The Lyttelton Tug

Here’s a story of a journey that began so well, made so much sense, but then dragged out into farce. I’ve edited it down a bit.

This comes from one of the many tattered old curious books I pick up in old junk shops and charity stores for almost nothing, and reveal some amazing stories. This is from E. Keble Chatterton, Seamen All, published in 1928. This story began in 1859.

The tug was only 75 feet long, with about 18 feet beam, drew only 5 feet laden, was ketch-rigged, had 23-horsepower engines and was of 48 tons only. This craft was being constructed at Scot Russell’s … yard at Millwall alongside the mammoth Great Eastern, of more than 24,000 tons. the intention was to take the Lyttelton to pieces, pack them up and despatch them aboard a bigger ship to New Zealand, which [at the time] was a scarcely known country…

But… it was decided that the Lyttleton … should sail out to her destination and so save considerable cost. A captain was found who agreed to take on the job and provide a crew – all for the sum of £400. As this skipper was bent on settling in New Zealand, he arranged to bring out with his wife and 5 daughters. The crew consisted of a mate, 4 sailors, 2 boys and a cook, who were all aspiring colonists, and agreed to work their passage at the nominal pay of a shilling a month. The engineer, however, was taken out of Scott Russel’s yard, given the job of looking after the machinery on the way out, half-pay during the voyage, with a year’s engagement in New Zealand as her engineer at £20 per month.

After doing her trials on the Thames, she was fitted out to sail across the seas. Her engines and boiler remained in position, a short stump of her funnel appeared above deck, but the remainder, together with the paddle-wheels, had been unshipped and stowed in the fore-hold, where also about 30 tons of patent briquette fuel were carried as ballast. The ship was provisioned for 6 months, the galley was in the engine-rom, the after-hold was reserved for the captain and family, whilst the mate and engineer had a cabin further aft, and the crew were in the fo’c’sle.

On august 18, 1859 … this small ship started out, being towed down as far as the Nore. … fo 3 or 4 days after leaving the Nore she was still boxing about off the Thames estuary and had to put into Ramsgate! It was the first of her long series of adventures. She was towed into the harbour to replenish the ship’s “medical comforts” – a designation that will be understood even in prohibitionist communities – and a stronger fore-mast was also needed. All this wasted a fortnight, and again the little vessel put to sea; but after 3 days she had gone no nearer New Zealand than Folkestone, and she decided to go in there for most of a week. But from that port she held on for 16 days through dirty weather, and found herself in … Cork Harbour, Ireland. …[the captain] took advantage of … favourable weather, crossed a very calm Bay of Biscay, and at the end of 6 weeks sighted Tenerife. At the Cape Verde Islands they remained a few days and laid in a stock fo food, water, fruit, live turkeys and geese….

With a fair wind the Lyttelton made a good run down to the equator, but now … got stuck in the doldrums making no headway. Here Christmas Day was spent and the last of the turkeys consumed. …the Scotch engineer enterprisingly rigged up the old fore-mast as an axle, added a kind of paddle-wheel arrangement at each end, constructed hand-gear, and this was worked from the deck by the crew. The net result was that the ship made about a knot, and it was kept up for several weeks whenever the wind was paltry. But now so much time had been wasted that the captain decided to alter his plans and to hug the land down to the Cape of Good Hope. He therefor made for Cape Coast Castle, anchored 3 miles out and was promptly visited by a smart rowing boat containing … the Governor… unable to understand the stumpy funnel and the curious gadgets over the side, mistook her for a new kind of gunboat, and shoved off again in disgust. supplies now being required, and the captain being unable to raise the money either by bond or bill, he was compelled to sell part of the fuel ballast. This enabled the ship to reach Fernando Po, where she was beached and scrubbed, and her own prop0er paddle-wheels take out of the hold and fitted. 25 tons of English coal were also obtained but had to be dug out of a mound covered in vegetation several years old. By means of a “bottomry bond” the port expenses were paid and 2 n*ggers engaged as stokers as far as Capetown…

Most of the ship’s company contracted fever, which delayed matters another fortnight; but steaming at about 4 knots the vessel made St.Paolo de Loanda in 15 days, by which time the whole crew were restored to health. Here, by means of another bond, the stores were replenished and more coal obtained, and thus they arrived at Walfisch Bay, where the crew were given a much-needed rest and some dried fish was obtained… wind and steam then brought the Lyttleton   to within 250 miles of the Cape, whereupon the coal gave out and there was no favourable wind. the shore had been kept well aboard, but there was not a sign of settlement or timber; nothing but sand. Finally, the last sweepings of coal-dust, with all the old spars, dunnage and whatever else would burn, was used in the furnace, when a barque was sighted lying inshore loading copper.

The Lyttelton was just able to steam in, found a good anchorage, and then it blew a heavy gale for 3 days, after which they managed to get 8 tons of coal… This was a great help, but the progress of the ship was like that of a beggar seeking his sustenance along the highway. .. An arrangement was made [with a schooner in Saldanha Bay to supply the tug with coal in return for being towed out of the bay]. A certain amount of timber was also obtained from the shore. …

Finally, having once more consumed everything combustible, including bunker-flooring, the Lyttelton paddled to a standstill among the shipping at Capetown … It was April 27, 1860.

Further complications occurred, for the agents declined to be responsible for the continuance or abandonment fo the cruise, without referring the matter to London. The 2 stokers were paid off, and the London crew decided to leave too. …At length orders came from London that the bonds were to be cleared up, and new crew to be signed on, and the ship was to proceed under sail to New Zealand.

It was on August 18, exactly a year since leaving the Thames, that she encountered a heavy gale, the ship broached-to, and a big sea swept most of the port bulwarks away, after which a more northerly course was made to find better weather… As they approached Cape Leeuwin, at the south-west of Australia, heavy westerly gales occurred and this short ship refused to be steered with such force behind her, so they had frequently to heave her to, and on one occasion she drifted stern-first to leeward 104 miles in 24 hours. …It was the best day’s run in the whole voyage.

Along the south Australian coast she sailed, and then through Bass Straits….Three more monotonous weeks ensued … until the ship made the landfall of Cape Farewell, and took a fair wind through Cook Strait as far as Cape Campbell on the South Island. … she arrived at Wellington on November 23, 1860, 462 days out of London. It is to the credit of her captain and 2 officers that they stuck manfully to their ship and duty under the most trying conditions, and it shows once again what can be done in small ships provided the personnel is right. …

But the story ends with a surprising twist…. no one expected her, nobody wanted her, she had long since been given up for lost, the insurance money had even been paid and … the company for whom she had been built, for whom she had been sent all those perilous miles, had gone into liquidation….

In the end this unwanted ship was sold to some owners in Lyttleton, and was a success. Later she was lengthened and converted to a screw steamer and traded between Collingwood and Wellington, but eventually ran ashore on the Beef Barrels near the French Pass, sank, and was finally blown up by dynamite, so as not to be an obstruction to the traffic.

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