“The funny thing about family stories is that they often have more than a nugget of truth. As a child I was told there was a Pirate in the family… So not quite in the realms of a pirate but a very interesting life.”
William Gay was born on the 6th January 1820 and baptised on the 2nd February 1820, in St Mary, Rotherhithe, Southwark, Middlesex. UK. His parents were John Gay (Master Mariner) and Cordelia Bristow. William’s siblings were Cordelia Bristow Gay b.1816, Ann Gay b.1818, John Gay b.1822, Mary Gay b.1824 (who would died in 1828) and James Gay b.1826.
William was baptised on the 5th February 1820 and this appears in the Rotherhithe St Mary register of baptisms. His father was listed as a Master Mariner. A Master Mariner was one who could sail in command of a ship and usually this term was used in the British merchant navy.
Rotherhithe had been a sea-faring port since the earliest of recorded times and has enjoyed a rich history associated with those whose trade has been plied on the seas. Rotherhithe was the first place in London where docks were built to meet the convenience of its city dwellers. Located in the south of London it was a bustling energy of ship building and ship yards. This was largely due to its close proximity to the Thames river.
At the time that William Gay was born this close association to the water was very much evident in the lives of his family and neighbour’s. During the 19th century the population in Rotherhithe was exploding. By the end the century the numbers would have grown from ten thousand to thirty-eight thousand. One of the major employers in Rotherhithe was the East India Company. Rotherhithe was a town where sailors could be found to crew the ships that formed the backbone of the world’s transportation.
Families of the sailors and the businesses that supplied their needs dotted the area. Expensive housing and slums all sat in cordial, comfortable distance to each other dotted between were the ale houses and gambling dens. One could almost imagine the sea-faring characters that may have stepped out of Fanny Price’s family (okay they were in Porsmouth, but you get the gist,) wandering around the docks as sunset set across the town.
For William and his family their position must have been reasonably comfortable given his father’s respectable employment. Perhaps William received an education better than those of some of the poorer neighbour children as a result.
He might have been so fortunate as to be able to attend one of the Victorian schools. If so, then his education could have taken place in a building with up to 100 other students to one or two teachers where the three R’s of writing, reading and arithmetic were taught in a heavily disciplined atmosphere. The windows of the building would have been high to save the children from looking out of the window and likely the conditions somewhat cramped.
Being a boy from a modestly secure family this may well have his daily life until he was old enough to take a trade. In William’s case that trade was not surprisingly in the shipping business. William and his brother’s and sisters would have played games of jacks and marbles and had the freedom to move about their local streets. They may have put on plays for their parents and made up great stories to tell each other. The older children frequently being responsible for looking after the younger one’s (especially if you were a girl) and keeping them busy. Undoubtedly they would have had at least a servant or two in the home.
William’s childhood was an interesting one of going back and forwards across the seas. He was taken across to Para in Brazil by his parents where his father also carried on a merchant business. Tragedy struck in 1828 when his father and youngest sister both succumbed to a fever and died a few days from each other in Brazil. William’s mother Cordelia brought her remaining children back to England and remarried.
At the aged of 15, young William gets into the family business. A career on the seas awaits. He is indentured by free will (so like an apprenticeship) to Mr. H. Thompson of London.His mother was the one who gives consent for him to enter the agreement legally. His mother signed his trade papers as Cordelia Williams in the year 1835.
William Gay found himself in Barbados and married Eliza Brereton Howard in the parish of St Michael’s Barbados on the 23rd may 1842 at the age of 22. Eliza’s parents were also in the Caribbean. Eliza’s father was William Henry Howard and her mother was Sarah Elizabeth Brereton. William and Eliza went on to have five known children. They were Sarah Eliza Cordelia Gay b. 1843, John William Gay b.1847, Florence MacGilll or Magiel (?) Glendinning Gay b. 1854, Walsingham Wallace Gay b. 1858 & George William Neale Gay b. 1859
From 1845 to 1852 William was the Master of the Schooner, Princess Alice and trading to and from the Port of Bridgetown in Barbados.
William and Eliza eventually made their way to Australia. William went on to have certainly an interesting maritime career. Following are several newspaper reports I have been able to locate. They start off so positively with the dashing Captain Gay saving other’s at sea. Unfortunately they don’t always stay that way.
William receives authority to pilot into and out of Melbourne’s ports.
8 September 1858 – The Moreton Bay Courier – Shipping Intelligence – Loss of the Barque Zwarte Zwaan. – The following letter has been presented to Captain William Gay, of the barque General Jessup :
“Timor, June 30. As late master of the Dutch barque Zwarte Zwaan, bound from Sydney to Soorabaya, I beg to certify the following for information: Having, on the morning of the 21st of June last, lost my vessel on the great detached barrier reef near to Raine Island, entrance of Torres Straits, I, with my crew, fourteen in all, took to the boats, and after sailing as far as Cairncross Island, was on being observed, promptly picked up at 11 o’clock on the morning of the 23rd June, by Captain William Gay, of the barque General Jessup, from Melbourne bound hence.
I cannot sufficiently express the kindness and consideration shown to myself, my crew, and my little boy, by Captain Gay and Messrs. Thomas and William Orkney, passengers and brothers to the owner of the vessel. Whilst on board every accommodation was afforded us, and our wants and necessities liberally attended to, for which we all feel thankful and obliged- S. Stiebel, late master of the Dutch barque Zwarte Zwaan.”
Fast forward 158 years later, and I have been contacted by a descendant of the Zwarte Zwaan (Black Swan)’s Captain (Stikel/Stikkel) who tells us more of what happened to the Captain and his family after they parted with Captain Gay, see comments at end of this page. Amazing.
I understand that for a considerable period of time, William and Eliza are based in the very southern climes of the colony in Melbourne.
24th April 1863 – The South Australian Advertiser:
POLICE COURT—PORT ADELAIDE.
THURSDAY, APRIL 23. (Mr. B. Douglas, S.M.)
ASSAULT.— George Easton and Wm Melvin seamen of the barque Aurifera,were charged with assaulting William Gay, master of the vessel, at the Railway Station, on Wednesday afternoon. Wm Gay deposed, be was on the Railway platform on Wednesday afternoon, about 4 o’clock, with Captain Simpson. Received suddenly some blows which stunned him. Could not see who did it as his head was down at the time.
He had seven men down by that train to be sent on board his vessel, released from gaol, when they had been sent for refusal of duty. David Teak constable, stated that, on Wednesday he was at the railway station, saw Easton and Melvin both strike the informant, one with the left and the other with his right band. Easton struck him on the face and Melvin on the back of the bead. Whilst pulling Easton back Melvin struck him two or three times.
Other prisoners, seamen of the vessel, made a rush and struck the captain. Captain Gay gave no provocation. Prisoners stated that informant laughed and grinned at them while in the carriage. Each fined £6 and costs, or two months’ imprisonment.
—The above seamen were also charged with refusal of duty on board the vessel the same evening. The Magistrate dismissed the information, as it was not shown that the men had refused any order from their own officers, and their merely telling the constable they would not work was no offence against the Act.
25th April 1863 – South Australian Chronicler
Police Court Port Adelaide
J. Frost, and six other seamen of the Aurifera, were charged by Captain Gay with refusing duty on Sunday. They stated they pleaded guilty to refusing to wash the decks on Sunday morning, and did not consider they were entitled to do so. His Worship informed them they had signed articles to do all reasonable work on board, and that even on a Sunday certain duties were necessary, and they were not to discriminate whether it was unreasonable or not The vessel being about to leave in a few days he should,commit them to Gaol for 14 days,
In 1864 there is a really awful report in the NZ courts of a William and Thomas Gay who are involved in what looks like a cruel assault on a fellow sailor on-board. The timing however does not sit right with our guy, nor would our guy have been working as a mate on another ship. I have found this same sailor in other reports around the same time and not to say that our guy is glistening but this other William Gay looked pretty shady.
19th July William receives his Master Mariner certificate of Service in Adelaide, SA. Australia.
At this time he and the family were living in Emerald Hills in Victoria, Australia. This would later become known as South Melbourne. One of his daughters, Sarah married at this time to her ‘Jeweller’ beau, Mr. Astin of London. Would have loved to have seen that ring!
In 1866 BARQUE Eliza Sharp, OF MELBOURNE, WILLIAM GAY, MASTER, BURTHEN 386 TONS FROM THE PORT OF MAUNGANUI TO SYDNEY, NEW SOUTH WALES, 19TH JUNE 1866
William was also going in and out of New Zealand at this time but as the Master on the Eliza Sharp a colonial trading barque.
THE SYDNEY SHIPMASTERS’ ASSOCIATION – 18th November 1873. Evening News Sydney.
A MEETING of shipmasters belonging to the port of Sydney was held yesterday at 250, George-street, for tbe purpose of forming an association. There were about twenty-five masters present, and Captain W; B. Mc’Leod was called upon to preside.
In opening the proceedings of the meeting, the chairman pointed out the necessity of associating, not only for their mutual benefit, but for the dissemination of knowledge on nautical matters, and the banishment of that stiffness and formality which has hitherto to a large extent permeated the intercourse between nautical men.
Looking at the varied duties, he said, which shipmaster had to perform, he thought it would be beneficial to ship owners, underwriters, and others concerned to lend the association their countenance and support while the necessary knowledge for the proper performance of these duties would be the more easily imparted by an association of the kind.
He concluded by calling upon the secretary to read the report. Mr. John Eedy, tho secretary, having complied with the request, most of the gentlemen present paid their entrance fee, one guinea in advance. Fourteen other masters, who promised to join the association at the first meeting, were not in attendance, being away in their ships.
Captain W. B. M’Leod, the chairman, and Captain William O’Hagan were nominated as trustees of the funds of the association, and accepted that office Captains W. Gay, William O’Hagan, W. B. M’Leod, W. Geach, J. Hastings, W. Gray, and R. Drennell elected as a working committee, with power to add to their number, to promote tho objects of the association ; and the meeting closed.
Tried for Kidnapping. 17th May 1873 – The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser
William Gay, captain of the steamship Wianuia, was charged with having, at an island called San Cristoval, not under the dominion or power of her majesty the Queen, or of any European sovereign on the 20th March last, assaulted and beat a man unknown This was a case connected with the traffic for ” labour’ among the islands of the South Pacific, and it was proved that the Wianuia, under the command of Captain Gay, had visited the island of San Cristoval, and that natives used to come on board the vessel A number of them were taken to Levuka. But it did not appear that any regular acts of kidnapping had taken place, and the witness examined would not swear that the natives had not remained on board of their own free will. The evidence was to the last degree vague, fragmentary and unsatisfactory, and the jury acquitted the accused, of whom several witnesses spoke as a humane, upright and most respectable man Two other charges were made against him, but were postponed to the next sessions The court adjourned.
CENTRAL CRIMINAL COURT.
The Sydney Morning Herald – 19 August 1873 – MONDAY.
Before his Honor Mr. ‘Justice CHEEKE. Mr. W. J. Foster prosecuted for the Crown. ASSAULT ON THE HIGH SEAS,
That was the newspaper tagline. The story itself is quite a read. Basically William as Master of the ship has “Jack” a native from the Solomon Island and a friend of his come aboard the ship whilst out in the ocean. The two are distressed and have a problem with their canoe. They ask to be put down at shore. William agrees and tells them he will do this once the crew are asleep. The truth is that the two natives are put in the hold and forcibly taken to Fiji. When they object “Jack” is beaten and treated quite poorly. In effect they are kidnapped. The stink of the whole thing is that when it gets to court, “Jack” who is recognised as a quiet and intelligent man and is able to clearly verbalise right from wrong and gives examples of his own ‘pagan’ religion, which clearly mirrors the white ‘christian’ religion – he is declared an unreliable witness. The judge instructs the jury to find William not guilty and he is dismissed. “Jack” was not unreliable because of his allegations. He was declared unreliable because he was not a christian and because he didn’t speak clear English. The Judge’s sticking point is that he would not be able to swear an oath on the bible – therefore his deposition would be and I quote ” a comment at best”. – That’s nineteenth century justice for you.
Blackbirding : –
Blackbirding is a term which grew from a practice in the 1860’s in the South Pacific (and along the eastern coast of Australia), whereby people are coerced by trickery and in many cases outright kidnapping to agree to be taken to work as labourers, Once at their destination this workforce were usually very poorly paid and their living conditions sub-standard. Their work was often dangerous and poorly managed. Most had ‘signed’ on with a promise of working for a short period of time where they were promised transport back to their islands of origin. Frequently this offer never eventuated and the workers became in effect a slave with little option but to continue where they were.
The practice of blackbirding was particularly common at this time in areas like the Solomon and Torres strait Islands where indigenous people were taken to common ports such as Fiji and Queensland to work on plantations. In Australia this was frequently on sugar plantations. The abolition of slavery in the Caribbean had only very recently ended in 1838. This workforce were referred to as kanaka’s by the Europeans. The main difference between indentures which were also common and sadly also often favoured the party providing the arrangements; was that there was more likely to be a common understanding of the arrangements between an indentured party and the indenture holder.
With the people of the islands their lack of English and the promises of quick money and a quick return to their homes certainly did not put them in the best bargaining position.
Ships and their crew were frequently the ones who facilitated this practice and were paid quite well by agents to procure this workforce. Was it illegal? Yes. Was it morally corrupt? Absolutely. Worse there were cases where people would refuse to go aboard the ships when the trading ships arrived and there were reports of raids occurring where people were taken against their will. I certainly believe that the case above with “Jack” reflected this practice.
There is absolutely no way of making this respectable. William was involved in blackbirding. I have found other records on TROVE NLA where William is quoted as saying he was going up to the islands to engage in trade – seeking labour forces. He sailed in these waters for years.
May 5. 1875 – DEPARTURES – Havilah, s, 166 tons, Captain Gay for Sydney. The Brisbane Courier, 30th April 1872 – Shipping – ENTERED INWARDS. Wainui, ss., 87 tons, Captain William Gay, from Torres Straits.
William is also in charge of the Glenshe docking at Geelong.
Barque of Adelaide, William Gay, Master, Burthen 423 Tons from the Port of Adelaide to Sydney, New South Wales 21st May 1877. Stowaway on board. (Fred Bosworth).
7 Jan 1879 – South Australian Register – COLLISION OF THE ST. KILDA AND SEAGULL.
The information received from Wilson’s Promontory on Wednesday relative to the collision of the above vessels and the abandonment of the latter was verified yesterday (January 3)by the arrival of the St. Kilda with the master and crew of the Seagull.
The fact of one life having been lost also, unfortunately, proves to be too true. The St. Kilda is a three-masted iron schooner of 189 tons, and was built at Paisley in 1868 for the intercolonial trade. She goes away occasionally on voyages to foreign ports, but of late has been engaged in the West Coast trade, and it was on her return from Greymouth to Melbourne that the misadventure occurred.
The Seagull was a barque rigged wooden vessel of 423 tons, and was built at Williamstown, United States, in 1856. She had been previously known as the Corilla and Mattewan. In length she measured 130 feet, with a beam of 29 feet, and depth of hold of 16 ft. 4 in. She was brought out here from England several years ago tor Messrs. Anderson and Marshall, and was subsequently purchased by the South Australian Coal Company for the carrying trade from Newcastle, and it was while on the voyage thence to Adelaide that her career terminated.
The following particulars concerning the collision are from the log of the St. Kilda. The schooner sailed from Greymouth, N.Z., on the 11th ult., in charge of Captain J. Connor, who has been sailing in and out of this port to the other colonies for a number of years. She left with a cargo of coal, hides, tallow, and several passengers.
The weather for the first fourteen days out was most untoward, light winds from the northward and westward, varied by frequent calms, prevailing until making land (Babel Island) on the 25th ult. The wind then freshened, and blew in hard gales from the westward, accompanied with a heavy sea. At 7 p.m. on the 27th ult., while the schooner was standing in on the starboard tack to wards Babel Island ., a barque— the Seagull — was observed standing out on the port tack, as if attempting to cross the bows of the St. Kilda. Captain Connor fully expected the barque to keep away, but finding that she did not do so he backed the schooner’s topsail and ordered the helm to be put down in order to stop her way.
‘ The Seagull, however dropped athwart the bows of the St. Kilda, the stem of which cut the barque down in the wake of the mizzen-chains and darted the planking thence right aft. The barque carried away the schooner’s jibbeam and head stays, the boom fouling the barque’s mizen rigging and bringing down the topmast and gear by the run.
After this the colliding vessels dropped clear of each other. Just as they were coming in contact one of the barque’s crew made a jump for the schooner but fell overboard. Lifebuoys were thrown towards him, and the schooner’s boat, with four hands, sent* in search, but after pulling about until half-past 9 p.m. the boat returned.
A lifebuoy was picked up, but the man could nowhere be seen. His name was James Lambert, and he was said to be a native of Ireland. After taking the boat inboard again Captain Connor filled on the schooner and stood in. under the lee. At midnight a vessel was sighted w the southward burning blue lights. Similar signals were burnt in response, and the schooner stood towards her. At half -past 3 a.m. she was made out to be the barque Seagull again, standing towards the St. Kilda, and having her ensign flying, union down. At 4 a.m. communication was established with the barque, the mate of which reported that the master was dangerously ill, having been badly hurt by the falling mast at the time of the collision.
He had sustained a fracture of the right collar-bone, and it is feared of several ribs. He was knocked senseless at the time, and had a narrow escape of being dragged overboard. A wish was also expressed that Captain Connor would board the barque. This be did, taking the schooner’s boat and five of the barque’s crew (who had jumped from the barque to the schooner at the time of the accident), besides three of his own men. After a consultation Captain Connor returned to his vessel, bringing with him the master of the barque.
The boat was dispatched back to the barque for provisions and the personal effects of the crew, they having intimated their intention of abandoning her, as they did not consider her seaworthy. A quantity of stores and the effects of the sailors were got on board the schooner by 10 a.m., and a quarter of an hour afterwards she filled and stood away on her course.
The Seagull left Newcastle on the 16th ult. with a cargo of coal and sleepers for Adelaide, in charge of Captain William Gay, who is one of the oldest and most experienced masters in the inter-colonial trade. She had a crew of twelve men and officers, exclusive of Captain Gay.
Very baffling and unsettled weather prevailed from the time of her leaving Newcastle until falling in with the same westerly gales as the St. Kilda. Captain Gay, as already stated, was deprived of consciousness when the falling wreck came down on him, andthe precise nature of the injuries he received was to be ascertained as soon as he could be safely and easily conveyed on shore. The crew of the barque received every attention from Captain Connor of the St. Kilda and his men.
30 January 1879 – The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser [Herald.] Police Court proceedings have been instituted against Captain William Gay, master of the ship Seagull, which was lost through coming in collision with the schooner. The same story appears a few days earlier on the 27th January 1879 in the Sydney Morning Herald. The proceedings are initiated by Police in Melbourne.
* The Seagull sinks following the collision. ‘Corilla. Barque. Named Seagull when she sank after a collision, 1878. [LG]’ Mathewan. Barque. Named Seagull after she sank after a collision, 1878. [LG]. The barque had been known by three names. These being Mattewan or Mathewan (not sure which is right), the Corilla and finally her name when she sunk; The Seagull. * The loss of the Seagull occurs on what is historically now recognised as Victoria’s Shipwreck Coast.
3rd February 1879 – South Australian Register –
Prosecutors of Captain Gay — A criminal prosecution has been instituted (states the Argus) against Captain William Gay, master of the British ship Seagull, in connection with the loss of that vessel through collision with the St. Kilda.
The getting up of the case has been placed in the bands of Detective Kennedy, who took the initiative step on Saturday, January 23, by swearing an information accusing Captain Gay of having on December 27 last near Babel Island, unlawfully and wilfully neglected his duty as master of the Seagull in not keeping ou of the way of the St Kilda when it was requisite to do so for preserving the vessels from immediate loss, destruction, or serious damage.’
Kennedy, in accordance with his instructions, applied for a warrant to apprehend the accused. Mr Panton, P.M,to whom the request was made, was informed that Gay was confined to bed by illness and therefore refused to grant a warrant, but issued a summons for the appearance of the accused at the City Police Court on February 3.Eechivkd.— Williams’s Monthly Diary for February.
THE COLLISION BETWEEN THE SEAGULL AND ST. KILDA.
At the City Police Court yesterday, before Mr Panton, PM, Captain William Gay, master of the barque Seagull, appeared in answer to a summons charging him with criminal neglect in connexion with the collision which occurred between his barque and the three-masted schooner St Kilda on tho 27th of December last near Babel Island. Mr Quinlan appeared to prosecute for the Crown and Mr Stewart on behalf of the accused.
Mr Quinlan said the material part of the information upon which the summons was based alleged that the defendant when in command of the British ship Seagull on the high seas did unlawfully and willfully neglect his duty in not keeping out-of-the-way of the ship St Kilda such act being proper and requisite to be done in order to preserve his vessel from immediate loss.
These proceedings were instituted under the Merchant Shipping Act section 231, which set forth that misconduct of an officer which endangered the ship, 0r life was a misdemeanour. He would show that the defendant had been guilty of such conduct, and that the 12th article of tho steering and sailing rules, which said that when two sail ing vessels were crossing each others course so as to involve a risk of collision, the one with the wind on the port side should get out of tho way of the one with the wind on the starboard side, had been infringed.
Charles Wm. Crane deposed that he was the chief officer of the Seagull, a British barque trading between Newcastle and Port Adelaide. On the 27th December last they were on the eastward of Flinders Island, standing to the north-west. At about 7 o clock in the evening, when the wind was W.S.W, they saw the schooner St.Kilda on the starboard tack, standing with her head to the southward, about four or six miles away.
When witness next observed the St. Kilda she was about two ships length off and about four points on the Seagull’s starboard bow. The St. Kilda was on the starboard tack and the Seagull on the port tack. They were then running a risk of collision. The Seagull should have given way. Witness would have ported the helm, and so altered her course more to the northward.
This, however, was not done, and the vessels collided. The St. Kilda struck the Seagull on the starboard mizen chains. The Seagull kept on her course and was cut down to the deck. The captain who was on the deck, was injured Witness made no remark to the captain and did not hear any remark made to him by any other person. The defendant was under no physical difficulty. He did not drink or smoke. It was very rough weather, and they were going under single reefed topsails at about two or two and a half knots an hour.
Cross-examined – Witness joined the Seagull three months previously. The vessel was very handy and made very little leeway. She steered almost where you pointed to. When witness lost sight of the St. Kilda for a time he was working at the pumps. Was present at the Steam Navigation Board inquiry when the captain of the St. Kilda and Gonneson, the man who was at the helm, were examined.
The latter said that ‘when the ships were some considerable distance apart he put the helm of the St Kilda hard up, the foreyard aback, and lowered the mizzen peak. That would have indicated to the Seagull that the St Kilda was going off, and if witness had observed this move he would have kept on. If he had put his helm a port, the ships would have collided.
There was a confused sea breaking all round and they had stood in for shelter. When witness saw the vessels just before the accident there was then no time to prevent a collision.
To the Bench. – The captain was on deck, and knew what he was doing. At this stage the further hearing of evidence was postponed until Monday week, and the defendant was admitted to bail.
William died in Paddington NSW Australia on the 4th February 1880. The Sydney Morning Herald on the 5th February 1880 reports,
THE FUNERAL of the late Captain WILLIAM GAY will take place THIS AFTERNOON, to move from his late residence, Old South Head Road, Paddington, This Afternoon at 3 o’clock, for Waverley Cemetery. WALTER STEWART, Undertaker. THE FRIENDS of Mr A. B HELLMRICH are invited to the Funeral of his FATHER-IN-LAW, the late Captain William Gay; to move from his late residence, 4, Hamilton-terrace, Old South Head Road, THIS AFTERNOON, at 3 o’clock, for Waverley Cemetery. WALTER STEWART. Undertaker
On the 19th February 1880 in the South Australian Register –
GAY – On the 4th February, at his residence. Old South Head Road, Paddington, Sydney, Captain William Gay. aged 60.
William (and I’m assuming Eliza) were living at Hamilton Terrace on Young Street attached to Old South Head Road. There were five houses in Hamilton Terrace. Source. Sydney and New South Wales Sands Street Index. William was recorded as a Master-Mariner and the year was 1880.
12 April 1902.
GAY-April 11, at her residence, 23 Silver-street, Marrickville, Eliza B. Gay, relict of the late William Gay, master mariner, aged 81.
It would appear from the Sands Directories that Eliza has been living with her daughter (Miss Gay) at the same address when she passes.
William’s daughter, Florence Gay married Alexander Helmrich and as my ancestors it is to their story that this line next connects. This was the last of the direct line “Gay’s” in my family line.
All records regarding shipping (Captain Gay) received with enormous gratitude from the Sydney Heritage Fleet, Maritime Records and Research Centre