Request for information about two 19th century ships: the mail steamer Rangoon and the steam ship Glencairn

Hugh Farmer: Ali Foster, who lives in New Zealand, recently sent the following message:

I came across your excellent website and am hoping you might be able to help me. I am searching for as much detailed information about two ships, the mail steamer, Rangoon and the steamship, Glencairn.  I would love to know what it was like on board the ships and what route they would have taken. My great great grandfather, Henry Wright, departed from Australia on 26 July, 1870, on the Glencairn, arriving in Hong Kong in Sept 1870. He spent a month in Hong Kong jail, before being transported to Ceylon where he spent another month in jail before he was transported back to Australia on the Rangoon. I am also searching for information about what it would have been like for a foreigner in the jail in those times. If you know of anywhere I could find such information, I would be very grateful.

HF: I asked Stephen Davies ex-Director of the Maritime Museum, Hong Kong, if he could help. He could, here is his lengthy reply:

Stephen sent the original notes as shown below. He then sent updates and amendments which I have added to the original notes.

Stephen Davies: To start dealing with this query one needs to identify the actual ships and for that one needs to garner details of the story that involves them.

Queens Road, Hong Kong In 1870

Queens Road, Hong Kong in 1870. Source: Pinterest

This can be simply stated. In mid-1870. A man named Henry Charles Clarke Wright, aged 25, married with two children, resident in Melbourne and employed to manage the Australian Trust & Agency Co. by Bright Bros & Co. on a salary of £225 a year, absconded with c.£300 of his employer’s money. He absconded in the company of a young woman called Mary Wilson (related to two respectable Melbourne business families), and they took a ship called Glencairn to Hong Kong under the names of Mr & Mrs White. When the theft was discovered, a plaint was made and a Constable O’Callaghan was despatched from Melbourne to Hong Kong by a mail steamer. His vessel arrived in Hong Kong before the
Glencairn on which, on its arrival in September, he arrested Wright. Taken before a Hong Kong magistrate, it was found that there was a case against Wright for his removal from HK and return to Australia. He was remanded in custody (the Victoria Gaol) while arrangements were made for his (and it seems Ms Wilson’s) passage to Australia under arrest in charge of O’Callaghan. This process seems to have taken around a month. The passage to Ceylon was made in an unknown vessel at some time during
the months of October and November, but failed to arrive in Galle in time to catch the P&O mail ship SS Malta, which left Galle on 5th October. Accordingly, Wright was again remanded in custody until the arrival of the next scheduled ship for Australia, the SS Rangoon, which reached Galle on 30th November. The Rangoon reached Melbourne on 19th December, when Wright was taken to court and remanded in custody. He pleaded guilty and his case came up for sentencing the following February, when he was sent down for 12 months hard labour, the £300 having turned out to be two cheques worth £126 and £50, so £176 in total, none of which was ever recovered. Four years later, in May 1875, Amy Eliza Wright sued for divorce on the grounds of adultery and desertion, citing the 1870 escapade, by which time the family had grown to three children.

Stephen Davies amendment: The arrest in HK took place on 25th September and the hearing was on 29th. I am told by an expert (Chris Munn) that “remand prisoners could order in their own food and booze (up to a limit), wear their own clothes, not have to work, and have better access to visitors, correspondence etc.”

So, three vessels:

The Glencairn (1850-c.1876)- the key data here is that constable O’Callaghan was able to take the mail steamer and overtake the fleeing couple. The inference is simple, the Glencairn was a sailing ship, not a steamer. Identifying ships at this period is tricky both because several ships could share one name (in the 1870 Mercantile Navy List there are five Glencairns), and until 1880 Lloyd’s Register often only recorded the details of British registered vessels and, in addition, registration was not compulsory. Some fossicking round in Aussie newspapers and other sources leads me to suspect that this Glencairn was the wooden, c.894 ton ship built in 1850 in the yard of William Russell for the Allan Line of Montreal (later the Montreal Ocean Steamship Co that, in 1915 merged with Canadian Pacific). She was originally used in the Scotland to Canada emigrant trade, but by the 1860/1870s was in the Australia trade. (The period of the mid-1860s through to c.1909 was one of a slow decline in shipping because of falling freight rates – i.e., business was tough, which explains why old ships like the Glencairn ended up in Australia working
fairly marginal trades like that between Oz and HK.) The upside of that for Wright and his ‘inamorata’ (as some Aussie papers styled her) was that the fare would be cheap and it would be easier to slip aboard relatively covertly. The downside – (I’ve sailed the Oz to HK route myself both ways in small sailing boats but NOT by the route a sailing ship would have taken, because we had an auxiliary engine!) – would have been a very long, hot and steamy voyage up the east coast of Australia, through the Torres Straits and then threading up through the Sulu Sea to pass up the west side of the Philippines to HK. The
Glencairn left Melbourne c.20th July 1870 and took over two months to get to HK. The ex-emigrant ship will have been converted for cargo, so the original accommodation for 651 passengers travelling like sardines transatlantic would have ceased and the few passengers carried (I’d guess at most a dozen or so) will probably have travelled in a deckhouse, probably between main and mizzen mast, or possibly in the cabin spaces below the upper deck aft. Life will have been sweltering, and very, very damp. A 20
year old wooden ship will have had lots of cockroaches and rats and the bilges will have smelled quite dreadful. Sanitation would have used buckets. Food would have been pretty plain, salty and stodgy (constipation was a standard problem). The compensation on fine days will have been the joy of being on deck, though for most people the sea is (unaccountably for me) ‘boring’ because it seems (to the unobservant (which most people are)) too unchanging. Stiil, at least there would have been fresh air.

Stephen Davies amendment: The Glencairn, Capt Garrick, and indeed a sailing ship, arrived in HK on 22nd September whence she had come to load Chinese emigrants for Australia having left Melbourne for HK via Newcastle on 28th July.

Stephen Davies amendment: I identified the WRONG Glencairn. The Canadian built ship wrecked on the Isle of Man in late October 1870. The Glencairn in this case is given as 984 tons and ship rigged. She had arrived in Australia from London in the spring but I can find out nothing about her.

Stephen Davies amendment: Wright did not spend a month in gaol in HK but from committal on 29.09 until 18.10 (19 days) when O’Callaghan took him and “Mrs Wright” aboard the P&O Emeu on the China to Bombay service. The Emeu reached Galle on 3rd November, so, again, Wright did not spend a month on remand in gaol there but 27 days and on the same fairly lax conditions that prevailed in HK, boarding the Rangoon with O’Callaghan and Miss Wilson on 30th November.

The Emeu was built in 1854 and was 1,538 GRT – pretty much like the Rangoon for size, but quite a bit older and, probably, slower.

Victoria Gaol, HK – all reports indicate that life for European prisoners in Victoria Gaol was comparatively ‘soft’. Precisely because of the racist views of the colonial world about the Chinese, the idea that there should be equal treatment was anathema. So Europeans, especially those on remand for transport elsewhere, like Wright, were generally treated more like boarding house guests on short commons (although many Europeans in HK claimed that the gaol’s food was too good and too plentiful!)
Of course there were no air-conditioning or fans, there was no protection against mosquitoes, there were undoubtedly cockroaches, other insects and probably rats, so Wright would not have been comfortable. We do not know what happened to Mary Wilson.

Victoria Gaol, Hong Kong Undated Source Historical Photographs Of China

Victoria Gaol, Hong Kong. Undated. Source: Historical Photographs of China

Unknown ship – once the HK legal system had agreed that Wright and Wilson should be returned to Australia for trial, they would have been released to O’Callaghan’s custody for onward movement to Ceylon where they would pick up the standard P&O mail steamer to Australia. Probably they would have gone by scheduled P&O steamer from HK to Galle to make the rendezvous because using P&O for government service was the colonial standard system. My hunch is that the ship would have been on the China to Bombay service, calling at Galle whence people could transship to travel elsewhere. For example, the Malacca arrived in Singapore on 5 th November 1870 from HK on the way via Galle to
Bombay, and it would not surprise me to learn that O’Callaghan, Wright and Wilson were aboard.

Malacca (1865-1894) – Iron, 1200 ihp, single screw, service speed 11.5 knots. Built Denton, Gray & Co., Hartlepool. 1,683 GRT, 83.79m long, 10.45m beam, moulded depth (distance between top of keel and underside of weather deck) 7.62m. Cargo passenger ship (904 cu.m. of cargo space), launched as King of the Greeks for Anglo-Greek Steam Navigation Company, and bought by P&O while fitting out. Small, could probably only carry less than150 passengers, most 1st class but with some 2nd class and a few steerage or
deck passengers.

The standard P&O run to Australia until end November 1870 was served by the RMS Malta. The Malta went through Galle on 5/6th October 1870, reaching Sydney (via Melbourne) on 28th November. It was this ship that O’Callaghan and his prisoners must have missed. So, they had to wait for the Rangoon, which replaced the Malta, arriving in Galle on its first voyage on the service on 29th November and leaving on 30th for Melbourne and Sydney, arriving Melbourne 19th December 1870. The passage went down the Indian Ocean, around Cape Leeuwin and along the south side of Oz to the Bass Strait.

Rangoon (1863-1871) – Iron, 1870 ihp (after re-engining in 1870), single screw, service speed 12 knots. Built Samuda Bros., Blackwall, 1,776 GRT, 89.85m long, 11.61beam, 5.36m moulded depth – pretty much the same size as the Malacca. She’d just been re-engined for her new service and was thought right up to the mark. Just to show how dodgy Galle was as an exchange place (quite a lot of ships got wrecked there – I’ve been there twice in small sailing vessels and the rocks in the approaches require
thoughtful navigation), a year after O’Callaghan took Wright and Wilson aboard, the Rangoon hit some rocks off Galle and sank, happily with no casualties since she was stuck on the rock long enough for everyone to be got off.

Galle Harbour Ceylon C1870

Galle Harbour, Ceylon c1870 Source: Lankapura

Neither the Malacca nor the Rangoon would seem to me likely to have had dedicated cells for prisoners. I think it likely that the trio will have travelled 2nd class or steerage, being kept separate from the normal passengers under O’Callaghan’s supervision, fed different food, probably where they were quartered rather than in the public dining spaces, and allowed to go on deck to exercise under supervision only at specified times.

The Rangoon’s voyage is described as one in which the ship “experienced fine weather except crossing the regions of the trades, where the weather was very squally, with W.N.W. winds and very heavy westerly swell.” This is a bit vague, and I suspect what the writer meant for when the weather was iffy was the area where the standard NE Monsoon of the northern Indian Ocean begins to swing N, then NW, then WNW as it crosses towards the intertropical convergence and the Doldrums, until in around 10 degrees South the SE trades are met until, in around 35 degrees South, the ship meets the beginning of the great westerly wind belts that roar along south of Australia.

I’m sure there is lots more that I have missed.

© Stephen Davies, 10.09.2022

This article was first posted on 4th November 2022.



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