Google+ Followers

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

A voyage to begin a new life in a 'new' country, aboard a new ship

On September 6 1852, the London Illustrated News featured an article about a new packet ship, the Ben Nevis,which was about to embark on its maiden voyage to Australia. It was described as being state of the art design for the time, with every possible convenience provided  for the safety and comfort of passengers and crew.

The wonderfully eloquent, detailed and complimentary article that accompanied the illustration is reproduced here:

The Freeman's Journal and Commercial Advertiser published in Dublin on 6 September 1852 was equally effusive in its praise, reading more like an advertorial than a news item, and included a report of the dinner given by the ship's owners and bankers to celebrate the vessel being fitted-up and ready to set sail. 


              Articles in numerous other newspapers throughout the United Kingdom similarly lauded the Ben Nevis, and no doubt these had the desired effect of enticing prospective immigrants to sign up for the maiden voyage, with the prospect of a new life for families in Australia, and the added lure of the Victorian gold rush taking place there in the 1850s.

The Ben Nevis duly departed Liverpool,  possibly a little later than the owners had hoped, according to a brief report in the Leicester Chronicle of 2 October 1852.

 Four of those passengers were Ralph Featherston from Weardale Durham and his wife Mary, nee Greggs, together with  their two small children, daughter Mary aged 2 and infant son John, who was less than a year old, having been born in 1852. When Ralph and Mary were married in Muggleswick Parish Church on 26 February 1848, Ralph's occupation was given as joiner. Ralph left behind 4 brothers, two of whom were to follow him out to Australia a few years later, and Mary left her parents, two sisters and a brother, no doubt with high hopes of a new life for themselves down here. Their names appear on the passenger list, albeit rather inaccurately it must be said, and as a result I initially had trouble finding them. The Public Record Office of Victoria has transcribed the surname as Fenthershire, and in addition the children Mary and John seem to have been oddly recorded as Hannah and Sarah. Perhaps the purser or whoever it was who wrote down their names and details had a hearing problem! Nevertheless this was definitely our Featherston family.

The arrival of the Ben Nevis in Port Phillip Victoria on 3 January 1853 was positively reported in the Elgin Courier of 15 April 1853, after a voyage of 97 days. There was much rivalry at the time between the competing shipping lines over which of them could lay claim to the fastest passage, with the ship Marco Polo claiming a record time of 68 days in 1851. The advent of the clipper ships in the 1850s greatly reduced the misery and suffering of passengers aboard Australian immigrant ships, but despite the beauty and conveniences described in the articles above,  the voyage aboard the Ben Nevis must still been exhausting and arduous for both passengers and crew, in comparison with the luxury that that sea passengers enjoy on cruise liners today!

The report claims that all passengers landed in good health, but the period immediately after arrival in the new colony of Victoria must  have appeared very bleak for Mary Featherston, after Ralph headed off  to try his luck on the goldfields. The hardship and sadness Mary must have suffered is indicated by this poignant little notice which she placed in Melbourne's Argus newspaper:

                                          "Mary Featherston informs her husband Ralph Featherston,
                                          per ship Ben Nevis, that his daughter Mary is dead, and 
                                          his wife wishes him to come down to Melbourne
                                          immediately, as she is in great trouble.
                                          Melbourne, Jan.22, 1853."

The cause of little Mary's death is not known, but Ralph must have returned to Melbourne at some point, whether or not he did so in response to this sad plea from his wife, which would have been the only way of contacting people in those times. He and Mary subsequently went to the gold mining town of Campbells Creek near Castlemaine, but sadly baby John died there a year later, and I can imagine that Mary at least might well have wished to leave their harsh new surroundings and return home to Weardale, had that been possible! At least they themselves survived, which is more than can be said for Ralph's two brothers William Henry and Emerson, who emmigrated in 1855 and 1857 respectively, only to die here soon after. Ralph and Mary persevered however, and Ralph became a farmer at Carngham near Ballarat. From 1856 onward they had another eight children, all of whom survived, married and produced families of their own. Ralph died in 1901 aged 78, and Mary in 1907 aged 79 and they are buried together in Carngham Cemetery. I was kindly given copies of the following old photographs and others of the Featherston family by Joan Brusamarello, a granddaughter of their youngest son Edward Emerson Featherston, 1870-1930. Their seventh child Joseph Featherston 1862-1914 doesn't appear to have passed down any similar photographs to his great grandson Roger (my husband), and I'm greatly indebted to Joan for very generously sharing her Featherston family history research with me. Sadly Joan herself passed away suddenly in January this year. 

Ralph and Mary Featherston with an unidentified child, possibly  Edward Emerson, their youngest

Muggleswick Parish Church in Weardale, Durham, where Ralph and Mary were married in 1848, and which we visited in 2007
Mary Featherston nee Greggs, 1827-1907
Ralph Featherston, 1823-1901
The grave of Mary and Ralph Featherston

 Like so many new immigrants, they had a rather rocky start to their new life in Australia, but they were stoic and seem to have overcome the hardships, and while Mary doesn't exactly look very happy in these photographs, I hope she and Ralph grew to enjoy it here.

Joan Brusamarello with Roger, her second cousin once removed, when  we visited her at her rural property near Wonthaggi in Gippsland, Vic. in 2006.
 Just two of the many descendants of Ralph and Mary Featherston.

R.I.P. Joan.

For more new beginnings, just click here :Sepia Saturday 198



  1. Well Jo, you've set a high benchmark for this week's theme. I'll have to put my thinking cap on.

  2. A fascinating account and classic family history story, backed up by detailed research and images. A great post!

  3. It is sad that so many survived the long voyage only to die soon after reaching Australia.

  4. A great tale, and one that echoes some in my family. I didn't have any on the Ben Nevis though I don't think.

  5. That is pretty tragic but they survived and founded a big family after all. Nice articles and photos and all.

  6. Variations in spelling can be interesting. Families with babies traveling on a ship sound very much like a big big adventure. Then sad that some do not survive. I see a resemblance of Joan and Roger with Mary Featherston.

  7. Who wouldn't want to hop aboard the Ben Nevis? This is a wonderful story from start to finish, full of highs and lows and more highs. It's especially nice that you gave credit to Joan who supplied pictures and story that obviously have contributed so much to your knowledge about your husband's roots. It makes me think about Cathy Hecker, a distant cousin I never met and never will, who gave me all her research on our shared ancestors.

  8. That's a fascinating account. Life was hard for the early settlers, but how terrible to hear of your child's death through a notice in a newspaper. I'm glad they had more children later after such a tragic start.

  9. That little newspaper snippet is so sad. We are so fortunate these days to have such ease of communication with those around the world, that it is a shock to the system to consider placing an ad in the off chance your husband will see it.

  10. Wonderful read : you stitch together the personal history of your family and the history of the times so well together. Reading those articles about the Ben Nevis I was almost tempted to put my name down.

  11. Isn't Muggleswick just the best name for a church?

  12. A fascinating post for me especially the SS Great Britain entered the emigrant 'trade' in 1852 as well. It must be special for you to be able to link your family to it as well.

  13. Whew! What a lot of information. I thought the articles about the Ben Nevis were very interesting, and I especially enjoyed the changes in language from now to then. We never talk about "viands" these days, do we?

    Tying that information with your ancestors made this post all the more interesting. Poor Mary and Ralph to lose both of their first two children. It really is hard for me to imagine picking up roots and moving to a new continent. Strong people, those immigrants.

  14. Thanks so much for a most thorough tale of new beginnings...and how it really happened for your ancestors...which is what I'm enjoying doing for many of mine as well.