History of the Merchant Navy

Two Victorian Sailing Ships Captains
Thomas Mitchell and Thomas Taylor

Thomas Mitchell was born in 1832 in Newburgh, Aberdeenshire to Thomas Mitchell senior, who was a grocer, and Margaret Thomson.  He had three sisters, the youngest of whom was my great-grandmother, Jane.  They were a very devout Non-conformist family.

He gained his Mate’s certificate in Newcastle in April 1851 and his first ship as mate was the Falcon, 226 tons, registered in Newcastle in 1840 and re-registered in North Shields in 1856.  It had a crew of eight: Master, Mate, Carpenter, Cook, 3 Able Seamen, 1 Boy.  In this ship he made two voyages from Sunderland to Stettin, Polonia, in June and August 1851.

Thomas then joined the Aberdeen Clipper Line, owned by Messrs G Thompson, Sons & Co of Aberdeen, later Messrs G Thompson, Junr & Co of  London.  The family firm included George Thompson, his son-in-law Sir William Henderson and his sons, Stephen, George and Cornelius.  It was also known as the Aberdeen White Star Line, not to be confused with the White Star Line of Titanic fame.

All Thompson’s ships were built by Walter Hood of Aberdeen, except the Thermopylae, and they were all registered in Aberdeen.  According to Basil Lubbock in ‘The Colonial Clippers’,  no ships that ever sailed the seas presented a finer appearance than the Aberdeen White Star Line fleet.

“They were always beautifully kept and were easily noticeable amongst the other ships for their smartness: indeed, when lying in Sydney Harbour or Hobson’s Bay with their yards squared to a nicety, their green sides with gilt streak and scroll work at bow and stern glistening in the sun, their figure-heads, masts, spars and blocks all painted white and every rope’s end flemish-coiled on snow-white decks, they were the admiration of all who saw them.”

The following are Thomas Mitchell’s voyages, all to Sydney.

Dates of trips Rank

Ship’s details

Ship’s No.

Date of reg

pages in Clipper book

John Bunyan   466 tons, about 16 crew: Master, Mate, boatswain, carpenter, steward, cook, sail-maker, 9 seamen/apprentices 1735 1848 131, 132
First Mate
Omar Pacha   1124 tons, about 65 crew and 30 passengers 12774 1854 126,131,138
Phoenician   478 tons, about 17 crew 13679 1854 131, 132
Transatlantic   614 tons, 25 crew, 5 passengers 18575 1857 126, 131, 138
Queen of Nations   846 tons, 27 crew, 11 passengers 29238 1861 127, 131, 132, 139
Centurion   1097 tons, 29 crew 60692 1869 131, 137-140

These ships were mostly used to transport wool from Australia to London but they carried other cargo and sometimes passengers.  This was particularly true of the  Omar Pacha, but it can be seen how much larger a crew was needed for passengers aboard the Omar Pacha compared to the Centurion.

There are Sydney harbour reports for all his voyages south on these ships, except John Bunyan.  (http://mariners.records.nsw.gov.au/)

There is a gap on his record between 1860 and 1865 which includes short trips in Australian waters.

Georgina Smith of Melbourne   44 tons, 4 crew sailing from Port Albert to Sydney
William Hill   of Geelong 109 tons, 7 crew sailing from Port Warnambool to Sydney and Melbourne to Sydney

In 1868  his sister, Jane, wrote in her diary that he had just managed to return from Sydney in time for her wedding to James Scroggie on 23 July that year.  But for the remainder of the year and the beginning of 1869 he was overseeing the construction of the Centurion before her maiden voyage in June which he commanded.

He is mentioned in ‘The Colonial Clippers’.

“The ship ‘Queen of Nations’, Captain Thomas Mitchell, belonging to Messrs G Thompson & Co, left Sydney on 21st September 1865 loaded with: 484 bales of wool, 44 bales of cotton, 1037 casks of coconut oil, 219 casks of tallow, 2602 ingots and plates of copper, 9452 hides. For ballast she had 30 tons of kentledge; dunnage, treenails and bones, 12 inches in the bottom, 18 in the bilges and 6 in the sides.  The hides were laid from two beams abaft the foremast to the mizen  mast; oil on the hides, with a tier of tallow between; the wool, cotton, gum, etc in the ‘tween decks.  Her best trim was 9 inches by the stern.  So laden she drew 18ft forward and 18.5 ft aft.  Pilotage in £14 2s; out £14 2s.”

“The second ‘Centurion’ was launched in the spring of 1869 and measured: length 208ft, beam 35ft, depth 21ft.  Captain Mitchell overlooked her building and was her first commander.  She was a very fast ship and he always hoped to beat the ‘Thermopylae’ with her, but never succeeded.  On her first voyage she went out to Sydney in 69 days.  It was a light weather passage and she never started the sheets of her main topgallant sail the whole way.   She also made some creditable tea passages but was mostly kept in the Sydney trade.  In 1871 she went out in 77 days and in 1872 in 78 days.” (Under Captain Taylor)

Thomas was married to Mary Elizabeth Alexander (1844, Swansea), daughter of George Alexander, also a master mariner, and Elizabeth Bennett on 15th April 1862 at 3 Springbank Terrace, Aberdeen by the Weslyan minister.

Thomas, Mary and one child, probably Thomas jnr

Thomas, Mary and one child, probably Thomas jnr

Thomas and Mary had four children: Thomas Alexander (1864-1930); George Bennett (1865-1941; Joseph F (1868-1873); Mary Elizabeth (1870).  They were all born in Aberdeen except George.

Mary and Thomas junior went on the voyage to Sydney when Thomas was Master of Queen of Nations in 1865.  George Bennett was born on board ship in the North Atlantic near Cape Verde on the return voyage.  She and two of the children went on the same voyage when he was Master of Centurion in 1870.  He died of a stroke on board ship in the North Atlantic near the Azores on the return trip, age 38.  His First Officer, Hugh Wright, took command and reported the death of his captain at sea.

Thomas Taylor

After the death of Thomas Mitchell, Thomas Taylor, born 1835, took command of the Centurion.  He was probably a friend of the family because Mary Mitchell, still only 29 years old, married him in May 1873.

They had three children: Edward  who was born on board the Centurion in the South China Sea off Vietnam in 1877; Thomasina (1880 Aberdeen); Cornelia (1882 Aberdeen).

Thomas Taylor made five voyages to Sydney in command of the Centurion, up to 1885.  In 1887 he commanded the sailing ship Smyrna to Australia and back but on his second trip out the Smyrna collided with steamship Moto in the English Channel just off the Isle of Wight in fog and he was drowned.  The wreck is still there after more than 110 years, in quite good condition, and is much visited by divers.  http://www.deepimage.co.uk/wrecks/smyrna/Smyrna_mainpages/smyrna_mainpage.htm

In 1901 Mary Alexander/Mitchell/Taylor was still living in Aberdeen, in Springbank Road close to her grandparents old home from which she was first married, with her unmarried daughter, Mary.  Thomasina, age 21, was a schoolmistress in London and her sister Cornelia, age 19, was a student at the same place.

Photo of Thomas Alexander Mitchell, from a public family tree

Photo of Thomas Alexander Mitchell, from a public family tree

According to the above public family tree, Thomas Alexander Mitchell married Maud Thorndick from Chelmsford but I can’t find any documentation on him after 1871.  I can’t find Edward Taylor after 1881, however, George Bennett Mitchell is well documented since he was a very successful architect in Aberdeen.

He married Margaret Ann Angus in Aberdeen in 1892.  Her parents were James Angus (commission agent) and Elspet Helmrich (teacher) of 7 Bank Street, Aberdeen.
Georgeand Maggie had two children: Meta in 1894 and George Angus in 1896.  George Angus became an architect like his father and they set up as George Bennett Mitchell & Son, a company which is still extant in West Craibstone Street, Aberdeen.

Days of Sail - Red- Duster
Omar Pacha in 1869 when it caught fire at sea, returning from Brisbane with a cargo of wool
Red-Duster Web

Phoenician 1847 Aberdeen, wood, 521 gross weight, barque – square rigged on two masts of three
Merchant Navy Association

Queen of Nations

Great Days of Sail

Sailing Ships of Old

by Wendy Furey
great-great niece of Thomas Mitchell