My mother's maternal grandfather passed away when she was only 20, but she never stopped talking about him.He appears to have been a genuine "character" so, lest his memory perish, let me introduce him to you, starting with his obituary in the Coolamon-Ganmain Farmer's Review of 20 December 1929.
He was born in Sunderland, England, in 1846, and was one of a large family.Well, maybe. The story I heard - but which the man himself always denied - was that he came into the world in Dublin, but his family moved to Sunderland when he was six weeks old, and his birth was registered there.
One would assume that his family would know his correct age. Just the same, it should be noted that, when he applied to be examined for the positions of first mate, second mate, or master, he always gave his date of birth as 14 September 1844 - except that, after the Clarinda disaster (of which more later), when he may have been overwrought, he quoted 1845. If it is of any significance, the great Irish potato famine commenced in 1845.
Be that as it may, two things are certain. The first is that the McGoverns are an ancient sept of the O'Rourkes, originating in County Cavan, Ireland, and that, according to his wife, "You could see Jack McGoverns roaming all over Dublin." The second is that he was a patriotic British subject "who would kill you if you called him Irish".
John appears to have been blessed with no middle name. To his friends, he was usually known as Jack, and he pronounced the first vowel in his surname as in "job", rather than in "govern". His parents were Charles and Margaret (née Eastwood), and they provided him with at least four brothers and two sisters. It is noteworthy that, when Jack himself eventually married, his late father's occupation was listed as civil engineer, so he could not have been too poverty-stricken.
But to return to the obituary:
His father receiving only a small wage, he early had to fend for himself and at the age of 13 he went to sea, signing on as a member of a crew of the small sailing ship, Alpha, of only 268 tons, engaged in the Mediterranean trade.This is not the only case where family tradition appears to be contradicted by the official records. When applying for certificates as an officer, my great-grandfather would list the ships on which he had served - or at least those for which he had full records. He did, however, note that he had several other vessels. The first on his list was the Harrison from 20 June to 25 August 1860, followed by the Clifton Hall, 20 August 1861 to 17 January 1862, and only then on the Alpha from February to 9 September 1862. All of these were registered at Sunderland, and on all of them he served as an ordinary seaman. Nevertheless, he did say that he first went to sea in August 1859. Was that, perhaps, on the Alpha?
As an aside, one wonders whether this was the same Alpha, whose crew, on 30 May 1849, happened to see what was described as a monster twenty feet [6 metres] wide in the ocean south of Australia. Dr Heuvelmans, in his book, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, suggests it may have been a giant ray.
In any case, even bearing in mind the hardships of his childhood, one can only imagine the trauma of such a young cabin boy, separated from all who loved and cared for him, being thrust into the tough and merciless life of the windjammers, where life was nasty, brutish, and frequently short, where you grew up strong, or not at all. Once, at the end of a long watch, when the cook sent him to fetch rainwater from a barrel, he was so utterly exhausted, that as he reached into the cask with the dipper, and his chest rested against the lip of the barrel, he fell asleep - until awakened by the cook's boot on the seat of his pants. Nevertheless, he learned to read and write as a cabin boy. Believe it or not, the merchant navy did accept some responsibility for the welfare of its youngest recruits, and provided primers and text books for their education.
Three years later, a well-developed lad, keen in his vocation, he was able to take a position as Ordinary Seaman on the Clifton Hall, a sailing ship of 354 tons, in these days a mere cockle shell. A year later he reached the status of Able Seaman, in which capacity he signed on the ... Princess Alexandra of 291 tons.The Princess Alexandra voyage was from 15 June to 19 November 1863. In this general period that the celebrated incident of "McGovern's duff" probably occurred. For a description of "duff", one can do no better than quote Richard Henry Dana in Two Years Before the Mast, some quarter century before:
This is nothing more than flour boiled with water, and eaten with molasses. It is very heavy, dark, and clammy, yet it is looked upon as a luxury, and really forms an agreeable variety with salt beef and pork. Many a rascally captain has made friends of his crew by allowing them duff twice a week on the passage home.But the cook made no friend of Able Seaman McGovern when the latter came in, stiff and cold, from a late watch on the icy deck, to find his duff sitting isolated on the table, stone cold and rock hard. Great guffaws rose from his shipmates at his dismay, but we were not told of their reactions when he heaved the duff at the cook, who caught it on his stomach, and promptly fell unconscious. Jack McGovern was flung into the brig for the offense, but at least it gave him a great story for later years. Later, when he was in a position of authority, he would always insist that his crew had proper food, with the adage, "Work won't hurt anyone if he is well fed."
In his list of ships, he added that he had served on other vessels for a total of about seven years. The longest gap was the three year period from the start of 1864 to the end of 1866. Therefore, it would have been about that the following adventure occurred:
During his early career he left his ship in California and went to the Diablo gold diggings, where with a companion he worked with fair success until his mate decamped with their earnings and he had to return to the sea.It sounds like the sort of thing an impetuous youth might do. But the California gold rush had effectively petered out by 1864, and long before then, most of the diggings had been mechanised, and the day of the free-lance prospector was almost at an end. Sailors, I might add, have a tendency to move between ships, not infrequently involving themselves in various escapades in the intervals - especially during gold rushes.
In 1867 he was on the Glenaris (679 tons), the first ship to take wheat from Australia to England [sailing from Port Adelaide]. His next voyage was in the same ship to the pirate infested Chinese seas, where the ship just eluded capture. In 1869 he was Boatswain (Bo'sun) on the Coral Nymph, which was wrecked somewhere in the East, the crew saving themselves with much difficulty and danger.He sailed on the Glenaris from January to May 1867 as an Able Bodied Seaman, then rejoined it on 5 July 1867 as bosun, continuing until 24 April 1868. He does not appear to have had much time in port, for he sailed in the Elizabeth Katherine from 12 June 1968 until 18 January 1869. The Coral Nymph incident must have occurred in 1869. Obviously, there is a fascinating story here, if one could only access it. But the vague reference to "somewhere in the East" is a clue that the details failed to be passed down to the family. It may have happened near Batavia (modern Jakarta). All my mother could remember was that they were several days in a lifeboat, and he developed sunburn in the corner of his torso where his shirt was torn.
He secured his Second Mate's ticket in 1870 on the Sleeve Danard of 1298 tons, sailing to Bombay, Calcutta and Mauritius.He certainly recorded that he had served as Second Mate on the Sleeve Danard from 13 January to 28 August 1870, but when he returned to England in September 1870 he applied for, and was granted, a Second Mate's certificate. He stated that his previous certificate had been "only colonial" - which may say something about the way the system worked then.
In the intervals ashore, he had time to woo and, on 17 July 1871, marry Marget Ellen Amiss, the daughter of widowed Captain William Amiss of Sunderland. He got her on the rebound. It is said that her chief motive in accepting his proposal was to avoid becoming an old maid, for her fiancé, Tommy Wallace had been drowned at sea, and she kept his love letters all her life. Be that as it may, there appears to have been genuine affection between them, and the union produced five offspring: William ("Willy") in 1874, Ada in 1877, John Burton (named after a close friend of that name) in 1880, my grandmother, Clarinda ("Clarrie") in 1883 and, finally, Norah in 1886.
He was promoted to steam in 1872, on the Clarinda, and [sailed] in the Genoa, East Indian, South American and Baltic trade.He was always proud to have been one of the first to go into steam, but it wasn't on the Clarinda. His first was the S.S. Chambeze of Sunderland, on which he served from 1873 to 1875, with few breaks. The longest period he had at home was six months (and what did he earn during that time?). It was no wonder that he called a seaman's life "voluntary exile". After the Chambeze came the Callisto Mark in 1876, and then the Clarinda in 1877.
The S.S. Clarinda, at 1075 tons, had been constructed in 1871, and operated on both steam and sail. It was 67 metres long and 9 metres wide, with a single screw driven by a 98 hp two cylinder compound engine and two boilers. With a good ship, a good wife, and a growing family, Jack McGovern always said that his eight years on the Clarinda were the happiest of his life. It was not for nothing that he named his second daughter after her.
He was enrolled in the Royal Naval Reserves. He passed his examination for First Mate [on 7 September] 1879 at Hong Kong, and passed for Captain at Cardiff in 1885.Wrong! He passed his examination for First Mate in March 1873, upon which he joined the Chambeze. It was on 20 September 1875 that he gained his Master's certificate, after which he took command of the Callisto Mark. It had taken him just 16 years to rise from the rank of uneducated cabin boy to ship's captain.
The Last Voyage of the Clarinda
Jack McGovern had reached the pinnacle of his career. Life was looking up. To be sure, there were some hiccups. In March 1880 she broke her crankshaft during the height of a gale, and had to be towed back to port. And at the end of December, 1885 the ship lost her propeller off Piperi Island, Greece, and had to be towed to the port of Salonica by the French steamer, Europa at the cost of £250, which was a lot of money in those days. But these were the natural hazards of shipping. The crunch came ten months later.On 17 October 1885, he shipped out from Cardiff on the Clarinda with a crew of 17, heading for Kronstadt with a cargo of coal. Probably the last thing on his mind was what happened next. In a northeasterly force 3 wind (otherwise known as a "gentle breeze"), 13 miles off the Isle of Wight, the Clarinda collided with a passenger steamer, the S.S. Tern, and sunk. Jack McGovern reached shore with just his life, and the clothes on his back. Everything else, even his cat and canary, had been swallowed by the ravenous maw of the English Channel. He had to find his way home with clothes provided by the Seamen's Mission.
Mr David Wendes, the diver who located the wreck of the Clarinda in 2003, has kindly sent me copies of two newspaper reports, from the days when newspapers were much more interested in ship movements than they are now. The first was from the Soton Observer and Winchester News of Saturday 24 October 1885, on page 5:
SHIP SUNK OFF ST CATHERINE'S POINT. - On Sunday morning the s.s. Tern, of Cork, from Liverpool for Rotterdam, brought into this port the crew of the s.s. Clarinda, of Sunderland, Cardiff for Cronstadt, laden with coals, which she had been in collision with, and sunk, about 18 miles off St Catherine's Point on Saturday evening. About seven o'clock the Clarinda was overtaken by the Tern, and on the latter endeavouring to pass, the Clarinda was struck amidships, and sunk about an hour afterwards. The night was a bright moonlight one, and both shops were distinctly visible to each other. The crew of the Clarinda (16 in number) were immediately transferred to the Tern, and conveyed to Southampton. The captain of the sunken ship made a deposition at the Board of Trade offices, and immediately proceeded to London, and the crew were sent to their various destinations by the local agent of the Shipwrecked Fishermen's and Mariner's Society, after being attended to at the Sailors' Home, at this port. The Tern sustained some damage, and was docked for repairs.I should explain that the reference to a crew of 16 does not include the officers ie the mate and the captain. It does, however, include the 14 year old nephew of the captain's sister, one William de Costa (1870 - 1950), who had enlisted as an "engineer's steward", which I suspect is seaman's lingo for "cabin boy". His wages were recorded as 16 shillings.
The circumstances of the collision were rather peculiar, as was revealed in the subsequent court action, as recorded in The Times of 30 November 1885, on page 13:
This was an action brought by the owners of the steamship Clarinda against the owners of the steamship Tern, to recover damages for the loss of their vessel by collision, on the night of 17th of October last in the English Channel, off St. Catherine's Point. The plaintiffs' case was that the Clarinda was steering east by south, and making from seven to eight knots and hour, when the Tern, which had been gradually overhauling her, passed along her starboard side, and crossed from her starboard on to her port bow. The helm of the Clarinda was thereupon ported a little to give the Tern more room and then steadied, but, instead of remaining on the port bow of the Clarinda, the Tern ported her helm as if to recross on to the starboard bow, at the same time slackening her speed, and causing danger of collision. The engines of the Clarinda were at once reversed full speed, and her helm was put hard port, but the Tern with her starboard quarter struck the Clarinda on the port bow, without, however, doing her any damage. The engines of that Clarinda were then stopped, and the Tern having passed on to her starboard bow to a distance of about a quarter of a mile, was also stopped. Shortly afterwards a flare light was burnt on board the Tern, and the engines of the Clarinda were set half speed ahead, and her helm was put hard starboard. When the Tern was by this manoeuvre brought broad on to the starboard bow, the engines of the Clarinda were stopped, her helm was steadied, and her lifeboat was ordered away. Some few minutes afterwards, however, the Tern, which was by now nearly abeam of the Clarinda, and about a ship's length off, was seen to be coming astern; and though those on board the Clarinda hailed her to go ahead, she continued to approach stern first, and crashed into the Clarinda's starboard side, doing her so much damage that she sank shortly afterwards. The defendents' case was that the two vessels had been in company for a considerable time, the Tern, which was on an east three-quarter south course, being on the starboard beam of the Clarinda. Some time after sunset the Clarinda was seen to be closing in on the Tern'sport side, and shortly afterwards the Clarinda opened her red light and crossed under the stern of the Tern. The helm of the latter was then starboarded slightly to give the Clarinda more room and then ported a little to bring the Tern back to her original course. The Clarinda, however, then steered to port, and though the helm of the Tern was put hard starboard, the port bow of the former struck the latter on the starboard quarter, doing considerable damage. After the first collision the engines of the Tern were stopped as soon as the vessels were well clear, and steps were taken to examine the damage with a light. The Clarinda, which was now on the Tern's port quarter, passed across to her starboard quarter, and again approached showing her masthead and green lights. The engines of the Tern were then put full speed ahead, but the Clarinda, with her engines still going ahead, struck the Tern with her starboard side.Nevertheless, the captain's reputation was sufficient to permit him to command ships across the seven seas for the next decade. Since he did not always return to his home port, his wife once crossed the country to wait for him at Cardiff. She remembered watching a ship force its way into harbour in the teeth of such a dreadful storm, that an onlooker commented that, "Only Jack McGovern would try that." She even accompanied him with 5-year-old Norah to South America, where a stevedore gave the little girl some amethysts on a necklace. However, when my cousin, who now owns them, took them to a jeweller's shop, she was told they were glass. It was probably on this voyage that Margaret called attention to a dead body floating in the broad Rio de la Plata. "You didn't see it!" cried her husband. He knew that if he reported it, the ship would be tied up in port indefinitely while investigations were underway.
The defendants counterclaimed for the damage sustained by the Tern.
Mr. Charles Hall, Q.C., and Mr. J. Gorell Barnes appeared for the plaintiffs; Mr. Bueknill, Q.C., and Dr Raikes for the defendants.
MR. JUSTICE BUTT was of opinion that the Tern was the faster vessel, and that the courses being slightly converging, she had drawn ahead of the Clarinda and on to her port bow. He found that that first collision was caused by the action of the Tern in porting her helm when in that position. With regard to the second collision, he was of the opinion that it was caused by the Clarinda going ahead too long, when approaching the Tern with the object of rendering her assistance. As, however, he was of the opinion that the master of the Clarinda was trying to save life, and was probably excited by the first collision, which had been caused by the negligence of those on board the Tern, he (the learned Judge), did not consider that the owners of the Clarinda were to be held responsible. He therefore dismissed both claim and counterclaim.
As for eldest son, Willy, he wanted to do everything. He wanted to be an engineer but, being too young, he became a midshipman.
Now a midlife crisis caught up with the captain, and he resolved to migrate to Australia. According to his own account, his reasons were twofold. Firstly, he did not want to see his children die of consumption (tuberculosis), as had two of his wife's sisters. Nor did he like the high taxes in England. (He would be appalled at the current taxes in Australia!) However, we may surmise that, as middle age overtook him, the downside of his chosen career began to loom larger. "Voluntary exile" he called it. His children were growing up while he was away. When he returned, he would sink into his armchair, and his wife would tell them not to disturb their father - although he would have loved the children to "disturb" him. And as he sank into the armchair (upholstered in masculine leather, rather than the feminine chintz his wife would have preferred), he may have considered that life at sea is spartan at best, even for a ship's captain. He may also have reflected that the sea is both cruel and capricious. Twice he had narrowly escaped when its treacherous tentacles had reached out and dragged his ships under. His wife had almost lost a husband, as she had once lost a fiancé. When the congregation sang, "For those in peril on the sea," he could take it personally.
Now, an old friend, Mr Isbister, a former ship's chandler (supplier) of Sunderland, had moved to "Park Terrace", a property at Cottee, a district close to Wagga Wagga and Coolamon. Why a citizen of a northern English harbour town would choose a new home in the Riverina is anybody's guess, but that was where he ended up, and when Jack McGovern heard that Park Terrace was again on the market, he decided that that was where he also wanted to end up. Now, Willy had once expressed a wish to become a cowboy, as teenagers will, so at the age of 19, he was sent out by his father across to the other side of the world, to set up the farm all by himself. Considering that Willy had no experience at farming, not even in his home country, it was amazing he ever got started.
The family followed in 1895, the younger son, Jack Jr making his first and last voyage as his father's cabin boy. The Captain did not give charge of the money to his wife, but to his 18-year-old daughter, Ada, who considered it an unwelcome responsibility. Margaret herself was not too enthusiastic about the voyage, but young Clarrie was very excited about going to a new country where the house was a mile wide. Alas! It was only the property, not the the house, which possessed that dimension, but even so, it must have appeared very large - and hot, and dry, and isolated - compared to Sunderland. Park Terrace's glory days were well behind it when I visited it as a little boy, but I remember it being divided into two sections: a long kitchen-cum-dining-room-cum hall, with the sleeping quarters separate. It was a bit like La Trobe's Cottage in Melbourne.
Not only were they not farmers by nature, but they had picked the wrong time to migrate. The property had been purchased during the end of a period of heavy rainfall. Now the worst drought in the country's history, the Federation Drought, set in. At one point they had no milk whatsoever to add to their tea, so Margaret attempted - presumably only once - to substitute egg white. My great-grandfather saw no recourse but to go back into voluntary exile.
Fortunately, he possessed not only a reputation, but also shares in the shipping company, so in 1901 he was able to take command of the 1900 ton S.S. Viola. All went well for two years, and then came the events of 19 September 1903. With a crew of 20, and a cargo of 2600 tons of iron ore from Spain, he was setting a course for Middlesborough, England, while attempting to give the rocks outside Whitby a wide berth. Unfortunately, the fog which surrounded them was becoming progressively thicker. The sea was rough, but the watch saw no sign of broken water, before they suddenly ran up against the reef at Kettleness Steel. The engines were run astern for half an hour, but to no avail. Water was flooding in. A coastguard boat set out from the coast, and took off the crew, but the captain, along with his engineer and first mate resolutely refused to abandon ship. But as the weather worsened, they themselves eventually were forced to accept rescue. To add insult to injury, they were charged £22/7/- for the service.
Whether any cargo was salvaged, I cannot say, but two weeks later, the ship broke her back, and was completely lost. At the subsequent enquiry, Captain McGovern was found to have been at fault for neglect in the use of the lead, and was suspended for three months. Therefore, his obituary was incorrect in stating that he was second mate at the time, and implying that it happened in 1870 or 1871. Whoever provided that information to the paper had been sugaring the pill.
Nevertheless, he continued to ply the seas as captain for another six years. Hundreds of post cards continued to arrive home from as far afield as Paris, Antwerp, Istanbul, and Rosario, and the vast majority date from the period 1903 to 1907. (I may share some of them with you some time.) Margaret is believed to have accompanied him at times. She is known to have delighted the cook - and incurred her husband's displeasure - by requesting a second helping of his soup. Probably the cook at the time was another William de Costa Jr, the husband of the captain's sister. Once, when the captain ordered "all hands on deck!" during a severe storm, he found de Costa trembling on his knees, praying to a religious item called the Virgin Mary's Slipper (perhaps a reference to the Slipper Chapel). With a roar, the captain kicked him in the butt and threw the slipper overboard. On another occasion, he told his wife to go below during a storm so as not to hear the strong language which was likely to be used when he gave his orders.
In 1909, he finally came "home from the sea" as a passenger on the S.S. Persic. By that time, the drought had ended, and good times had returned. In 1905 the family had purchased a second property downriver, at Currawarna. And in 1910, he decided to sell it and retire to a house in Coolamon with his wife and youngest daughter.
A Colourful Character
Once when he turned up at Clarrie's, he decided to rope the children into working on the chimney. Alf announced that he had to milk the cows, and the girls somehow got out of it, which left "Halley" (Harold), aged perhaps six or seven, to do the job. The girls looked on, and made faces at him, but Halley was a willing worker. Unfortunately, his grandfather became frustrated, and gave him an undeserved clip over the ear. Later, the task finished, and the old man now filled with both gratitude and remorse, gave his nephew a ten shilling note as a reward. That was, in my mother's words, "a fearful lot of money in those days". (In fact, it would have been a day's wage for a labourer.) When the little boy handed it over to his mother for safekeeping, my mother led a delegation to insist it be shared among his brothers and sisters. Don't think it was something easily forgotten. More than forty years later, Uncle Halley brought it up in my presence, albeit with a jocular tone.
The Captain was also a raconteur. My mother remembers a dance where some of the boys went missing. A careful search revealed them to be outside, listening raptly to Jack McGovern's tales of the sea. He could tell of piles of currants waiting to be loaded in Spain, while bare-bottomed children slid down them. He could tell of buying shovels in England for a shilling each, and selling them in Russia for three times that amount. He could relate the custom at Archangel, Russia, north of the Arctic Circle, whereby if you saw a stranger with a speck of white developing on his nose, you would stop and, without uttering a word, begin rubbing his nose in your hands, for the spot was indicative of frostbite. And he could also explain to the boys that, when you get involved in a dockside brawl (how many had he experienced?), you put your boot in, and fight dirty. You can't afford to fight clean.
His travels had left him with certain opinions about various nationalities. He did not like the Dutch; they didn't abide by the maritime rules. They once forced him out of Batavia when he entered to take on water. His experiences in southern Europe and South America left him with a prejudice against Roman Catholicism. He liked to tell about the couple with a wayward son. When he later asked how the son was getting on, he was told everything was all right now: he had entered the priesthood! (The possibility that the young man may have seen the errors of his ways did not, apparently, occur to him.) For this reason, he insisted his family attend the Methodist church, rather than the Church of England, because it was "too Catholic". (This was during the heyday of the controversy over Ritualism.) But Ada, apparently, used to return to the Anglican church as soon as his ship had sailed.
He believed that you shouldn't buy anything unless it was the very best. He smoked the occasional cigar, and would take a cane and a pair of gloves when he went for a walk. At times, he would don an Astrakhan hat, or a tasseled fez, both acquired in his travels. He wore silk shirts, and used to go around with a cummerbund of Assam silk (red for special occasions). But he was adverse to rolling up his sleeves, because he was embarrassed by one of the mementos of his youth: his arms were covered with tattoos, including the Union Jack, and a large crucifix. Indeed, when he discovered that Willy, as midshipman, was about to follow the custom, he quickly put a stop to it. For the rest of his days, Willy carried two little dark spots at the junction of his thumb and forefinger, where a tattoo had commenced.
He had peculiar, seaman's ways. His bed stood on the veranda, and against its sides he had upright planks (of the best New Zealand timber, of course) fitted to give the comforting, familiar feeling of a ship's bunk. His house was the only one in the neighbourhood painted white (to keep it clean), and with the veranda tarred (to make it last longer). The raised section of the house was connected to the lower part, not by a short flight of stairs, but by a gangplank. From a flag pole waved a Union Jack.
He was intensely patriotic, and during the Great War spent a lot of time and money assisting soldiers. He was a Freemason from his early days in Sunderland, and in his new home, an enthusiastic member of the Overseas Club, as well as the Cottee Tennis Club.
Margaret herself finally succumbed to type II diabetes in 1921, at the age of 72, just before insulin was introduced. Urged by friends and relatives, who insisted he should not live alone, the widower agreed to join William and Norah at Park Terrace. However, he refused to share their house, and settled into the hut originally intended for the farmhands. At other times he stayed with Ada and her husband.
The death occurred at the age of 83 years, suddenly, on Saturday morning last [ie 14 September 1929], on his son's farm at Cottee, of Captain John McGovern, a well-known figure and a respected resident of this district since 1906. He had been in town the previous week and had met many friends at the Coolamon Show, all of who he informed that he was feeling exceptionally well. After breakfast on Saturday last he complained of slight indigestion and said he would lie down for a little while. His son looking into his room shortly afterwards, found him dead. Medical opinion was that death was due to heart failure.Friends and relatives gathered from miles around for the funeral the following day. In a coffin shrouded with the Union Jack - as befitted a Royal Naval Reservist - they bore him to his last resting place in the Methodist portion of the Coolamon cemetery. A long life of adventure and achievement was over.
Great-grandfather, you really should have written your memoires!
Note: I have copied this article to another blog, where I have included some additional information on his last days, as reported by my Aunt Hilda, the last surviving grandchild.