Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer Chapter II page 1

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Recollections of a Victorian Police Officer by Sup John Sadleir

(full text transcription)


On August 22nd, 1852 , the Great Britain sailed from Holyhead on her maiden voyage to Australia , Captain Barnard Mathews being in command. The fine ship looked none the worse for her experiences on the shoals of Dundrum Bay ! Captain Mathews was said to have been more a maritime engineer than a sailor, but of the truth of this I am not competent to speak. He was somewhat irritable and not at all times pleasant towards his passengers, of whom there were several hundreds—two of his officers, however, Leech and Grey, made up for any deficiency in their commander. Grey (as everyone knows) succeeded Captain Mathews and remained in command of the fine old ship until his mysterious disappearance at sea many years later.

The voyage to Australia of so large a vessel, and one so dependent on her steaming power, was somewhat of an experiment, so the owners had sent forward supplies of coal to St Helena and to the Cape, with instructions if the Great Britain did not put in at either port by certain fixed dates, the coal might then be disposed of to any vessel requiring it—a capital arrangement, no doubt, but it did not work. We had passed the latitude of St Helena several days, and had run into a steady S E gale against which the ship could make little or no headway, when it was reported that she had not sufficient coal to take her to the Cape . It was said by some nautical experts amongst the passengers that no good sailor, knowing the prevailing winds in these southern latitudes, would have ventured so close in to the African coast as Matthews did. There was no alternative but to put the ship about and make for St Helena . We reached the island several days after the appointed time, to find that every ton of coal had been sold. This meant a detention of more than a week, in the endeavour to collect wood for fuel in an island on which scarcely a tree was to be seen. Having filled up with such small wood as could be collected we sailed for the Cape , there to find a like disappointment, for the coal supply sent forward had also been disposed of to the Bull Dog and others of H M vessels which had returned thither from the Siege of Lagos. The naval officers, according to their wont, did the generous thing and gave up sufficient supply to take us to Australia . It was told after, with what truth I cannot say, that when the Great Britain returned to Liverpool , several hundred tons of coal were discovered in the hold of which no one knew anything.

In making the Cape we had overrun the entrance to Table Bay during the night by a few miles. Here again another circumstance occurred that seemed to reflect on our Captain’s seamanship. We were assured by residents of the place that the ship had passed dangerously near the reef on which the Birkenhead , laden with troops, had met with disaster shortly before.

The detention at St Helena and the Cape represented a fortnight’s loss of time. The passengers soon tired of the dullness, and limited resources of the former, for after seeing the great Napoleon’s grave, and Longwood, where he ended his remarkable career, there was little else of interest. Some attempts were made to cultivate acquaintance with the officers of the St Helena Regiment, but these were soon abandoned at the instigation, I think, of some prudish people on board our ship, for these gallant fellows, and their wives too for that matter, had a somewhat shady reputation as regards the proprieties of social and domestic life.

Capetown, we found somewhat more interesting. The chief interest, however, lay outside the town itself, which was a good deal behind even those times; for example, lucifer matches had not yet superseded flint and steel and tinder. For lovers of horse-flesh the supply was excellent. Stallions only were used; and to a visitor of the old country, where such animals are commonly so vicious that they cannot be used in the company of their kind, it was a new experience to see them harnessed together, and perfectly docile. They seemed to be nearly thoroughbred and were splendid stayers, for they appeared fresh after being ridden or driven fifty miles or more over very heavy roads. My last ride to Simonstown and back brought me an experience that I had not expected to meet with outside my native country.

Mr Reginald Bright, who was also a passenger, and I were returning from a fifty mile ride on horseback, on horses as fresh as when they started. The night was just settling down when my companion’s horse, startled by something, galloped ahead. As I followed three niggers closed in upon me, one of them striking at me with a heavy stick. The blow, I suppose, was intended for my head, but it caught me on the thigh instead. It was a stinging blow, and the pain that followed it was so severe I could scarcely keep my seat as my horse sprang forward, taking me out of reach of further assault.

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