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The Travellers

The Journey of The 'Sir William Eyre'


The Voyage of the 'Sir William Eyre'

The Sir William Eyre was the vessel on which the Brysons sailed from Scotland to New Zealand. It's voyage was the subject of some controversy.

On 1st December, 1862, John Morrison, the emigration agent, was able to advise the Southland Government that "The Sir William Eyre receives her passengers on board this day." Three days later, on the 4th, he wrote to Potter, Wilson and Company, (who provided the ship and equipped it) that

"It is my unpleasant duty to have to record herewith my protest against the very defective accommodation and general arrangements ... on board the ship ‘Sir William Eyre’, also to inform you that until the various defects are remedied and competent persons appointed to supervise the dispensing of rations to emigrants, I protest on behalf of the Government of Southland against the ‘Sir William Eyre’ proceeding to sea."

His protests were ignored, and the ship left Greenock on 17 December 1862. An outbreak of measles and a storm caused the ship to return to sheltered waters almost immediately, and await more settled weather before proceeding further.

By 10 March, 1863, the Provincial Superintendent was advising Morrison that the Sir William Eyre had not yet arrived, but by 6 May, 1863, he wrote

I have pleasure to inform you that the Sir William Eyre has arrived at last relieving the anxious forebodings of numerous friends in Southland of people on board the board the vessel, she came into the Bluff on 23rd ulto. after a long and unfortunate voyage.

22 Deaths had occurred during the voyage, most of them among the children - there were two cases of fever on board - she went into quarantine and while in quarantine for a week two more deaths occurred, a child, and a woman who was said to have died from exhaustion.

And then to confirm the dangers to the fledgling settlement, the paper further reported that "Another death occurred on Sunday last, that of an elderly female, named Gordon, from dysentery; but she had been ailing for some time past." As if that mitigated either the suffering or the dangers!

Just over a week after it’s arrival, Morrison described in more detail the condition of the ship:

"The condition in which the Sir William Eyre was when she came into harbour was most unsatisfactory ... the condition of the ship was filthy, ventilation was bad, the closets were insufficient in number to permit the ordinary decencies of life to be observed - the hospital was little more than half the size it ought to be - it was so leaky that only one berth could be occupied in it - the provisions were scanty - the medical comforts were also very scanty."

This was obviously unsatisfactory. As a result the Captain, Charles Blackie, was charged in the Resident Magistrate’s Court with a breach of the Passengers Act 1855, in that "the necessary medical comforts not having been placed under the charge of the medical officer."

After hearing the evidence, the court delivered judgement.

"The defence had all gone to prove the case, namely - that the medical comforts had not been placed under the control or charge of the medical officer of the ship. An attempt had been made to throw the blame upon the doctor, which had entirely failed. He had done all that was in his power under the circumstances, or at least all that could be expected of him. The master of the ship had shown a lamentable want of common humanity. If it was true that his supplies had run short, it was his duty to have shipped fresh supplies when the vessel called in at the Cape. The case had been fully made out, and the sentence of the Court was, that the full penalty of £50 be inflicted, or, in default, three months imprisonment, with hard labour." (Southland News, May 20, 1863)

One can only wonder at this outcome. Even allowing for changes in the value of money, to have fined the Captain just £50 for the deaths of 22 passengers seems unduly light. There is no mention of any loss of ticket, or rank; nor of prohibition against operating a passenger vessel in future.