Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Unstoppable Ethel Lees Shorthouse: Part 3 - The Voyage to Australia

On Thursday 15th May Ethel took a bus, then a train, crossing London to the Albert Dock, from where a small steamer took the passengers out into the Thames to board the SS Beltana. As can be seen from the photograph below she was not a glamorous vessel, but she was sturdy and serviceable enough for a tricky voyage to the Antipodes. She had been launched on 24th January 2012, so was relatively new. Her maiden voyage came just over six months later on 9th July, and it seems she had always been intended for the UK to Australia emigrant service. She was over 500 feet long and 62 feet wide, and was owned by P & O. After the outbreak of WW1 she became a troop transport, and in 1917 was requisitioned to ferry munitions and supplies across the Atlantic. By 1919 she had been superseded by larger and more economical ships, but nevertheless carried on serving a useful purpose until 1929. Having cost £179,365 to build in 1912, she was rather ignominiously sold for a mere £27,000 to a Japanese company, whose intention was to convert her for the whaling trade! However, and happily in a way, she was laid up and never used as such, finally being sold to another Japanese firm for demolition in 1933. But, in that May of twenty years earlier, she and Ethel were at the start of exciting adventures.

In her Journal, optimistically entitled “Items of my 1st voyages”, Ethel sadly neglects to provide us with many details of life on board the Beltana over the ensuing six weeks. It has only been within the last year that my sister Terri and I have discovered the name of the captain – W.G. Lingham.  Ethel tells us he conducted the morning act of worship on their first Sunday at sea, after an unexpectedly calm crossing of the notorious Bay of Biscay. More puzzling, however, is Ethel’s omission of the briefest description of her fellow passengers. Naturally there were other young women destined for domestic service in Australia. But an Australian genealogy site tells us there was also a large group of British youths who were heading out to Australian farms as labourers. I first thought that they may well have been part of what has more recently been revealed as a pernicious trade in disadvantaged or orphaned children carried on by Britain up to the 1960s. But an article in the parish magazine of the East Yorkshire community of Snaith, home of two of the lads in that group, reveals a more worthy purpose and destiny for them. How sad that Ethel could not give us some insight into their voyage together. History has recorded that:

They were part of a group of 35 Boy Scouts who sailed on the SS Beltana in June 1913, on the scheme supported by Lord Baden Powell, founder of the Boy Scout Movement. The boys had to be between the ages of 15-19 and would be apprenticed to farmers within South Australia. The Scouts were from various parts of the UK with three being from Yorkshire. They formed themselves into a troop while on board ship and named it after the ship, becoming the Beltana Troop.

On Wednesday 21st May the SS Beltana arrived at “Las Palmas situated in the Country of Spain” according to Ethel’s journal. In fact they had arrived in the Canary Isles, a province of Spain off the west coast of Morocco, which had been finally settled by the Spanish in the last quarter of the 15th century.

The port’s full name was Puerto de la Luz de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, at the time one of the busiest in the world. The above image shows it in 1910, as Ethel would doubtless have experienced it. The “many small boats around the Beltana” that sold goods to passengers are known as bumboats, a sometime feature of many ports around the world, but now most usually found in the Far East.

The voyage had so far been blessed with fine weather, but, as they sailed on down the African coast, the ship encountered its first storm at sea between May 24th and 26th. Ethel’s journal describes the effects this had on the passengers, many of whom were sleeping on deck. Perhaps this had been to lessen discomfort from the increasing heat as the ship approached the Equator, but Ethel does not reveal this, only to say that, on top of a drenching, they had to cope with the inevitable sea sickness. The seas calmed down, and in the afternoon of 4th June the Beltana docked in Cape Town.

South Africa probably posed the most significant cultural shock of Ethel's journey so far. In her Journal she reports that she found it "strange to see the many dark Natives about", which revealed, perhaps, her unconscious assumptions about the white British Empire. White Europeans had exerted their influence over the area since 1647, the British since 1814. And Ethel had arrived here in the same year the Natives Land Act was passed, limiting land ownership for blacks to black territories, a precursor to the apartheid system that operated for so long in South Africa. Above are views she would doubtless have seen from her electric car trip around the Lion's Head, a 2000 foot sugar-loaf peak, supposedly named after the last peninsula lion shot there. The second image shows the city and the bay, the panorama that had been described in the 16th century by Sir Francis Drake as:

          The most stately, the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth.

The YMCA hostel where they all took tea had been a feature of Cape Town since the 1860s. Below is an image from 1905 showing a typical street view of the Cape Town around which Ethel and the intrepid Boy Scouts would have strolled. The passengers returned to the Beltana around eight that evening, and set sail for the last stage of the voyage at 4 am on Thursday 5th June.

The Final three weeks of the voyage would take Ethel and the Boy Scouts round the Cape towards Durban, then on across the vast expanse of the Southern Indian Ocean towards Australia. It was winter in the southern hemisphere, and strong winds began to blow. As the season progressed, so Ethel's journey became first uncomfortable, then dangerous. Five days out of Cape Town she records fearful storms, merciless waves and even damaged steering gear on the ship. Were the Beltana Troop among the panic-stricken passengers she writes of, or had they taken to heart Baden Powell's philosophy and prepared themselves for all eventualities? The Snaith Parish magazine assures us that:

       Captain Lingham of the SS Beltana spoke highly of their conduct during the voyage. They                  were under the charge of Assistant Scout Master Howell and had provided a number of concerts         for other passengers.

If any of the Beltana's complement were recalling the horrifying disaster of the previous year when the Titanic went down in the North Atlantic with the loss of 1500 lives, Ethel was certainly not letting on in her Journal. The Titanic's Captain Smith was said to have delivered a last order to "Be British!", as the ship's bandsmen played 'Nearer, my God, to Thee'. But Beltana did not go down to meet the waves, which simply came on board and flooded some cabins. However, fate had one more shock three days later, significantly Friday 13th June, when the ship, according to Ethel, was nearly capsized and people almost flung from their berths. 

They survived, and six days later Ethel notes the Great Australian Bight to be "beautiful and calm". When Ethel eventually docked in Australia on the 23rd June, after 6 weeks at sea, her world had turned topsy-turvy. She had voyages around Africa and across a stormy Indian Ocean to find that an English summer had become an alien winter, having left "Home and Dear Ones far far behind, to commence Life in a Strange Land". And the Beltana Troop, younger and more vulnerable, bravely disembarked and was: 

           met by the Adelaide Boy Scouts where greetings by bugle were exchanged. These were the first            Boy Scouts introduced to the state.

as Ethel and her female companions made their way to Charles Street, Norwood, a suburb of the city of Adelaide, South Australia.

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