Captain John McKirdy

Dear blog reader,

I have many, many ancestors who worked on the sea but I only have one ancestor who was the captain of a record breaking ship.

John McKirdy was the second cousin of my paternal 6 x great grandfather, James McKirdy.  John was born in Rothesay, Bute, Scotland on 18th August 1815 to Lieutenant Robert McKirdy of the Royal Navy and Janet Gillies. John was baptised on the 7th of September 1815. (I shall hopefully blog separately in the future on Robert McKirdy’s naval career).  I’ve been unable to find John in the 1841 census, he wasn’t with his parents and his brother Robert in Bridge Street, Rothesay in the 1841 census.  John was probably at sea.

This is John:

John McKirdy

On the 14th of February 1842, at Rothesay, John McKirdy, of the East India Company’s Service, married Mary Gilchrist, daughter of the late Captain James Gilchrist.  Again, in the 1851 census, there is no sign of John with his family, I suspect John is again away at sea.  In 1851 Mary was living at 9 Argyle Street, Rothesay with her children Robert, James, Mary and John.  In the 1861 census, John was at home!  John, a 45 year old ship master in the merchant service, was living at 25 Battery Place, Rothesay with his wife Mary and 5 of his children, Mary, John, Janet, Archibald and Annabella.

Unfortunately John died the next year, on 3rd July 1862 at 25 Battery Place, Rothesay, a master in the merchant service, from a diseased right lung and dropsy (also known as fluid retention).

John is buried in Rothesay cemetery, a grave my Mum and I visited in person several years ago.

This is John’s grave:

John McKirdy’s grave

What I find particularly fascinating about John’s career is the ship he commanded from 1855 to 1859, the Champion of the Seas:

The Champion of the Seas

The Champion of the Seas was the second largest clipper ship and was built to take emigrants from Liverpool to Melbourne. She was built by Donald McKay for James Baines of the Black Ball line. She was launched on 19th April 1854 and abandoned on 3rd April 1877 off Cape Horn due to leaks.

The Champion of the Seas weighed 2,447 tonnes, was 252 feet long, had a beam of 45 feet 6 inches, a hold 29 feet deep and 5,230 square metres of sails.

She’s best known for setting a record for the fastest day’s run in 24 hours, a record she held until 1984: from noon 10th December 1854 to noon 11th December 1854, under the command of Captain Alexander Newlands, she achieved 465 nautical miles.

The wonderful Trove website, an Australian collaborative website, holds, for free, digitised newspapers, government gazettes, maps, magazines, newsletters, books, pictures and much more. Included in this amazing collection is a reproduction of issues of the onboard weekly newsletter of the Champion of the Seas, the Champion of the Seas Times, for one of the voyages that John McKirdy commanded, from Monday 16th July 1855 to Monday 24th September 1855 . Each issue contained a captain’s report, a doctor’s report, reports on education, extracts from the ship’s log, puzzles, notes of any onboard births, marriages or deaths plus various serialised stories and articles.

I always believe that we learn most about our ancestors from their own words, so the remainder of this blog post will consist of John’s reports to his passengers over that time period.

July 16th, 1855. Dear Sirs. Subjoined is a tabular statement of our progress since leaving Liverpool, together with barometrical and other observations which will doubtless prove interesting to many of the passengers. It may be as well to fill it up each week, so that at the termination of the voyage it will form a continuous abstract. I am sorry our progress hitherto has not been so rapid as could be desired, but we are highly favoured in having such beautiful weather, which so much tends to heighten the enjoyment of our journey. The island of Madeira has been full in view since daylight this morning, and I hope, in a day or two, to have the north east trade winds, which at this season ought to be pretty fresh to carry us at least to 10° north latitude. I am glad to find the medical report is so favourable . Trusting it may continue so, and that nothing may occur to interrupt the harmony which I am pleased to observe prevails amongst all on board. John McKirdy, Commander.

July 23rd, 1855. Dear Sirs. Since my last report, our progress has not been so rapid as I could wish, but the extremely beautiful weather with which we have been favoured, atones in some degree for our loss of time. During the early part of the week, we passed Palma, and Ferro, two of the Canary Isles, belonging to Spain, and producing wine in abundance. We are now opposite the Cape de Verde group, consisting of ten principal, and some smaller islands. They extend from 14° to 17° north latitude, and from 22° 30′ to 25° 30′ west longitude. They are mostly high, some of them having sheltered bays and tolerable anchorage. At St Vincent, there is a coal depot, for the Cape and Australian steamers.  These islands have not much trade, in consequence of their prevailing barrenness.  We now enjoy a good breeze, which I hope may last a few days, and make amends for lost time. I would wish to convey a notice to the passengers through the medium of your columns, namely, to caution them against giving spirits to the crew of the ship. I am sorry to say something of this kind occurred last night, which exposes the men to punishment, and militates against the good order and discipline of the vessel. This hint will, I trust, be sufficient, as the safety of ship and passengers are involved in this matter. I am happy to notice the tolerably healthy state of the passengers. The hot weather, no doubt, may cause a few complaints, which have been unimportant hitherto. The continued good will, which still prevails amongst us, is a source also of much pleasure. Trusting it may remain with us to the end. John McKirdy, Commander.

July 30th, 1855. In reporting progress this week I am rather at a loss, inasmuch as we have not had observations for the last three days to determine our whereabouts, but considering the district of the globe we are in at present, we may be thankful for the winds we have had, and the tolerable progress as shown by the log. I imagine now that we are very near the SE trade winds, and I hope in another week to be able to report more favourably. We are now in the region of the equatorial rains and calms, the atmosphere dense and close, and singularly oppressive before the heavy showers. This cloudling, as it is called, is the great receiver of the ceaseless volumes of heated air loaded to saturation with vapour brought from the north and the south by the trade winds, when they become condensed on the lower side of the cloud stratum, and deluge this part of the sea at this season of the year with rain. I hope we shall all keep in good health throughout this gloomy region, and we shall soon feel our spirits revive on entering the SE trade winds. I beg to apologise for not filling up the abstract of this week, but our writing table is so wet that it is impossible to write it out; our estimated distance, run for the week to Sunday at noon, is 750 miles. Wishing yourself and your numerous readers good health for this week. John McKirdy, Commander.

August 6th, 1855. Dear Sir. Since my last report, I am sorry to say that we have made extremely little progress. Since Sunday week the winds have been uniformly and steadily against us, and it is not to be wondered, that under such adverse circumstances, in connection with a lee current, that our good ship has not advanced much further since your last issue. The wind this morning, thank God, shows a symptom of change for the better. I sincerely hope that it may last, as really our patience gets almost exhausted at continued ill fortune. I am glad that the health of the ship is still tolerably good, notwithstanding the very warm weather we have had. Hoping next week I will be able to present a more encouraging report. John McKirdy, Commander.

August 13th, 1855. Dear Sir. Our progress for the week is not such as I anticipated at your last issue of the Times. On Monday last the breeze was just beginning to blow so favourably that I expected a good week’s run, and to be considerably advanced on our journey by this time; but unfortunately, the wind hangs so much to the south-east, it is impossible to sail in a direct line. We have come quite across (since last week) from the African shore, and we are now within seventy miles of the coast of Brazil. The weather is very delightful, and I am happy to observe those of our number who were suffering from sickness, once more about the deck. I am in hopes that the wind will change shortly, and that we may pursue our journey without further delay. John McKirdy, Commander.

August 20th, 1855. Dear Sir. Our anticipations of progress in the past week have again been frustrated – calms and light winds still impeding our course. Our week’s run, up to yesterday at noon, was but 660 miles in a straight line, whereas the usual week’s sailing in the trade winds should be at least 1,500. The breeze is better this morning, I am glad to say, and notwithstanding the heavy head swell, we are making good progress. I only trust that it may last, and that our hopes may not be disappointed in the coming week. However, from the telegraph signals yesterday received, I am glad to find we are not worse off than our neighbours. Hoping for a good time coming. John McKirdy, Commander.

August 27th, 1855. Dear Sir. As is not unusual on Monday mornings, our prospects are brightening up, and we are now sailing with a favourable breeze at the rate of thirteen knots an hour. It is rather singular that our winds should always be better on the particular morning that the Times is issued; it may be that they wish to be favourably reported of in that widely circulated journal, to give intending emigrants a good opinion of them – in which case I would beg to suggest that the Times should be published daily instead of weekly, that our prospects might be always improving instead of waiting a week for a favourable change. We are within a day’s sail of Trista d’Acunha a small island which, during Napoleon’s imprisonment at St Helena, was occupied by an English force, in the withdrawal of which, three men volunteered to remain (a corporal and two seamen of the squadron), from whom have sprung the present colony, increased occasionally by whaling seamen tired of their voyage. The population two years ago was eighty five. The climate is healthy, the land in the valleys very productive, and the settlers employ themselves in the capture of seals which they barter with whales; the island is 8,000 feet high, and may be seen forty miles in clear weather. John McKirdy, Commander.

September 3rd, 1855. Dear Sir. I am happy to have the pleasure of informing you, that our progress during the past week was favourable; up to yesterday, at noon, our week’s run was 1,865 miles – a very decided improvement over our usual progress. I hope now that we may carry good winds with us to our destination. We are in the region where strong westerly winds generally prevail at this season of the year, and although accompanied by a little rolling, we must try and put up with the inconvenience, for the sake of the greater speed attained, and the consequent advance made towards the completion of our voyage. I am glad to find this morning that every one has been enjoying a good night’s rest, which has been so desirable after our late tossing. John McKirdy, Commander.

September 10th, 1855. Dear Sir. I am happy again to have the pleasure of reporting favourably of our week’s progress; the distance run up to yesterday at noon was 1,600 miles. We have now got into steady winds, which I hope will not desert us again. The weather is rather cold to be comfortable, but we must try and bear it for a few days, and in the course of a week we shall be turning to the north again, and will soon feel the genial influences of the Australian climate. We are today about 3,500 miles from Cape Otway, a distance which could easily be performed in a fortnight, and with good winds I hope to be near our journey’s end by that time. I am glad to find that the cold weather has not had any serious effect on the health of the passengers, and I sincerely trust that our reports in respect may still continue to be favourable, and that we may all arrive in comfort and good health is the earnest wish of John McKirdy, Commander.

September 17th, 1855. Dear Sir. I am happy to have to state that the week’s run has again been favourable, the distance made being 1,730 miles. I find that in trying her speed, the Champion of the Seas does not sale so fast as she did on her last voyage to Australia, but the fact of our carrying out this time about 2,000 tons of cargo, and being four feet deeper in the water than she has hitherto been, may fully account for her diminished speed; as it is however we have made a greater run this week than she has ever done before, viz – 1,865 miles, the greatest distance in one week last voyage was one mile less, 1,864. In the early part of the week we passed the Island of Desolation, so named by Captain Cook for its barren and inhospitable appearance, and during the week we have passed great quantities of seaweed, showing evidently that the current is setting eastward and consequently in our favour, the breeze still keeps good, and I hope the next number of your journal will contain the pleasing intelligence of the promised land being in sight. I am glad the health of the passengers generally still continues good, although the weather is rather cold to be comfortable,  and those who cannot take exercise on deck must be at a loss to keep themselves warm. Some gentlemen have resorted to the plan of sleeping all the morning. The idea is not a bad one provided they can afford to lose their breakfast. John McKirdy, Commander.

September 24th, 1855. Dear Sir. Our progress this week has again been favourable; the distance to yesterday at noon was 1,947 miles, and leaves about one day’s good sail from Cape Otway. The weather, however, I am sorry to say, has changed since, and the wind has now got round to the north-east quarter, which is very unfavourable for us, and may delay us a day or two more than we anticipated. As this may be the last number of the Times issued on board, will you allow me to convey to the passengers generally my sincere thanks for their uniform good conduct and peaceful behaviour while on board the Champion of the Seas. There are evils inseparable from emigrant ships and long passages, which I do not pretend to have escaped in this ship. But I will say that the voyage has passed over (with the blessing of almighty God) with a measure of peace, good will, and orderly propriety, which, for myself, I feel I cannot be sufficiently thankful. We are shortly about to separate, and I sincerely wish each and all of you success and prosperity in the country of your adoption – may your utmost wishes be realised, and may you find Australia in reality the land of promise. John McKirdy, Commander.

Sources used: Scotland’s People website for Church records, census records and death certificates, Ancestry website and Trove website.

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