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Clipper Sailing Ships

Much of the information on this page comes from
Clipper Sailing Ships
The Power of Gold
Emigrant Ships to Australia in the Forties.
Report on Steerage Conditions in 1844.
The Discovery of Gold in Australia
Melbourne and its Shipping 1851-2
Blue Jacket
Champion of the Seas 
Cutty Sark
Donald Mackay
Heather Bell 
James Baines
John Bunyan
Maid of Judah
Red Jacket
Walter Hood
White Star
Tall Ships 2007 Wall Calendar






The Sabraon was built by Messrs. Hall, of Aberdeen, to the order of Lowther, Maxton & Co., the tea clipper owners, and launched in November, 1866. She was the largest composite ship every built, being constructed of solid teak with iron beams and frames; she was copper fastened and classed 16 years A1. Her measurements were:


Registered tonnage

2131 tons


3500 tons

Length over all

317 ft

Length between perpendiculars

272 ft


40 ft

Depth of hold

27 ft


Her lower masts were of wrought iron, and her topmasts and lower yards on each mast of steel. On her first two voyages she carried skysails, but these were found to make her rather crank and so were done away with. In the eighties she followed the fashion and was fitted with double topgallant yards on her fore and main masts. With all sail set, she had a spread of just 2 acres of canvas.

Mr. A. G. Elmslie, who served in her for 11 years under his father, from apprentice to chief officer, gave me the following account of her sailing qualities:

……….A glance at the perfect lines of the ship in dry dock would be quite sufficient to show there was nothing to stop her from going through the water, and I can honestly say that during my 11 years I never saw any other sailing ship pass her in a breeze with on a wind or before it. The fact of the Sobraon being first intended for an auxiliary steamer and having the two stern posts, the space between which was filled up with solid timber, gave her a perfect run, and her bows were as fine as any yacht’s. Runs of over 300 knots when running down the easting were frequent. On one occasion over 1000 knots were covered in three days and over 2000 in a week. Three hundred and forty knots in the 24 hours was the best run made. I have seen over 16 knots reeled off by the log. This was with the wind some 2 or 3 points on the quarter, which was her best sailing point. On a wind and sailing within 5 ˝ points, she could do her 7 to 8 knots goods.

On her first five voyages from 1866 to 1871, the Sobraon sailed to Sydney, and after that, from 1872 to 1891, to Melbourne, always returning via the Cape of Good Hope instead of the Horn.

Her fastest trip to Sydney was 73 days and to Melbourne 68 days. On the latter passage she sighted Cape Otway on the morning of the 60th day out, but then had light variable winds, which spoil what promised to be a 61 day passage.

Most of her outward passages were between 70 and 80 days, but it must be remembered that she was never driven hard out of consideration for her passengers, or there is little doubt that she would have gone hear to lowering the golden cock at Thermopylae’s masthead. On her first voyage to Sydney in 1866-7, she went out in 75 days and came home in 78.

Lowther & Maxton only owned her for a few years, and from the first she loaded as one of Devitt & Moore’s monthly line of packets to Australia, the latter firm buying her outright about 1870.

On her maiden voyage, the Sobraon was commanded by Captain Kyle. In 1867 he was succeeded by Lieut. J. A. Elmslie, R.N.R., who had her for the rest of her active career, from 1867 to 1891, a period of 24 years.

Captain Elmslie commenced his career in 1842 and for several yeas traded out to India and China and later to Australia in the well=known London ships La Hogue and Parramatta. Prior to taking the Sobraon, he commanded the ill-fated Cospatrick, from 1863 to 1867, his brother, who was afterwards lost in her in 1873, succeeding his in command of that ship.

Captain Elmslie’s name was so closely and for so long associated with that of the Sobraon, that passengers were no doubt as much attracted by the one as by the other. In fact there were many instances in which they booked their passages solely on account of the name of the commander. While being a strict disciplinarian and respected by all who sailed under him, he was, at the same time, kindness itself and laid himself out on every occasion to study the interests of his passengers. The fact that the Sobraon never had anything approaching a serious loss of spars or sails may be safely put down to his never ceasing attention to the ship and the weather. He was always about, and his keen sense of watchfulness and duty readily imparted itself to his officers and crew.

Captain Elmslie was elected a Younger Brother of the Trinity House on the 1st of September, 1868,, and he would have been elected and Elder Brother many years before his death had he been eligible, but the fact of his never having served in steam barred his.

No greater proof of the popularity of the Sobraon and her captain can be given than the length of time both officers and men stayed in her. James Cameron, who was foreman shipwright at the building of the Sobraon, served as carpenter on her during the whole time that the ship was afloat-service 1866 - 1891.

James Farrance serviced 16 years as A.B. and boatswain. Thomas Routledge served 10 years as sail maker.

This length of service on the part of her petty officers is easily a record.

And amongst well-known seamen who learnt their craft in the Sobraon were:

Captain R. Hoare, apprentice to chief officer, 1872 - 1882 (a commander in the Orient Line and Elder Brother of Trinity House).

Captain F. Northey, apprentice to chief officer, 1867 - 1869 & 1874 - 1882 (afterwards commanded the John Rennie).

Captain A. E. Baker, apprentice to chief officer, 1887, (afterwards commander in the P. & O.)

Captain Elmslie also had his first and second sons with him. C. T. Elmslie, the eldest, as apprentice before going into the P. & O. and Captain A. G. Elmslie from apprentice to chief officer, 11 years from 1880 - 1891.

The Sobranon’s crew usually consisted of captain, 4 officers, 8 apprentices, carpenter, sail maker, boatswain, engineer, 2 boatswain’s mates, 26 A.B.’s, 4 O.S.’s, 2 boys, 16 stewards and 2 stewardesses - total all told equals 69.


Only one voyage was made in each year, the sailing date from London always being the latter end of September and from Australia early in February.

From her immense carry capacity, the cargo was invariably a good source of revenue. Owing to her regular sailing there was never any difficulty in getting a full hold, and this applied especially to the homeward run, when her cargo consisted chiefly of wool and wheat. It was, however, as a crack passenger ship to Australia that the Sobraon was most celebrated as she never formed one of the fleet which raced home to be in time for the February wool sales. Indeed, on the homeward run she usually touched at Capetown and always at St. Helena, these breaks in the passage being very popular with passengers.

At St. Helena the ship made a regular stay of about 3 days, and this visit was as much looked forward to by the inhabitants of the island as by the Sobraon’s passengers. As a rule about 100 tons of cargo, consisting of flour, corn, preserved meat, etc., were landed there and occasionally a few bullocks were taken there from Capetown. While the Sobraon lay at St. Helena, the passengers roamed the Island, climbed the 699 steps to the barracks, visited Longwood and Napoleon’s tomb and generally enjoyed themselves. Captain Elmslie also made a habit of giving a fancy dress ball on board befoe leaving, to which all the elite of the Island were asked.

Sobraon’s passenger accommodation was unequalled for a sailing ship. She only had a short poop, but her first class saloon reached from right aft to within 20 feet of the foremast, and was 200 feet in length. The second class saloon took up the remaining space in the ‘tween decks, with the exception of 20 feet in the eyes of the ship, which was bulkheaded off as a store room and sail locker.

The number of first class passengers on the outward trip averaged close on 90, with 40 in the second saloon. There were generally a few less coming home. Owing to the good accommodation and to the fact that the voyages were timed for the finest climatic conditions, there were always a fair number of invalids booked and a good many of them made the round voyage. And there were instances, also, of marvelous cures aboard the Sobraon.

In her early days she took many notable people out to Australia. Lord and Lady Belmore and their suite went out in her, the former to take up the Governorship of New South Wales. It was on this voyage that the Duke of Edinburgh was in Sydney while the Sobraon lay there; and it was at his request that she was made the flagship at the Sydney Regetta. Captain Elmslie had the honor of entertaining and being entertained by the Duke on several occasions, and on his return passage brought home numerous cases of curios collected by the Duke while in the East.

On the next voyage the Sobraon took out Mr. Ducane, the new Governor of Tasmania, and his suite.

Fresh food was obviously a necessity for the class of passenger carried, and the following live-stok wee carried on each passage - 3 bullocks, 90 sheep, 50 pigs, and ducks. Fresh water and plenty of it was always procurable - a large condenser running every alternate day; there was an ice chamber, also, in which several tons of ice were stored.

The Sobraon came through her 25 years’ active service with singlary little damage at the hands of the elements.

On making the African coast on the homeward run, she had the usual narrow shaves from being dismasted, which are experienced by all west-bound ships in that locality. The wind shfts from N.W. to S.W. in squalls accompanied by the most terrific thunder and lightning at this dreaded spot, and it is almost impossible for a close-hauled ship to avoid getting caught aback.

The most serious storm experienced by the Sobraon was in 1889, when running her easting down. She was a little to the noth of the Crozets, and it began to breeze up on a Sunday morning. The glass gave every indication o a real snorter, and by 4 p.m. had tumbled down to 27.75 By that time the Sobraon had been shortened down to foresail, lower fore topsail, upper foretopsail reefed, main lower topsail and fore topmast staysail. The shift from N.W. to S.W. came at 5 o’clock, ad he yards were hardly round before the foresail went and in a few moments there was nothing left for it. The sea was running in mountainous ridges, and with the foresail gone threatened every moment to poop her badly. It was too late to heave to and the ship was kept away before it. After four hours’ battling and over 30 men aloft a brand new foresail was bent and set reefed. This was hardly done before the fore upper topsail blew away. However, with the foresail reefed and two lower topsails the Sobraon fled efore the blast like a startled deer. The squalls every ew minutes were terrific and in spite of such short canvas the Sobrraon was making over 14 kns an hour.

The sea was all the time running higher and higher and breaking aboard in the most alarming fashion. During the ngt the greater portio of the bulwarks on the port side was carried away; a boat in davits, hanging 22 feet above the water, was filled by a sea and disappeared, the davits breaking short off - the main skylight over the saloon was washed away and tons of water found its way below before the oen space could be covered over. The amount of water in the saloon atthis time can be imagined when passengers were actuall being washed off their feet. On deck there were many narrow escapes of men being washe overboard, the broken bulwarks being a great source of danger. The mate and three of the men were washed from the main fiferail to the break of the poop, and, after being dashed up against the heavy boarding which had been put up to protect the fore end of the poop, managed to save themselves by the life-lines which hd been stretch across. The forward deck house which held the galley and engine room was almost demolished and everyting moveable in it was washed over the side.

The storm continued at its height from the Sunday afternoon until Wednesday morning. The passengers, who had been battened down for three days, were in a sorry plight owing to the quantities of water that had got below and the catering for them under such conditions proved very difficult. As is usually the case after such a storm, the wind subsided very much quicker than the sea, and for a few hours on the Wedneday night, the wind having dropped completely and the ship losing way, the rolling was terrific. Fortunately everything held aloft in spite of the great strain on the masts during hese few hours.

On two occasions the Sobaon had narrow escapes of getting ashore when making the channel in thick weather. One her first voyage, after several days without sights and when it was calculated that the ship was in the chops of the chnnel, several fishing boats were met, and, on asking his position, the captain found that he was heading up the Bristol channel. Several of the passengers availed themselves of the opportunity of going ashoe in the fishing boats, and, landing on the Devonshire coast, reached London several days before the ship.

On the homeward passage in 1888 it came on very thick after Land’s End had been sighted. The Sobraon stood on for some 24 hours and then suddenly the fog lifted ad disclosed the land inside Portland bill dead ahead and under a mile distant. The wind was easterly and light, and the Sobraon close-hauled on the starboad tck; however, she cam ound in time nd stood off, thus escaping destruction by the arrowest margin.

The Sobraon had to escapes from being burnt at sea. The first was on the outward passage in1884. A little water had been making in the vicinity of the main hatch and the carpenter went below one morning to try to discover where it was coming in. amongst the cargo in the square of the hatch and around it were several crates of bottles packed in straw. In climbin over these the carpenter dropped the light was carring and inside of a minute the straw was alight and flames darting out in every

direction. Luckily the ship carried a quantity of fire extinguishers, and with these the hoses from two oynos tgeee fire was got under control in aabout 20 minutes. Had there been the slightest delay the fire might have spread to the other cargo, and there being no means of getting at it nothing could have saved the ship.

The second instance occurred in the tropics when outward bound in 1888. A quantity of oil and some 90 tons of coal were down in the fore peak, which was only separated from the cargo in the the fore hold by a wooden bulkhead. By spontaneous combustion apparently the coal caught alight, and one morning smoke were at once started getting the coal up, but as the hatch was only 4 feeet by 3 feet this proved an extremely slow job. After 20 tons had been got on deck, the smoke had become so thick and the heat so intense that the hose had to be resorted to. However, this conquered the fire in about half an hour. Luckily the burning part of the coal had been well away from the bulkhead or the consequences must have been more serious.

There was only one person lost overboard off the Sobraon in her whole career, but this was a particularly distressing case. The following account of it was given to me by Captain A. G. Elmslie:

“In about latitude 35 degrees s. and longitude 5 degrees W., one Sunday evening early in November, 1883, we were bowling along at a good 13 knots with the wind on the starboard quarter and royals set, being outward bound to Australia. I was third mate and keeping the first watch. Four bells had just been struck when I noticed a lady passenger come up on the poop and walk aft, sitting down on the weather side of the wheel box and close to the man at the wheel. About five minutes later the quartermaster cried out: - ’My God! She’s overboard!’

“I rushed aft, and with the quartermaster tried to get hold of the girl, who was then hanging on to the lower rail outside, but before we could get her she let go and dropped into the water. Although only a few seconds had elapsed since the quartermaster had let the wheel go, the ship was up in the wind and nearly aback.

“After telling the midshipman to throw some life-buoys over and the fourth officer to het the boat ready, I sang out: “Man overboard! Let go your royal topgallant halliards!”

“Fortunately the men were handy and the yards came down before we were flat aback. By this time the captain and other officers and all hands were on deck. Owing to the pace the ship was still going through the water, together with the strong wind blowing, it was necessary to let the topsails come down also.

“With the coruses and lower topsails along set, she soon lost way sufficiently to allow the boat being lowered, which by that time had been manned. Only four minutes elapsed between the girl going over the side and the boat being in the water, but in this short space of time the ship had traveled a good half mile and quite far enough to make the search a most difficult one, especially seeing that the night was intensely dark and a heavy sea running. The search was kept up for some four hours and only abandoned then through the danger of keeping the boat in the water, for she was several times nearly swamped. Needless to say, on such a night, the possibilities being that the girl was drowned at once, no sign of her was seen. Two of the the life-buoys were afterwards picked up by another ship. The reason of the suicide, for such it undoubtedly was, remained a mystery. The girl had no relations with her and no one on board could throw any light on the matter.”

On another occasion the ship was going some 5 knots in the the tropics when an apprentice fell overboard during the forenoon watch. It was quite 20 minutes before the boart reached him, but he was found swimming along quite composed, having unlaced and taken his heavy boots off and slung them around his neck, as their weight was less felt there and he did not want to lose them.

Another of Sobraon’s apprentices was enven still more cool-headed. This one fell off the footrope of the main yard, being one of 30 hands aloft stowing the mainsail. Luckily her was well in to the quaarter of the yard and so fell on the deck. If he had gone overboard there would have been little chance of picking him up. The fall was one of 58 feet and he fell within 3 feet of the second mate. The latter naturally expected to find him dead, but he recovered consciousness within an hour, and was about again a month later quite recovered. He declared that as soon as he felt himself falling he made himself as rigid as possible, brought his head and legs together and protected the former with his arms; and he landed in that position on his side. He was a big fellow, being over 6 feet in height and weighing 14 stones.

Another marvelous escape from aloft was that of a man who was helping to stow the main upper topsail. This man suddenly lost his hold and cam down spread-eagle fashion. He dropped on to the main rigging and carried away 7 ratlins of 27 thread stuff, then landed on the rail without breaking a bone. This was in 1886, and the Sobraon was just making Plymouth. The man was taken to the hospital and recovered in a few days. As soon as he came out of the hospital, he claimed damages from the ship, declaring that a grummet on the jackstay had given way, but it was easily proved that nothing went and the man had simply lost his hold.

But all falls from aloft on the the Sobraon were not so fortunate as these two. A young ordinary seaman once fell from the mizen topgallant rigging with fatal consequences. The crossjack had just been hauled up and the mizen topgallan sail clewed up, and the hands were sent aloft to make the sails fast. This man, with three others, being first aloft, went up to stow the topgallant sail. Suddenly the men on the crossjack foot ropes heard an agonizing cry and a form whizzed past them, struck the spanker gaff and then fell on the deckhouse. The poor fellow broke his spine amongst other injuries and died almost immediately.

On still another occasion, when the sobraon was again coming into Plymouth, a man woking in the main futtock rigging ost his hold and fell on deck right in the midst of a crowd of passengers. There were close on to 100 people sanding about the time and it was extraordinary that he fell on no one; he just touched a lady on the shoulder and bruised her alittle but was of course horribly smashed up himself and killed instantly. The shock to the crowd of passengers standing around may have easily been imagined.

There were two curious cases of somnambulism amongst the passengers of the Sobraon. The first was a Church Of England clergyman and he was most methodical in his movements. He invariably appeared on deck about midnight and would first of all go up on the poop and peer into the compass; and then, after strolling the deck for a few minutes, would go below to the small saloon after where prayers were held by him on the voyage. Here he would go over the service to and imaginary congregation, after which he would return to his berth and turn in. In the early days of the voyage he was spoken to about his sleep walking, and, at his own request, was locked into his cabin one night. The result was that when he found that he could not get out for his sleep walking, he worked himself into a fury of rage and began smashing things in his cabin. At last the door had to be opened for fear that he would do himself some damage and after a great deal of coaxing he got back into bed. For some days after ths, however, e was in a pretty bad way and no further attempt was made to stop him walking in his sleep.

The second case was of a young an who generaly appeared on deck for about an hour each night. On one occasion the officer of the watch, thinking that he was too close to the side of the ship and fearing that he might get on the rail or fall overboard, touched him with a view to get him away. The somnmbulist at once grappled with the mate and only mastered after over a quarter of n hour’s desperate struggle. As on an ordinary occasion the mate in question could probably have accounted for three men of the somnambulist’s build and physique, the incident goes to prove that sleep walker, if interfered with, are possessed temporarily aof the a manman’s strength.

One her last trip the Sobraon arrived at Melbourne about mid-December, 1891, and after discharging took in sufficient ballast to take her round to Sydney. Here she was sold to the New South Wales Government, who turned her nto a reformatory ship, and for the next twenty years she lay moored in Sydney harbor. In 1911 she was handed over to the Federal Government to be converted into a training ship for boys entering the Australian Navy. On being put into dry dock for survey, it was found that, in spite of he age, she was as sound as a bell.

In Sobraon, Messrs. Devitt & Moore undoubtedly had possessed one of the finest passenger sailing ships every lunched. This firm, indeed, possessed a very keen eye whre ships were concerned.










































































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