Shipbuilders Emigrate to Australia

My shipmates, where are they
Those boys so blithe and gay
Forty years ago today –
Dead and gone

We have all more or less had our share of adverse gales, squalls, typhoons and shoals, and the question arises: Can any purpose be answer through the adversity of life?
extract from ‘Building A Commonwealth’: by George Chale Watson

John Watson arrived from England in 1831 and for two years he was in charge of the shipbuilding yard at Port Arthur. He set up his own business on site in 1839 and among the ships he built were the famous “Flying Squadron” – Flying Squirrel, Flying Fish, Flying Childers (the ship on the crest of the Hobart City Council) and Flying Fox. Others were the Sisters, Panama, Fair Tasmania, Free Trader, Swordfish and Southern Cross. The barque Runnymede, a famous whaler which featured on the cover of the 1988 Hobart phone book, was another Watson-built ship.

Prior to the 1800’s the Watson forebears had been shipbuilders in Southhampton for many generations and it is said, no doubt by proud ancestors, that one of Drake’s ship to fight the Armada was Watson built. There is no definite proof but its a great story.

In the late 1700’s George Watson’s (George Chale Watson’s father) father left Southhampton and started shipbuilding at Beverly in Yorkshire. He married there Ann Galley who was descended from a covenator minister of the Presbyterian Church who at the time of the persecution 1638 – 1643 came with his family to England.

All evidence points to the fact that both George and his brother, John Watson, were born in Beverley Yorkshire. John Watson is reported as having been christened in the Beverly Minster.

They were drawn to emigrate to Van Dieman’s land because ship building had been started there and there was a plentiful supply of suitable timber and a good market for vessels for inter-state and coastal work for whaling. Hobart Town had become the home port for the bulk of the whaling done in the Southern waters.

During the late 1840’s whaling activities were at their height in Hobart. Quite apart from the requirements of the home fleet the port also had to service foreign whaling ships which happened to drop in. Hobart shipbuilders, chandlers, and the merchants worked at top speed to meet the requirements of these ships – and made profit in the process. No doubt, word of this thriving port circulated throughout England and drew my ancestors to pack up their worldly possessions and leave for Van Diemans Land.

The ship on the crest is the Flying Childers, built in Hobart by John Watson in 1847. It was used as a whaling ship, then in coastal trading, and finally trading overseas until its loss in 1870. It represents the importance of shipping to Hobart’s growth.

One of the most outstanding pioneers of the shipbuilding industry at Battery point was John Watson. After his arrival in 1833 he began his Tasmanian career as a shipbuilder in the government yards at Port Arthur, where under his firm but humane guidance the young convict boys from Point Puer learned the trade of boat building. John Watson’s influence on the shipbuilding trade in Hobart should never be underestimated. He apprenticed young lads to his yards to teach them the trade, always insisting upon a high standard of workmanship. Quality shipbuilders such as John McGregor, John Lucas and James Mckay all received their training from him, thus ensuring a continuation of quality workmanship.

Watson’s brother George was another well known identity in the Van Diemans Land shipping world. Captain George Watson arrived in Van Dieman’s Land on the Resource on 28 December 1830, accompanied by his wife and Masters G. J. H. & A.Watson. The ‘Resource’, 417 ton with 4 guns, left London 26 Jul 1830 carrying goods and 37/50 passengers. Sailing via Rio and Cape Town it arrived in Hobart Town 28 Dec 1830.

In an application for a grant of land 31 March 1831 Watson said that he was a native of England, aged 30 and had bought with him 1000 pounds in cash and 2000 pounds in goods. He was granted 1000 acres immediately and another 1560 acres the following November when he had converted his goods.

It was in this setting that John Watson and his brother Captain George Watson, merchant shipowner – one the shipwright, the other the sailor – induced young men to build ships and take them to sea. They did this with the convict lads from Point Puer at Port Arthur and with the roughest and toughest of the adult convicts there. Before John Watson took charge of the Port Arthur Government shipyards these men were mostly unmanageable. With John Watson they worked well and won their liberty, many continuing to work as shipwrights in the thriving Blue Gum Clipper industry.

While John Watson built the Blue Gum Clippers it was his brother George who navigated them. George Watson was a sturdy supporter of the native youth as seamen and it was his aim to persuade young men to go to sea and get officers’ tickets so as to uphold the honour of Van Dieman’s Land on the high sea

Stories Passed Down

Watson family interests in mercantile and shipping spanned a quarter of century in Hobart and made a deep impression on George Chale Watson, George Watson’s eldest son.

He left Van Dieman’s Land after being educated in Launceston, making his way to Victoria and then on to Queensland to fulfill his dream of becoming an explorer. Sprinkled within his journal are many references to his boyhood days when he spent time on board boats that visited Van Diemans Land.

He had fond memories of time spent with the Sea Captains who enjoyed the hospitality of his family household. The knowledge that he gleaned helped him survive during a treacherous voyage around the Polynesian Islands and, much later in life he found himself meditating reflectively upon the days spent with an old and valued friend of the Watson household, Captain Young.

Young set sail for China in a clipper brig, the Grace Darling but just wo days after setting sail on his return voyage a devastating typhoon swept the China Seas and the Grace Darling, Captain Young and her ship’s company were never heard of again.

The following anecdote written by the late Arthur Canaway K.C., of Sydney who wrote –

“Grandfather (John Watson) once told me the following – A grand uncle was a sea captain who owned the ship he traded from port to port. The ship served as a transport for the troops which General Wolfe attacked the French in Canada; and he and the Watson in question sat side by side in the stern of the boat in which General Wolfe descended the St. Lawrence in order to effect the landing which resulted in the fiinal victory of the next day. (The storming of the Heights of Abraham and the capture of Quebec). A Frenchman, as the boat was passing, ran out on a log projecting it into the river and aimed his muskett at General Wolfe. But the Watson in question was too quick for him and killed him by a snap shot. General Wolfe told the said Watson he would not fail to remember the service done him but as he was killed in the next days battle the said Watson went unrewarded.”