My Shipwrecked Ancestor.


Introduced by Eric Streeton

Last month I wrote of my Smuggling Ancestors, this month it’s the turn of my Shipwrecked Ancestor. In my last month’s feature I mentioned George and Elisa Buttenshaw who were at that time living in Winchelsea. The story you are about to read relates to their son George Frederick. In 1875 at the age of twenty four he was working as the Chief Steward aboard the Ship, Strathmore of Dundee. which sailed from London to Otago, ( New Zealand ) with a crew of thirty eight, and carrying fifty one passengers. On the 1st day of July 1875 the Strathmore Struck Apostle Island at the north western end of the Crozet group, here they were Shipwrecked for a period of approximately six months. George Frederick kept a diary of the survivors lives on this Island. Before I go any further I must thank Alan Buttenshaw for contacting 82 years old Kath Armstrong, Grand daughter of G. F. Buttenshaw, from Bullie/Wollongong/ N.S.W. for gaining her permission to reproduce these events from a copy taken from the original manuscript. The Strathmore a combined steamer and sailing vessel was on it’s way with emigrants for Otago New Zeland, and like the earlier sailing ships, had gone far south to latitude 46 degrees level with the bottom of New Zealand to catch the winds to carry them across in the shortest time, when seventy five days out she ran on the rocks at night on a group known as the Twelve Apostles. At the north western end of the Crozet group. The terrain of the Island which was one and a half miles long, half of it was covered in bare rock, and the other covered in rank grass, which fortunately had one good spring at it’s summit. Now it is the turn of the Diary to take up the story, I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did for the first time.

1 July 1875

On the first day of July 1875 about 3:45 am I was awoke by the cry of Hard-a-Starboard, Hard-a-Port thinking there must be something wrong as it had been very foggy for the last two or three days. I got up and put on some of my clothes while doing so I felt the ship striking a rock and then graze over it, the attention of all was then turned to the boats, I myself calling my assistants together and made for my storeroom for some provisions but cannot get there on account of the ship settling down so fast. I then went on deck again where they were still busy with the boats, the Captain helping them as much as he was able. He had been to me for two knifes to cut the lashing of the boats but none of them could be launched, the seas breaking over so fast and washing every thing before it. Some of us made for the rigging, others to the number of seventeen got into one of the lifeboats. I myself was making for the main rigging when I was pulled into the same boat when she was shortly afterwards taken clear of the ship by a large wave which completely covered the ship from stem to stern, another young man jumped from the rigging into the boat as we passed him but his brother missed his hold and was drowned – his name was P Joshin. We had therefore nineteen persons in the boat now which was very badly stove in and leaked fearful so that we had to bale her out with two nine gallon casks the whole time we were in her.

The name of the persons in her were:

Mr. R Mrs. Wordsworth, F Bentley, and S Joshin, 1st Class Passengers; S Joshin, J Knight, J & G Ward, G Skidmore, T Standring, 3rd Class Passengers G F Buttenshaw, Chief Steward, J Smith, Cook, J Nicholl, Engine Driver, F Carmicheal (sic Carmichael), Apprentice, W Vinney, E Sharpe, W Husband, and two J Wilson’s, Seamen. We pulled about until daylight but it still being very foggy we could not see far and the wind springing up nearly blew us away from the land but the fog cleared away and we could see the rock, so we got back again about ten o’clock. We saw the Gig with the following persons in her – at first we thought she belonged to the island but soon found out the truth. We thought we were the only ones saved from the ship. Those in the gig were: T Henderson and H Keith 1st Class Passengers, R Wilson, 3rd Class ditto, T B Peters, 2nd Mate, W Smith, Sailmaker, E Preston, Apprentice. J Warren, J Evans and H Erekson, Seamen.

As soon as the Gig got to us they took us in tow, our boat being full of water so that we could hardly move her then we searched for a landing place but we could only find one place where we could possible get up to the top of the rock and it was such a place that only drowning men could climb. We had a piece of rope in the boat and we managed to throw it over a piece of rock that projected above and climb’d up the rope. We all landed from the lifeboat and some from the gig and then the gig went back to the ship for some more of the people that were on her I and another went over the Island to see what sort of a place it was and we saw another boat which turned out to be the Dingie (sic Dinghy) with the following persons in her: J Allan, 3rd Mate, J Pirie, Carpenter, D Wilson, 2nd Steward and J Fitzmaurice, Ordinary Seaman.

I must now tell you how these boats, the Dingie and Gig managed to get away. They were not kept with the other in the afterpart of the ship but near the foremast so that they were nearly dry because only the afterpart of the ship went under water until she slipped from her position in which she struck. Some of those left on board after the Lifeboat went away from the ship worked their way to the boats by means of the fore and aft stays of the ship and launched the boats when it got daylight. You can form an idea how long that might be from the time the ship struck until daylight it being in the dead of Winter. While the Gig was gone to the ship for some more the (sic that) were on board of her we that stopped on the Island looked after something to eat. We found some sea fowl which we knocked over and cooked it ready by the time the Gig came back. Those in her had picked up some gin and pickles and some wood for the fire. The Gig bought besides what they had picked up the following persons: Mr Walker and Child, 1st Class Passengers and W Wilson, A Lenney, & J Mellor, 3rd Class.

It was getting dark now, it being four o’clock and the boat could not go to the ship any more that night – only the Gig was safe to fetch anyone off the ship because they were both stove in. We had to make ourselves as comfortable as we could for the night. We put up a shelter for the Lady and Child and we had to lay on the rocks round the fire which felt rather hard. We had small quantities of gin and pickles during the night to keep us warm and some of the stronger ones had rather too much – one in particular got very drunk and noisy. We were very glad for morning to come but were very downcast to find one of our number had died during the night, we supposed from fright and exposure. He was thrown over the rocks during the day by two persons which I will not name but we did mean to bury him the best we were able. As soon as we got some half-cooked bird to eat we manned all the boats and left the Island – the Gig to fetch the rest from the ship and Dingie and Lifeboat to pickup anything found floating about. The names of the last to leave the ship were: G Crombie, 1st Class Passenger, T Standby 3rd ditto, J Duck 3rd Steward J Jackson, Boatswain, H Turner, Apprentice, J Wilson, M Roilden, G Stanard, J Frail, Seamen, F Blackmore, C Tookey, J Teask, Ordinary Seamen.

Shipwreck Bringing Water from the Spring
Shipwreck Bringing Water from the Spring

Those left on the island this day were engaged building a kind of a hut – the way they did it was piling stones and turf in front of an overhanging rock but it was not finished this day. We picked up during these two days, 1 Case (of) Ladies Shoes, 4 Cases of Gin, 2 Cases of Rum, I Case of Brandy, I Case (of) Pickles, 1 Cask of Port Wine, 2 Tins preserved meat, I Case of 8 Tins of Sweets, 2 (x) 25 lbs kegs of gun powder, some bedding, spoons, knifes, forks, taken out of a chest floating about and a lot wood for the fire all of which was very serviceable to us. We served the spirits, wine, and pickles out in small quantities every day while it lasted which was about a month. The sweet tins we used for cooking our food in. The gun powder was very useful to make touch of so that if one light went out we could go to another and with the aid of the powder get another light. As the hut could not be finished by night we passed another very uncomfortable night – it blowing a hard gale with very sharp snow squalls, the snow and wind blowing right into the cave. Some got frostbitten fingers and toes. Two of our numbers were picked out to watch the boats during the night with orders to take them around to the lea side of the island if the wind shifted to hurt them. The boats being fast one to the other, the rope that was fast to the rocks gave way. The men instead of looking after them were getting drunk with the wine we had saved and next morning they came up and told us the boats were lost and on going down to look we could see them about twenty yards from us but were not to be got at. We saw them for about three days. After seeing they were broke loose through drunkenness we looked to see how the men got drunk and found about ten gallons of our port wine gone – they having wasted a great quantity trying to drink from the bung hole.

3rd July. Our boats being gone we had to turn our attention to finishing our hut to live in. Some of us fetch birds from the top of the island and cooking them while the others done the building. We have very short days it getting dark about four o’clock and not light until about eight in the morning. This being the dead of winter we have to try to sleep as much as we can.

4th This being a very fine day we planted two flag staffs – one on the extreme East end of the island and one on the West end and at the east end kept two men to look out for passing ships so that if any were seen we could make signals of distress to them. We had prayers, hymns and a chapter out of the bible night and morning. At night each man had to cut an armful of grass to lay on.

19th This was a sad day for us all – we not knowing which of our turns would come next. One of our number, a passenger, died. His name: ‘Stanbury’. He died from lockjaw we supposed bought on by his feet which had mortified from frostbites. The poor fellow had suffered very much. We buried him and read a chapter out of the bible and said a prayer over his grave. We still keep our lookout on the hill for (a) passing ship but have met with no success yet. It is very cold frost and snow prevailing nearly every day – our clothes being wet all the time with snow while out getting birds. We still keep up our services night and morning. 27th July. Still keeping a sharp look out for Ships. Today we had a very hard frost and it being very clear we could see two more islands to the South Eastward – distant about twenty miles.

30th. This morning we used the last piece of wood except our sticks for knocking the birds down with. We do not like the idea of eating raw bird. What we have (been) eating has only been sodden’d, and the colour of blood taken from it. We built a place on the top of the hill and tried to burn grass but it was a failure. We then tried the skins of the birds which was a complete success.

August. Having eaten all the young albatross on the island, we hunted a bird called Stinker or Graybacks which are very rank and very difficult to catch and take up most of our time. We are therefore divided into two parties – one party goes up the hill after birds from daybreak until noon and the other from noon until dark. It takes all our time to catch enough to keep life in us but we scrape the fat of the skins and entrails to eat with a creeping plant, the stem of which is something like a geranium and has a light sweet taste – great quantities of which we eat to help appease our hunger. We have to dive under the snow for it sometimes a foot deep, without any visible injury to ourselves. It appears strange to us that although many are still laid up with sore feet yet those who do go out always sleeping on damp grass and constantly getting wet through with snow and rain do not catch colds. Still looking out for ships and the weather is very cold.

9th August. While hunting birds this morning we were gladdened with the sight of an egg and we got a good lot and this supplied us with more food than we had been able to get lately.

The Graybacks are coming to the island to breed and that causes them to be easier caught. Some of us go out long before daylight to gather their eggs but as soon as they had done laying, they were more difficult to catch than ever for as soon as they see us they make for the edge of the rocks and drop off into the water so we are nearly half-starved.

30th We heard the joyful cry of Sail Ho! this morning but were doomed to disappointment as she was to far of(f) to see our signals. We could just see she was steering to the Eastward – she was to the northward of the Islands.

31st August. Our prospects of living on birds seem almost hopeless. We are not able to get half a meal a day. Our hearts were again gladdened by the opportune arrival of thousands of Mollyhawks to breed their eggs (which) were as large as a goose egg and did us much good. We got some hundreds of them. We still keep our services up and have an extra one on Sunday. We also keep a sharp lookout for ships – some of our number are losing their hearts fast, but I think while we have plenty of food we ought to be thankful and hope for the best.

2nd Sept. Another of our number dies this morning – we supposed by gradual exhaustion and disappointment caused by seeing the ship that passed us. He must have broke his heart – the poor fellow was nothing but skin and bone. He was always in delicate health on board of the ship. His name was F (previously recorded as T) Henderson. Him and his sister were going out to their father in New Zealand. He was the eldest son and she the only daughter. His sister was washed from his side on the ship. We buried him and read a chapter from the bible and some prayers over him.

13th This morning about nine o’clock we saw another ship quite close to us – so close that we could see the ropes and fore and aft stays – steering between the islands and then East. She must have had a narrow escape from the same fate as ourselves, but if she had struck there would not have been a soul saved (as) it was blowing a hard gale from the South West with heavy snow squalls. The almost unanimous opinion of our lot was that they must have seen us and our signals but no notice was taken of us. The ground was covered with snow and was very cold. Birds difficult to catch now. Food getting scarce.

14th No signs of the ship we saw yesterday. We had hopes the (sic that) she might have seen us and would wait clear of the islands until the storm moderated, but no such luck. Then we had hopes that they would report having seen our signals when they go to their destination. We have left of our services and say them to ourselves being cold and more snow on the island than ever.

To be concluded next month.