Captain Underwood



I.— By A. T. Saunders.

We never received a letter which more truly affected us than one which was placed in our hands last night from a respected correspondent who informs us that the wreck of the Victoria and the fire on board the Governor Gawler have placed that old and excellent colonist, Capt. Underwood, in circumstances of pecuniary embarrassment; and that he has not means of refitting his vessel. 

Our informant, who requests us not to mention his name — for which we are very sorry— proposes a public subscription, which be generously heads with £5. Should Capt. Underwood be not assisted, it will be a colonial disgrace. Scarcely a man living has done more for us. Wherever wood could float, as Napoleon said of Nelson, there through our seas, our bays, our inlets, has been Capt Underwood with his gallant little cockle shell, and his plain sailor-like reports have done much to elucidate the geography of South Australia. We need not plead with our wealthy colonists. They will remember his services, and we are sure will come forward to assist him in his trouble. We shall be happy to receive subscriptions, pro tem— The Register, 27/1/1847 

The descriptions and dimensions of the Governor Gawler appear in the official records of the Port Adelaide Customs, May, 1841. In the magazine of the South Australian Geographical Society, session 191920, is an excellent photograph of Capt. Underwood, whose career and exploits I have to tell. I have verified, and can vouch for the truth of this record, extraordinary though it is. 

Capt. Underwood, was born in Essex, in 1806, was educated in England and France, and in 1819 was apprenticed to the sea. In 1832 he was master of the brig Ardgowan, his first command. In those days it was not necessary to have a certificate to command a vessel. Any man who owned a vessel or who was given the command by the owners could be a shipmaster, and trade to any part of the world. 

— Embarking For Australia. — 

In 1839 he was a married man with one son, and four daughters, and his home was near Liverpool. England. Friends of his had emigrated to South Australia, and he was resolved to leave his family in England and to come out here. One of his reasons was that the English climate did not suit him. 

He shipped his goods on board the Baboo, and with his wife's two brothers, (James and Robert, embarked on the same vessel, bringing with him all necessary tackle, sails, and rigging for a small coasting vessel, and also food for several months for his party of five persons, one of whom was evidently a hired man. 

The Baboo arrived at Glenelg on March 3, 1840. Capt. Underwood landed, then walked north on the seafront till he came to Point Malcolm, where the pilot station was, a little south of Fort Glanville. Thence he walked across Lefevre's Peninsula, to opposite the old Port, to which he could wade at low tide, and so arrived at Port Misery, as it was then called. The present Port had only recently been decided on, and the necessary road and jetty were in course of construction. After seeing Port Adelaide he walked to the town of Adelaide. The road did not then run through Hindmarsh, as many deep gullies ran across it, as surveyed, in Hindmarsh, and consequently traffic had to bear east before reaching Hindmarsh, and go round where the North Adelaide Railway Station is, then across the Parklands, round and south of North Adelaide Hill, then to the ford south of the Oval, between Morphett Street and King William road bridges. 

He reached Adelaide about 9 p.m., and passed the night in the Southern Cross, then in Currie Street, east of Rosina street. Next day he walked to Glenelg, and went on board the Baboo, where he remained till she went round to Port Adelaide. The timbers of Capt. Underwood's vessel were made into a raft, on which his food and other goods were to be sent ashore, but, unfortunately, before it reached the shore the raft broke, and the bulk of his goods sank in the salt water. Most of them were fished up, some of the food was damaged, but they had to eat it, for they had no other. 

In about four months the vessel was built, launched and named the Governor Gawler, and the captain hoisted his flag on board her. He and others claimed that the Governor Gawler was the first craft built for the colony, but that is not correct. The Alice (30 tons), built in Port Lincoln, and the Jane Flaxman, built in Port Adelaide, were launched months before the Governor Gawler

In the Adelaide papers (28/8/1840) the Governor Gawler was advertised to sail from the old Port for Encounter Bay and Kangaroo Island. Before it happened she lightered some flour ashore from a Calcutta ship, evidently the Indus. The goods could only be landed at high water in the canal, which had been cut at the old Port, consequently there was a lot of fighting to get the first, or best landing, so the captain decided, after the first day, to do no more lightering. 

—Carrying Hay From Yankalilla.— 

He records that he was chartered to go to Yankalilla for hay in loose trusses, for the Government horses. He made three trips in a fortnight, carrying two tons each trip, then the Government woke up to the fact that hay could be got in Adelaide at half the cost, so the Governor Gawler had to go further afield. 

On October 14, 1840, Port Adelaide was formally opened, and the Governor Gawler was chartered to take 119 chests of tea from the Guiana, the first ship to discharge at the Port Adelaide wharf (or rather jetty) and eight kegs of butter to Melbourne. An extraordinary proceeding this, for the Governor Gawler was not only a cockle shell of less than 11 tons, but she was not decked, except at the two ends. The crew consisted of the captain, his brother-in-law, James Smith, and a youth (probably Tom Cheeseman).

— A Dangerous Venture. — 

There were then no lighthouses on the coast of South Australia or Victoria. The captain had, of course, no chronometer, or descriptive charts, and had never been east of Encounter Bay. In a week the Governor Gawler was off the heads of Port Philip, but was compelled by a heavy south-west gale, to take shelter in Western Port, where the captain found a vessel six weeks out from Sydney to Melbourne, also weatherbound. 

After three days in Western Port, he again reached Port Philip heads, and got safely through. His companion in Western Port was never afterwards heard of; but her mailbag was picked up at the heads. The Governor Gawler sailed up the Yarra to Melbourne, discharged her tea and butter in good order, and was then engaged to carry 12 tons of sugar from Melbourne to Adelaide. I doubted this when I read it, as the Adelaide newspapers reported the arrival of the Governor Gawler (22/11/40) from Melbourne in ballast, but by a lucky accident I was able to see the old inward manifest book of the Port Adelaide Customs, which begins November 18, 1840. On page 17 it records the arrival of the Governor Gawler, Capt. Underwood, from Port Philip (not Melbourne), with 128 bags of sugar, value £240. 

So in less than a month this cockleshell had safely carried highly perishable cargoes to and from Melbourne. I have no intention of belittling our present-day sailors, but I am sure that none of them would dream of doing now what Capt. Underwood did in 1840. 

Mr. James Smith, Capt. Underwood's brother-in-law, left the Governor Gawler in Melbourne, and the crew on the return trip consisted only of the youth who sailed from Adelaide in the schooner. During the voyage down the Yarra, one of the masts fouled an overhanging tree, which pulled the mast down, and about three days out, after being hove to in a gale, the head of the main mast broke off. But the captain was a handy man, and in both cases repairs were soon effected. 

When in Melbourne Capt. Underwood met a Mr. Furlong, who arranged with him to engage a score or so of able bodied men, and to bring them to Portland. On his arrival in Adelaide from Melbourne, the captain put an advertisement in The Register, and had no difficulty in selecting about 30 men ; but the customs authorities would not allow more than 15 passengers to go on board. Five in the steerage were overlooked, therefore the captain sailed for Melbourne with 20 passengers and some tons of ironware as ballast. 

In four days the vessel arrived in Portland, safely landed her passengers and transhipped her cargo to a Melbourne bound vessel. With flour on board, Under wood sailed for Port Lincoln, sold his flour, and loaded hay, wool, and oil. 

For several months the Governor Gawler ran between Port Adelaide, Encounter Bay, Kangaroo Island, and Port Lincoln, with fair profit to her captain and sole owner, as shown by the following extracts from a letter to Mrs. Underwood, then in Eng land, from the captain in Port Adelaide: — (This letter arrived in England after Mrs. Underwood had sailed for Australia, and was therefore preserved). 

"Blessed be God that through His mercy I have at last prospect of being oftener in the society of my dear wife and children in this country than in the old. If I possessed thousands I could not exist in England in an atmosphere loaded with deadly moisture causing always coughs and colds. Since I have left home - sweet home - I have had one cold, but no cough, though generally exposed at times to the open air. I have not had a lodging ashore these eight months, and am at this moment writing in the Governor Gawler's after cabin, and have three passengers on board. I expect to sail for Encounter Bay, Kangaroo Is land, and Port Lincoln with a full cargo, princi pally my own. I wish, my beloved Janet, I had you for a passenger too. I sent you a letter by the Cygnet for London direct and another by way of Sydney, each containing a bill of exchange of £120. Privations, my love, must be expected. I know you have fortitude to meet them, and may the God of all grace direct you, preserve you from harm, and speedily bring you to my arms, for I am a poor, lonely pilgrim without you. We have a new Governor (Grey, who had arrived in May 1, 1841). Money is at present very scarce. Last month I did not clear above £50. That is more than I could make at Liverpool. Twelve months hence we expect things to be much better in the colony generally, as we shall have corn enough this year for almost all our population. I hope when this reaches you you will be ready to sail to the delightful shores and health-giving region of South Australia.— Your exiled but affectionate husband, E. Underwood. "

Mrs. Underwood and family sailed from Liverpool to Melbourne in the Hopkinson — Capt. Stevens, and came to Adelaide in the brig Porter or Dorset, whose owner was an old Liverpool friend. 

On July 21, 1812, the Governor Gawler, with Mrs. Underwood and family on board, sailed for Port Lincoln, where Capt. Underwood had bought and furnished a house. Other and larger vessels had gone into the Port Adelaide and Port Lincoln trade, but the Governor Gawler and her captain were so well known and liked that they received a great share of the trade, especially with passengers. Mr. Tolmer mentions on page 269 of his recollections an instance of Capt. Underwood's method of making the helm fast, after which captain and crew would go to sleep. The crew usually consisted of a man or a boy. The Governor Gawler on one occasion carried two aborigines who had been condemned to be hanged. 

Register (Adelaide, SA : 1901 - 1929), Tuesday 29 August 1922, page 5



— By. A. T. Saunders. 

— Discovery of Rivoli Bay. — 

In April, 1843, on a trip to Portland, Capt. Underwood sailed close to the coast, and virtually discovered Rivoli Bay, or Buffon's Bay, as it was sometimes called. After this trip he wrote to the Adelaide papers, pointing out that Rivoli Bay would be a good port for the Mount Gambier settlers. Governor Grey was interested, and made a land journey to see for himself. The result was Port Grey, in the south end of Rivoli Bay. 

In May, 1843, having been decked and had her passenger accommodation improved, the Governor Gawler sailed from Port Adelaide for Hobart, via Portland, with two men, three women, and six children as passengers, and a cargo of onions, cheese, and other goods. 

For the first few days the weather was bad, but it was with fine weather and smooth water that they ran down the east side of Tasmania to Hobart. Filling up with cargo and passengers, the vessel beat round the south-west cape, and reached Adelaide safely (11/7/1843). 

On this trip Capt. Underwood discovered guano on an islet in Bass Straits. He brought some of it to Adelaide, and then made one or two voyages for more, but there was no market for it in Adelaide, and the venture was a loss. 

Quite a number of American whalers came to Kangaroo Island or Port Lincoln at this time for stores, and brought with them tobacco of low value to be used in South Australia for sheep dip for scab. But even in 1843 Customs laws hampered and prevented trade and commerce. Efforts were made to land tobacco in some lonely spot where it could be converted into dip, but without avail. 

In September, 1843, the Jane Flaxman sailed from Port Adelaide with 27 cases of tobacco on board, also 24 sheep, and some vegetables for the whaler Majestic, and returned next month without any tobacco. 

In September, also, the Governor Gawler arrived from Port Lincoln with tobacco as cargo, and a few days after sailed for Nuyt's Archipelago with 27 cases of tobacco and one bullock and vegetables for the whaler Lancaster. She arrived at the end of October without any tobacco. 

The Governor Gawler was in favour as a troopship, and in 1843 carried at various times parties from the 96th Regiment, to and from Port Lincoln, six privates each trip. The blacks had murdered several white people in the Port Lincoln district about this time. 

On February 6, 1844, the vessel sailed for Hobart with passengers, 55 packages of South Australian butter on freight, and 4 tons of water melons on the captain's own ac count. In eight days she reached Hobart via the South-west Cape and passage. The melons were sold to a Hobart fruiterer, but Capt. Underwood was never paid for them. 

The Governor Gawler arrived in Adelaide again on 25/3/44, with Mr. Hall, from Hobart, in the cabin; Mr. and Mrs. Holmes and three children in the intermediate; and Messrs. Turner and Wilson in the steerage. Her cargo consisted of 100 bushels and 15 casks of apples, 3 cwt. of potatoes, 2 cases mustard; 2 pockets of hops, 3 bushels of peas, 1 case preserves, 1 keg tobacco, 3 bags oats, and 15 jars. 

—Flinders's Monument.— 

She returned to her old trade to Port Lincoln, and (13/4/44) carried the party for erecting Flinders's monument at Port Lincoln. During 1844 and 1845 the Governor Gawler made numerous trips to Portland, via Rivoli Bay, Port Lincoln and other ports on the coast, including Haynes's whale fishery. 

In July, 1844 six soldiers were taken to Port Lincoln, and five soldiers, one woman, and three children brought from Port Lincoln on the return trip. In July and August, 1844, cargoes of flour and bran from the Horseshoe Mill were brought from Port Onkaparinga to Adelaide. In September, 1844, eight head of cattle were carried one trip from Port Adelaide to Port Lincoln. In November the Governor Gawler arrived from Portland, with 13 passengers, and in, January, 1845, she brought eight passen gers and 10 tons of guano. 

Rivoli Bay became well known, thanks to Capt. Underwood and his letters to the Adelaide and Portland papers. The South Australian (19/12/43 and 27/5/45) had articles on the bay and coast, as had also The Register (17/4/44, 25/1/45, 1/2/45, 28/5/45, 30/8/45, and 11/1/45). The surveyor who visited the place with Governor Grey wrote a long report. 

On February 1, 1845, the Governor Gawler sailed in ballast for New Year's Island, and returned via Portland (5/3/45); with 8 tons of guano and 10 passengers. On 13/8/44 she had sailed for Port Lincoln with the unfortunate surveyor Darke and his party. 

—The Bad Days.— 

Now Capt., Underwood's luck changed, but his courage, ingenuity, and resource did not desert him. On June 7, 1845, his vessel sailed for Rivoli Bay, with stores for the settlers in the Mount Gambier district. The vessel duly arrived, but had to wait for drays to take the cargo inland, as there was no settlement then in the way. While the vessel lay at anchor a north-west gale arose, which compelled Capt. Underwood to make sail, and to anchor in another portion of the bay. 

The boat broke away from the Governor Gawler, and the captain had to get ashore on a raft and bring her back. The anchors dragged, and the vessel was driven on the beach. With the rudder broken off, she landed 50 ft. above ordinary tides and bedded about 3 ft. in the sand. Fortunately, the crew consisted of two men, and with their help, Underwood had to repair his ship and refloat her after discharging the cargo on the beach. 

In about a month she was ready for launching, and, fortunately, a team of bullocks, driven by old Bill Walsh, arrived from the South Australian Company's station just when a strong gale had forced the water high up on the sands. Her anchors had been bedded well seaward on the beach. Purchase blocks were lashed to them, through which ropes had been passed; one end of the rope was fastened to the vessel and to the other the bullock team was attached. By this means the cockle shell was pulled into the water. Having no pitch to put into her seams, they had used tallow instead, and she leaked so badly that she was run before the wind to Portland, where the captain was not able to heave the vessel down. It was decided to take barrels of beef as cargo and sail for Circular Head, Tasmania, to effect repairs. 

At Circular Head, while they were laying the vessel on her side, the mainmast broke off at the deck, and had to be replaced. Sailing for Portland with a cargo of potatoes, the Governor Gawler encountered very bad weather, and had to take shelter under New Year's Island for 12 days. 

It was at this time that the Catarqui (from Liverpool to Melbourne) was wrecked on King Island, Bass Straits, and of the 423 persons on board only nine were saved. The long absence of the Governor Gawler from Port Adelaide caused anxiety there, as the Adelaide papers of 19/8/45 show. When at length they reached Portland the potatoes were badly damaged by salt water. Fine weather enabled the vessel to skirt the shores of the coast, from Cape Northumberland to Cape Jaffa on the return trip, and on September 10, 1845, the Governor Gawler arrived at Port Adelaide, after three months' absence. 

—A New Vessel. — 

Capt. Underwood chartered the schooner Victoria from the South Australian Company, and sailed her to Melbourne (via Rivoli Bay) and to Port Lincoln, having put the Governor Gawler in charge of another master. 

In December, 1845, the captain was in Melbourne with the Victoria, and his brother-in-law, James Smith, who had married there a widow with one son, came with his wife on the return journey as far as Rivoli Bay, and settled there. About this time Mr. Michael Whallin left the Tasmanian Hotel, Adelaide, and built a public house in some part of the Bay. 

—The Wreck.— 

In June, 1846, the Victoria sailed from Port Lincoln for Rivoli Bay, and soon after Backstairs Passage came into very bad weather. She was capsized, and only Capt. Underwood and one sailor reached the shore. Fortunately, they found a couple of Mr. Stirling's shepherds, and, after patching up the Victoria's boat and visiting her wreck reached Greytown, Rivoli Bay. 

The captain bought a horse and in 10 days rode to Adelaide, where news of the loss of the Victoria had preceded him. The Governor Gawler was in Port Adelaide, so he again took charge of her and made several trips, one of which was to Guichen Bay, or Robe, and Rivoli Bay. 

On the way back, with a cargo of wool, the vessel caught fire, and was almost burnt out, but the captain managed to get her to Port Adelaide, and had her repaired. 

In August, 1847, the good ship Governor Gawler was wrecked on one of the Sir Joseph Banks Islands, and Capt. Underwood and his crew and passengers were picked up by the Petrel, without loss of life. 

Capt. Underwood had tried store-keeping and farming as side lines in Port Lincoln, but was not very successful in either. He continued going to sea in various vessels, and extended his voyages to Swan River from Melbourne, while Mrs. Underwood ran a grocer's shop in Port Adelaide. 

In February, 1848, he was in Fremantle, master of the cutter Thompsons, from Adelaide, and in March 1853, he was master of the Rosebud, from Melbourne. 

In 1858 he was in Port Adelaide, where he was in charge of the Anna Dixon. He was master of this vessel when she entered the Company's Basin, Port Adelaide — the first ship to enter. 

In November, 1858, Capt. Underwood sailed the steamship Admella from Port Adelaide to Rockhampton, Queensland. 

He was next master and owner or part owner of the barques Juliaheyn and Guadelette, trading from Adelaide and Wallaroo to Sydney and Newcastle. 

— Descendants. — 

About 1864 he handed over his ship to his son Thomas, and settled at Edwards town. His first wife had died, and he had remarried. He died at Edwardstown 24/12/1888, aged 82. There were six children, but the only one born in South Australia was Edward, the youngest, who was drowned in the Admella, 6/8/59. 

The eldest son, Thomas, after being master of various sailing ships, joined the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand, and brought out the celebrated steamship Rotomahana. Leaving the sea, he settled in Bairnsdale, Victoria, and died there 16/1/1910. 

There were four daughters, all of whom married. Jessie, the eldest, married at Darjeeling, India, John C. Stalkart. Sarah married Duncan Stewart, of Mount Gambier; Janet, the youngest, married, the Rev. A. W. Webb—father of Mr. N. A. Webb, of the Federal Arbitration Court; Cecilia, the third, married Mr. A. H. Price. 

The Mr. Duncan Stewart who married Miss Sarah Underwood was the son by her first husband, of the widow, Mrs. Stewart, who, in the early 40s, married Mr. James Smith, brother to Capt. Underwood's first wife. The children of the marriage now reside in Rendelsham. Duncan Stewart, who settled in 1846 at Rivoli Bay, with his mother and step-father, learned the language of the aborigines there, and was made Government interpreter at £50 a year. His mother, Mrs. Smith, took great interest in the aboriginals, and for years was in charge of an institution in Mount Gambier, which Miss Burdett Coutts supported. About 1880, the S.A. Government printed a book by Mrs. Smith. This account of her adventures and travels with the aborigines is interesting, instructive, and pathetic. 

As a boy I knew Capt. Underwood and his family very well. They lived in the early 60's in a two-storey house in King street, Alberton, where some of the daughters had an infant school. Some of the scholars are now in Port Adelaide. I went to the Sunday school and church of the Rev. A. W. Webb, whose services were first held in the old brick Congregational Chapel, Alberton (now a dwelling house) ; then in Mr. Leslie's schoolroom, and lastly, in the Alberton Baptist Chapel, Alberton, so I knew Judge Webb's parents before he did. I remember the first immersions which were performed at the old port. A venerable Heligolander, named Woodman was immersed, as also was Mr. J. N. Wills. Those who, like myself, are familiar with the history of Capt. Underwood and knew Judge Webb's father, are not surprised at His Honor's successful career. 

Register (Adelaide, SA : 1901 - 1929), Tuesday 5 September 1922, page 9