1853: The Ferguson brothers arrive aboard the Tamerlane

After a jovial night at the “Robert Burns Arms Inn” at Wallacetown in early December 1852, James & David Ferguson departed their native Scotland for a new life in Australia.

The ‘Tamerlane’ departed from Greenock on the 12th December 1852 with James and David Ferguson amongst the 110 intermediate and steerage passengers. Their friend and business partner James Urie was not on the same ship but was known to have departed the day prior, yet nothing has yet been found as to which ship he was on or which port he arrived at in Australia. By coincidence, James Urie’s future brother in law, John Yeaman, was also on the ‘Tamerlane’ with the Ferguson brothers.

When James and David boarded the Tamerlane they must have known that their odds of reaching Australia alive were not favourable. In the mid-19th century nearly 1 in 5 children and 1 in 60 adults died on a voyage to Australia[1].

The Ferguson brothers would have been enticed by the many letters from their friends who had departed the old country bound for the “golden land of promise.” There would also have been mixed reports of those that were making their fortune in the Colony and those who perished at sea trying to get there. Yet they still took their chance. James would have been particularly aware of the consequences as he had the most to lose. He was leaving behind a wife and five children with the hope that they would join him once he had established the business in Melbourne ( Jane and the five children arrived aboard the ‘Emma’ in November 1855).

After four and a half months at sea the ‘Tamerlane’ eventually arrived in Port Phillip Bay on the 29th April 1853.

The Argus, Melbourne, Vic, Saturday 30th April 1853, page 4.

“April 29.- Tamerlane, ship 750 tons, Geo. Caldwell, from Glasgow December 12th. Passengers – Cabin: Mr. and Mrs. J. Robertson, Mr. and Mrs. F. Donaldson, Mr. and Mrs. D. Miller, Mrs. Wylie and child, Messrs Davidson, A. Dawson, P. Dawson, D. Fraser, McIntosh, McDonald, Newbigging, Rowley, Rowan, Shirra, A. M. Wylie, Esq., Surgeon, and one hundred and ten in the intermediate and steerage. Dickson , Gilchrist, and Co. agents.”

It was very common for literate passengers on long voyages like this to keep a diary of their once-in-a-lifetime journey to the Antipodes and there are many remarkable diaries in museums and libraries all over Australia. Unfortunately no example of a diary by any passenger of the Tamerlane to Australia in 1852-53 has yet been found during my research.

The first recorded account of the Ferguson brothers’ voyage comes five days after the arrival of the Tamerlane in Port Phillip Bay on the 29th April 1853.

The cabin and steerage passengers of the Tamerlane penned letters of gratitude to Captain Caldwell of the Tamerlane, which were published in the Melbourne Argus on the 4th of May 1853. The Cabin passengers are specifically mentioned by name as signatories to their testimonial, but the letter by those who traveled in steerage is simply mentioned as by the “Committee of the Steerage Passengers.”

The Argus, Melbourne, Vic, Wednesday 4th May 1853, page 12.

“Ship Tamerlane, May 2, 1853.


SIR, – We, the undersigned, beg leave respectfully to present you these few lines to testify our approbation of your meritorious and exemplary conduct during the voyage, namely from Clyde to Australia. Allow us to say that you have displayed not only the abilities of a skilful commander, but the manners of a gentleman; also you have faithfully discharged your duties toward us to our entire satisfaction, and your good conduct secured to us that order and contentment which we anticipated. We sincerely wish you all success and happiness. We now bid you heartily adieu, with our thanks to Almighty God for bringing us safely to our destination, after a pleasant and successful passage across the wide ocean in the good ship Tamerlane.

For the cabin passengers.

George McDonald,
Alex Davidson,
John Shirra,
Patrick Dawson, jun,
John McKenzie, A. M.

Ship Tamerlane, Port Phillip.

To Captain Caldwell, Commanding Tamerlane.

Sir,- The steerage passengers beg to thank you for the kindness and attention shown to them during this passage. The length and tediousness of the voyage has in great degree been unfelt from the general opportunities for every kind of amusement, compatible with the situation in which they were placed, and this, they hope, without in any degree interfering with the working of the ship. In an early part of the voyage, you were kind enough to sanction the appointment of a committee of themselves, for the purpose of attending to cleanliness and order. The few regulations which the committee drew up, met your approval, and were enforced by the weight of your authority. All have felt the benefit of this arrangement, and at the same time it may have saved you from being annoyed with petty complaints, which, without doubt, would have arisen among so may crowded together in such a small place. The result of your kind indulgence, attention, and encouragement, by keeping up the spirits of all, together with strict attention to cleanliness and order, is shown in the healthy condition which all have shown during the voyage. With best wishes for your welfare and prosperity, we remain, Sir, your most obedient servants,

Signed by a Committee of the Steerage Passengers.

Report of the Ship Tamerlane, Capt. Caldwell, from Glasgow.

Sailed from Rothsay Bay, January 14th. At the Equator, February 15th. Spoke the ship Sophia Moffat, from London to Adelaide, out 32 days. February 23. Lat. 18 S., long. 25 W., barque Nepaul, from London to the Cape,last from Lisbon; out 77 days. February 27. Sir Henry Pottinger, from Liverpool to Shanghae, in lat. 24 S., long. 28W,; out 45 days. March 8. Arethusa, from Hartlepool to Ade?, lat. 27, long. 26; out 58 days. March 25. Lat 37S., long 29E, barque Halifax from London to madras; out 67 days. April 18. Barque Victor, from Swansea to King George’s Sound; out 109 days. Experienced much calm weather on the passage, and strong easterly winds off the Cape.”

The Journey:

Our pioneering ancestors took gambles with their lives just to have the chance of a new beginning in the Australian Colonies. Many of them died at sea and not even their bodies would make it to their new homeland.

In the mid 19th Century a voyage from Europe to Australia was a perilous journey of sometimes more than four months, depending on your luck with the weather. Fortunately for some, the length of the voyages were often broken by one or more port calls for provisions along the way but the last leg of the voyage to Australia would be the most grueling.

A death at sea was all too common with as many as one in five children and one in sixty adults perishing before they reached their destination. Those who died were buried at sea without delay to prevent the spread of disease. The dispatch of a body at sea was conducted quickly and efficiently. It was was sewn into a canvas sack, or if it was a crew member, his own hammock, and then weighted down with a piece of ballast to help it sink. The body was then placed on a plank and covered with the ensign of their homeland. The plank was balanced over the side of the ship and after a brief service by the Captain, (or clergy if there was one amongst the passengers), it was then tilted towards the water and the body slipped along the plank beneath the ensign and into the depths of the ocean.

Passengers in steerage would have been the most likely to succumb to disease due to the cramped, dark and unsanitary conditions below deck which was a breeding ground for disease. The lucky survivors who made it to the colony would often suffer ill health for many months after. Even on arrival at their destination the ships were often quarantined in the bay for some length of time, preventing  any passengers from going ashore and spreading any disease.

Fortunately the Ferguson brothers survived their voyage to Australia, as did James’ wife and children in 1855.

David Ferguson only lasted four years in the Colony, having decided to return to Scotland in early 1857. James Urie died in Flemington in 1890, followed by James Ferguson in 1894.

The fate of the Ferguson & Urie stained glass company was then in the hands of their sons, James Ferguson Jnr (1861-1945) and William Urie (1864-1907) until it eventually folded in 1899 after a 46 year history.


[1] Web site; Museum Victoria, “Life at Sea” (accessed 21 Apr 2014)


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