The James Craig Story


This article by Jeff Toghill, written in 1978, vividly describes the story of the James Craig up to that time.

A painting by David Wenban showing the vessel as she would have been soon after launch as the Clan Macleod.
A painting by David Wenban showing the vessel as she would have been soon after launch as the Clan Macleod.

In the eyes of a sailor, sailing ships are beautiful, and none more so than the stately windjammers which for decades were the umbilicus of new worlds such as Australia, isolated from the centers of old world civilisation by thousands of miles of ocean. These floating ‘clouds of canvas’ have been eulogised by poets, painters and seamen for their remarkable beauty, reaching a zenith in the latter half of the nineteenth century with the advent of the tea and wool clippers.

The James Craig. A photo of her under sail taken in the early part of the 20th Century. This is the only known photograph of her under way.
A photo of James Craig under sail taken in the early part of the 20th Century.
This is the only known photograph of her under way.

Ironically, these magnificent ships, representing the ultimate in both beauty of line and technical development, were to usher in the end of an era. As the turn of the century approached, the ugly but economical steam ships gradually replaced the billowing white sails with black clouds of coal smoke. Man, in his desire for speed, relegated to the past an era of romance and beauty that had never been seen on the world’s oceans before and will almost certainly never be seen again.

Australia, like so many of the developing nations of that time, owes her very existence to those tall ships and the rugged men who manned them across some of the most ferocious waters on the globe. It is to our discredit that to date (1978) not one of the ships which populated and providored this country has been retained in working order. Only now, when most have long since gone to the happy sailing ground in the sky, have a few consciences been stirred and attempts made to recover some of this magnificent past and preserve it for our future generations. Alas, it is almost too late! Only two relatively small ships remained on this coastline in a condition which permitted restoration. The Rona, now the Polly Woodside, has been restored in Melbourne to a static museum piece, and the James Craig, the last iron barque on these shorelines, is in the process of restoration in Sydney. Strangely, these two noble ships knew one another in the course of their working lives, both being engaged in the trans-Tasman and coastal trade as well as in world trade.

The James Craig alongside South Street Wharf New York during her period on the New York to New Zealand run.
James Craig alongside South Street Wharf New York during her period on the New York to New Zealand run.

Happily, the James Craig is a true representative of iron ships of the Clipper era of the 1870s and 1880s. Although she herself was not engaged in the Clipper trade, she is a pure example of the ‘workhorse’ barques which plodded solidly around the Cape of Good Hope and the Horn carrying lifeblood cargoes such as coal, salt, cotton goods and machinery from the United Kingdom to a rapidly developing Australia. Indeed, a more typical example of this type of vessel–so important to this country in those formative years–could not have been found had one been given a choice. In addition to her world-wide journeyings, she also served in local waters and finally concluded her working years under the ownership of an Australian firm.



With her hull rusty after an ocean crossing, the James Craig unloads timber in Adelaide.
With her hull rusty after an ocean crossing, the James Craig unloads timber in Adelaide.

The story of the barque James Craig began in 1873 in the United Kingdom when Glasgow ship owner Thomas Dunlop placed an order for an iron barque with Robert Bartram and George Haswell, shipbuilders of Sunderland. She was to be called the Clan Macleod, the second of two sister ships. The Clan Macleod was built at Yard No75 under the critical eye of a representative of Lloyd’s Register of Shipping who meticulously surveyed her throughout her construction, finally granting her the classification Lloyd’s 100 A1 when she was launched. Comtemporary reports state that the Clan Macleod was fitted “with every modern contrivance”. The barque was constructed entirely of iron plates 1/2 an inch (12.7mm) thick, riveted onto iron frames and stringers.

Her dimensions were length, 179.8 feet, beam, 31.3 feet. The depth of her hold was eighteen feet from her main deck which was sheathed with three and a half inch yellow pine. The ‘tween deck was not sheathed, since she was not designed to carry passengers. the lower masts, bowsprit and yards were iron with the exception of the mizzen which was pine. The fore lower mast was sixty-three fee in length, with a diameter of fifteen inches at the centre. She carried three hatches, the main hatch measuring fourteen feet by nine feet, the fore hatch five feet six inches by five feet four inches and the quarter hatch seven feet by seven feet.

No tween deck as fitted in her hold. The crew were accommodated in a house abaft the foremast and the officers in the poop deck. She had the usual carvings and scroll work on either side of the bow and a three-quarter length figurehead of a woman beneath the bowsprit.

Her topmasts were of timber, and standing and running rigging of iron and hemp. She was equipped with two sets of sails, one long boat and two life boats. She carried three anchors with a total length of cable of 240 fathoms. To preserve the iron in her hull the interior was coated with cement–which is there to this day–to the upper turn of the bilge, and painted above, while outside three coats of paint were applied. The Clan Macleod was launched from the Sunderland shipyard on 18 February 1874 and passed her final survey on 18 March. She was loaded with coal for her maiden voyage and sailed on 6 April with Captain William Alexander as Master and a complement of seventeen which included his wife and three apprentices.

Her maiden voyage proved eventful from the start. Running short of fresh water on the passage round Cape Horn, she had to make an unscheduled stop at Rio de Janeiro. Having discharged the coal in Callao, Peru, she proceeded to Portland, Oregon, and loaded wheat and flour for the United Kingdom. The Captain’s wife gave birth to a son on 29 November and he was named William Macleod Alexander as a memento of his birthplace. The journey back across the Atlantic proved very protracted, occupying 171 days. The vessel finally came to anchor in the Humber on 10 July 1875, but before berthing she parted her anchor cable and grounded on a sandbank. Fortunately she came off without assistance and was later towed into dock.

The Clan Macleod made her first passage into Australian waters in January 1877 on her third voyage. However, she did not make into any port but ran the easting down below Tasmania to her destination at Dunedin in New Zealand. Again, her voyage was not without incident for the mate, William Morris, aged twenty-four years, of Glasgow, was washed overboard and drowned during the passage. And on the return journey to the United Kingdom she again had to put into Rio de Janeiro, having suffered heavy damage in rounding Cape Horn. The rudder was loosened, her long boat and some spars washed away, her hatches were burst and the grain cargo was heating. It was necessary to discharge some of the cargo in order to reduced the risk of fire breaking out, and it was a month or so before she again got under way for her destination Liverpool. Her next voyage finally brought her to Australia and she arrived in Brisbane on 9 August 1879 with a general cargo from the United Kingdom.

The beginning of the end of the windjammer era. A steamer lies at an adjacent berth to the James Craig. She was later to serve as a coal hulk for steamships.
The beginning of the end of the windjammer era. A steamer lies at an adjacent berth to the James Craig. She was later to serve as a coal hulk for steamships.

It was to be eleven years before the Clan Macleod would visit this part of the world again, and then only to New Zealand. In that time she served as one of the world’s ‘shopping baskets’, sailing across almost every ocean and carrying almost every type of cargo. However, the ungainly steam ship was beginning to make inroads into the windjammer trade, and in 1883 Thomas Dunlop took delivery of the Clan Davidson, the company’s first steamer. This sounded the death knell of the sailing ships, and the Clan Macleod was sold in early 1883 to another Glasgow ship owner, Sir Roderick Cameron, who placed her in the New York to New Zealand trade. At that time quite a number of sailing vessels were employed in the service between the American port and the antipodes, most of them being barques and barqentines of the same size or slightly larger than the Clan Macleod. Cargoes outward were mostly of a general variety including paper, crockery, glassware, machines, tobacco, etc. The return cargo from New Zealand was mostly wool, flax or kauri gum. Each voyage entailed a world circumnavigation, the barque proceeding outwards via the Cape of Good Hope and homewards via Cape Horn. The complement of the ship by this time had been reduced to twelve and thus the work on board was hard graft! There were many desertions during these voyages. Handling a windjammer with a short-handed crew is hard enough, but in the waters in which the Clan Macleod sailed gales and ice with heavy seas were the order of almost every day. Running across the southern oceans between the Cape of Good Hope and Australasia and the return journey round Cape Horn made life on board very tough indeed. A typical indication of the sort of passage can be seen in an extract from a report on a voyage in 1895.

“…Rounded the Cape of Good Hope on July 3 in latitude 44oS…with hard gales and heavy weather and passed a great deal of ice while making her easting. At 6 pm on July 7…passed close to an immense berg and at 5 pm on July 9, with thick foggy weather…passed three very large bergs, and the weather continuing thick…was compelled to heave to. Met a heavy gale on July 11…with hard squalls and heavy seas, and at 2.20 am sighted another large berg ahead, while after getting to the northward of it…passed three detached pieces, saw another and passed to the northwards of it…”

Until now the trade in which the Clan Macleod was engaged was almost exclusively in the hands of sailing vessels. However, as steamers encroached on the service, the tall ships were withdrawn. At the end of September 1899 the barque commenced her twelfth and last voyage from New York to Wellington with 531 tons of cargo which included 80,000 cases of kerosene. During the return passage to New York it was announced that she had been sold on 15 August to a Mr J.J. Craig, ship owner, of Auckland, New Zealand. The barque returned from New York to her new owner via Newcastle, New South Wales, where there were no fewer than eighty-nine sailing vessels and steamers detained by a strike in the surrounding coal mines which had effectively paralysed the port. When the strike was settled, the Clan Macleod loaded coal for Auckland and arrived in her new home port on 23 February 1901. She now entered the trans-Tasman trade, carrying mostly timber to Australia and coal from Newcastle on the return passage.

For the next seven years the barque plied to and fro across the Tasman Sea, mostly from Thames and Kaipara and Whangarei to Sydney and Melbourne. Her return passage was almost invariably from Newcastle to Auckland on the coal run, although a few were made from Newcastle to Wellington. Her passages were mostly without incident, although she did strand on one occasion inside the heads of Port Phillip Bay. She was towed off without damage, however, and continued her trans-Tasman journeys.

On board the James Craig in 1920 Photographer: Sharkey Keen
On board the James Craig in 1920 Photographer: Sharkey Keen

But the end was drawing near, and on 30 July 1911 the James Craig was converted into a storage hulk in Port Moresby. The top gallant masts, yards (with the exception of the main) and jib boom were removed and the graceful windjammer commenced her new role. Had it not been for World War I, it is possible that the James Craig would have ended her life in this ignominious way. As it was, the need for ships was such during the war that cargo and passenger vessels which had been laid up were brought back into action to replace the tonnage being sunk by German submarines. The James Craig was one of many windjammers to be refitted and rerigged and brought back into commission. On 19 August 1918 she was purchased by Henry Jones & Company, the well-known IXL food and produce merchant of Hobart. She was brought down to Sydney after an eventful passage in which she suffered damage during a storm and had to put into Gladstone for repairs. She arrived in Sydney on 30 August 1918 ignominiously being towed in by a steam tug. During the next months she underwent an extensive overhaul in which a number of plates in the hull were replaced as well as the decks and all standing and running rigging. By the time she was refitted, there was little which had not been replaced with new gear.

On board the James Craig in 1920 Photographer: Sharkey Keen
On board the James Craig in 1920 Photographer: Sharkey Keen

World War I gave the handful of sailing vessels still in service a new lease of life, particularly in the Pacific trade, but the War over, and steamers coming back into their own, the windjammers were again laid up. The James Craig, while on a passage with coal from Newcastle, almost foundered in the Bass Strait, indicating that her hull was not in a seaworthy condition and the end of her useful life was near. With four feet of water in her hold she was towed into Sydney where a newspaper report gave the following account of the drama:

“…When off Gabo Island, she struck heavy weather and her topside seams opened, letting the water pour into her at a rate faster than the pumps could cope with. In this condition the vessel remained for forty-eight hours. Then the wind eased and enabled the Captain to navigate her under the lee of the coast. …Captain Murchison…said that…he did not expect that the James Craig would ever make port again. From stem to stern mountainous seas swept the barque buffeting her and throwing her about like a cork. The forepeak was filled with water, the cabins had three feet of water in them and most of the stores were destroyed by the water, whilst the decks were awash. For two days the ship remained in this plight. The crew, without a break during the forty-eight hours, were engaged in pumping and baling the buckets, living meanwhile on tinned food. Unable to cope with the water, they did not know how much there was in the ship or at what rate she was leaking as, on account of the decks being awash, it was impossible to take soundings. In this condition the James Craig was on the point of being abandoned when the wind moderated and veered to the south west…”

On board the James Craig in 1920 Photographer: Sharkey Keen
On board the James Craig in 1920 Photographer: Sharkey Keen

It seemed that her last years were to be spent constantly battling the sea’s attempts to claim her. Only a year later, on her final trans-Tasman passage, she took forty-nine days from Auckland to Melbourne, a passage normally covered in fourteen to twenty days. A report in the Hobart Mercury on 28 July 1921 gave this description of her attempts to make through the Bass Strait and into Port Phillip Bay.

“…Three times when within ten miles of Port Phillip Heads she was blown to sea and drifted across Bass Strait to north eastern Tasmania. Storms were encountered during practically the whole of the voyage from New Zealand but the worst was experienced on sighting Barren Island. The ship could not stand against the storm, and her sails were taken in, the wheel lashed and the ship allowed to drift sideways in the angry sea. This lasted for three weeks, during which the Captain did not remove his clothes. The ship was tossed about in the sea like a cork, with the decks often underwater. One night she was at the entrance to the Gippsland Lakes and forty-eight hours later she was drifting near Flinders Island…After being tossed around Bass Strait for nearly three weeks at the mercy of the storm, the food and water supply ran short and the men were rationed. Some days after, however, the storm abated and the ship reached port safely…”

But despite all these attempts the sea did not claim the James Craig. On 8 January, she was towed to Recherche Bay to await cargo. But the cargo never came, and the James Craig lay at Recherche Bay for all intents and purposes abandoned. In November 1925 the vessel was sold to the nearby Catamaran Coal Mining Company, and on 4 June she was, for the second time, stripped down as a hulk. She never went to sea again.

Although, for some time, she performed the innocuous service of bunkering the steamers which had caused her downfall, when the mine closed in the early 1930s, she had the last say in her own destiny. While lying at anchor in Recherche Bay she broke her cable during a storm and ran aground. To avoid a possible hazard to navigation she then had a large hole blown in her stern and settled on the bottom of Recherche Bay in shallow water.

Looking sad and neglected, the James Craig, stripped of her finery, awaits an incongruous end as a coal hulk at Recherche Bay.
Looking sad and neglected, the James Craig, stripped of her finery, awaits an incongruous end as a coal hulk at Recherche Bay.

And so, in dignity, the grand old lady who had for over half a century given service to her masters, found her own resting place in her last port of call. But the James Craig was not to know, as indeed was anyone to know, that this magnificent old iron barque would one day be brought back from her watery resting place on the southern tip of Tasmania and given a role of honour accorded few of her contemporaries. The James Craig, already well on the way to total reconstruction in the full glory of her finest period, is in the elevated company of such ships as the Cutty Sark, Great Britain, Balclutha, Wavertree and other representatives of that unique and magnificent fraternity–the tall ships.

Since this was written, the James Craig has been fully restored and is now sailing regularly. In 2003 she was awarded the World Ships Trust Medal for authentic restoration. She joins a select band of restored ships throughout the world, including the Mary Rose (UK 1510), Vasa (Sweden 1627), USS Constitution (USA 1797), Great Britain (UK 1843) and Cutty Sark (UK 1869), which have received this honour.

©Jeff Toghill, 1978 (Jeff Toghill was part of the salvage team)?

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