Ocean voyage to the New World - diary of an incredible 1879 journey tp a new life...

Ivan and Betty Davidson of Mooracre Lane,Bolsover,with a copy of Betty's great uncle William Knox Murphy's Diary
Ivan and Betty Davidson of Mooracre Lane,Bolsover,with a copy of Betty's great uncle William Knox Murphy's Diary
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THERE were sharks, there were storms, there was a ship’s doctor who was almost permanently inebriated.

There was one birth on board, two cases of whooping cough and a married teenager who had an affair with one of the single men.

This was life on the Victorian passenger ship Orari during a three-month, 9,000 mile voyage from Plymouth to New Zealand.

And recording it all was a Sheffield labourer making the extraordinary journey to begin a new life in the New World.

Now the private journal of William Knox Murphy – a brickmaker born and bred in Sheaf Island – has been discovered in a trunk in Wellington, New Zealand.

And, in an age before planes, high speed trains and automobiles, it gives a fascinating – and somewhat South Yorkshire-tinted – insight into the trials and torments faced by those who braved three months on the ocean waves to find their fortunes on the other side of the globe.

“It’s an incredible read,” says Ivan Davidson, the husband of Murphy’s great niece Peggy, who lives in Bolsover.

“You’ve got to remember this was an age when ships were largely reliant on wind power and life on board was incredibly basic.

“I’ve been putting together our family tree for the best part of 10 years. I wrote to the New Zealand side of the family and they’d found this.

“It gives a real picture of the drama and excitement for those on-board heading for the unknown. I believe it belongs in a museum.”

Among Murphy’s more typically Victorian observations are his judgement on the German passengers (“filthy”), his concerns about alcohol (“it is rumoured the captain has stopped the doctor’s grog as he is daily getting drunk”), and his views on a new delicacy he samples.

“The sailors have caught a shark,” he records. “It is a female and measures 10 feet six inches. We have had a piece cooked but I prefer a piece of roast beef.”

The journey started for the then 26-year-old – who took his wife Hannah and two children, Emily Jane and Mary Anne – on April 22, 1879.

It is unclear why the family left Eckington, where they were living, but Ivan has his theories.

“The one problem with the diary is that it only covers the voyage,” explains the 78-year-old retired TV engineer.

“It starts when the journey does and finishes when it ends, and it doesn’t offer much in the way of history or hopes for the future.

“But New Zealand was a thriving place where, for men with ambition and a willingness to work, opportunities were boundless.

“Cities like Christchurch would have been hugely in need of brickmakers, and one suspects that’s why William went.”

Fortune or not, the mammoth journey on a boat designed for relatively cheap travel – most passengers were labourers or farm workers – could have put off less determined men.

It took the family 12 hours just to reach Plymouth and a further three days to register at the emigration depot, board a steam tug, and travel to the 291-passenger ship which was too cumbersome to dock in the port.

The foursome, like the vast majority of passengers, then spent the majority of the first week suffering sea sickness.

“We are not able to get out of bed and we cannot eat anything,” the entry for April 26 reads.

More seriously, both children contracted whooping cough and had to be treated in the ship’s makeshift hospital.

Still, notes Murphy with typical English aplomb, “we are having beautiful weather.”

“The diary vary rarely describes how he feels about anything,” says Ivan, a great grandfather-of-three.

“It is very much a journal of how the ship is progressing and what is happening on board.”

And plenty did happen.

Severe storms became regular occurrences as the ship entered the Tropics, with waves crashing over the deck and surging into the living quarters.

“The sea is become very rough,” the chronicle reads on June 19. “We can’t see very far on the sea... waves rise up like little mountains.

“We have just shipped a sea. It wet some of the passengers and sailors through. It came right over our bunk – we would have been flooded only that I had just shut the door.”

There was human drama too. At one point, an affair emerged.

“There is a row in the married quarters between a man and his wife,” writes Murphy.

“She has taken a fancy to one of the single men and refuses to go to her berth with her husband.”

Later a baby is born on board.

Dances, shows, draughts and dominoes meanwhile all helped to wile away the hours.

Some passengers took to trying to catch birds.

Plenty marvelled at views they knew they would never see again.

“We have never seen more beautiful sunsets,” notes Murphy.

Yet, despite such dramas and sights, the one overwhelming emotion experienced by the passengers appears to be boredom.

It is never made clear if Murphy has a vacancy waiting for him in New Zealand but his urgency to get there is palpable.

“We are getting right tired of ship life,” he says, watching faster schooners go past with envy.

“There is undoubtedly a sense of boredom,” says Peggy, 74, a retired shop assistant. “But then you would be after three months confined on a ship, wouldn’t you?”

The Orari arrived in Lyttelton on Sunday, July 27, 1879.

And then, as suddenly as the journal started, it just ends.

Murphy describes the town as a “beautiful harbour” and wrote no more.

The diary – which will remain with Murphy’s direct descendents in New Zealand – had served its purpose of recording the journey, it seems.

This South Yorkshire family had arrived in the New World.

From here there was the more important business of making their fortune.