A native of South Ronaldshay, Orkney, Scotland; on leaving school I went to sea and sailed in the following vessels: Zebra, Welcome and Sarah Metcalfe, trading between London and India, and thus visited Aden, with a cargo of coals for the P & O. S.N. Co; ang Singapore, with a general cargo; loaded at Penang for London, then London to to Colombo, from Colombo to Cochin; and the next port of call was Akyab, where we loaded paddy rice to Falmouth, thence to London for orders.
In 1857 I shipped in the Jannet, of London. Capt. McNulty got the ship ashore in the channel (she was bound for Adeleide) and after getting the ship afloat it was found the water was coming in as fast as the pumps could put it out, so the crew deemed it not safe to proceed on the voyage. Accordingly the Captain procured a tug steamer that towed the ship to Deal; he then went to Gravesend and shipped a new crew, brought them to Deal; and while the new crew were coming off to the ship the old crew were going ashore, so that the new crew knew nothing of the Jannet being stranded and making water. The Jannet never arrived at her destination. When I arrived at London I made another attempt to get to Australia, as reports were that you had only to dig anywhere to make your fortune.
At the Wells-street Sailor’s Home I signed on with the crew of the clipper ship Granite City. Wages were a shilling a month for the passage to Sydney, and the crew to discharge the cargo at Circular Quay at same rate of pay; and they were not allowed shore without permission. This contract the whole of the crew carried out. John Crook was harbour and berthing master; and the Quay was a very poor structure at this time, while lower George Street looked like a China-town. Capt. Leslie was skipper of the Granite City, and Hodge (late captain of the Port Jackson) was chief officer. We were ninety days on the voyage; and, as this ship had one reef in her top-gallant sails and four reefs in her top-sails, and all her flying kits were sent from the main deck, the shilling-a-month men had some work to do setting top-gallant studding sails. This may puzzle the sailor of today, to say the royal and top-gallant yards foot ropes were fastened on the yard before the mast – instead of behind with a life line to catch Jack if he missed hold. This plan was adapted to send the yards down quick.
When paid off at the Sydney Sailors Home from the Clipper Ship Granite city. I was indebt to the Captain 4/- of tobacco. The Captn gave me my discharge all vg and forgave me the 4/-. He offered me 7 pounds to stay in the ship. I thanked him and so finished my sailing days out of London. I had not a pennie when U landed in Sydney and not a friend or any letters of recommendation.
I got my chest and bag up to the Fortune of War public home (Jack Moore, landlord) right across from where the ship lay, and during the several weeks we were putting cargo out of the ship at 1/- per month. I could hear of work at 1/- per hour. At this rate of pay I obtained work with the European Royal Mail S.N. Co, trading to Suez. The company broke up, but the P & O continued; and I sailed in the City of Sydney, Wango Wango, London, Governor-General and Rangitara; visiting Melbourne, King George’s Sound, Point Caille, Aden and Suez, mails and passengers being sent by rail to Alexandria. There was no Canal then.
Back in Australia I traded to Melbourne in the A.S.N.C. boats; and left them for the Lachlan diggings. I walked from Rooty Hill to Forbes with a 35lb swag, took a claim on the south lead and washed the golden muck with a puddling machine. I started to a rush on the Bogan, but landed at Lambing Flat and wrought out a claim on Spring Creek for 100 load of wash averaging 1oz per load.
The next move was to the Dunstan rush, where Hartley and Riley washed out 87lb of gold. I walked from Spring Creek to Yass, caught the coach for Sydney, and got a passage with a old friend and shipmate, Capt. Conlow. He landed me in Otago the same day as 2500 other diggers got there. We started to walk from Dunedin to the Dunstan, and there were as many returning as going. After four days we arrived at the Dunstan, but the river had risen nearly a banker since Harley and Riley had left and there was little gold to be got. We had to leave the Dunstan and get to the Shotover and Wakatup. I put in ten months and covered some 1400 miles on foot in New Zealand, so the gold I got was dearly earned. I am of the opinion that the Dunstan has never been so low since, but the dredges are at work and there is plenty of gold in the bed of the river. The freight was 90 pound per ton to Dunstan.
After a 30 day passage back to Sydney in the barque Ellen Simpson, I met an old school-mate in Capt. Brown of the schooner Alma. He was going to the Macleay River, so I shipped with him, and after one trip got a berth in the pilot boat under Capt. McKenzie. One month was long enough in this job, so I took a five year clearing lease from a Thomas Christian, maize being 7s 6d a bushel. I employed as many black boys as I could to fall and clear the scrub. They were paid in flour, tobacco and run, they required no clothing as they wrought without rags.
This venture proved a loss, as maize dropped to 2s per bushel the next year, and freight and wharfage was 1s 1d. Thus I had the pleasure of spending some of my cash. I handed the whole concern over to my partner, S Elliott.. I superintended the construction of the Devil’s Nook road (upper Macleay) under contractor Fred Chapman; and next shipped one voyage in the Margaret, under Capt Bate. I then took (my first) command of the Kate; and left her to take command of the Barwon – built by John Ferrier, a fine old Scotch carpenter, and a powerful man. The vessel was built at Commandant Hill, Kempsey, and I had the pleasure of rigging and masting this craft on the stocks.
My next command was the Fred, S. White, a smart little vessel I sailed for five years, making one 20 day there-and-back record boyage to Hokitiki. It paid, for freight was & pound per ton, though towage over Hikitiki bar cost 25s per register ton. There were 84 pubs in Reval Street then – gold rush days.
I sold the F.S. White to Samuel King & Co for the South Sea Island trade, and then bought the Alpha in equal shares with George Nipper and John See. I sailed this vessel for 4 years and then sold to John Keep. My record voyage was from Wyralla, 70 Miles up the Richmond River, to the town of Noumea, New Caledonia, and back in 15 days. There were no tugs on the river, so I had to manage without. There were 20 vessels bar-bound together at one time, many being detained for three months. Pilot Easton was in charge. The skippers held a meeting at Ballina, drew up a petition and entrusted it to Capt Yabsly, of the Examiner, for presentation to the authorities. No good resulted, for the pilot protested against living on board a tug. That was in 1869.
My next job was on the brig Fairy Queen – coals, Newcastle to Melbourne; wheat from S.A. to Sydney; maize, Clarence to Melbourne; and a full cargo of cedar was purchased from J Cox of Pyrmont, at 14/6 per hundred, and sold in Melbourne for 31/- per hundred. Mr Nipper chartered the vessel to go to Port Pirie, with instructions to call at Adelaide for a pilot. It being a gale of fair wind I deemed it a loss to run up Vincent Gulf to get a pilot, so I ran through Backstair Passage ad went up Spencer’s Gulf. There was neither buoy nor guide of any sort for this port; in fact, the entrance to the creek could not be seen. The ship anchored off Mount Ferguson, and I reached the head of the creek in a boat, finding the only inhabitants to be two old men laying saplings for the wheat stack. The wheat had to be brought by horse from Georgetown, 35 miles away. Contrary winds kept small ketches 28 days en route from Adelaide, and we were waiting for them to bring the wheat down the creek. On the 30th day John Darling arrived from Adelaide, and he offered me five acres of land free of charge as a recognition for taking the first cargo of wheat. I thanked him, but could not accept the gift. The crew would have been badly off for food while waiting, only for fish. I received e medal for J Darling for taking the first cargo and I think I’m the only master that ever laded without entering or clearing Customs in South Australia.
My next command was the Civility, owned by William Short, and I was armed with power of attorney to sell the ship at any port where I could dispose of her for 8,000 pounds. About this time there was a move on to open Port Stephens as a deep water port for large ships to load coals, Salamander Bay being the harbour whereat to ship the coals. There were several gentlemen in Newcastle at the time (1872) pushing the matter, and a Melbourne coal merchant had guaranteed a large sum of money for the project. However, G.A. Lloyd, the then member for Newcastle, passing on with Capt. Bracegirdle in the Clarence River steamer Diamentina to the Macleay River, where I started operations as a merchant, buying and selling everything. I had a small schooner named the Challenge. It had been blackbird catching; was taken by a man-o’-war, the bird liberated, the vessel confiscated, towed to Sydney and sold. I put Capt. A McKenzie in command, trading on the Queensland coast and to the Macleay river for maize for Brisbane. While trading to the Macleay I found it a hard job to compete with the C.R.R. Co, maize freights being lowered from 1/- a bushel to 9d a bag; so the sailing craft had to disappear. The only way I could do with the Co was to become a shareholder, which proved a good investment. While residing on the Macleay I paid the farmers for over 200,000 pounds of maize. I invested in the Deep Creek mine failure; and bought 14 useless acres at Hurstville. I bought 100 acres at Taronara, on the Tweed, from W Charles, for my son Jack; had the land cleared by 20 Kanakas; after four years the land was sold and the money put into land in Queensland. Five of my sons are in Queensland now (1909), all on he land, but are handicapped by the Kanakas being sent away. The Kanakas are first class workers in clearing scrub land; Queensland has room for 20,000 of them, and should give a bonus for each.
Transcribed from Captain Thompson's written document by Jan Glover, Great Granddaughter of Capt Thompson. Contact Jan at www.glover.id.au
Magnus Tomisen (later changed to Thompson) was born to Donald and Jane in the Orkney Island of South Ronaldsay in 1834. He was baptized in Edinburgh. He ran away from home at the age of 13 or 14 and went to sea where he was befriended by a captain who saw to his schooling and education in seafaring matters.
He spoke little to us about his life at sea in the early days, but he traded around the Australian coast and the Pacific Islands. Circular Quay at that time was known as Chinatown. He returned from one trip in debt to the Captain for an amount of 6/- owing for tobacco.
During his trading trips to the north coast of N.S.W. he met his future wife, Joanna, whose family were farmers at Frederickton on the Maclear River. Their name was Hilliar. She remembered her mother used to tell the children to lock up the fowls when the sailors came ashore for the corn, as they were in the habit of stealing them.
They were married in 1869 and his wife spoke of one trip when she sailed with her husband on the “Alpha” as far north as Cairns, with her first baby Sarah. The ship’s cook used to help amuse the baby by dragging her around the deck in a large frying pan.
Joanna and Magnus had 6 sons and 4 daughters – Sarah, Jack, Bill, Arabella, Jessie, Evelyn, Donald, Malcolm, Hector and Harold.
In those days ships had to be warped over the bar at the mouth of the Macleay. 2 sailors would row in with an anchor and winch the ship up a hundred yards or so at a time, then repeat the process until the bar was crossed.
Magnus owned a schooner “Challenger” which he used to let out to other captains. This ship was involved in “Blackbirding” – bringing in Kanakas from the Pacific Islands as forced labour on the Queensland sugar plantations. He lost his ship when the Navy stepped in, freed the “birds” and confiscated the ship.
He took the first shipment of wheat from Port Pirie in the Fairy Queen. The shipment was consigned to John Darling and Sons Flourmillers. He was offered 4 ½ acres of land where Port Pirie now stands, but he thanked them and refused the offer. They presented him with a silver medal commemorating the occasion instead. This medal I gave to Vince Sullivan’s brother Harry, who was going to visit Adelaide for the Centenary celebrations. The wheat had to be picked up at some back creek where two men had laid a corduroy platform (saplings over the swampy ground) to allow the loading of the wheat. I don’t know whether this was the first shipment or not.
After his retirement from the sea Magnus opened a trading store at Smithtown on the Macleay River where he traded in corn. He owned 5 farms in various places on the river.
Document transcribed from family papers by Jan Glover, great granddaughter of Capt Thompson.
For information go to www.glover.id.au
Captain Magnus Thompson died at Arakoon on April 11th 1917 aged 83 years, and is buried in the small cemetery at Arakoon, near Trial Bay NSW.