Linda King is someone who has come late to writing, at fifty years plus, a true novice. Until the CPIT part time creative writing courses (2010), she had not written since junior high school in Sydney. After completing three terms at CPIT with Frankie and Kerrin, Linda was encouraged to apply for the Hagley Writers’ course. Two years at Hagley enduring aftershocks and long hours at work as an assistant principal at a special school, produced a series of children’s short stories (2011) and the beginnings of an historical novel (2012). The piece featured is from chapter two of ‘Stebonheath’, based on a true story of the immigration of Sarah Plummer from England to Australia in 1857
Linda King 2013
29th September, 1857
Sarah craned her neck and looked up into the rigging. The masts of the Stebonheath searched the vacant sky, gently rocking back and forth with the swell. Seagulls sat in rows along the furled sails; fidgety white blobs of paint. The birds called to each other and every now and then one would dive down and swoop on an unsuspecting hawker selling food. Luggage, boxes, chests and bed-rolls littered the main deck. Sailors shouted to each other over the din, orders mixed with remarks, “Heave ‘er up, lads, steady she goes.”
“Seems this’n has lead weights in it, and it’s supposed to be only filled with ladies drawers!” The men roared, adding more ribald comments as the trunk was lowered into the hold. Two serious looking crew members hoisted kegs and crates onto their shoulders and disappeared below. Heavy ropes strained from above, ready to lower a dozen tea chests slung in a net. The cargo hung there, motionless. A seagull landed on one of the top chests.
“Git away ye buzzard””, the Boatswain shouted. The gull looked down at him with its head cocked, showing a yellow eye. The load shifted downwards. The gull rode the cargo down, almost into the hold but flew off when the boatswain went for it. “Bad enough down there without seagull crap addin’ to the stink”.
A pig in a sling was being hoisted up the side of the ship. It kicked and squealed, struggling to free itself. Some children laughed, and pointed at the unfortunate creature. It was dumped unceremoniously into a pen that had been constructed on the main deck next to the deckhouse. Sarah counted five pigs and twelve sheep, each one jostling for room. Many more waited near the wharf, bleating and grunting, penned in the back of rough-hewn carts, their excrement dripping onto the cobbled stones. The noise of hammering and sawing added to the clamour. Carpenters bent at their work adding another section to the pen beside some timber slats piled up ready to be worked. A little boy in grey britches furtively looked around and shifted the top slat to form a ramp against the pile. He grinned happily and rolled a large marble down the coarse wood. It clattered when it hit the deck. Sarah watched him rush to retrieve the marble after it stopped under a wicker basket, which contained two hens. They clucked and fussed, annoyed at being swung in the air once more.
People strained to make themselves heard. The Boatswain barked orders, and hawkers called for buyers. Men raised their voices, while guarding their luggage and possessions, trying to keep hold of unruly children and look after harried wives. Some of the single men stood leaning against the rail, taking in the scene before them, while others seemed fascinated with the workings of the ship. Sarah threaded her way through the mass of people looking for her friend. Over her shoulder she wore her brother’s satchel, bulging with some food, cutlery, and personal trinkets she could not bear to leave behind. Under her left arm, Sarah had tucked a bundle of coarse bedding, a work dress, some shifts, two petticoats and some linen. The rest of her belongings had been stowed below, along with what seemed like hundreds of similar chests and boxes. She had marked her name as required and prayed that her things would stay safe and dry. Her arms were tired from constantly adjusting the weight of her bundle, but she was not going to put them down; if they were to become lost or stolen she would have no way to prove they were hers.
Sarah looked over the rail and scanned the wharf. The confusion there looked just as fierce. Carts stood idle, stacked with cargo waiting to be loaded into a net sling. Warehouse doors were flung open with crates, and boxes and barrels spilling out. Sailors said their goodbyes to loved ones. One man held his wife, while six children looked on. There was a sense of urgency in their embrace. He had grabbed his wife roughly, as if it was expected of him, and when he kissed her, she was looking over his shoulder at the ship. The sailor broke away and dashed up the gangplank. His wife just shrugged and took her children away. She did not look back.
Ellen was not on the wharf. Sarah moved along the main deck towards the poop deck and contemplated a family making their way forward. The father wore a top hat and a black, wool coat. The mother’s bonnet looked expensive, with its ribbons and silk flowers. She held a matching reticule in her hand, the silk pouch crammed with what Sarah imagined would be precious objects, though probably much fancier than what was in her satchel. The man steered his wife and family along. “Let us retire to the poop deck. No steerage passengers allowed there, my dear”, he’d said in an over loud voice.
Sarah turned her head and scanned the deck for her friend. She had only known Ellen for three days; the hours on the train led to the decision to stay together and brave out the days at the somber depot where all emigrants waited to embark. Crowded into the dormitory next to Ellen allowed Sarah the
opportunity to develop an easy understanding of the young woman. Even though Sarah was a year younger, Ellen, at twenty-six, was still a girl at heart. Small things amused and delighted her, she had a wicked sense of humour and Sarah was grateful that she had a diversion to take her mind of her troubles. There were still times that caught her unawares, at night, especially when she‘d lie awake and go over and over that last conversation with Joseph. He’d been so vitriolic, so unbelievable in his treatment of her. She honestly thought he cared for her. The nature of his secret liaison had made her vomit, so shocked at hearing the sordid details; his face close to hers, spittle landing on her as he spat out the words. She walked to the rail and gripped it. Bending slightly out over the water, Sarah breathed deeply. The waves patted against the hull, little splashes, gentle in their approach, almost caressing the side. She turned around and looked along the length of the ship. Ellen would surely be near the poop deck gawking up at the well-to-do folk.
“Ellen! Somehow I knew you would be here.”
“Just get an eyeful of those dandies, Sarah. Clothes like that, makes me wish I was amongst them.”
“Well, from what I’ve seen so far, toffee isn’t everything.”
“To have money to buy whatever you want, eat at the nicest places and wear the latest fashion. ‘Aint that for you?”
“It would be fine to be able to buy some nice things, but sometimes having money doesn’t always mean people will have good manners. So far, on this ship, all I’ve seen is bad manners, and not just from steerage folk, the toffs as well. People shouting and shoving, and only one person has spoken to me since I came on board.”
“Oh? Who? Not Mr. Dunbar, he’s too old for you. Surely not Mr. Thearley! What would his wife say?” Ellen winked and nudged Sarah as she laughed.
“Ellen, you can be wicked! A total stranger spoke to me. Took me by surprise, actually. I haven’t even seen Mr. Dunbar or the Thearleys. There must be at least four hundred people here. It’s remarkable that I found you.”
“Who talked to you Sarah!”
“No one for you to worry about. But I must say he was handsome.”
“Tell me, Sarah. Put me out of me misery.”
“Well, he commented on how strange it was that when the sheep are brought up the side of the ship in the sling, they just hang there, quiet, all docile; but the pigs had kicked and squealed and bucked and fought, all the time thrashing themselves against the side of the ship.”
“Was he a farmer, if he was interested in the animals?”
‘No. He was the ship’s cook! He was only interested in possible damage to their carcasses!” Sarah laughed when she saw the expression on her friend’s face, and steered her away from the poop deck, away from all of its finery, until she found them a barrel and a crate to sit on, not far from the pig pen.
The steps leading up to the poop deck were crammed with passengers. Children, held tight by anxious mothers squirmed and fidgeted, or hid behind wide skirts, fearful of getting lost. Passengers pressed forward to hear what was being said. Gulls called to each other, the ship bumped rhythmically against the dock and distant shouts from the wharf rose towards the assembled crowd. Three men stood before them, their stance, demeanor and tone of voice had commanded attention. Each man had spoken, the introductions were brief and to the point. Doctor Henderson was from the British Board of Trade. His white whiskered face held a friendly expression as he talked, his hands resting on an ample stomach. Beside him, a man of indistinct age stood tall, his right hand finger tapped on the clip board held in the crook of his elbow. The rapping sound could be heard when Doctor Henderson paused for breath.
“All of you before me now will undergo the official medical examination. Passengers must be fit for travel, and care needs to be taken that disease does not come on board. Some unfortunate voyages have resulted in significant loss of life. Disgusting diseases, hidden and undetected not only killed, but in some cases created epidemics. This could have been avoided had thorough inspections taken place.” He paused to let this information take effect.
“Lordy, he’s scaring us on purpose, eh Sarah? The rate he’s going, there’ll be none left to take the trip – bet there’s a few poxy sores on some bodies around here!” Ellen sniggered. “Still, I don’t want to take any chances, might have a bit of a scrub up, and wash out me mouth before he goes sticking his fingers where they’re not wanted!”
Sarah giggled with her friend, amused at her rather fertile imagination. It would not be a dull trip with Ellen Loughsborough on board, of that she was sure. Doctor Henderson continued.
“I expect each of you to present yourself to me when your name is called by Mr. Simonson the Emigration Officer. I believe that some of you have already made his acquaintance. You are to present your embarkation ticket to Mr. Simonson who will make a record. Verification of the passenger list is essential.”
“What if ye can’t read? How d’ye know ye’ve got the right bit of paper?” The man’s voice rang out from the back of the crowd. “None of me family reads, and I’m not afraid to say so. Hard working miners we are, had no course to learn to read.”
“Yeah, you don’t need words to know how to mine, eh William? Can’t see a bloody thing in the dark anyways!”
The two men laughed and folk around them joined in. Dr. Henderson, annoyed at the interruption ignored the question.
“Dr. Roland, here, as the ships surgeon superintendent, will be at each medical examination. It is his role to note any weakness, malaise or warrantable concern. If you or a member of your family present with unexplained rashes, signs of fever, illness or serious coughs you will be put ashore immediately, pending further investigation.”
The crowd all seemed to speak as one, anxious not to be put ashore, words tumbling out of mouths asking what they would do if such a calamity befell them, praying that it would not happen, the months of saving and planning only to be ripped away and for what? A slight cold, aches and pains or even a furry tongue?
“Please be quiet!” The doctor waited once more for calm. Even the sailors stopped for a while. “It is also my personal responsibility to inspect the ship’s medicine chest to see if it is adequately supplied, so that you passengers need have no fears.” Doctor Henderson glanced around at the sea of faces. “Once you have produced your ticket and we are satisfied with your medical inspection, you may pass down below and take possession of your berths. Those who have not paid, or have attempted a fraud, or fail to produce the necessary funds will be immediately transferred back to port.”
People looked at each other, men muttered about regulations, while nervous women gathered family or belongings close. The main deck held all those passengers set for occupying the steerage compartments. Cabin passengers had already been processed, and had retired to unpack. For the others, the waiting began.
Mr. Simonson raised his voice over the increasing noise. Seven families had had their inspection and moved off, heading below to the family quarters in steerage.
“Mr. Alexander Duffy, thirty-five years. Embarkation ticket if you please”.
Duffy moved forward, and handed over a grubby piece of paper, with ink smudged across one corner almost obliterating the words. He thrust out his tongue, turned his head for the doctor to look into his ears. He offered his wrist for his pulse to be taken and he took a deep breath when asked.
“Right strong’en here. Dr Roland, make a note”.
Duffy’s wife was presented next, and his seven children. The youngest, a baby of one year, grizzled and cried, the rash on her face grew more obvious.
“What’s this? What’s this? This baby has the look of a fever, Mrs. Duffy. Can you explain?”
Her stammered reply brought her husband to her side. “Just teethin, Doctor. See, she’s cutting a tooth is all”
The doctor ran his finger around the inside of the baby’s mouth. She screamed and squirmed. Mrs. Duffy struggled to keep hold of the child. Sweat broke out on her face.
“You fevered as well?” The doctor peered at her.
“Don’t mind her, doc.” Mr. Duffy offered his most charming smile. “She’s always a one for getting in a flap. Worries all the time. Never is at peace, but a good woman all the same.”
The doctor sighed and nodded to the emigration officer. “They’ll do”.
The main deck was still crowded, though not as densely as when the inspections first began. Families had disappeared below, anxious to set out belongings and claim the best accommodation in steerage. Four hours had passed, hawkers continued to sell their wares down on the main deck. Forks and knives were popular, although passengers grumbled about the price being twice what was found in the town.
People were quickly finding out that many of them did not have enough provisions. Those who couldn’t read had merely guessed at what was required for the voyage. Lists were prepared for assisted passengers. Unassisted, either looked into the matter when purchasing their ticket, or had to trust their instincts. The hawkers traded on people’s lack of organisation, setting up stalls to sell everything from pots, pans and utensils to sewing kits, reading matter and whiskey. Getting the attention of the female passengers seemed to be the main objective, bargaining on them needing the comforts of home.
“Oy! Ye! Get yer metal goods here. All that a woman needs! Quart tins, hand-basins, pint tins, plates. All at fair prices.”
“Personal provisions is what you need, mam. Soap, have we? No? Then you’d be needin’ me lovely yellow soap, or perhaps some marine soap for washin’ yer smalls? Not forgetting buttons, ribbon, or the odd bolt of cloth?”
Missionaries handed out pamphlets and free papers, warning people of potential sins in the colonies, heathens without shame and the virtue of staying true to one’s faith. A pamphlet skittered along the deck. A little boy ran after it, his bare feet made a drumming sound, which stopped abruptly. The pamphlet had wrapped itself around the left leg of a tall, thin man standing by the rail. The boy looked up into a face where beady eyes met at the bridge of a long, straight nose.
“Well, and what do we have here? A boy after this sheet of paper?” The man bent, took the paper from his leg and looked at it closely. “Surely you cannot possibly read this, a boy dressed as you are? What do you want it for? Fetching it for someone?”
“Nnnno sir. I need the paper to do me drawings, see. Paper’s like gold, sir. We never can afford it. I jest ‘acquires’ it I do.”
“Acquires? Big word for a little boy. Had some learning then, have we?”
“No sir. I jest keep me ears open, is all.” The boy held out his hand for the piece of paper. The tall man gave it over gracefully.
“I’d like to see some of your drawings one day, when the ship is underway. Used to do a bit of drawing myself. Charcoal mainly, but I have dabbled with pen and ink.”
“Yes, sir. When the ship is underway. Thank you sir.” The boy dashed off clutching his prize. He went straight back to where the missionaries were pestering the harried immigrants whose only intent was on getting themselves passed as medically fit.