The Diary of James Allen Barrett

By Norman Sturman

James Allen Barrett was born at Morton Pinkney, Northamptonshire, in 1848. He was known as a ‘tunnel tiger’, that is, one who worked in tunnels, and helped with the boring of most of the tunnels in the country, including the one at Easington on what was then the Saltburn to Whitby branch line. He came up to Rosedale Abbey to work in the mines and then tramped to East Cleveland, sleeping at night in an old barn at the side of Kilton Lane, before starting work as an ordinary miner at Messrs Morrison and Co.’s Brotton Mines. He was soon promoted to deputy-overman, a position he kept until his retirement in 1906. He remained a bachelor throughout his life, living with Mr & Mrs Sturman and family in Brotton for 60 years until his death in 1935, at the age of 87. During the 60 years of his connection with Brotton, he had a break of two years for a visit to Australia, making the outward and homeward voyages in a sailing vessel. He hoped to emigrate to that country, but being unable to settle, returned to Brotton. Here are some extracts from the diary he kept on his travels which began in September 1886…

“We arrived at Plymouth about eleven o’ clock. There was a man there to meet the train and conduct us to the depot. They had a van there to meet every train to take the luggage. We had about a mile to go to the depot. We got a drink on the road and that was the last in England, for once inside, the gate was locked and no more coming out. We did not know that would be the case, or we should not have gone in so soon.

The tug came alongside the depot and we stepped aboard. About two hundred single men, single women and married couples and children. There was some hurrah and shouting as we steamed out of the harbour and the concertinas played our old marching tunes, ‘A Girl Left Behind’ and ‘Annie Dear Goodbye’. Our ship, ‘The Selkirkshire’, was lying in Plymouth Sound, that is about a mile out surrounded by a lot more Men of War, training ships and all sorts. Well then we came alongside the Selkirkshire, it was an iron barque, about 1,200 tons, regs. She was built in Glasgow in 1872. I expected to have found it a full rigged ship. We went aboard and took our places. Messes of some eight and ten in a mess. It blew very hard all that night.

The next morning they raised the anchor, on Thursday morning 9th September and the tug came and towed us out to Eddystone Lighthouse, that is 12 miles out and left us the wind blowing against us...I thought it was rather rough. Nearly all the passengers were sick, but it did not do much at me. I drank all my whiskey before we went on board and then you could not get a drink for love nor money. Nothing to buy on a Government ship but tobacco and that I did not want, but I got over it in 2 or 3 days. We were tossed about, I thought pretty roughly, the first 9 or 10 days till we got out of the channel. I saw a whirlwind coming along one day. It just passed behind us. You could see it for many a mile taking the water in front of it in a cloud.

When we got the trade winds, they were very light. They carried us into the hot weather. Then we had it calm. We were 300 miles of the line. Some days we had a bit of wind and some none with the sun blazing on us and the sea as smooth as a looking glass. We had sharks come alongside and saw any quantity of flying fish. Then we had some heavy rains come down in bucketful’s. We made but very little headway for a fortnight.

We crossed the line on the 13th October. We had sports on board that day. The prizes all in tobacco. The wind carried us abreast the Cape of Good Hope and it was very nice sailing till we got to the Cape. Then we got plenty of wind and rather rough and very cold. I never thought we should have such cold weather. It took us a fortnight to clear the Cape...we saw a shoal of whales one day. We could see them spouting water. They sent it high into the air. There was one came close by the ship and there was any quantity of birds, such as I have never seen before. They caught 15 albatrosses, measured 10 foot across the wings. The captain had them skinned. I suppose the skin of their breast is to make lady’s muffs, the feet make tobacco pouches. It will be some time before I go on another sailing ship.

It is such a long dreary journey and the food rather rough to what we have been used to. We had salt beef one day a week and salt pork one, and the others tinned meat. We had oat porridge four times a week. Biscuits every day. Bread three times a week, about half a loaf each. We have rice too and plum pudding three times and we had to make it ourselves, but I got on pretty well taking it all together.

I enjoyed good health the whole of the voyage. We had a very good passage, considering it being such a long one. It is a dreary journey from the Cape to Australia. We never saw another vessel from the time we were abreast the Cape till after we got round Tasmania. We had about 7 weeks of very cold weather. Some days it was that cold we could not get on deck and the water would be flying over the sides and the ship rolling and pitching so that you could not stand without laying hold of something, then sometimes when you sit down to meals, she would give an extra lurch, then away goes your pea soup, porridge, tea or coffee or whatever was on the table and perhaps you could get a lot spilled on you trying to catch it. That is different to sitting in the Green Tree (Brotton) corner with a glass of whiskey over a fire and talking about sailoring. That is being on the job, but our ship weathered every storm like the good one she was.

We passed Tasmania the 1st December. The wind blowing in the teeth of us as the sailors say. It took till the 18th December to get to Maryborough. All sail was set to catch any bit of breeze that might come, but a squall struck us on the port beam...I thought she was gone over and a lot more than so besides me, but every man was at his post in a crack and a lot of pulling at the ropes taking in sail, but there was no accident and no more than some of the sail carried away that breeze carried us on till we saw land. That was the great Sandy Island. We had to sail 20 miles alongside the coral reef before we could cross the bar to get into Harry Bay. We dropped anchor twice before a pilot boarded us, then it took him two days to get us the right anchoring ground ...but we got there quite safe near the quarantine station at the mouth of the river 27 miles up from Maryborough, then we soon had a steamer come to bring on board the Health Doctor and supply of fresh provisions. The tug took us up the river. We got there at half past two December the 18th after being on board 101 days.

P Trenholm and Mrs were at the wharf to meet me, so me and Joe went home with them. We stayed two nights, they behaved well to us. On Monday we went to Gympick, 60 miles, it is all gold mining there. You hear nothing but talking of taking up shares, quite a lottery, something like horse racing. Some get rich in a short time. Others get very little. There is a population of 7,000 all depending on gold mining. There was a lot out of employ, no chance to go to work, things pretty dear there, stayed there a fortnight. Had to pay a pound a week for board and lodgings. You can board at hotels for one shilling per meal and one for bed. Sixpence every time you want a drink and very poor stuff.

We went one day with Mr Duckworth the landlord of the hotel to various mines to see the gold stone being crushed. I saw one nugget that was picked up 19 years ago worth 30. Several smaller ones, saw 8 bars of gold ready for the bank. I had hold of one about the size of a brick weighed 992 ounces 3.10s.0d per ounce worth 3,472. It all came from a mine called the Great Eastern. A lot of shares were sold there a few months before for 1d. each now you can’t get one under 4.

Came back to Maryborough could get nothing there so took a boat went to Brisbane 177 miles by water from there we went to Ipswich to look around the coalmines but found it a very poor place, pits on a very small scale so no chance to go to work. The largest pit called New Chance Pit had been on strike previous but just gone back to work again. They had had a union there but it was smashed up, the leading men were all sacked.. Joe Shepherd had been there but was gone. I saw one of his daughters there. He had cleared out in a hurry, men just work as long as they like in the mines, plenty of work 10 hours a day and such bad ventilation. I came back to Maryborough again thin. Went to some coalmines 18 miles from Maryborough but could not get a start. I began to wish the Devil had had Queensland before ever I had seen it. Hundreds walking about seeking work. We landed at the worst time of the year, sugar mills just finishing up, won’t start no more till May and the weather fearful hot and any quantity of rain. The timber trade very bad, sawmills working short-time, some sharing hands, some stopped altogether. Farmers men working from light till dark for 40 per year and their meat. The young men for a lot less, saw mills 5s. a day for labourers, some on 25 shillings a week. The only miners who work 8 hours a day are gold miners. It is a shame to fetch people out here to starve. I should have been in a fix if it had not been for friends. The Trenholmes, they said I had to stay with them till I could get a job. Englishmen stood little chance in this colony. The coalmines are full of Scotch and Welsh, and Irish and cousin Jacks in the gold mines, Germans for the saw mills. They fetch shiploads at a time of South Sea Islanders to work in the plantations.

The police force is all Irish. The Queens and Blacks won’t work, they are a miserable lot of wretches. Whenever I get money enough, I will be out of this colony, for I reckon nothing of being roasted alive. I had bad health for several weeks after I landed. I could not have done much work if I had had the chance, but it was all the same, I could not get any. There are a lot of slave drivers in this colony. Men work harder than they do at home when a bit of a job starts, they nearly knock one another down to see which can get to the boss first, but the weather has been so wet that everything is at a standstill. It has been raining nearly all the time I have been in Queensland. The oldest inhabitants never knew such a sea. At Maryborough the water was 8 foot deep in the Grand Hotel bar. Lots of farms had all their bits of crops washed away…..”

(to be continued in the next edition…)

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