edited by Nils Foege


The Log Book of the James Baines 1857

The diary of Alfred Withers of the voyage of the James Baines to Australia in early 1857 provides detailed insights into the everyday life on board. It was pretty common for literate passengers to write diaries of their voyages to Australia. This was an once-in-a-lifetime experience and an important event as the vast majority of passengers were making the voyage to Australia as emigrants (MUESUMS VICOTRIA, 1850s–1870, Recording the Journey). What makes the diary of Alfred Withers especially interesting and outstanding in its own way is first of all the fact that Alfred Withers of all things was no emigrant – he and his wife Margaret (which he refers to as “Madge” in the diary) were making the voyage to Australia for their honeymoon, along with a friend of Madge, Miss Lockyer. At least, this is asserted in the preface of the transcript of the diary, that is provided by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, where the diary is preserved. This is by no means indicated in the diary itself, but considering the fact that the aforesaid transcript has been provided by a descendant of Alfred and Margaret Withers, one must consider this claim likely to be true. The second feature, that makes the diary of Alfred Withers stand out, is the fact that he illustrated it with numerous sketches that depict various scenes and events on board of the James Baines during the voyage to Australia. Near the end of his account, Alfred Withers expressed his intentions with these illustrations:

‘I want to make a sketch in this Book of Cape Otway

/ if we pass it in day time, / the Heads, and

surrounding scenery sight up to Melbourne, so that

the sketches may be pretty well connected throughout

the Voyage and enable the reader if there should be

any with sufficient perseverance to go through a dreary

Log Book to form a pretty fair idea of the whole

Voyage from the time upon saw us on the Wharf at

Liverpool to the Landing at Melbourne.’

                                                                              – Thursday, March 19th (p. 106)

This website aims to make Alfred Withers’ intentions come true on a wider stage than he ever could imagine. In the following, the voyage of the Withers to Australia will be reconstructed on the basis of the diary and especially its illustrations. Actually, emigrant diaries were not uncommonly written with the underlying motive of sharing it with a certain public – among other reasons like homesickness or also just for the sake of killing time. Of course, this public was usually to be meant family and friends, but nevertheless diaries and journals of 19th century voyages often share similar themes and tropes (cf. STATE LIBRARY NEW SOUTH WALES, Journals). Even though he had not been emigrating to Australia, the diary of Alfred Withers is as characteristically for these kinds of diaries as it is extraordinary. He describes typical forms of entertainment and passing time that can also be found in many other accounts (cf. STATE LIBRARY NEW SOUTH WALES, Life on Board.) 

‘The voyage to Australia included common experiences and events. Diaries were often begun in one of the UK’s large emigration depots where emigrants were inspected by the ship’s Surgeon Superintendent and organised into their messes for the voyage. Once on board, emigrants describe seasickness, whether their own or their fellow passengers. As the voyage progressed, passengers record sighting islands, phosphorus water, the heat, crossing the equator, being stuck in the doldrums and, as they head south, freezing weather and icebergs, sharks, flying fish, and birds. Emigrants recount concerts, dancing, religious services, shipboard newspapers, but most often they write about food.’


Tamson Pietsch argued in a recent article that diaries also served as an attempt to assert a sense control as the passengers were confronted with an erosion of timely and bodily certainties at sea: ‘writing a journal was a way to contain a voyage, to attempt to control it, and to give it meaning” (PIETSCH 2016, p. 213). This is also true for Alfred Withers. His recording of latitude and longitude as well as a brief account on weather and winds in the beginning of every entry are typical in this regard (cf. PIETSCH 2016, p. 215). He appears also to have been very concerned with the progress of the ship: he noted the distance run since his last entry, tried to calculate the remaining duration of the voyage and frequently expressed his discontent when the ship ran into a calm. Nonetheless, keeping a diary of their voyage was not least a favourite pastime for Alfred Withers as the following passage shows, despite the difficulties of writing and drawing on board of a ship:

‘this precious log takes up so much of my

time that you wont be surprised to hear a remark

Madge made that “she hadn’t seen much of me

for some time” fancy this, on Board ship too!

where everybody sees too much of everything and tired

with each other and everything else, the writing

is nothing to do but the illustrations altho’

nothing to look at, takes me through not being

accustomed to it a long time to do, the motion

of the ship again is decidedly not in favor of the

fine arts, and turns what should be straight

lines into Hogarths lines of Beauty, the Pencils

& Brushes also I have perpetually to dodge

all over the table …’

                                                                              – Sunday, January 25th (p. 33)

Even though the diary of Alfred Withers offers colourful and often amusing insights into the daily life on board of the James Baines, one has to bear in mind that the Withers in the end were cabin class passengers who enjoyed a much more comfortable voyage than the regular passengers in the intermediate class who had much less time – if they were able to write and read in the first place – to keep a diary of their voyage (cf. STATE LIBRARY NEW SOUTH WALES, Life on Board). As the vast majority of the preserved diaries and journals were written by cabin class passengers, there is much less information on the experiences of working-class passengers during a voyage to Australia (cf. (MUESUMS VICOTRIA, 1850s–1870, Recording the Journey). This is also true for the diary of Alfred Withers, the conditions of intermediate passengers on board of the James Baines are rarely mentioned, the focus is clearly on the day-to-day routines and amusements among the cabin class passengers, next to the progress and events of the voyage of course. So, in the end, however entertaining and informative the account of Alfred Withers of the voyage of the James Baines to Australia in 1857 might be, it is written form a privileged perspective and is by no means representative for the circumstances of an average emigrant in the 19th century. 

The James Baines

The James Baines was a clipper ship build by the famous ship builder Donald McKay for the Black Ball Line of James Baines & Co. The company owned some of the finest sailing ships of this era. The James Baines was laid down on the 25th July 1854, but unfortunately caught fire in the docks of Liverpool on the 22nd April 1854 and burnt down to the water’s edge. The remains were rebuilt into a coal barge (cf. BRUZELIUS INFO, James Baines). The voyage of the James Baines to Australia in 1857 including the way back was also her last. Although the ship has been destroyed, there are several photographs and illustrations of it. Alfred Withers too depicted the ship in his diary, which can be seen alongside, next to a lengthy description of the ship, which is given below:

‘This Magnificent Ship which carries the Name

of the Company was built by the famous Mr McKay

She is 266 feet between the perpendiculars on deck, has

44 ¾ feet extreme, Width of Beam, 29 feet depth

of hold, with 3 decks a poop, two Houses and a

Top Gallant Fore Castle and registers 2525 Tons, she

has a long rakish sharp bow with slightly concave

lines below, but convex above, and it is ornamented with

a Bust of her Name sake which was carved in L’pool

and is said to be an excellent likeness of the original

It is relieved with gold carved work forming a neat

and appropriate ornament to the bow. Her Stern which

is rounded is ornamented with carved representations of

“the great Globe itself”, between the Arms of Britain and

the United States and surrounded with fancy scroll work

her name is tastefully gilded & painted on the Stern.

Her Bulwarks are solid rising about 6 feet above the deck.

Her Top Gallant fore castle extends to the foremast and is

filled for the accommodation of the Crew, behind the foremast

is a large House which contains the Galleys, Lower

state Rooms and Ice House. Her full poop deck is

between 7 & 8 feet high and contains within it the Ladies

Cabin, the Dining and other Apartments, the outline of the

Poop is protected by Rails on turned Stanchions, and the

enclosure forms a spacious and beautiful promenade, she

has a small House aft which shelters the Helmsmen and

contains a Room which servers for smoking and other purposes.

The Ladies Cabin is aft & measures 30 feet by 13 and

6 ½ high, it is pure white with gilt & carved work on the

Panels, and Papier Maché cornices, furnished with sofas,

Piano & Mirrors also a small but well selected Library

The Captains Cabin & Sleeping Room together with 11 spacious

Staterooms and a Bath Room open out of the Ladies

Saloon. The Dining Saloon is 35 feet long 15 wide

Walls are Mahagony and enamelled White Panels and

Pilasters ornamented with Flowers and richly gilded, two

of the after panels on each side are Mirrors and a large

Square Mirror ornaments the back portion. The alternate

panels along the sides are stained Glass Windows variegated

with  National emblems etc. The furniture of the Rooms is of

the most costly kind finished in the highest style of Art

In front of the Saloon are the State Rooms of the first and

second officers Windows of which are of beautifully stained

glass, a Staircase in the after part of the saloon leads

to the Gentlemens Sleeping apartment which commits of

24 staterooms with 2 baths in each and extend alongside

leaving a spacious Cabin outside. The second and

intermediate Cabins extend forward from the Gentlemens

Sleeping Apartments and are neatly and comfortably

filled, with abundance of light & Ventilation.

She is heavily sparred and will spread in one single

suit of Sails 15000 Yards of Canvas, the following

lengths of the Masts are calculated above deck

Fore Mast —     147 feet

Main Mast          180 feet

Mizzen —           144 feet


Fore Yard 95 feet, Top 74, Top Gallant 53, Royal 39

Main 107, Top 80, Top Gallant 58, Royal 42, Sky 32

Crossjack 78, Miz Top 63, Top Gallant 45, Royal 30’

                                                                              – Saturday, March 14th (p. 97–99)

The data and to some extent even the wording coincide with an account of the ship in the “The Boston Daily Atlas” (Vol. XII, No. 53, Friday, September 1st, 1854). It is likely that this account was on hand to Alfred Withers as he wrote this lines, at least he must have knew about it or a similar account (cf. BRUZELIUS INFO, BDA 1854-09-01). Some information on the ship was also added in the original diary by another hand quite some time later as it refers to the book “In the Days of the Tall Ship” by R.A. Fletcher, which was originally published in 1930.

Reconstructing the Voyage

The voyage of the James Baines to Australia in early 1857 can be reconstructed not only by the entries in the diary of Alfred Withers, as most of them begin with the current position of the ship in latitude and longitude, he also provided a map in which he traced the route the ship had taken. It was produced relatively late during the voyage, on the 10th March, as the following entry reveals, but was drawn on two free sites in the beginning of the diary, so it is likely that Alfred Withers had planned to draw such a map long beforehand:

‘have been amusing myself today in drawing the

Map at the beginning of the Book, the Ships course

can be traced from the time she left Liverpool, it was

a foul Wind that made that elbow in our course South

West, of the Irish Coast, the Gale we experienced continued

from that point down to the Portuguese Coast when we

shortly after got into the North East Trades, and then

the South East which lasted with us too long and

carried the Ship to 41 Latitude before we got the

Westerly Wind, from that point it will be seen our

course up to the present time has nearly been a

straight one, after passing the Cape we go a little

South to get stronger Winds we then pass Prince

Edwards Islands and Kerguelans Land, drawings of

which you have already seen, by Saturday expect

to be about of Cape Lewin and when we are

off the Australian Coast we consider the Voyage

ended …’

                                                                              – Tuesday, March 10th (p. 93)

Although the map is obviously not drawn flawlessly and true to scale, it still together with the account quoted above gives a good idea of the course the James Baines took on her way to Australia in 1857. The map will therefore be used in the following chapters as a starting point for the different chapters of the voyage. The division of the material of the diary into these chapters however was specifically made for this website, the original diary has no such structure. The following six chapters cover different episodes of the diary in chronological order. Each chapter is shaped by a distinct part of the voyage as well as specific topics that are present in the diary for this episode. Naturally, this structure is by no means absolute, there are obviously topics that are coming up time and time again in the diary. In these cases, the respective passages were gathered and put into a chapter where the topic is especially present. For each chapter, a cut-out part of the map provided by Alfred Withers will serve as an orientation for the position of the James Baines in time and place during this episode of the voyage.

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