Kōrero: The voyage out

The McCaw chronicles

The McCaw chronicles

Pictured are Jean Kydd (née McCaw) and her husband George outside their farmhouse in Wangaloa, South Otago, around 1892. Jean, her parents and eight brothers and sisters came to New Zealand from Scotland on the Stirlingshire in 1880. Jean lived the rest of her years in New Zealand, marrying George Kydd, her elder by 21 years, in 1892. Jean's father, William McCaw, wrote detailed accounts of the family's voyage out to New Zealand. Jean also kept a diary of their life at sea. Extracts from their writings are presented here.

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Contributed by William and Isabella McCaw’s great-great-granddaughter, Mary Stewart

William McCaw’s account

William McCaw, his wife Isabella and nine of their 10 surviving children (three died in infancy) sailed from Scotland to New Zealand on the Stirlingshire in 1880, settling in Otago. This letter appeared in William’s local newspaper in Scotland, the Dumfries and Galloway Standard, 17 November 1880. He was a regular monthly correspondent to the Standard until his death in 1902, and his correspondence covered all areas of life in his new home.

On Thursday the 10th June we sailed from Glasgow in the ship the Stirlingshire, Capt. Alexander, and anchored that night in the Greenock Waters. At 8.30 next morning we were fairly off. The sail on the Firth of Clyde was delightful. The day and the scenery equally beautiful, but at night, to avoid a head wind, we had to steer for the West of Ireland. The sea was rough, and the next morning sickness was general. It was soon over with the most but lingered on with a few unfortunates. The incidents of the voyage have been few. The principal is the lamented death of a fellow passenger, Mr John Gibson, a flesher from Edinburgh. He had been ailing for some time previous to embarkation, but was encouraged to proceed, in the hope that a sea voyage and change would do him good. The Sovereign Dispenser of Events, however, had determined otherwise. The Medical Gentleman on board was most attentive, but ulceration of the stomach had taken hold of the vitals and he died on the morning of 25th June. The widow requested a coffin, which was granted, into which the remains were put and committed to the deep on the afternoon of the same day.

The sights of the voyage have not been many; but when there is little to be seen but the blue sea and the blue sky everything else which attracts the eye is looked upon with interest. For the first three weeks ships were sighted frequently, and we signalled one or two; but now we seem to be on the wide ocean alone. We had a pretty good view of the Island of Madeira. We were near enough to see some of the white washed houses perched on the shoulders of the lofty mountains, picturesquely situated at an altitude of several hundred feet on the tops of the precipitous rocks which form its base. We sighted some islands of less note, chiefly barren rocks. Sometimes our attention was called to a small school of whales or sporting porpoises, or a flock of flying fish. Several of the latter came on board to satisfy our curiosity. It is a small fish, much like a Lochpyne herring, with neatly folded wings combining strength and transparent delicacy in a remarkable degree. Our passage through the tropics was slow, but, on the whole, comfortable. We had neither scorching heat, nor dead calms. The mid-day air was hot, but the evening breezes cool and refreshing. A few nights before we came to the Line we lost view of the “North Star,” and now “The Plough” and all the stars of that part of the Northern Hemisphere have disappeared. The Sun and the Moon themselves have been left behind us. It is true we have got the “Southern Cross,” but to us it has been simply disappointing. I had heard it eulogised as a constellation of extraordinary attractiveness and brilliancy, and I find it to consist of a few stars of the second or third magnitude said to be seen in the form of a cross, but needing to be pointed out to most people before they take any notice of it.

We have rushed out of the heat of summer into the depths of winter with a rapidity which takes one by surprise. We have had bitterly cold days and snow showers, and the sun setting at 4.30 in the beginning of August. We have had gales and rough seas, but not what they call storms. Sleeping without rocking is unknown here, but there is a school of instruction in the knowledge of rocking without sleeping, and the lessons are free, liberal and compulsory. A gale of wind will rend an old sail, or break the arm of a mast, and the angry billows frequently lash themselves over the bulwarks, and a few slight accidents have been the result. For the most part, however, they have been nothing worse than somebody getting a ducking, or a catastrophe among the tin and cooking utensils – more amusing than serious.

We accomplished the Atlantic part of the voyage in forty-eight days and one-half, and on the 29th July crossed the 20th Line of East Longitude, so entering the Indian Ocean.

Next day a large whale put in an appearance close to the ship and astonished those who were prepared to look at him by his huge dimensions. There was a rush to the deck to the deck to see the monster, but the leviathan made himself scarce, to the no small disappointment of the majority.

In the fine summer evenings the scene was enlivened with music and dancing, and the singing of Scottish songs was sometimes kept up till a late hour; but the winter weather has sent the nightingales to rest, to recuperate their voices for the coming spring. As a pastime draughts playing has taken the place of songs. There are a good many players on board, and a grand match was arranged to include all who were sailing. Eighteen players were enrolled and paired against each other, the best of three games to be decisive. The match occupied the greater part of three days, but time being of no importance all due caution was exercised by the contestants. The recognised rules were strictly enforced. At the conclusion of a well contested match a sailor – Harry Harvey – the only member of the crew who took part was declared the winner. It was confidently expressed that John Wilson, of Moniaive, would have won the laurels, a first rate player from Glasgow having fallen before him in the first tie, and had never lost a game until he met the sailor. In subsequent trials of skill, however, he has carried it over the laureate by two to one.

Our principal cargo is large metal pipes, a consignment for the Wainua-o-Mata plant for the water supply of the city of Wellington, N.Z. To save space small pipes have been put inside the large ones, and although securely packed they, at times, under very stormy conditions, break partly loose and roll and dash and smash with a noise that is prodigious until again secured. While this is going on in the hold, and the deck flooded with heavy seas, and the frosty air biting everywhere, comfort is a scarce commodity; while blue cheeks and chilblains are greatly in excess of the demand.

We have 52 passengers on board, and half that number of seamen. The officers of the ship are frank and agreeable – the passengers civil and obliging. Some of the sailors can swear a bit amongst themselves, but they can be, and are, polite and respectful to those who are with them.

Now, may I say a word or two about ourselves. I have proved a very poor seaman – the worst on board. Sea-sickness stubbornly refuses to part company with me and gives me a fresh blow almost every other day. To avoid my enemies, sickness and cold, I took refuge for three days beneath a load of blankets til the strength of my foes was somewhat exhausted. I have got the mastery a little today (August 7th). I have become very fastidious in my taste and sparing in my diet. I am something like the Weather Prophet’s dog which left mutton bones to feast on grass: “So strangely altered is my taste/I leave the tea, on arrowroot to feast.” On this scale of dietary I have grown neither strong nor fat, but I can still stand upon my legs and find it unnecessary, and deem it inexpedient to subject them to a severe trial. I have left the rheumatisms 5000 miles behind me. In this respect my good wife has not been so fortunate, but in other respects, notwithstanding her frailties and fear of Old Ocean, she has turned out to be quite seaworthy, and might have been classed A.1. at Lloyd’s. We are known among the passengers by the familiar designations of Grandfather and Grandmother, and we receive all the honour and respect which is due to old age. I am the Patriarch of the ship, and have the honour and privilege of conducting Worship both on Sabbaths and in the evenings. Thus I have the opportunity of doing something in the service of Him Whom, in common with all Christians, I rejoice to call Master. Results are in the hands of God. I am hopeful.

(This till the Wheels of Providence perform some more revolution).

Pacific Ocean, 27th August
We have crossed the Indian Ocean in twenty-nine days. Someone has said:

Two things disturb monotony
When on an Ocean Trip;
Sometimes, alas! we ship a sea,
Sometimes we see a ship.

But these lines do not exactly describe our experience. In the 6000 miles that now lie between us and the Atlantic our monotony has never been disturbed by the sight of a ship, while shipping seas has never such a constant experience that it, itself, has been the monotony – not a dull but a very disagreeable one. On the evening of the 17th we encountered a strong gale right ahead. The seamen furled the sails and hove to, but were not able to keep their ground for several hours. Then there was pitching and tossing, metal pipes and tin cans going topsy turvey, till one might have thought that some monstrous whale was crushing the ribs of the iron ship between its jaws. The nerveless were frightened – that was all. In the morning the storm abated and we were again slowly on our way. Our general experience of sea life is better described by another poet –

Now high, now low, to the depths we go,
Then we rise to the surge again;
We make a track on the Ocean’s back,
And we play with the hoary Main.

We passed Tasmania this morning but did not see it. We are now in the Pacific. It shows no signs of displeasure at our intrusion, and is giving us no cause to quarrel with the name which Magellan gave it when he entered into its waters after a storm and found it PACIFIC.

September 22nd
We are all in New Zealand safe and sound, and I am once more writing under a roof, which for the time being I can call my own. We left Glasgow on the 10th of June, and stood again on terra firma on the 13th of September. On the 27th August we were calculating with some confidence on being in Wellington in six or seven days, but calms and head winds kept us back, so that the last part of the journey was somewhat tantalising, though it was very fine weather. We sighted land on the 4th of this month, but had to zig-zag to the northwest for two days. On the 7th we had a delightful but slow sail from Cape Farewell to the entrance of the Cook Strait. The sea was placid as a lake in summer; the sky cloudless and the sunbeams mild. To the far North stood Mt Egmont in solitary grandeur, covered with snow so far as it appeared to us above the horizon. On the right hand we had a rugged barren coast close at hand, with the snow capped mountains of Nelson in the background, shooting up their peaks to the sky and gleaming in the rays of a cloudless sun. At night we entered the Strait and got half way down til we encountered a head gale. We went on zig-zagging, but losing twice as much as we gained. We lost 60 miles. At the entrance to the Bay the wind blew again, and we had to anchor for another 36 hours. A steam boat took us up on the Sabbath morning, and we anchored again till the next morning before tying up of the wharf. The day was beautiful and the scenery grand. Wellington forms a semi-circle some four miles in length around the head of the Bay. It is hemmed in behind by a circular ridge of green steep hills with only one outlet. It was the admiration of all, and our song that Sabbath was the 30th verse of the 107th Psalm.

(Dumfries and Galloway Standard, 17 November 1880, p. 6)

Jean McCaw’s diary

Jean McCaw, daughter of William and Isabella, also kept a journal of their 1880 voyage on the Stirlingshire. She married George Kydd in 1892 and they farmed at Wangaloa near Kaitangata, South Otago. Like all the McCaws, Jean was very involved in the Presbyterian Church. At her death, the Milton minister described her as ‘worth an army in the parish’.

On Thursday 10th June we left Thornhill Station and 7.15 a.m. for Glasgow where we arrived at 20 minutes to ten. Went straight to a temperance hotel and got plenty good coffee or tea. Went from thence to the ship Stirlingshire as passengers to Wellington. Went on board about 1 o’clock noon went out that night as far as Greenock where the Pilot left us till the morning. We employed ourselves getting our beds made up and tea ready. About 50 passengers on board.

On Friday 11th the Pilot came back again and took us smoothly along a good way. We felt a great interest watching Elsa Craig [the ‘Ailsa Craig’ is large granite rock, which is a landmark of the Ayrshire Coast. It is now a bird sanctuary.]. As we came in sight of it and on till lost to our view again. This evening the Pilot left us taking away the captain’s wife and a clerk from the office in Glasgow who took back a lot of letters we had been writing to our friends. No sooner had the Pilot left than a lot of passengers were running holding their sides and playing bowk.

Saturday 12th. The same thing over none of us can hold up our heads. John Wilson was the best of our party. Never was a bit sick. He nursed us on Saturday and brought us word how father and mother were. Mother was never very sick, father was far worse than her.

Sabbath 13. We were a little better but not up to much. Spent the most of the day in bed.

Monday 14. A little better. Mother got up for the first time since Friday night. Maggie Harkness was the worst of the lot of us but we managed to get her out of her bed and out but directly the she came back in to bed again where the Dr looked in and ordered every body up and out and gave her 10 minutes. She sat and had a walk round the deck and directly the fiddle began to play when we all gathered up and had a dance and soon we were all better. We got the sailors to join us and had a jolly spree.

Tuesday 15. Very much the same. Getting on first rate. The passengers are very nice agreeable folks and we are all as happy as pigs in pots. Got two fiddlers on and had another grand dance and sung songs and all lots of fun. Made a peany for Sarah the first of the sewing.

Wednesday 15. As happy as ever. Saw two ships passing from America to Cork the Captain said, we thought we might have got word send back but the captain laughed at us. The vessals were about 7 miles of [text missing]. Maggie not so well today. The fiddle began a playing but the dancing did not go on with so much heart. Very bad for two days with toothache. Mother is quite at home among the passengers. The wind has been right behind us these two or three days and we are getting on grand.

Thursday 16th. Much the same. Still getting on at good speed. All the sick folks able again.

Sabbath 26th June. Since last I wrote in this book many things have transpired so many that the time might have been a year rather than a week. When we awoke on Friday morning the 17 the winds were blowing and rain falling and the sea very rough and the ship tossing and nearly all the passengers ill again! The second sickness seemed to be as bad as the first but there was one of the passengers John Gibson from Edinburgh who seemed to be the worst. At first we did not mind much about him thinking it was only severe seasickness but when all the rest were getting better and he clearly worse we began to be alarmed and not without cause we did what we could to get him advised onto the deck but when last up on Monday so we saw he was too weak for the attempt. His wife had anxiously watched him and lost a lot of sleep so on Tuesday afternoon I got her advised to go to bed beside him which she did and I sat with him till five in the morning when father rose and relieved me. On Wednesday afternoon mother thought she more favourable symptoms but they were only partial. His wife sat with him herself the first part of that night and father again relieved her in the early morning. On Thursday afternoon I promised to sit with him again but the change came on so rapid towards night that we began to fear we would not have him till the morning. Mary asked me to let her sit which I consented to do but he got so rapidly worse that I could not leave him either. Mother, Bob and I sat up with her and Mary and father were in bed near at hand so that we could speak when we wanted them. About one o’clock mother thought he might linger on for a time and so being weary went to bed but was not in it over ten minutes till the death change came when I spoke to Mary. Mother heard me speak to her and father and her got up again in time to see the last calm and still death crept in and took him gently away. Just before the change came over his face he attempted to speak and did say a good deal but we could not possibly make out a word. Whether he was sensible he was dying or no we could not tell as he was never right conscious all the time. After his death we got Mrs Gibson off to bed with mother and Mary and I dressed the body. It was the first death I had ever witnessed, but thanks to my never forgotten friend Mrs McCaw it was not at a loss to know how to dress the body. In the morning father got leave from the captain to get a coffing made for him which John and the ship’s carpenter undertook to do. It was made a good piece longer than the measure with a division at the bottom to put ballast in to sink it painted black with a nice brass plate on the top of which Willie painted his name and age and it was lined with cotton inside. The funeral took place at 4 o’clock afternoon when the Dr conducted the service. Before beginning the service he commented briefly but nicely on the kindliness and patience of the deceased gentle man. He has left a widow but no children but they had with them a little niece that they had always brought up. They have been living with us ever since. She and the little girl have taken up Mary and my bunks and we have gone to their berth and occupy their bed as she cannot make up her mind to go back to it again. She has borne up wonderfully under the heavy affliction. As our own berth is on the deck the coffin was lowered in at the side of it so that she could sit inside and hear it all. We all sympathise deeply with her and have done what we can to make the burden as light as possible. We have service every Sabbath on the deck it is the captain’s right to conduct it but he is not a man that takes any interest in these things so the duty rested on the doctor but he got it off him self by asking father to do it so he reads one of Spurgeons sermons every day. It is at ten o’clock so we have a long day after. We have all or the most of our own cooking to do there is a cook for the steerage passengers but he knows little about it. So they give out plenty of oat meal and flour but we cannot eat them raw and unless we bake them ourselves we must want. So there are five young men on boars who have nobody to look after them and we bake scons and make porridge to them and the cook too. So as there are 14 of ourselves and other six to bake to it takes a lot of work but by good luck we bought a quantity of soda and tartare acid with us but a very few others have anything of the kind it does not go so far amongst them all however we do as well as we can. We have got a girdle belonging to one of the passengers and the whole lot use it and all the goblets and pans we brought with us are very usefull as we could have got nothing here right to cook in. But we get on fine and it keeps us from wearying. Maggie, Nellie and Aggie suffered a good deal from the sickness and are only just beginning to take to sea life. Jim mother Sarah and I were the only ones who escaped the last time. I did feel it a little too but was not so bad but I could do little to help the rest. The weather this last week has been very fine the sea calm but going on at a pretty brisk pace too they say.

Sabbath 11th July. Two weeks today since I wrote any, before and during that time things have happened I cannot recall. The sea for the most part has been calm but when ever a little rough then a lot of people are sick again, but father is the worst now on the whole ship he had been sick and better once or twice but when ever the sea got a little rough he is just as bad as ever again and now he has got so weak that he can scarcely walk round the deck and vomits the most part of his food. But I hope when we get colder weather he will get stronger. Mother has not been better for years. If she keeps improving as she has done she will be fat by the time we land. Mrs Gibson and niece are still living with us. She is getting wonderfully cheerful again. Maggie like father does not agree very well sea life. She is not very well today nor Nellie either but if they had all got their stomach again I think they will thrive yet. People say mother and I have improved most. We were the worst to advise to go away. We had not known what was good for us.

Wednesday was my birthday and a jolly day they made of it. It was my 27th birthday but the first that ever was taken any notice of but of course it was my first on the sea. The Stewart [steward] sent me in an envelope instead of a card as he had none, in the morning written with happy returns of the day and after which I got a card. Then a bottle of wine was handed me in from the Stewart for everybody to drink my health. Then Nellie and Mrs Gibson baked tarts and a cake for tea which was finished with a dish of tongue. I never thought as much of myself as I did that day, but I have just had to come back to my former self ever since. On Friday night the 9th about 8 o’clock we crossed the line. The sailors wanted a spree over it but was refused by the captain. They were rather ill pleased about it but had just to submit. We have fiddling and dancing some nights but not generally. It is very early dark now then we have no rooms or lights we do get small lights in our berths but they are not much worth. It breaks daylight about 6 in the morning and gets dark again with little warning at 6 at night. Our cooking opperations are going on the same. There is not much time nor convenience for sewing still there has been a little done too. We spend the most of the evenings singing and talking and take a walk on to the forecastle before bed time to get the pure sea air. Some of the sailors are very nice but the most part of them are wild and rough. Father still conducts the service and has prayers every night as well. None of the sailors like the ship but everybody has been quiet and agreeable as yet.

(Handwritten copy in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand Archives, Box: Jessie Stewart, née Lockhart)

William Armstrong McCaw’s letter

William Armstrong McCaw, son of William and Isabella and brother of Jean, wrote the following letter to his sister Sarah on 10 September 1948, 68 years after the Stirlingshire’s voyage. William worked as a master builder and architect in Gore, later moving to Invercargill. He married Elizabeth Ramsay Brown and had eight children. They lost two of their sons in the First World War. William died in 1955 at the age of 92, and was described in his obituary as ‘one of Invercargill’s oldest and most highly respected citizens’.

Dear Auntie Sarah,
Sixty-eight years ago this afternoon, the 10th September 1880, our Boat the Stirlingshire dropped her anchor under the lea of Pencarrow lighthouse at the entrance to Wellington harbour and our interesting voyage extending to 90 days. It was a warm sunny afternoon but the wind was dead ahead and the pilot decided to let us stay there until a more favourable breeze blew while in the meantime the he bargained with the captain of the barque Waimau who offered a higher figure for a ‘tow’ up to the settlement than Captain Alexander was prepared to give. So the Barque got just consideration. So we lay there until early on Sunday morning when the tug came back for us, took us in tow and landed us out in the harbour opposite the P.O. where, again, the Anchor was dropped until the Health Officer had come on board, lined us all up, inspected us and gave a clean bill of health. It was a beautiful Sunday morning and we could hear the bells of the churches ringing out the call to worship. Some of us went ashore in the small boats waiting for passengers but I did not leave the boat until the Monday morning when she was towed up to the Wharf and made fast. Then I went over the side and found I had no difficulty in walking without tumbling over as I had been led to expect. I surveyed the Stirlingshire from the wharf and considered that she was the best looking vessel in the harbour. From her deck, while lying at Anchor, I had noticed steam and smoke from the railway station and I made off to see what N.Z. trains were like and was sadly disappointed. The railway appeared to be only a tramline and the engines more like shunting locomotives. I went into a watchmaker’s shop in London Quay and got a watchglass fitted – cost 6d Home price 1d – my first purchase in N.Z. And so on and so much water has run under the bridge since then and my first feelings of disappointment have been entirely reversed. A loyal Scot to the core I nevertheless love my adopted country and I thank God for bringing me to it …
All good wishes,
Bro William

(Handwritten copy in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand Archives, Box: Jessie Stewart, née Lockhart)

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Te tuhi tohutoro mō tēnei whārangi:

John Wilson, 'The voyage out - Personal accounts: 1840–1899', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/community-contribution/4314/the-mccaw-chronicles (accessed 22 September 2020)

He kōrero nā John Wilson, i tāngia i te 8 Feb 2005