The Sarah & Elizabeth: from the Arctic to South Australia and back again

Many vessels in Hull’s whaling fleet had long and interesting histories but few can match the career of the Sarah and Elizabeth. The ship was built in 1775 at Swan Creek, Maryland, shortly before the American War of Independence finally erupted and ended her days crushed by the ice in the Greenland Sea in 1857. During her long life she survived press gangs and privateers as well as whaling voyages in the South Seas whilst making a mark in the foundation of the colony of South Australia.

Carrying the Sarah and Elizabeth story – the Suth Australian News
Source: B. Lubbock, Arctic Whalers (1937)

Although details relating to her very early history do not seem to have survived, it seems possible that the vessel may have been captured by the British from the American rebels and taken as a prize, as happened to another Hull whaling ship, the Truelove, which had been built a short distance from Swan Creek in Baltimore in 1768, although it should be noted that a substantial number of Yankee whalers did freely transfer to British ports because of the war.

What we do know is that the Sarah and Elizabeth began her Hull whaling career in 1784, the same year as her American sister, Truelove. This was a time when the British whaling fleet was rapidly expanding. Much of the whale oil used to light streets had previously come from the American colonies but this trade was suspended after the War of independence. Hull merchants and sailors were very involved in the trading opportunities that emerged and in the 1790s the town established itself as the largest British whaling port. Each year, Hull ships left home at the end of the winter and headed for either Orkney or Shetland where they picked up extra crew members. Those vessels calling at Shetland generally voyaged to Svalbard (the Spitzbergen archipelago) and then followed the whales along the ice flows to Greenland. Those visiting Orkney usually sailed onwards around Cape Farewell at the tip of Greenland and then up the Davis Straits. The Sarah & Elizabeth became a regular in this Arctic whaling trade and out of season was probably used for trips to the Baltic or possibly even voyages to Portugal to bring back wine.

Royal Navy frigate circa 1794 – similar to the Aurora that boarded the Sarah & Elizabeth
28 Gun Frigate © 1794 by W Fred Mitchell
Original chromolithograph published © 1890.

The outbreak of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars brought a number of additional dangers for those involved in this hazardous trade. Some whalers were taken by French naval and privateering vessels whilst whalers often had to run the gauntlet of the Royal Navy press gangs that were intent on taking the highly skilled whalers for naval service. Although the crews of whaling ships were ostensibly exempt from the press, such exemptions only covered the voyage and often naval officers paid scant attention to the fineries of the regulations in their attempts to recruit whalers into the Royal Navy. The Sarah & Elizabeth was to run into trouble with both the press gangs and privateers.

On the 19th July 1794, Captain Essington of the frigate Aurora intercepted the Sarah & Elizabeth under Captain Rose as she passed St Abbs Head in Scotland on her return from a whaling voyage. The frigate fired a shot across her forefoot and another when she hoisted her colours. The whaler was boarded by an armed party from the frigate but not before her crew had battened themselves down in the hold in a vain attempt to avoid the press gang. At first Captain Essington was going to throw a grenade amongst them to bring them on deck but Captain Rose warned him that an explosion amongst the oil and blubber in the hold might destroy both ships. Essington then ordered his men to break open the hold with crowbars. Still the whalers refused to come on deck and Essington let his men fire a volley of shots. In the smoke and confusion which followed one whaler was killed and others were injured. The shots continued even as the survivors begged for quarter. At last the whalers staggered onto the deck. Essington rounded up as many as he needed; his frigate then struck out for the south whilst the Sarah and Elizabeth limped on to Hull with the dead man on board.

When news got around, the Hull townsfolk were incandescent with rage. An inquest was held and the jury brought in a verdict of wilful murder against Essington. It was later stated that had an inquest not been held then rioting would have taken place. The Admiralty, however, mindful of this, kept Essington at sea and far away from Hull so that he could not be arrested. The event provoked such outrage that it was later reported that fourteen of the Sarah & Elizabeth’s crew who had been taken by Essington were discharged at the Nore. Shortly afterwards, another inquest was held after a member of another naval press gang had been shot dead in the town. Such was the hatred of the press that this time the jury brought in a verdict against the seaman involved of murder in self defence.

The Sarah & Elizabeth continued whaling throughout much of this long running war. In 1798, for example, she returned home with a catch of twelve whales and 240 tons of oil. But vessels faced a continual danger from privateers which were at times said to infest the Yorkshire coast and the approaches to the River Humber; on the 22nd July 1805, the then master of the Sarah and Elizabeth, Captain Ewbank, needed to make the most of his skilled seamanship when a ten gun French privateer bore down on his whaler a few miles off Flamborough Head. The French vessel looked her over but then made off after a neighbouring brig. Captain Ewbank, realised that if the brig was taken then his ship might well be the next victim. Without much ado he ran out the whaler’s few guns and sett off after the attacker. His aggressive action impressed the privateer which soon made off, leaving both vessels unharmed.

By 1814, the Sarah & Elizabeth was owned by John Lydekker and, although recorded as a Hull merchant, he appears to have been resident in London. Lydekker transferred the vessel to the London registry in 1815 and by 1823, if not before, she was being used in the ‘southern fishery’, whaling in the southern oceans of the world and taking sperm whales and the like. In 1828 she was advertised for sale once more, whilst lying in the East India Dock, London. She was described as a fast sailor, employed as a south seaman and also particularly adapted for the Greenland fishery. The vessel was subsequently re-registered in Yarmouth but returned to the

Hull shipping register in January 1831 and sailed for the Greenland fishery under Captain Summerville that spring. Captain Summerville died during the voyage but the Sarah and Elizabeth returned to the Greenland whaling grounds every year for the next four years. By now the whales seemed much harder to find and the whalers, forced further north amongst the ice, faced horrendous conditions in some years. The vessel came home clean – without any whales – in October 1834. The 1835 season was also bad with many vessels getting frozen in and being forced to spend a long time amongst the floes. Some whaling ships including the Isabella were lost whilst many other came home without a catch. The following year, 1836, also proved a disastrous season and that summer the Sarah & Elizabeth was offered for sale once more.

At sixty one years old it might be thought that the vessel was nearing the end of her working life but an entirely new venture awaited, far from the ice flows of Greenland. Her subsequent sale heralded a return to the southern oceans, this time to the projected colony of South Australia. The first Australian colony, New South Wales, had, of course, been founded with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. This had been followed by colonisation in Tasmania and later Western Australia. In the 1830s the colonisation of South Australia had been mooted and a new organisation, the South Australia Company, was set up. Its ten vessels were despatched in the summer of 1836 about the time the South Australia Company purchased the Sarah and Elizabeth. She was the eleventh vessel they sent south and the whaler left the Old Dock (Queen’s Dock) late is September 1836 under a South Seas whaling master, Captain Wakeling.

Although her destination was the new colony her voyage was not to be a direct one as the intention was for the vessel to take a whaling voyage in the South Seas before arriving. Hull seamen made up part of her crew for this new venture and although she was going whaling she also carried a number of passengers including at least two women. South Sea whaling voyages were usually much longer affairs than those to Greenland but the Sarah & Elizabeth arrived at Nepean Bay on the 24th April 1837, after a voyage of about six and a half months. The fourteen tons of sperm oil obtained from the whales she had taken on that voyage then made history. They were subsequently the first produce ever exported from the new colony of South Australia.

The Sarah & Elizabeth was based at the new colony for a number of years, making a series of whaling voyages. Indeed, she refitted soon after first arriving there and was sent straight back to sea, returning to Nepean Bay from her first trip from South Australia on the 4th September 1837. It seems there were three whaling vessels working from the colony in its early days and during the following summers they were employed in coastal trade whilst pursuing the black whales and sperm fisheries at other times of the year. She probably made at least two whaling trips in early 1838, arriving at Encounter Bay from the second of these on 3rd February. Not all her activity seems to have been recorded but it is known she arrived at Port Adelaide from a whaling trip on the 1st February 1842.

It might have been thought that this old vessel would have ended her days in South Australia but this was not to be. By mid November 1843 the Sarah & Elizabeth had voyaged north once more and was re-registered at Hull Custom House, the property of John Hall and various other local merchants. She returned to her old hunting grounds up the Davis Straits the following spring but had a less than successful season returning home with only one whale. The following year, she made what was described as a ‘charmingly prosperous’ voyage, taking three whales and 4000 seals. The ship continued to make Greenland voyages into the 1850s but the number of vessels taking part was falling away as a combination of adverse weather conditions, poor catches and low prices for whale products made the pursuit less profitable to shipowners who increasingly invested their money in other areas of maritime trade.

The Sarah & Elizabeth finally met her end in the David Straits early in the season on her 43rd Greenland voyage. Her master at the time was Captain Gravill – later to die when the whaleship Diana was imprisoned by ice and forced to over-winter in Baffin Bay in 1866/7. During the night of Easter Sunday, 1857, whilst taking seals, a strong gale drove large quantities of ice against the vessel. The Sarah & Elizabeth was pinned down and trapped as the ice stove in her quarters and the old ship soon flooded. The Diana was lying about eight miles away but failed to notice her distress until two of the Sarah & Elizabeth’s crew made it across the treacherous ice flows to raise the alarm. By then conditions were appalling but after three days of heavy snow and thick weather a party made it over the ice to the stricken ship. The old ship was by now full of water, held up only by the mainyard across the ice. As the Sarah & Elizabeth’s crew hurriedly collected their possessions from the flooded quarters below a sudden squall or storm broke up the ice pack. The way across the ice to the Diana which lay at the edge of the pack was now uncertain. Rescuers and rescued only just made it by jumping from one large piece of ice to another; even, on occasions, swimming in the death cold waters. Conditions were horrendous as the men groped their way forward; some were soon so exhausted that they had to be dragged along by their companions. The Diana had auxiliary steam power but even with her engines working hard it proved difficult to keep the ship up against the pack. Eventually, conditions eased sufficiently to allow the ship’s boats to enter the pack and, against the odds, every man was saved.

Such was the end of the eighty two year old whaler Sarah & Elizabeth, lost amongst the ice flows, far from her home port of Hull or her birthplace in Maryland and certainly far from the South Seas and her exploits during the foundation of South Australia.

Select Bibliography

Henry Capper, South Australia: Containing Hints to Emigrants (UK: R. Tyas, 1838)

Charles Dickens and Albert Smith, Bentley’s Miscellany (UK: London 1858)

Edward Gillett, The Humber Region at War 1793 – 1815 (Uk, Humberside Leisure Services, 1988)

Hull Packet

Gordon Jackson, The British Whaling Trade (UK: Adam & Charles Black, 1978)

Basil. Lubbock, The Arctic Whalers (UK: Brown, Son & Ferguson, 1937)

On-line References

South Australian Passenger Lists

Migrant Ships Arriving in South Australia 1836 – 1860

Flinders Ranges Research. Whaling in South Australia ps.htm

Hullwebs History of Hull. Whalers