February 26th - March 4th

South of the Cape of Good Hope, the weather was getting very cold and uncomfortable for the passengers ‘especially Ladies, no Walking the Deck for them and few Gentlemen like to trust their Noses out of the Warm Saloon’ (p. 78). Additionally, rain and thick fog would prevail for most of the time, the days ‘almost as dark as the Night’ (p. 78), making it difficult to define the exact position of the ship. The cold had its impact on the mood and health of the passengers on board, Madge for example was even suffering from chilblains (p. 88). Eventually, there was a stove put into the saloon on the 26th February (p. 72), but if one is to believe the accounts of Alfred Withers, this made the situation on board rather worse than better. He believed that it was primarily the stove that was causing everybody having a cold as he sure ‘that a smoky atmosphere produces Cold sooner than everything else’ (p. 100). The truth of this opinion remains to be debated, but sure enough the stove was producing smoke all the time, ‘except when the Skylights are open and then it is more pleasant and less likely to give one Cold, to go on Deck’ (p. 88). Later on during the voyage through the South Arctic latitudes, even Alfred Withers himself got a cold, much to his displease:

‘Its an old saying of mine and on that Madge has

lately teazed me about, “that Nobody get Colds at Sea”

now I myself have got one of the Worst Colds I ever had

in my Life. I attribute it all to that precious Stove’

                                                                              – Monday, March 16th (p. 100)

As the course of the ship would not be considerably altered until just before closing in onto Melbourne, the suffering from the cold temperatures would prevail and Alfred Withers as well as all the other passengers were craving to finally get into warmer weather ‘and then good bye to the Stove’ (p 100).

Death at Sea

The 26th February was a grim day for the passengers of the James Baines as Alfred Withers was

‘… sorry to have to record a Death the first on

Board, a little Boy fell against one of the Spars on Deck and

injured his Head, he also had an attack of Bronchitis, the

two combined caused his death, he was buried in the usual

way this afternoon, the Captain reading the funeral service’

                                                                              – Thursday, February 26th (p. 72)

A sketch of the funeral can be seen above. As sad as the incident had been, it was rather unusual that there were so few deaths on board during the voyage of the James Baines, as death at sea in the 19th century was very common. Most notably children were at risk of dying at sea considering the deprivations which especially the intermediate passengers had to endure on a ship like the James Baines as well as the constant possibility of diseases breaking out on board. On average, one in five children and one in 60 adults died before arriving in Australia (cf. (MUESUMS VICOTRIA, 1850s–1870, Life at Sea). 

For a ship with 500 passengers like the James Baines, where the death toll usually reached double figures (cf. PIETSCH 2016, p. 225), only one death – or only one death that Alfred Withers reports of – is a remarkably low number. A funeral as depicted in the account of Alfred Withers was standard at sea, with the body either placed in a coffin or a piece of canvas which was then weighed down with iron or lead to make sure it would sink and not float on the water for an inappropriate amount of time (cf. MUESUMS VICOTRIA, 1850s–1870, Life at Sea).

‘The death toll among passengers squeezed into cramped and uncomfortable steerage berths on clipper ships was often very high. On one of the voyages of the Marco Polo, captained by the infamous ‚Bully‘ Forbes, 53 passengers died. All but two were children. In contrast, the loss of only seven passengers on a voyage of the Champion of the Seas was considered as commendable.’

 (from: MUESUMS VICOTRIA, 1850s–1870, Life at Sea)

Great Circle Line and Risk of Shipwreck

One might wonder why the James Baines was sailing so far south, exposing its passengers to the harsh weather and freezing temperatures of the South Arctic latitudes. Alfred Withers himself provides an answer for this question in his diary:

‘Our Course is nearly the Great Circle Sailing Track

which is nearer by some Hundred Miles, this does not

apply to all parts of the World, it is only at the poles

where the Earth is flatter consequently it is nearer

to go South when the earth is flatter than to follow

round the latitude of Australia, this would not

be understood looking at a Globe because they are

always made round and not flattened at the Poles

as the earth is …’

                                                                              – Saturday, February 28th (p. 75)

The Great Circle Sailing Track, that was indeed the nearest way to Australia as it also made use of the strong winds that were blowing between the 40th and 50th latitude, was introduced in the 1850s as a reaction to the Victorian gold rush in 1851 and a quickly increasing demand for a fast passage (cf. MUESUMS VICOTRIA, 1850s–1870, Sailing Routes). So the route the James Baines was taking in 1857 was a relatively new one. However, freezing temperatures and thick weather were not the only drawbacks of the Great Circle Sailing Track. ‘One evil of this route is the Ice’, Alfred Withers rightfully noted in his diary (p. 75). Combined with the restrictions on navigation in thick weather, drifting icebergs were an enormous risk for ships taking the Great Circle Sailing Track, shipwreck was an omnipresent threat (cf. MUESUMS VICOTRIA, 1850s–1870, Sailing Routes). In case of shipwreck there was little hope for rescue. Ironically, with the introduction of the Great Circle Sailing Track, passengers in the 1850s face a higher chance of dying at sea than the convicts that were brought to Australia in the earlier years (cf. MUESUMS VICOTRIA, 1850s–1870, Life at Sea).

‘During the 19th century, emigrant ships travelling to Australia sailed into the Bay of Biscay (off the coast of France) before heading south to the equator. Stopping for supplies either at Cape Town or Rio de Janeiro, sailing ships could often spend weeks in the doldrums waiting for wind. Great Circle sailing took ships south into the Roaring Forties, where travellers faced freezing conditions and the risk of icebergs, before heading back up towards the Australian coast. With the advent of steam-powered ships and the opening of the Suez Canal, the time to reach Australia decreased significantly.’


Concerns about the possibility of shipwreck are also evident in the diary of Alfred Withers. On the 27th February, the ship was nearing a group of small Islands called Prince Edward and Marion while the weather was so thick that the captain had a hard time navigating. Alfred Withers put his concerns and the precautions taken by the captain as follows:

 ‘… if we were to get ashore there, we should never

get off, for altho’ ships go near them on their voyage

to Australia, they don’t go sufficiently near to see any

unfortunate Vessel which may have been wrecked on

them, this Evening the Ships course was altered to head

more to the Eastward, I suppose to make sure of clearing

the Islands, extra lookouts all over the ship, one

man placed forward on the Jib boom …’

                                                                              – Friday, February 27th (p. 73)

Fortunately for the ship, the calculation made by the captain proved well enough, so that the James Baines passed the islands safely during the early morning of the following day (p. 74). But even then, the thread of colliding with an iceberg was still present:

‘… with this thick Weather

we could not see an Iceberg 100yds off, consequently

if there should be one in the Way we should go slap

into it before the Ship could be brought up, and go to

the bottom like a stone in an instant …’

                                                                              – Saturday, February 28th (p. 74)

Eventually, ice would not become an issue during the remainder of the voyage. There would also have been techniques to notice icebergs in beforehand: In clear nights, ice could be seen from a long way due to the reflection of the moonlight, and the thermometer would fall rapidly when the ship was near larger ice masses, warning the crew of its presence (p. 74).


Making a successful run along the Great Circle Sailing Track required exceptional navigational skills by the captain, which needed experience and the aid of several navigational tools (cf. MUESUMS VICOTRIA, 1850s–1870, Navigating the Journey). Unfortunately, not much is said about navigation in the diary of Alfred Withers. The only part that is really referred to is that of “taking the sun”, which is also the title of a sketch that Alfred Withers provided on page 75 that can be seen below. By taking the sun ­– or the moon and the stars at night – the captain would determine the current position. This was done with the help of a sextant, which can also be seen in the illustration, a navigational instrument that would be used to take the latitude readings by measuring the angle and altitude of the sun or respectively the moon and the stars. The position of longitude was calculated by the means of a chronometer which made it possible to observe the position of certain stars at specific times and compare it with the nautical data (cf. MUESUMS VICOTRIA, 1850s–1870, Navigating the Journey). On board of the James Baines, the calculated position of the ship was published by ‘tacking a piece of paper to the panel of one of the Hatchways’ (p. 81) for all passengers to see. This way, the passengers were informed about the progress of the voyage, which caused much excitement when the ship had made a good run and also enabled Alfred Withers to note the current latitude and longitude above almost every entry in his diary, except the days where no observation was possible due to thick weather (p. 81). He also provided a sketch of the information about the daily observation being studied by some of the intermediate passengers, which can be seen below.

Further vital instruments included a telescope to examine sightings of land or passing ships, a compass to check if the ship was going in the right direction, and so called ship’s log, which was an object that was dragged behind the ship to measure its speed. This would be measured based on the movement of the propeller of the log, which made a small needle record the travelled distance and speed of the ship (cf. MUESUMS VICOTRIA, 1850s–1870, Navigating the Journey). The reading of the log has been drawn by Alfred Withers as well earlier in the diary, on page 55. It can be seen below:

Formal Dinner

On the 27th February, the cabin class passengers gave the captain a great dinner in the saloon, although Alfred Withers remarked, ‘if one can call it giving him a Dinner, for it is one regular dinner with a bottle or two of wine in addition’ (p. 73). The passengers actually returned with this dinner a favour, as the captain had invited them for a dinner himself earlier on during the voyage on the 29th January (p. 37). That one had ‘turned out to be a very stiff formal affair’ (p. 37), as it was more of an advertisement for the captain, which was intended (p. 37). The dinner given by the passengers on the 27th February however turned was of an similar intention, but seems to have been much less formal and exceptionally boozy, as even two days later, many had not yet recovered from it, ‘they are still perpetually breaking out into Champagne and Bitter ale’ (p. 78).

The Song of the Clipper, Vol. 1

Alfred Withers has made it clear in his diary that he did not like most of the musical entertainment on board, especially regarding the songs sung at the weekly concerts. This one song composed and sung by chief officer O’Donnell at the great dinner party on the 27th February however seems to have delighted him so much, that he felt obliged to write it down in his diary. “The Song of the Clipper”, as it was called, reflects on the daily life of the cabin class passengers on board of the James Baines and brings up a lot of the themes that are also very present in the diary of Alfred Withers, which might be the reason why he liked it so much. The text of the song written down on the pages 76 and 77 is given below:

                The Song of the Clipper, Vol. 1

[Air], /the very identical flute/

You’ve heard of the Vessels that carry the Mail,

On the fifth of each Month from the Mersey they sail,

No Vessels afloat up to this present time,

Even bore such a Name as the “Great Black Ball Line”,

But one will I sing, which is well known to all,

She is called the “James Baines” and she flies the Black Ball,

And if you sail in her, you’ll find out quite soon

The Comfort we have in the Baines’ Saloon ­­–

Chorus: Saloon, Saloon, the Comfort we have etc. etc.


There is nothing aflout can surpass our fine Craft

For Comfort and Peace, reigns both for’ard and aft

In rough and Wet Weather there’s no one complains,

On Board our fine Vessel the Clipper “James Baines”

We’ve all sorts of Amusements to pass away time

There is no one regrets or has cause to repine

And those who sail in her will see very soon

The fun that we have in the Baines’ Saloon

_________________________ Chorus etc. etc.


Each day after Dinner all try their exploits

And the favorite game is the throwing the Quoits

While some play Backgammon and other play Chess

No troubles or cares now one spirits depress.

And our Captain, good fellow does all that he can

To please every Passenger, Woman & Man

As all bound to Melbourne, will find out right soon

If they’ll just take a trip in the Baines’ Saloon

_________________________ Chorus etc. etc.


On each Monday Evening we’ve a Concert at eight

We’ve assizes on Wednesdays’ or else a debate.

Each Night in the Week for some fun’s set apart,

When every one joins with a good Willing heart,

Our Ladies dear Creatures try each one to please

Which makes time pass short, while we’re crossing the Seas,

So that all who Sail in her must deem it a Boon

To partake of the fun the Baines’ Saloon

_________________________ Chorus etc. etc.


There’s one thing quite certain, no rumour I quote

We’re in one of the best Merchant Ships’ now afloat,

And while mirth & jollity amongst us remains,

We’ll drink to those owning the Gallant “James Baines”

For their spirit and enterprise no one forgets

As on their fine Clippers the Sun never sets

By daylight, by dark, or by light of the Moon

Good fellowships reigns thro’ the Baines’ Saloon

_________________________ Chorus etc. etc. etc.


So now to conclude may she carry the Palm

Each Voyage that she sails from our dear Father Land

May each Wind that blows be a favoring breeze

To waft this fine vessel across the rough seas,

And may other Commanders have no cause to brag

That they have ta’en from our Captn the Commodore’s flag

United together let us join in the tune

And sing to the Praise of the Baines’ Saloon

Chorus: United together let us join in the tune

And sing to the Praise of the Baines’ Saloon

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