- A.N. Other
- History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2022 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By John Smith
The Royal Navy’s Australia Station was in existence from 1859 until 1913 when the newly created Royal Australian Navy took over the naval defence of Australia. The Australia Station was established as a breakaway from the East Indies Station because of the perceived Russian threat to the Australian colonies. During its fifty years, 103 British warships served in the station. For a detailed description of these ships it is hard to go past the beautifully illustrated Ships on the Australia Station by John Bastock.
Was it a happy station in which to serve and how do we measure this? For the officers certainly it was more of a social than warlike existence. For the sailors, looking ashore at the emerging colonies, must have seemed more promising than the uncertainties of life at home with its industrial revolution. And of course this was the time of Australian gold rushes with their promises of quick fortunes. The result was many desertions from visiting ships including from the warships of the Australia Station.
Within the Naval Historical Society’s library is an interesting volume: Ships’ Deserters 1852-1900 Including Stragglers, Strays and Absentees from HM Ships by James (Jim) Melton. The author trawls through the NSW Police Gazette and the NSW Government Gazette which record deserters. A typical entry dated 31 May 1882 reads:
‘From HMS Nelson, Sydney. MICHAEL SMITH – Deserted 31st May. Boy 1st class, born in Hants, 15 years of age, 5 feet 2 inches high, fresh complexion, brown hair, blue eyes. Reward £3 plus £5 NSW’.
This description could have fitted many youngsters and they were unlikely to be caught unless apprehended committing some other misdemeanour.
To provide some background to the number of deserters involved, one ship has been chosen at random from the Australia Station. HMS Diamond was one of five Amethyst class corvettes which had the distinction of being the Royal Navy’s last wooden built warships. They quickly became obsolete and mostly spent their commissions on distant stations.Diamond was a screw corvette armed with 12 x 64 pounder guns with a complement of 225. Rigged as a ship with plentiful canvas she could make a handy 12 knots both under sail and power. She served on the Station from 1881 to 1888 with a relief crew sent out to Sydney for the second half of this period. Desertions from Diamond are shown in the following table.
The photo shows Diamond dressed overall marking the celebration of the 1887 Jubilee of Queen Victoria at Farm Cove in Sydney Harbour. In the background from left to right is the screw corvette HMS Rapid, sailing schooner HMS Undine, Victorian steamer HMVS Lady Loch and screw corvette HMS Opal.
List of Desertions on the Australia Station
|May 1882 – Sydney||Sept 1882 – Sydney||Dec 1882 – Sydney|
|Stokers 5||Privates RMLI 5||Ship’s corporal 1|
|Ordinary seaman 1||Gunner RMA 1||Privates RMLI 3|
|Captain quarterdeck 1||Ordinary seaman 1||Ordinary seaman 3|
|Signalman 1||Signalman 1|
|Able seaman 1|
|Total for 1882 = 24|
|Jan 1883 – Sydney||Mar 1883 – Sydney||May 1883 – Sydney|
|Unknown 1||Unknown 2||Ordinary seaman 1|
|Ordinary seaman 4||Stoker 1||Stoker 2|
|Gunner RMA 2||Able seaman 3||Able seaman 1|
|Carpenter’s crew 1||Carpenter 1||Private RMLI 1|
|Able Seaman 1||Ordinary seaman 8|
|Stoker 1||Lamp trimmer 1|
|Private RMLI 2|
|June 1883 – Sydney||July 1883 – Sydney||Aug 1883 – Sydney|
|Private RMLI 1||Ordinary seaman 2||Ordinary seaman 2|
|Able seaman 1||Gunner RMA 2|
|Ordinary seaman 3||Private RMLI 2|
|Able seaman 1|
|Total for 1883 = 48|
|Jan 1884 – Sydney||Apr 1884 – Sydney||May 1884 – Sydney|
|Ordinary seaman 2||Ordinary seaman 3||Gunner RMA 1|
|Leading seaman 1||Able seaman 2||Able seaman 1|
|Stoker 2||Stoker 1||Stoker 1|
|May 1884 – Brisbane||Nov 1884 – Melbourne|
|Private RMLI 2||Foretop second captain 1|
|Maintop captain 1|
|Forecastle captain 1|
|Able seaman 9|
|Leading seaman 1|
|Private RMLI 1|
|Total for 1884 = 36|
|Mar 1885 – Sydney||Apr 1885 – Sydney||Jun 1885 – Albany|
|Boy first class 2||Able seaman 2||Able seaman 1|
|Sep 1885 – Sydney|
|Boy first class 2|
|Wardroom servant 1|
|Total for 1885 = 8|
|Jan 1886 – Sydney||Feb 1886 – Sydney||Mar 1886 – Sydney|
|Able seaman 2||Ordinary seaman 1||Boy first class 1|
|Dec 1886 – Townsville|
|Foretop second captain 1|
|Able seaman 1|
|Total for 1886 = 7|
|Jan 1887 – Sydney||Feb 1887 – Sydney||Jun 1887 – Sydney|
|Unknown 4||Unknown 1||Unknown 1|
|Jul 1887 – Sydney||Oct 1887 – Sydney||Oct 1887 – Brisbane|
|Unknown 5||Unknown 1||Unknown 6|
|Boy first class 1|
|Nov 1887 – Sydney|
|Total for 1887 = 25|
|Mar 1888 – Hobart||Jul 1888 – Sydney||Aug 1888 – Melbourne|
|Unknown 2||Unknown 3||Unknown 3|
|Aug 1888 – Sydney||Oct 1888 – Auckland|
|Unknown 1||Unknown 1|
|Total for 1888 = 10|
|Grand Total = 158|
1 A crew change over occurred in Sydney in mid-1884
2 ‘Unknown’ – the deserter is fully described except for his rating
The total complement of 225 included officers, warrant officers and midshipmen, none of which are recorded as deserting. Was 158 over seven years on the Australia Station normal? This equates to about 10% pa but is much higher if officers are excluded. The desertions from Diamond do not appear much different from other ships on the station so the ship was not unique. The allure of the gold rushes must have had an effect with 17 desertions recorded in the November 1884 visit to Melbourne. During this time some merchant ships lost virtually all of their crews.
Life on the Australia Station
From available information it would be fair to surmise that life on the Australia Station was none too arduous with much time spent in port but Diamond visited many islands in the South West Pacific, New Zealand and most Australian ports. Her first commission under Captain Alfred T. Dale lasted until November 1884 when her original crew were replaced by a new complement under Captain Francis J. Clayton. There are a few interesting newspaper reports which are described below.
‘On 22 March 1886 HMS Diamond anchored in Barnes’ Bay, Hobart where the quarantine building is situated. Here 31 patients had been landed, of these 2 only were suffering from typhoid, 15 from intermittent fever, and the rest from different ailments. Fresh air, good provisions and better accommodation than the ship could provide should see all patients successfully convalescent and available to leave in about three days. The ship next arrived at Newcastle where she was quarantined having reported 17 cases of typhoid on board.’
It is assumed the ship then proceeded to the Pacific as there is a further report – on return from a Pacific cruise Diamond coaled at Suva and then made for the Kermadec Islands which were reached on 31 July 1886. Captain Clayton landed on Sunday Island, hoisted the British flag and took possession of the islands in the name of Her Majesty the Queen. These islands are now the northernmost possession of New Zealand.
A comprehensive article is to be found in the Brisbane Courier dated Friday 13 July 1888.
‘HMS Diamond returned to Port Jackson last Saturday after a protracted cruise of nearly three months, principally to the New Hebrides [Vanuatu], making Noumea in New Caledonia her headquarters. Her trip was unusual from the fact that two of her lieutenants and two of the officers from the French man-of-war Fabert constituted and sat as the first joint commission to settle the affairs in the New Hebrides.
The commission sat in Diamond on 26 April, and was instrumental in drawing up and passing the rules for the future and immediate guidance of New Hebridean affairs. The business was transacted with great promptitude, and upon the most friendly and amicable terms. Either an English or a French man-of-war will always be cruising in the islands of the group, and will report upon what may be going on, and little disputes or crimes will immediately and instantly dealt with by the vessel in the vicinity; but in case of anything of a grave or serious character occurring the matter will then become a subject for the commission to deal with. The captains of the respective ships will act as president of the commission month and month about. It fell to the lot of Captain Benier, of Fabert, to act as the first president. The commission on the second occasion met on board the Frenchman, and more business was transacted, but it was of no great importance; in fact it merely confirmed what had been agreed to on Diamond.
HMS Rapid arrived at Noumea on the 28th, and relieved the officers of Diamond of their position of the commission, while the officers of Fabert were relieved by the French man-of-war Decres. Diamond has had a very pleasant trip the whole time, and she has visited nearly all the islands and mission stations in the group. Two cases of murder in the group were dealt with. In the case of the boy who was shot at Malhicole, a sum of money as blood-money was paid, and in the case of the man Walker, a trader, who was murdered at Pentecost, upon the arrival of Diamond all the natives fled to the hills and hid in the dense scrub and undergrowth, and could not be found, so a couple of boats’ crews put off from Diamond and destroyed ten canoes. Pang Rouma mission station (the Rev. Moreton) was visited. Lepers’ Island, Port Sandwich, Havanah, Fortuna Aneityem, Tanna were also called at on more than one occasion. At the latter place the volcano was in active eruption; there were two craters. Dillon Bay, Erromango Island, a mission station, Tongoa, Santa were also visited in turn. Everything was quiet, however, and there was nothing of importance to relate. The missionary schooner Dayspring was at Santa on 13 June, when Diamond was there. Qulea, where the Rev Leggett’s mission is, was also visited, but there was no news to report. Diamond had fine and fair weather throughout; there was no sickness or accident during the whole time. Mr Rannie, the Government agent, wrecked aboard the schooner Madeline, was conveyed to Noumea from Port Sandwich by Diamond.’
After seven and a half years on the Australia Station, on Saturday 1 September 1888 HMS Diamond, flying a long paying-off pennant, sailed from Sydney with due fanfare and was cheered by other ships of the squadron, including her relief HMS Royalist. She cleared the heads at 11.30 am bound for Plymouth via Auckland and Cape Horn. In early 1889 she was paid off at Chatham and was sold out of service some five months later.
Overall the commissions of Diamond on the Australia Station were said to be very successful with the officers and crew making themselves extremely popular. The desertions which she suffered seem to have been an aberration of those times and had little to do with her overall performance.