant ship rides high,

The wind is fair and free,

The busy hands have trimmed her sails;

She stems the open sea.

- The First Voyage, Eliza Cook


By 1850 about 187,000 people had made the journey to the Australian colonies. Assisted passage schemes continued during the gold rushes, when there were many labour shortages. In one of the world’s great exchanges of people a further 600,000 emigrants came to Australia between 1851 and 1860. Those that arrived prior to 1850 and most of those that came in the period between 1851 and 1860 would have been passengers on a square-rigged vessel similar to the In the latter period because people were eager to participate in the gold rush and willing to pay for their passage, some came more quickly with a little more comfort in the relatively new and sleeker clipper ships. However, the square-rigger was the main form of transport for most of the 19th century for emigrants who chose to come half way around the world to the Australian colonies.


The Stag was a typical medium size square-rigger built at Sunderland in 1842. The Port of Sunderland has a heritage which goes back over 800 years, with the earliest evidence of maritime commerce being a charter granted in 1154. Industry progressively developed along the River Wear, with docks being present from at least 1382. In the mid 17th Century, following the English Civil War, the proximity of Sunderland to Durham coalfield, stimulated the development of its export trade. An increase in the port facilities was required and more ships needed to be built. By 1840 there were 65 shipyards on the river and Sunderland was the largest shipbuilding port in the world. The last shipyard at Sunderland was closed in 1988, ending a 600-year tradition of shipbuilding on the banks of the River Wear.


The Stags maiden passage in 1842, under Master Young, was to Calcutta, India rigged as a barque. On the 1850 passage to Adelaide the Stag was rigged as a three-mast ship, but later changed back to the rigging of a barque. She was a 678-ton vessel built at Sunderland by Wade and Company, London. A description of a three mast square-rigged ship, together with a diagram of a square-rigger compared to a barque is provided in the previous chapter. It is clear from Francis Taylor’s diary that the Stag had a poop deck and other features common to a square rigged vessel around the middle of the century. Taylor’s description of the steerage passenger accommodation is much like that described in Chapter 1. For example, Taylor referred to the difficulties with inadequate light and ventilation between decks. He also referred to cooking arrangements involving a small hanging stove common in vessels of this type. The routine of shipboard life and requirements imposed on passengers as recorded in the diary are similar to those experienced in most nineteenth century emigration vessels. At 678 tons the Stag was slightly larger than the average emigration vessel in use in the 1850’s but was certainly typical of the square-rigged vessels that were used to bring emigrants to the colonies.


The tonnage of a merchant vessel had nothing to do with the weight of the vessel but was a measure of its capacity or space. This was important as the larger the space the greater the potential earning capacity of the vessel. The method for calculating capacity was changed several times. At some point in time the Stag was remeasured, using a new calculation method, and her tonnage adjusted down to 545.


The Stag with an unidentified vessel - watercolour by Alexander Weynton

[By permission National Library of Australia]


The waters around Australia were not foreign to the Stag. She had made two previous passages to Melbourne taking emigrants to the Colony of Victoria. The first of those passages was made in the period October 1847 to January 1848 in a time of 108 days. The vessel was under the command of Captain Edward Noakes.


Captain E Noakes HEICS (Honourable East India Company Service) – watercolour by Alexander Weynton

(By permission of the National Library of Australia)


One imagines that the spiritual welfare of passengers would have been well cared for on that passage given the following information, which appeared in the Port Phillip Herald on Tuesday 25 January 1848:



The Right Rev Dr Perry, the first Bishop of Melbourne, accompanied by his family and three Protestant clergymen, arrived in Hobson’s Bay on Sunday afternoon in the Stag from London. After a short delay his Lordship and suite entered the steamer Diamond and as the little vessel was bidding adieu to the barque, the yards of the Stag were manned by the crew who saluted the Bishop with three farewell and hearty cheers, which were duly returned by the


On that occasion the Stag departed on the return trip to London in April 1848 and arrived back in England in late August 1848. The complete voyage out and back taking over 10 months. As crewmember Alexander Weynton commented in his journal about that duration of the voyage:


“On Saturday the of October I joined the ship in the East India Docks….”

      and at the end of the journal when the vessel had docked -

   “……having been away 10 months and 17 days.”


The second passage to Melbourne occurred during the period October 1848 and February 1849. Soon after arrival passengers and cargo were sought for the return passage to London. The Stag was described as follows in the shipping adds in the Melbourne Morning Herald on Monday 19 February 1849:



The A1 fast sailing frigate built ship, STAG 700 tons, John McKerlie, Esq Commander, belonging to Messrs F Green and Co. of Blackwell. This ship has splendid accommodation for passengers, carries an experienced surgeon, and will be despatched on 5th April.

For Freight or Passage, apply to Robert Jamieson & Co.’


The description of the Stag in the advertisement as a frigate was a fairly common way of describing square rigged vessels to make them sound more appealing. She is also advertised at 700 tons possibly to make her seem larger and safer to prospective passengers.


The Stag at Port Phillip Heads – watercolour by Alexander Weynton

(By permission of the National Library of Australia)


The Stag departed Port Phillip in May 1849 for the return trip to London, carrying 20 passengers and cargo of 1418 bales of wool, 455 casks and 45 cases of tallow, 1380 bags of copper ore, 22 bales of leather, etc. Unlike the previous return trip frustration and disappointment accompanied this passage as the Stag started to leak badly soon after departing Port Phillip. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on 24 May 1849:


‘On Sunday it was discovered by Captain McKerlie that the ship was in a leaky condition and the wind being at the time from the south-west he bore up for this port, in order to have her examined and undergo repair.’


She remained in Mosman Bay for over a month undergoing repairs, finally sailing for London on 1 July 1849 and arriving back in London in late October 1849.

These earlier voyages to the colonies and back to London are reported in the journals of Alexander Weynton, a seafarer. He made three voyages in the Stag, the two above to Melbourne and return and an earlier voyage to China in 1846-47 and back to London. Weynton’s journals are in three volumes and cover voyages in eight different vessels, his experiences in some ports, some passenger details and they contain a number of impressive watercolour sketches. As well as being a fine artist he was a keen observer of human nature and often described passengers and crew in colourful terms:


‘The fellow is a rogue and possesses a face which would be a very fair ornament to any of the pages of the Newgate Calendar.’


‘She is evidently a disappointed woman and one of her most amiable glances is quite enough to take away any man’s appetite for the rest of the day.’


‘One female first-class passenger was course, vulgar, miserably conceited, with unwashed face and dirty slippers and stockings.’


The Stag and the Lady Amherst (right) anchored in Chinese waters (notation indicates the location as Whampoa, which is an old English name for Huangpu District, Guangzhou) – watercolour by Alexander Weynton

Note: The Lady Amherst was also involved in bringing emigrants to the Australian colonies.

(By permission of the National Library of Australia)


In his journals Weynton described in some detail a number of incidents on board ship, which reveal something of the relationships between the crew and passengers, the social life on emigrant ships, and the class and regional differences among emigrants. Weynton recorded that there were some major clashes between officers and seamen on both passages of the Stag to Melbourne, culminating in a small mutiny at Melbourne in February 1849. He also mentions Bishop C Perry as a passenger on the 1847-48 passage, commenting that when Perry arrived in Melbourne no one was expecting him and he had to live on board ship for several days. Volume 1 of his journals, which contains the information on the three Stag voyages, was written retrospectively and contains a number of attractive watercolour sketches of the Stag and some crew. The journals do present an interesting commentary and some technical data from the viewpoint of a ship’s mate.


Alexander Weynton made a number of comments in his journal about the Stag based on his three voyages in the It would appear from his comments about the Stag that he had positive views about her from a crewmembers viewpoint. She was like all square-riggers complex to sail, but responded well in the big seas encountered in the southern ocean, withstood the constant battering and was a relatively fast vessel in mid nineteenth century terms. With regard to the speed of the Stag Francis Taylor commented in his diary that the mailbags were given to the Stag in preference to a number of other vessels departing for the colonies at the same time because she was “a vey fast sailing ship”. However, like all vessels of that era she required considerable and ongoing maintenance.


Following the 1850 passage to Adelaide the Stag made further passages to southern waters. The next being in 1852 to New Zealand followed by a further trip in 1855 to the Australian colonies. On her 1855 visit she came under Captain Henry Clarke to Fremantle, Western Australia, as a convict ship in a time of one hundred and seven days bringing 224 male convicts. She carried the fourteenth of 37 shipments of convicts destined for Western Australia. The surgeon on that voyage was Jos. Caldwell. There were no deaths recorded on the convict and description lists for that voyage. The Stag arrived in Fremantle on 23 May 1855 with, in addition to the convicts, 89 passengers. The 89 passengers comprised 30 pensioner guards, 24 wives, 17 sons and 18 daughters.


It seems that the Stag was also involved in shorter passages bringing goods to South Australia. For example in 1860 she made two trips between Mauritius and Adelaide. On 26 June 1860 the South Australian Register reported the arrival of the Stag the previous day having departed Port Louis on May 17. The cargo comprised 5344 bags of sugar and 20 casks of molasses. There was one passenger (“Master William Henderson in the cabin”). On the second occasion she arrived on 7 November 1960 having departed Port Louis on 4 October. There were 4 passengers on that occasion (one in the cabin and 3 in steerage). The South Australian Register reported:


“Captain Ellis has again returned from Port Louis with a full cargo of sugar and molasses after a favourable passage, although delayed to some extent by calm weather. The passage hence to Port Louis with a cargo of horses, was completed in 35 days; and through the care and attention bestowed on the stock by the attendants but one horse was lost, and the remainder were landed in good condition.”


Clearly the Stag had returned to Mauritius after arriving in June taking horses and returning with more sugar and molasses.


It was important for economic reasons for vessels making the return passage to their homeport to do so with as much cargo as possible. Often the master had the responsibility of ensuring the vessel had a return cargo. Some masters were sold a small share in the vessel as an incentive to try to maximise the profit generated by the vessel. In the Australian context freight was often a highly seasonable commodity. This frequently meant that vessels sought employment in the coastal trade or made short runs to Cape Town, Singapore or Mauritius while waiting for a cargo back to the United Kingdom or Europe. Trips from South Australia to Mauritius for sugar were a popular method of generating income while waiting for cargo to carry back to the United Kingdom or Europe. It would seem that the Stag was engage in this trade.


It is clear that the Stag operated like many of the square-riggers that were employed on the Australian run in that she was used flexibly to carry passengers and cargo and to transport convicts. The internal fit out below decks would have been quickly transformed before the start of a passage to meet the needs of that part of the voyage. The rudimentary fit out to accommodate emigrants below decks was thus easily removed to make room for bulky cargo. The timber would readily have been sold in the colonies. In reality the steerage passengers were placed in the cargo hold. The 1850 passage to Adelaide is a good example of the flexibility of these vessels, where some 300 emigrants and crew were carried on the passage out and copper and lead became the cargo for the next trip. The illustration below shows the below deck usage of space when the vessel is set up to carry passenger and their baggage.


Cross Section of a Square Rigged Vessel

(By permission of Jeremy Limbrick)


Although the Stag was larger than many emigration vessels she was by our standards a small vessel. While exact dimensions are not available for the Stag its clear that she would have had a length of about 110 to 120 feet and a beam of 30 to 35 feet. On the 1850 passage only 4 adult and 3 children passengers travelled cabin class (i.e. above the deck). It’s thus difficult to imagine almost 300 adults and children (passengers and most of the crew) living in the steerage area for 111 days in a vessel of this size. The feeling of confinement would have been exacerbated because much of the second half of the passage involved very rough weather necessitating closed hatches and very limited time on deck. It’s not hard to appreciate the comment made by many nineteenth century emigrants that the most notable features of life on board these emigrant vessels were the smells and the constant noise. Francis Taylor after being ill for sometime commented several times on the constant noise:


“Our time for reaching Adelaide is variously calculated at from ten to fourteen days, thank God we are so near as we are, for I want a few days quietness, which I shall never get onboard the Stag….”


Square-riggers like the Stag had a limited life but were used like old workhorses making many trips to various parts of the globe including to the far away colonies of Australia. It seems the Stag was still sailing in the Australian waters in 1866 according to a report in the Southern Cross dated 22 January:


‘The Stag, from Batavia, has brought to Sydney, Captain Meredith, the first mate, and one of the crew of the wrecked barque Mary Nicholson, which vessel loaded in Lombock, with a cargo of rice, for Sydney, and just after leaving, she sprang a leak, and was abandoned at sea. The crew reached Probolinga in boats; and thence to Batavia; the captain, mate and four crew left in the Stag, the following died during the voyage from dysentery, viz: James Boyd, Peter Nelson, Francis John Bury, Francis Barry.’


A further reference to the Stag is contained in a report on shipwrecks in the Furneaux Group of islands, rocks and shoals. This group includes 52 islands, at the eastern end of Bass Strait, between Victoria and Tasmania. The islands were named, after British navigator Tobias Furneaux who sighted the eastern side of them after leaving Adventure Bay in 1773 on his way to New Zealand to rejoin Captain James Cook. The largest islands in the group are Flinders Island, Cape Barren Island and Clarke Island. This is an area associated with some 200 shipwrecks. The report lists the Stag as a barque which was “stranded in the Furneaux Group but refloated, 1882”. It also states that “no further reference to this wreck” could be found.


From the information given in the report it’s not possible to establish if this is the same Stag that brought passengers to Adelaide in 1850. If it was then it’s highly likely to have been the final time the Stag entered Australian waters and could have been her final passage. If this incident marked her end then she had lasted remarkably well giving 40 years of service (1842-1882) including many trips into southern waters. Like many square-riggers she had indeed been a fine old workhorse.


The Stag under sail – watercolour by Alexander Weynton

(By permission of the National Library of Australia)