All At Sea

The following story, All At Sea, won the 2019 E. M. Fletcher Writing Award. I was honoured to subsequently meet Eunice Fletcher’s daughter, Robyn, who presented the Award at the 55th Anniversary Celebrations of the Heraldry & Genealogy Society of Canberra (HAGSOC).

When announcing the winners, Cora Num – one of the three judges – said;

‘Choosing the short list was very difficult given the calibre of entries. The creative and evocative stories covered a wide range of emotions and topics…

‘This story [All At Sea] is a great example of family history research that has gone beyond the collection of names, dates and places. You can sense the connection to the sea and landscape, and there is a real sense of place and family.’

Cora Num is a fellow of HAGSOC with over thirty years’ experience as a professional family history researcher and lecturer. Her website, CoraWeb, is internationally recognised as a leading resource for genealogists. www.coraweb.com.au

 

All At Sea

1866

There was an air of quiet anticipation inside the cottage facing out onto Cattleyard Bay – not because it was Christmas Eve, but because the boys were expected home from Montague Island.

They took two weeks’ supplies with them when they rowed out on Tuesday 11th December, calling back against the wind that they’d be home for Christmas.

There was a crew of five in the clinker-built whaleboat: brothers, David and George Kilgour; an ex-officer of the Shenandoah; a local man, William Shaw; and an American known as ‘Jonathan’. They were loaded up for an expedition to their recently commenced fishing and curing speculation on the island, some fifty miles from Eden.

Around 8 o’clock that evening, dense and heavy cloud descended on the Kilgour cottage in Twofold Bay. The air was stifling and uncomfortable. The sky became alive with shards of lightning, which gained strength and ferocity. Margaret and her daughter held on to each other, terrified their home would be split in two.

Ellen felt her mother begin to shake and knew of the fear she lived. She stroked her hair, ‘They’ll be okay’, she said soothingly. ‘The boys are far away from here by now.’

Margaret forced herself to stop shaking, straightened, and said, ‘Better here than where they are…’

They busied themselves closing window shutters, bolting the doors and stowing anything that might be destroyed if the wind picked up.

Ellen was sure Margaret’s mind would be conjuring images of her remaining boys struggling against the elements. Seven of her children had already gone… among them, two sons were lost to this very stretch of ocean and Jessie, her step-daughter, had drowned trying to escape a burning vessel further up the coast, which also claimed the life of Jessie’s husband.

Margaret’s eyes told Ellen everything she needed to know. They were dull with sadness, yet alert with imaginings.

Ellen touched her mother’s arm and said gently, ‘If the wind does pick-up, they’ll drop the sail’.

‘The sail…?’ Margaret’s voice trailed off, as though she was trying to make sense of Ellen’s words.

‘Yes, they’ll have hoisted the sail once they were out of the bay… to carry them along the coast.’

Margaret nodded, and silently returned to settling the house for the long night ahead.

Kilgour Cottage in Cattle Bay – photograph believed to have been taken late 1890s

National Library Of Australia – https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-148637935

 

When ice crashed from the sky in the early hours of the morning, Ellen slipped into bed beside her mother. With just two of them in the house, Ellen saw it as her responsibility to protect Margaret. Since her father, Alexander, died of severe bronchitis four years earlier, she and eighteen-year-old George were the only ones living with their mother. Now in his thirties, David lived up the hill, older sister Margaret had married an American in 1860 and left for the goldfields and step-son John had long-since lived with another family.

The two women huddled together and covered their ears to dull the noise of the hail and sharp cracks of thunder that accompanied the dancing spikes of lightning.

The noise subsided around three-thirty in the morning, making way to total darkness followed by a still dawn, allowing space for Margaret and Ellen to fall into exhausted oblivion for a few hours.

Ellen woke first and left the cottage to examine the aftermath. Trees and gardens had been slashed to pieces by huge hailstones of different sizes and shapes. It seemed nobody had ever seen such an act of nature, so violent that everything appeared to be stripped bare.

Ellen asked questions of everyone she saw to try to find out if David and George would have been safe.

‘It started in the south-east’, some people said.

‘…and came through to the north-west’, another said.

She contemplated those two areas in relation to where the boys would have been. When she looked up, one of the fishermen was watching her closely.

‘They should be safe’, he said, having read her mind. ‘The storm was quite localised, and they’d have been further north of it by the time it hit.’

Ellen rushed home to tell Margaret the good news. They both knew the dangers of the sea too well, but they’d also been around mariners, whalers and fishermen all their lives… and had learnt to trust their interpretations of the weather.

The boys would be home for Christmas, and that’s all there was to think about…

***

The clean up after the ice storm kept Margaret and Ellen busy over the following days. There were things to sort inside the cottage and in the yard. The garden had been flattened and needed attention before new seeds could be sown.

Ellen cared for the children of a woman who lived nearby while she was in labour and nursing the newborn. In return she received a few plants that had survived the onslaught of the hailstorm because they were in a sheltered position.

The routine of village life soon took up its usual pattern. Days passed without incident, and with the focus on Christmas and the return of the boys… who, they were sure, would return triumphant from their growing venture.

Finally, the twenty-fourth of the month dawned. The house was clean and decorated with paper angels, stars and bells. Home-made presents were wrapped and stacked in the middle of the table, with candles ready to be lit. Prepared food filled the meat-safe.

Margaret donned her best black dress – the one she’d worn for special occasions ever since Alexander had gone to heaven. Her best mourning dress, the one she didn’t want to stop wearing because it would feel like she’d stopped missing him… and she hadn’t. She didn’t believe in half-mourning dresses like others wore once they’d been bereaved for two years. She would mourn her Alexander until the day she joined him in the afterlife.

Today was a special day – her boys would be home from the Island – and she would wear the most special dress… the one with fitted waistline, lace frills around the high neck and around the wrists, buttons down the bodice and frills on the bottom half of the full skirt. She would put her hair up with a braid of black ribbon.

Ellen wore her favourite dress too, to welcome her brothers and to celebrate the Holy day. Her floor-length gown was dark navy, trimmed down the front to the fitted waist with cream satin drawn together with a lace like a shoe and topped with a stand-up collar edged with pearls. She parted her hair in the middle above her forehead and swept it around and up onto the top of her head. Not a hair out of place, like her mother.

Everything was ready. The waiting would have to be acknowledged. The passage of time slowed with rising anticipation.

Ellen watched her mother walk to the door to look across the bay. The time-gap between these excursions was closing a little more each time. She knew her mother would be relieved with the first sight of the boat bobbing on the waves and the shouts of their approach. The set of her mouth and tightening of her cheeks always betrayed her anxiety when kith or kin were on the water.

As the afternoon wore on, Margaret’s quiet anxiety turned to light pleading. ‘Look out for me, Ellen’, she said. ‘Your eyes are younger than mine.’

The sky began to turn rough with an angry red sun, and distant rolling thunder. The waves were frothing white. Light pleading became more urgent. ‘Look out again, before night sets in. Is there going to be a storm?’

Ellen pushed back her own fears and pacified her mother. She set a fire in readiness for wet fishermen home from the sea and tried to convince her mother… and herself… that the boys would shelter in a cove and continue on in the morning when the storm cleared.

She had answers ready for Margaret’s desperate pleas; explaining that it wasn’t the flapping of the sails they could hear, but the woodbine rattling on the porch. Neither was the light she saw flickering between waves, really there.

The storm got wilder, the night darker and the anxiety explosive. Mother and daughter watched, prayed and bargained with God all night… to no avail.

David and George didn’t arrive home for Christmas.

***

The sea calmed, Kilgour Cottage was still with disbelief and grief. Even though Margaret and Ellen had feared the worst, they couldn’t take in that it had happened.

The village was on high alert, trying to fathom the loss of five experienced and adept fishermen. Five young men were gone from their surrounds all at once. Devastation and sadness were everywhere.

Anxious enquiries revealed that a Mr Day, gardener and resident of North Head area, had found the thwart of a boat near Aslings Beach within two days of the hailstorm of 11th-12th December. The thwart had the name ‘Ellen’ scratched into it.

Three days after the men had been expected, a search party including the sub-inspector of police went to Lennard’s Island, some seven miles from Twofold Bay, and recovered the gunwale and other parts of a whaleboat which corresponded exactly with the paint and general description of the boat owned by the Kilgour brothers. Local whalers who were familiar with the Kilgours and their boat positively identified it as theirs.

The sub-inspector of police confirmed the sad news that Margaret and Ellen already knew in their hearts. All five men aboard the whaleboat had perished.

Ellen handed her mother a handkerchief and put her arm around her.

Margaret blew her nose, and whispered, ‘That wild night on Christmas Eve – I knew they’d be on their way home for Christmas…’

The police officer explained that the boys hadn’t made it to Montague Island. ‘Wreckage from their boat was found at Aslings Beach two or three days after they set sail’, he said, watching for their response.

‘The hailstorm? No, it couldn’t be… They were that close all the time?’ Ellen asked.

‘Afraid so, Miss. It seems they only travelled about a quarter of their intended journey… not far after Lennard’s Island, we think…’

Route from Cattleyard Bay to Montague Island:

  1. Cattleyard Bay (later Cattle Bay, part of Twofold Bay)
  2. Aslings Beach – Thwart with ‘Ellen’ scratched into it found here
  3. Lennard’s Island – Gunwale and other boat debris found here (7 miles from Eden)
  4. To Montague Island – (50 miles from Eden)

Margaret, who had been listening intently, said, ‘Better that they’re closer to home, and in the same waters where their brothers went down. They’re together now… and will be with their father and brothers and sisters in that glorious place beyond.’

‘Just you and me now, Mother’, Ellen managed between her gasps to hold down her grief.

‘Yes, and the officer’, Margaret said in a clear voice. ‘Cup of tea, Officer?’

c.  Kathryn Coughran 2019

 

 

INCLUSIONS:

Photograph:

Kilgour Cottage in Cattle Bay – photograph believed to have been taken late 1890s

National Library Of Australia – https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-148637935

Map:

Route from Cattleyard Bay to Montague Island:

  1. Cattleyard Bay (later Cattle Bay, part of Twofold Bay)
  2. Aslings Beach – Thwart with ‘Ellen’ scratched into it found here
  3. Lennard’s Island – Gunwale and other boat debris found here (7 miles from Eden)
  4. To Montague Island – (50 miles from Eden)

 

RESOURCES:

 Newspaper Articles sourced from Trove:

Eden, Twofold Bay, Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 17th December 1866

Twofold Bay, Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 3rd January 1867 (Written 27th Dec 1866)

A Boat’s Crew Lost, The Argus Melbourne, Tuesday 8th Jan 1867 (Written 27th Dec 1866)

Poem:

Christmas Day, Printed by Propeller N/paper, Eden. (Unclear if published) Author Unknown

Google Maps page showing:

Twofold Bay area and north towards Montague Island