New book details Co Antrim man's epic journey to Australia

A Co Antrim man's experiences and observations during a non-stop sea voyage from England to Australia in the late 1800s have become the subject of a new book.

Monday, 6th August 2018, 8:45 am
Updated Sunday, 2nd September 2018, 2:53 am
Retired university professor Brian Jennings with a copy of 'London to Australia By Clipper 1886 - 87' and the diary of his great-great-uncle John Ferguson, which he edited to create the book.

John Ferguson, from Ballylinney near Ballyclare, kept a detailed diary during his three-month adventure on board the sailing ship ‘Windsor Castle’ as it travelled from London to Sydney.

More than a century after his death, his diary was discovered in a box in an attic in Craigavon and has now been turned into a book by his great-great nephew, retired university professor Brian Jennings.

Mr Jennings explained how he was having a clear out last autumn when he found a box of belongings that he’d removed from his late mother’s home in Holywood.

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A picture of John Ferguson taken in Sydney in October 1893.

“A lot of it was just rubbish so I nearly missed it, but I delved right down into the box and the diary was just lying in the bottom of the cardboard box,” he said.

“When I opened it I did vaguely remember when I was a child my mother showing me some diary. When I saw it it brought back a memory from well over 50 years ago.

“I sat and read it for a while and thought it was good and I should share it with people, so I typed it up.”

Mr Jennings explained how John Ferguson was advised to leave Ireland and start a new life somewhere with a warmer climate for health reasons, possibly due to a lung condition.

A wooden clipper from the mid-1800s, similar to the ship that John Ferguson would have sailed on from London to Sydney.

Having made the trip from Belfast to London, he set off for Australia in October 1886, a second class passenger on board the Windsor Castle – a 198ft long Aberdeen-built clipper.

Ferguson’s beautifully hand-written diary, which was among his personal effects shipped home to one of his brothers after his death in early 1901 and subsequently passed down through the family to Mr Jennings’ mother Ethna, gives a detailed and interesting account of his three-month adventure at sea.

It tells of daily life on board the ship and the characters he met – passengers and crew; places of interest he encountered such as the Cape Verde Islands off west Africa and Tristan da Cunha – a volcanic island in the south Atlantic; wildlife in the sea and air; curious practices and traditions on board ship – using a line and hook to try to catch albatrosses and the strange ‘Father Neptune’ ceremony as they crossed the equator.

Apart from a bad storm in the Bay of Biscay, Ferguson describes the journey as “an exceptionally good one”.

“Even ‘old hands’ said they never experienced such a favourable one,” he wrote.

“It has certainly been very beneficial to my health as well as being a very pleasant and entertaining journey. I must say, taking the thick with the thin, I enjoyed it well.”

Very little is known about what happened to John Ferguson after he arrived in Sydney, or about what he did during the 14 years he lived in Australia. His life after January 1887 – when his diary ends – remains a bit of a mystery.

Mr Jennings, who is aged in his mid 70s, spent three months editing and typing up the diary entries before adding a foreword and editorial postscript, providing additional information about the Windsor Castle and some of the other ships and landmarks Ferguson encountered on his long journey.

The finished book, ‘London to Australia by Clipper 1886-87: Diary of John Ferguson during a voyage from London to Sydney in the ship ‘Windsor Castle’ 1886-87’, is now available to buy online.

In the foreword, Mr Jennings writes: “Ferguson’s experiences and observations on life aboard the relatively small Victorian sailing ship Windsor Castle with 22 other passengers and 26 crew for three months, without any port of call other than Sydney, make compelling reading. These include violent storms, encounters with other passengers and passing sailing ships (some with ill or shipwrecked passengers). He also gives detailed accounts of various sea and bird life that he observed on the journey.”

Ferguson’s diary also details the trials of trying to write on board a rocking ship in the open ocean.

Mr Jennings, whose maternal grandmother was John Ferguson’s niece, believes the diary entries were originally scribbled on rough notes written at sea and then copied out neatly by Ferguson when he arrived in Australia.

“My suspicion is that he wanted to write something that he could hand back to the folks back at home,” he said.

Explaining why he decided to edit the diary and turn it into a book, Mr Jennings added: “I thought it might have been interesting to relatives and others, but I didn’t want to pass the diary round. In fact, once the dust has settled I plan to pass this (the diary) on to a museum.

“At first I just thought about putting it into a museum, but then it would just be in a glass case or something and people wouldn’t get the chance to read it.

“When I do give it to a museum I will put a note in with it saying that copies are available on Amazon.

“It is an unusual story of historical interest. It gives a deep insight into life on board a ship on a long journey at that time.”

Mr Jennings’ cousin, Heather Crawford – who is also related to John Ferguson – said she enjoyed the diary’s “chatty” style, describing it as “very well written and very engaging”.

“I’d imagine he hadn’t travelled much before this and the thought of going to Australia must have been incredible. It would have been a real adventure,” she said.

“I think it (the book) would have great appeal for any historians, a first hand account like that.”

The book ‘London to Australia by Clipper 1886-87: Diary of John Ferguson during a voyage from London to Sydney in the ship ‘Windsor Castle’ 1886-87’ is available now from priced £5.49.

Proceeds from sales of the 98-page paperback will go towards the cost of publication, with a donation going towards cancer charity Sarcoma UK.