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Museum excursion to Port Stephens, 1880

Leafing through old newspapers often yields interesting material, some of it relevant to the Hunter Region of NSW where I live. The following two-part article is a good example. It provides an interesting account of a sea journey from Sydney to Port Stephens in 1880, purportedly to gather specimens for the Australian Museum. The author – who also did some sketches which are reproduced as engravings – describes a new fish-processing enterprise, the inner lighthouse and telegraph station and the down-at-heel city of Newcastle. It’s also a rather bloodthirsty account, since the members of the expedition were enthusiastic shooters who appeared keen to blast away at practically anything that moved.

Notes on a dredging excursion to Port Stephens, by “Viator”

Town and Country Journal, February 5, 1881

The submarine flora and fauna of antipodean waters, although presenting a varied and almost virgin field to lovers of nature have as yet received but little attention from the scientific world. The recent investigations by means of the dredge and deep sea lead off the eastern coast of Australia of HMS Challenger – while engaged on that cruise around the world in the interests of science that will render her name as immortal as that of the Victory or even our Endeavour – were productive of very satisfactory results, encouraging others to continue as a labour of love the researches thus auspiciously inaugurated.

Prominent among those who have interested themselves in this work is the curator of the Australian Museum, E.P. Ramsey Esq. FLS, who for some time passed has been conducting a series of dredging excursions within the limits of Port Jackson. A large and interesting collection of marine specimens, containing many rare species and an entirely new variety of coral have been thus obtained. So valuable were the spoils of these little trips deemed that at a general meeting of the board of trustees it was decided to extend operations and Port Stephens – a capacious harbour about 100 miles to the northward – and its vicinity was selected as presenting many natural and physical advantages for the successful carrying out of the work in hand.

The fast and commodious steam yacht Prince of Wales (to use the language of the advertisement) was chartered to convey the party and their impedimenta to the scene of operation and haul around the bottom ticklers. Unfortunately oppressive work and other important business prevented Mr Ramsey from accompanying us, but W.A. Haswell Esq, MA, BSC, the curator of the Brisbane Museum – then on a visit to Sydney – kindly offered his services which were readily accepted. Mr Haswell’s extensive acquaintance with marine zoology and botany and his having made the crustaceae his favourite study, rendered him a most eligible substitute. Mr. A. Morton the assistant taxidermist; Mr. Cook, one of the Marine Board men who from having been in charge of the small launch Mr Ramsey used while dredging in the harbour was well acquainted with the nature of the work and used to handling the dredging gear, and with myself who went principally to take a few sketches and assist in what work fell within my rather comprehensive province completed the museum party.

The master and very efficient crew of the little vessel, Mr Waterhouse the owner and a friend, also an invalid gentleman, a resident of Port Stephens and a stowaway brought up the rear on the master roll.

Leaving Sydney in a heavy sea

The month of December had hardly entered upon its existence half an hour when we cast off from the Circular Quay it had been blowing hard from the southeast all day and the night was very dirty so we ran down the harbour under easy steam. On arriving at the heads we received quite as rough a greeting from friends Neptune and Aeolus as we anticipated. A heavy sea was running, and on the Prince showing her – what an anomaly – nose outside, a fresh hand was clamped onto the bellows.

On slowing down however the little hooker behaved remarkably well, shaping more like a gull and less like a porpoise than I had expected, although she did not forget to roll enough to create a considerable bobbery in the crockery department. After gaining sufficient offing the skipper, watching his opportunity, jammed the helm hard up and she spun round on her keel sharply enough to say “no thank you” to a vicious looking comber that evidently wished to take a mean advantage of and board her. With the wind fairly over her starboard quarter and the wings spread we were as snug as the traditional bug and were running the knots off in fine style. So after performing with satisfaction to all concerned that ancient nautical evolution of such absorbing interest alike to the oldest shells and the greenest of landlubbers, yclept the splicing of the mainbrace, we turned in.

We were within 10 or 12 miles of our destination when we showed on deck the next morning and the wind and sea had fallen considerably and the weather was all that could be desired. About an hour later after passing the outer lighthouse – situated prominently on an island united at low water to the mainland by a sandbank – we passed between the bold and lofty headlands that define so well the entrance to this harbour of refuge. Crossing the bar we opened up in extensive sheet of water; a large proportion of its area, however, is comparatively shallow and although the surrounding scenery is decidedly pretty I do not think that in any respect Port Jackson need fear her northern neighbour as a rival.

Skirting the southern shore we passed the inner or harbour light and signal station; the pretty and substantial buildings connected therewith being perched on a steep well-wooded little bluff. A telegraph station is established here but until the Sydney Fish Supply Company selected this spot for their fishing grounds the operator’s principal employment was to transmit weather reports to the head office and yarn with his fellow sufferer at the outer light. A few fishermen’s huts scattered along the shores of Nelsons Bay next came in view. Arriving off the company’s newly erected works, situated at the far end of this sandy bight, we ran alongside the long jetty. Mr Huntly, the manager – the same gentleman who in a similar capacity contributed largely towards making the Coffee Palace the success it is – was standing on the end of the wharf when we made fast. On learning the nature of our business Mr Huntly welcomed us heartily, kindly proffering us every assistance that lay in his power. After breakfast we went ashore to inspect the works; the engine room with the machinery for the production of dry cold air or ice as might be required, coming first. A well within the building furnishes ample supply of excellent cold fresh water in every way adapted for the purpose required. We then passed round to the right hand side of the main building and entered through a pair of solid and thick double doors a spacious apartment floored with a thick layer of cement. The walls and roof were lined with sawdust closely packed and between tongued and grooved pine linings the roof was traversed by cold air pipes capable of lowering the temperature as far as it was desirable for the operatives to work in. Two small double-framed windows admitted sufficient light to enable them to clean, open and sort the fish. Passing through two more similar doors we found ourselves in the cold storage chambers. On every side, above and below, 18 inches of the same non-conducting material (sawdust, of which over 80 tonnes had been brought from Sydney for the purpose) divided the seasons, and double quantity of cold air pipes overhead were expected to be capable of reducing the temperature many degrees below zero. Here the stock was to be kept and when wanted the supplies would be run out into the cleaning room, there packed carefully in the company’s cases and safes, placed on the trolley and run down the tram to the vessel which will discharge her consignment at the branch cold storehouse in Sydney, where less powerful machinery will conserve it for any reasonable length of time. It is proposed from there to send suppliers to the upcountry towns.

At the rear, but attached to the main building is a large iron shed for drying, salting and smoking fish; the firing arrangements for the six furnaces being very convenient. The cottages on the slope are for the employees. Mr Huntly has built himself a very nice roomy weatherboard cottage on the crest of the hill on the right-hand side overlooking the works. Nor are the wants of the fishermen who bring their fish – often from a considerable distance – forgotten. The building on the left is devoted to them entirely and has bunks rigged up all around the walls for the use of lone fisherman and those who do not feel inclined or are prevented by either wind or tide – which runs in this port very swiftly – from returning to the bosoms of their families until the following day. The company did not intend to fish on their own account, at all events within the harbour, but have agreed to purchase from the local piscators at a fixed price of four shilling sixpence a bushel for all net fish, which ought to pay everybody.

Sponges, crabs and starfish

Mr Huntly accompanied us aboard the vessel in order to see the first fruits of our labour and sent on board one of his men – a local fisherman – to act as pilot. Our first cast was made on the tail of an extensive sandbank lying opposite the works, but on hauling the dredge to the surface it was found to contain only dead and broken shells and gravelly silt. A few spider crabs were however obtained in the manila tangles (bunches of untwisted rope fastened to the bottom of the net). The following cost was hardly more successful but on shifting closer in, within half a cable length of the rocky shore, we found in from eight to 10 fathoms a much more promising bottom and several successive hauls procured us a fine lot of sponges and several varieties of crabs and starfish. Live shells were however very scarce.

After a midday dinner we steamed further up the harbour, scaring large flocks of black swans and pelicans from the mud flats and sandy beaches on which they were feeding – by Snider bullets – but long ranges and bad shots reduced the execution to nil. Selecting a suitable spot, a party – myself among them – landed to attack the oysters. Here the execution was something awful, cold steel well wielded by veterans at close quarters quite turning the tide of war. After satisfying our thirst for oysters, leaving the others to imprison a few bags full of the survivors, I went for a short stroll but discovered nothing of interest but an old blacks camp and traces of warrigals which are very numerous in this district. Returning on board with spolia belli we preceded farther up the inlet.

While we had been on shore two or three more casts had been made with varied success and a few of the spirit and chromic acid jars were filled with the results. After it had been thoroughly overhauled a portion of the salty residual was put in a canvas bag for closer scrutiny and microscopic examination on our return. A couple of miles further in the Prince hove to off a well-wooded little islet – rather larger but not so high as Garden Island – where our guide assured us we could get a lot of eggs of the nankeen crane and possibly a goat or a rabbit or two, so the skiff which had been towing astern was brought alongside. Mr Haswell, Morton, Cook, Lewis the pilot and the skipper (who was provided with a double barrelled muzzle-loader) and myself (armed to the teeth with a number one saloon rifle in my hand and an antiquated but in other respects very good Terry rifle slung over my shoulder) embarked for the shore. On landing and thrusting our way through the dense undergrowth we startled large numbers of nankeen cranes from their nests and the treetops in which they had been sitting. These birds, hovering and wheeling overhead, were easily shot and the pop gun had scored two when the barrel being rather foul one of the pills stopped halfway, and although I fired another shot to induce it to move on it refused to budge an inch and my sport in that direction was over. The others in the meantime had not been idle. Several trees had been climbed but only three or four eggs had been obtained. They were about the size of a bantam’s egg and of a pale sea-green tint. The skipper had bagged what a couple of ounces of number one had left of a crane. These were not the only game started, myriads of mosquitoes making it pretty sultry for all hands and ultimately gaining the day by causing us to beat a retreat before we would otherwise have done so, not before, however, the captain’s lively fusilade had sent many to their happy hunting grounds. One more too-inquisitive crane fell victim to the blunderbuss. He was gazing pensively down the barrel, speculating I suppose whether there was a worm in it, when somehow or other it went off and the victim of misplaced confidence with a few score or so of Australian nightingales were numbered with the slain.

Slaughtering birdlife

Returning on board the boat we put her round and ran down the harbour to the company’s jetty where we intended to moor for the night. On our way back the pelicans were again saluted with the usual success. One, however, came rather close to see what the row was about but before I could ram a cartridge into and cap that wretched, nondescript affair (a Terry rifle) he had sheared off.

After tea Mr Morton and myself took a stroll along the beach to the inner lighthouse from whence we had some telegraphic messages to send. After a rather fatiguing climb up the sandy track we reached the summit of the hill; the view of the surrounding scenery lit up by the rising moon was very pretty and well repaid us for our exertions. After sending our messages Mr Glover, the lighthouse keeper, showed us over the premises and light room. Everything was painfully clean bright and orderly. In fact it would have been impossible to have collected sufficient dirt to rear a solitary specimen of the bug tribe on from the whole of the buildings. On our return to the steamer we called in at the cottage in which Mr Huntly and Mr Wolfe the customhouse officer were living. The latter gentleman handed Morton as a donation for the museum a very curious artificial bait and hook used by a tribe of Nova Scotia Indians for catching fish. It was constructed of a piece of hardwood shaped like an eel with a long sharp piece of bone attached in each end in such a manner as to form the point; there was no barb.

On the following day it was resolved to go outside and obtain a few hauls in deep water four or five miles off the coast. Mr Waterhouse and a couple of others to stay onshore and go shooting ,I remained also to sketch the works. The sportsmen – after decimating a little jay and murdering in cold blood a butcher bird that had not yet arrived at its days of discretion – succumbed to the heat of the weather and taking up selections on the balcony of an empty cottage snoozed comfortably until the return of the vessel. I found my work not the most pleasant, sitting on the end of the jetty all day under a burning sun.

They had met with pretty fair success aboard the steamer but the labour of hauling up a heavy dredge by hand – there being no winch – from a depth of 60 fathoms enabled them to have but a few hauls.

The following day, Thursday, was devoted to further operations within the harbour. Several sea urchins, a few live shells, one or two little fish and a few bags full of singularly uninteresting looking black mud were the principle takings of the dredges, one of which in trying conclusions with a large ghibber was considerably worsted and knocked into one of those manifold shapes technically supposed to resemble a cocked hat. In the early morning with the rising tide we ran up the Myall, a shallow creek connecting the large freshwater lakes to the northward with the harbour. Steaming about a couple of miles we arrived at a coal wharf where the dredge that was employed deepening the channel loaded her fuel. A party of us having landed on the opposite shore of the river, Mr Huntly caused some fishermen living there to try a cast of the seine and a fine haul of large mullet, whiting, black bream and blackfish were in a very short time transferred from their native element to the headsheets of our boat. The finer specimens were put into the spirit cask for the museum collection of Australian food fishes and the bulk of the remainder were turned over to the commissariat department and under the skillful treatment of the doctor formed an agreeable change to our bill of fare.

Part 2, February 12, 1881

That evening it was resolved that the following day should be devoted to a visit to the Seal Rocks, two barren little islets lying within a league from the coast about 25 miles to the northward, in the hope of securing a complete series of the large hairy seal, Octocephalus sp., which it was reported frequented these isolated rocks during the breeding season in considerable numbers. Early the next morning with Messrs Huntly and Lewis – who had about the same time last year paid the place a visit – aboard, we made a start. On getting fairly clear of the bold headlands of Port Stephens we found the sea smooth and a light northeaster blowing, a favourable combination of circumstances which gave us every hope of success. Passing inside the Broughtons, a group of bold rocky islets sparsely clothed with stunted sombre tinted vegetation lying just off the entrance to the harbour, and steaming rapidly up the coast we were soon abreast of Long Island, on which not a tree the size of a gooseberry bush was to be seen. The only prominent object that met the eye on its wide expanse of undulating grassy surface, girdled by beetling cliffs and sand beaches of pearly whiteness, being a small hut erected near a permanent spring of good water by a prospecting party engaged there some time ago in boring for coal. Shortly after, while seeking the seclusion a cabin grants, I was startled by a hurried rush of trampling footsteps overhead and loud cries of: “Stop her”,  “I’ve got him”, “Steady”, “Clap on here”, etc. My first idea was “man overboard”, but on gaining the deck in the twinkling of a duck’s tail I saw at once the state of affairs. Lewis had harpooned a large porpoise and five or six men had all their work cut out to hang on to him, dashing rapidly to and fro and at times leaping clear out of the water. In his frantic efforts to escape, the “sea pig” bent and twisted the light iron of our little patent harpoon until it resembled a Brobdinagian corkscrew. Had it been one of the old pattern it would probably have drawn. As his struggles grew weaker and exhaustion from loss of blood rendered his ultimate fate a certainty, his comrades attacked him on every side but the smooth slippery skin and perpetual motion of their unfortunate countryman effectually resisted their little attentions, compelling them to satisfy their cannibalistic cravings with copious libations of sanguinary seawater. After much manoeuvring and repeated failures we managed at last to pass a running bowline round his tail and hauled him aboard. Our prize proved to be a fine specimen of Delphinus sp.,  a variety not represented in the museum collection. From the tip of his pointed snout to the end of his powerful flukes he measured about eight feet and his beautifully clean lines accounted readily for the wonderful rapidity and ease with which these fish cleaved the water.

Unfortunately for us, as the morning sun rose higher in the heavens, the breeze freshened and by the time we arrived at our destination a nasty cross-sea was fast getting up. It was determined, however, to make an attempt to land, so the Prince was hove to about a cable’s length to leeward of the principal islet which was only 80 or 90 yards long and about 40 wide and her cockleshell of a dinghy (the only boat with us) was lowered.

Watching our chance Morton and I – armed respectively with a Snider carbine that had known better days and the Terry – jumped into her and, Lewis taking the  “spoons”, pulled for the shore. Seals of both sexes and all ages from the pretty little sleek dark-skinned calves tumbling over each other in play or circled by their mothers – sedate old dames clothed in puritanical dandy grey russet costumes – to huge shaggy-maned patriarchal bulls basking sleepily in the sunlight or discussing in solemn conclave the eastern question, fish supply or some other equally engrossing topic were thickly scattered over the surface of the rock. On getting within a few boats’ length of the shore we held a council of war. Closer inspection certainly did not remove the difficulty or diminish the danger of landing; a swift tidal current was sweeping round the island, causing a nasty jobble and giving Lewis all he could do to prevent the dinghy from being stove or swept away to leeward. Great numbers of adult seals were swimming on every side of and diving under us, now and again leaping entirely out of the water and threatening at times to swamp our little nutshell. The young ones did not appear to have been as yet initiated into the natatory art as we did not see one disporting itself in its natural element. Save an occasional roar of defiance from some old warrior as he shuffled clumsily, though with considerable speed, over the hard and uneven surface or raised himself on the ends of his flippers to take stock of the intruders on his domain, the lords of the soil – if such an expression can be admitted where there is none – took no notice of our approach beyond gazing at us with a steady inquisitive stare. But a change comes over the spirit of their dreams.

Massacring seals at Seal Rocks

Selecting a couple of hoary old ruffians who were contesting fiercely on a small elevated plateau for the smiles of some captivating young cow we fired almost simultaneously; the dull thud of the bullets and the sudden cessation of hostilities on the part of the combatants telling unmistakably that they had found the billets for which they had been intended. The recipient of the Snider bullet scrambled hastily down the slippery rocks towards us but before he could reach the water the Terry spoke again. Pausing an instant on the edge of the rock he uttered a short sharp cry of mingled pain and rage and then plunged into the sea, leaving on the crest of a breaking wave a swirl of bloodstained foam as he sank to his last resting place. In the meantime the gentleman who had stopped my ball had come to the conclusion that he was in the way and was making tracks for the other end of the island as fast as he was able when some messengers which we sent after him prevailed on him to bring to and lay himself out to be measured for his bone-box. The ball having been thus opened the vessel commenced at a comparatively long range a rapid but ineffectual fusilade from all sorts of firearms. I shall never forget the scene of tumult and uproar that ensued. Scores of old bulls kept up an incessant roaring, growling and bellowing as they floundered aimlessly over the island, a continuous stream entering and emerging from the sea; the bleating of innumerable small calves deserted by their frightened mothers – many of whom had taken to the water – mingled with a sharp ringing reports of our rifles creating a strange medley of sounds more easily imagined than described. Many of the wounded struggled down to the sea, dyeing the surf crimson with their lifeblood as the rapid currents swept them away to the southward.

Morton’s Snider, after the first two or three shots, had been hors de combat, refusing pertinaciously to eject the empty shell of its cartridge, and the jerky motion of the dinghy caused me to miss as often as I hit. Our friends aboard the Prince were evidently out of practice. With the exception of a few very fair shots at us, the shooting was decidedly below par and more noise than slaughter was to be credited to their score. I afterwards ascertained, however, that the rifle was a kind of shooting iron not exactly in their line; that the skipper was a dead shot at the sun with his favourite sextant and the engineer could do some pretty tall firing with a long handled shovel.

Seven or eight dead or dying monsters were now lying on the bloodstained battlefield so we decided to make an attempt to land. Lewis, however, discovered that he was unprovided with a weapon less clumsy than a paddle, and not liking the threatening gestures and fierce demeanour of the bulls – some of whom were mad and with rage and pain – and fearing that they would take to him while securing the dinghy, prevailed on us to return to the Prince for his favourite waddy. Pulling back to the island we came across a dying seal and, by the help of the gaff-hook attached to one end of the fisherman’s cudgel, managed to secure him. While engaged in hauling him aboard the steamer, a rather laborious undertaking as he was an adult male weighing nearly half a ton, we lost some time and we drifted by the strong tide over a mile to leeward. On getting back to the rock we found that, during our absence the wind and sea had increased to such an extent that it would have been madness to attempt to land. A heavy groundswell was now breaking angrily on every side of the rocky island and the treacherous drawback rendered it dangerous for us to take our little cockleshell too close, so I confined myself to shooting at those in the water in the hope of the party aboard the Prince being able to pick up or harpoon some of the desperately wounded ones before they sank. But although I expended some 50 rounds of ball cartridge, the roughness of the sea rendered our  exertions and further slaughter futile. On re-embarking before we left the rocks Mr Haswell decided – weather and circumstances permitting us to entertain any entertain any hopes of success – to return the following morning and secure our victims. We then piped all hands to dinner and getting the canvas on her shaped our return course.

With wind and tide in our favour we were not long in making the Broughtons, outside of which Mr Haswell wished to try a few hauls of the dredge. A cast of the lead showed 25 fathoms so the dredge was lowered to the bottom. The engines were stopped as the strong breeze gave the vessel quite sufficient way for dragging the scraper. As soon as the vessel’s way was checked lines were over the side and although she drifted too fast for the sinkers to remain on the bottom for more than a few seconds at a time, a dozen or so fine schnapper was soon kicking on the deck – the skipper scoring the highest with eight or nine. Every now and then the word would be passed: “In lines and haul up the dredge” and then the stout hawser attached to the bottom tickler – having been hitched into a snatch block fastened at the end of a temporary derrick overhanging the little vessels taffrail – was manned by all hands and with a stamp-and-go the mystery bag would be quickly hauled to the surface and swung inboard. The first two hauls were very successful, some very fine and remarkable polyzoas of the most beautifully varied forms and tints being obtained. Among the prizes were several brilliant little scarlet crabs with legs and claws tipped with bright cobalt blue. Live shells were however, as elsewhere we had tried, very scarce. Many interesting zoophytes and rare sponges were among the contents of the net and a few curious spider crabs were found on overhauling the manila tangles. After this our luck gave out entirely, the rocky bottom destroying two of our dredges before we returned to the port. Mr Waterhouse – whose dread of mal de mer had alone prevented him from accompanying us, and his friend came alongside with a boatload of fine oysters which they had collected during our absence. Shortly after, the Manly, a little larger than the Prince, bound for the Bellinger, ran in and dropped anchor between us and a topsail schooner that had put back for shelter, fearing a north-easterly gale. The skipper of the former, in whom I recognised an old shipmate, came aboard after tea and brought the latest papers from town.

At dawn the following day, the easterly having given place to a strong southerly which for them was a fair wind, both vessels weighed and left us again the sole representative of the shipping interest in the harbour. As the morning advanced it became very evident much to our disappointment, that we would be compelled to relinquish any idea of being able to land on the rocks and secure the seals that had been shot the day before, so after bestowing our blessings on that much abused personage, the clerk of the weather, we decided to devote the last day at our disposal to trying a few more hauls over the ground where we had been so successful the day previous. A regular chapter of accidents, however, ensued and we added but little of any importance to our collection. First, our only set of tangles was carried away and then one of the nets was torn to rags and finally the rocky bottom completely destroyed our last two dredges, compelling us to return to port earlier than usual and almost empty-handed.

After breakfast on Sunday we made everything snug for our return to Sydney and, after bidding Mr Huntly goodbye, we tore the emblem of hope for the last time from its fond embrace of Port Stephens mud, and steaming rapidly down the harbour we shortly cleared the heads and the scene of our pleasant little excursion was left far astern.

A visit to Newcastle

About 10 o’clock we were just off the Nobbys and the approach of an imaginary buster was made the excuse for running into Newcastle and spending Sunday in the coal city. A flowing tide and full head of steam swept us up the harbour in fine style and we made fast outside one of the government tugs, used for towing the silt barges out to sea, which was moored alongside the wharf. After making ourselves presentable Messrs Haswell, Morton and myself went ashore and took a walk of inspection around the howling wilderness – and which is designated by those unfamiliar with its intricate labyrinths of odoriferous back slums and old building materials etc and its monumental mountains of cinders and ashes, broken bottles, rags, bones and empty kerosene tins – the second city of the colony.

We had an early dinner at one of the leading hotels where we met an acquaintance of Morton’s, Mr Cates – one of the members of the London Comedy Company then playing to scanty and unsympathetic audiences in that city of sin and sorrow. After dinner that gentleman gave us an opportunity of inspecting the theatre; the dirtiest and most disreputable old barracks in the colonies; in fact the little bark shanty devoted to the muses at Temora could score many points over its more pretentious rival.

About midnight, all hands being aboard, we got under weigh and we made a fine passage to Sydney, entering the heads just after sunrise. Cowper’s wharf in Woolloomooloo Bay was selected as the most suitable place for disembarking our impedimenta, which was soon transferred to a couple of vans and sent on to the museum, and the last event of our little trip was brought to a close by piping all hands to splice the main brace at Punch’s bar and drink success to our next excursion – when or wherever it might be.

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