Juliana Robertson’s voyage to Australia

This account of a voyage to Australia was written in 1861 by Juliana Robertson, a 20-year-old woman who was travelling with her entire family on the ship Waterloo to begin a new life in the colony.

The Robertsons lived at 2 Millbrook Place, Camden Town, prior to their departure for Australia. They were William Robertson, aged 54, his wife Jane, 48, and their five daughters: Juliana, Margaret (14), Jane (11), Mary (9), and Appolicia (8). The family’s maid, Una Coe (aged 42), also travelled with them.

The Robertsons are not related to anyone else on this site (as far as we know – although there are some Robertsons among our connections). I have published this diary here because it relates to the voyage on which Archibald Richardson travelled to Australia. He is not mentioned in the diary (it seems he was one of the steerage passengers, with whom the Robertsons – as saloon passengers – probably did not associate). But no doubt Archibald saw the same sights and experienced many of the same events that are recounted here. In particular, he most likely saw the comet whose appearance in mid-June Juliana mentions. In later life Archibald – who was of a scientific disposition – came up with his own theory about the nature of comets. Perhaps his interest was sparked by witnessing this one.

Ship Waterloo

May 2nd Four days have elapsed since we sailed from Gravesend, and we are still in the Channel. The wind has been against us the whole way, and the sailors have done nothing but tack. It is very exciting and amusing when on deck to watch them. Although the wind has been so unfavourable, the weather has been most delightful; we spend all the that is not occupied with eating and drinking (and that is no small portion) on deck. We feel perfectly at home, and the passengers, captain, officers and doctor seem really more like old friends than strangers of a few days acquaintance. I generally rise sufficiently early to take a constitutional before breakfast, which important event takes place at 9 o’clock, when the doctor most sympathisingly asks how we have slept, and whether the motion of the vessel makes us feel giddy, and when an amused smile lurks around the corners of the mouths of the experienced sailors at table. The next few hours are passed in practising, walking, reading or working.

SS Waterloo, painted by D. Macfarlane

At 12 o’clock the bell rings for luncheon, when, those who are. so disposed, partake of bread, cheese, biscuits, beer or wine. The Doctor is good natured enough to undertake instructing me in Chess. I had my first lesson yesterday, when I succeeded in learning the moves. 3o’clock, feeding time again. Don’t take us for gourmands, it is one of the rules of the ship, strictly observed. Tea at 6, and wine, spirits and biscuits at 9 o’clock.

Our livestock consists of 20 sheep, 12 pigs, 12 dozen fowls, 10 dozen ducks, 9 turkeys, 9 geese, 3 dogs, 2 cats, and a variety of birds which the Steward is taking out on speculation. There is also another animal which has provided us with a never-failing topic of conversation. Nobody seems to know whether it is a donkey or a mule. It has ears and brays like a donkey, but is in other respects very unlike one. He evidently considers himself a most important member of our little world, and takes pretty good care that he shall not be neglected for the want of making himself heard. He is nicknamed “the butcher’s canary“.

May 4th We are at last out of the Channel, and in the North Atlantic, skirting the much-dreaded Bay of Biscay. The motion of the vessel has been very much at times these last few days and I must admit I have been very queer; poor little Polly and I kept. each other company last night, but we are all right again. The weather is still charming and the sunsets so beautiful. A whale was seen alongside the ship this morning, it was unfortunately before any of us were up, so we missed the sight. The only things to be seen now, besides the sea and sky, are a few porpoises, and a little bark occasionally.

May 6th Oh! How the vessel has been rolling from one side to the other, and a deplorable set of creatures we have all looked. I have often thought Mr. Leech could have found some rich scenes for “Punch” had he been here. It was impossible to walk about yesterday, and some laughable disasters occurred at dinner. Maggie’s plate of soup was overturned to begin with, and I upset a glass of champagne over the Captain. Mamma always sits one side of the Captain, and I the other, and it is fortunate for me that I have such a steady neighbour, as I am obliged to balance myself by taking firm hold of his chair.

Yesterday was Sunday, and it was arranged the: night before. that the Doctor should read prayers next morning at half-past 10 o’clock, and that the steerage passengers and sailors should be invited to attend; but alas, how vain are all human propositions. The poor Doctor was fain to keep his bed next morning. The steerage passengers were all equally ill, so the idea of public worship was dispensed with, but Mamma, Papa, my sisters, Mr. Pyne, Una1 and myself had Church by ourselves on deck.

We almost live on deck, as our cabins have the effect of making us sick if we stay in them for any time.

We have passed the Bay of Biscay, and the sea is not quite so rough, The weather has been particularly fine, and the weather very favourable this last two or three days.We have been sailing at the rate of 9 miles an hour. I have been lying comfortably on deck, reading “Pickwick” all the morning.

May 14th Since my last entry my sisters and self have all been more or less sick, but I am happy to say we are now all perfectly well. Poor Jane suffered most, she was obliged to keep her bed for three days. It is very fortunate for us that Una has kept so well, she is a first-rate sailor. The weather was very squally last week. Passed Madeira yesterday, early in the morning.

There have been plenty of whales and portuguese men-of-war to be seen this last few days, the squally weather there was a Petrel, or Mother Cary’s Chicken hovering around the vessel. The latter is a very small bird and generally a sign of stormy weather.

Mamma, Papa, Captain and Doctor play at whist every evening, and last night, after they had gone down to the saloon to play as usual, the 3rd and 4th Officers, Maggie. the children and I had a. famous dance. The 2nd Officer, who was on watch, looked on and enjoyed our merriment.

It has been very warm this last two or three days, but we have an awning over the poop, which makes it very pleasant. A few more passengers would have been acceptable. We often regret the Grahams did not come with us. The Doctor is a very intelligent young man; looks 26, but is only 22. Our fellow-passenger, Mr. Pyne, as about 18 years old, and the most good-natured boy under the sun. He is always ready and willing to do anything for us. He is Irish and going out to an uncle in the Wide Bay district.

May 10th I find it quite out of the question really keeping a journal, the days are so much alike. We are now in the Tropics and it is becoming warmer every day. The Cuddy, however is well ventilated, which is a great comfort, as I teach Maggie and the children every morning from half past 9 to 12 o’clock, and I like it much better than I thought I should at first. I feel at the end of the day that my time has not been all wasted, for life on board ship is really a very idle one. It seems impossible to settle down long to any one thing.The Captain got one of the sailors to make some quoits of rope last Friday, which has been an unfailing source of amusement ever since.

Yesterday being Sunday, the Doctor read prayers as usual, and about a dozen of the sailors were present. There are, I believe, 25 of them without including officers, midshipmen, steward, cook etc. One of the steerage passengers is in a very delicate state of health one of her lungs is diseased and she faints two or three times nearly every day. She came to Service yesterday, but the exertion was too much for her as she fainted immediately on going out. Poor thing, she is very low-spirited, but the Doctor does not despair of her.

The weather could not be finer, and it is moonlight now, which makes it very pleasant in the evening. We are sailing at present at the rate of 7 knots an hour, but in the middle of last week we were nearly becalmed for two days.

Try skipping in that.2

May 21st Taught as usual till 12 o’clock, than had luncheon and played at quoits till dinner. Had a game at Chess, and read part of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” till tea. Played at whist from half past 7 o’clock with Papa, Mr. Pyne and the Doctor. Then we all took a walk to the forecastle to look at the asils, as the moon was shining so beautifully upon them, and a very pretty sight it was too. It being our first visit to the forecastle, we were of course chalked.3

May 22nd Actually worked from 12 o’clock till dinner, a. most startling circumstance worthy of notice. Played at quoits in the afternoon, whist in the evening. A grand commotion was occasioned at luncheon by the appearance of a number of flying fish and booby. The latter is a large bird, which sometimes flies upon the rigging of the ship, goes to sleep, and allows itself to be caught most easily, hence called a booby. Skipping was the chief amusement this evening. I tried, but found my crinoline most inconvenient. I have serious thoughts of dispensing with that necessary article some evening in order to have a skip, as one gets so tired of walking up and down the poop, and exercise is so essential aboard ship.

The sailors received a glass of grog all round from Maggie & I last night, to pay our footing, so now we are free to go to any part of the ship we like. We are obliged to put our lights out in our cabins at half past 10 o’clock, but, it being moonlight at present, we sometimes take a walk on deck after the above-mentioned time, and then go to bed without light.

Only a pint and a half of water is allowed to each person daily to wash with, and very frequently we do not receive our full allowance; but we generally have two or three buckets of salt water on Saturday evening; and Papa fees the cook to give Una a jug of hot water once a week, so that she may wash out a few pocket-handkerchiefs. It is possible to secure almost anything with money, even on board ship. Passed Cape Verde Islands yesterday.

A pair of boobies

May 30th We have now had a little experience of tropical rain, tropical heat and a tropical storm. To-day the weather is as fine as it has been generally since we sailed from Gravesend, but for this last few days, the weather has been most squally & oppressive & if it had not been for a slight breeze, the heat would have been almost unbearable. The squalls come on very suddenly, the rain pours down in bucketsful at once although we see it coming across the sea for miles. Last Monday, May 27th, we had a severe thunderstorm in the night. One peal of thunder was most deafening. I never heard anything like it in my life before, & the lightning was so vivid that it quite illuminated my cabin, &, in fact, the whole Ship.

There was a very heavy squall yesterday just before dinner, and our mainsail was split to ribbons. For wet weather the sailors always go about without any shoes & stockings. Over 900 gallons of rain water were caught so now I hope our allowance will not be quite so scanty.

A ship was in sight the other day, which we at first hoped might be homeward bound, but such was not the case. We were sufficiently near, however, to signal and learn that she was the “Wilhelmina”, a Dutch ship, bound to Batavia from Amsterdam. To us, the process of signalling was most interesting & managed much more quickly than I expected.

That was quite on eventful day, as the sailors caught a bonito in the afternoon. We did not taste it but believe it is a very coarse fish. Our fellow-passenger, Mr, Pyne, always has a line out, but his patience has not been rewarded as yet; we all wish him success as a little fresh fish would indeed be a luxury.

We persuaded the Capt. to have a swing put up for us the other day, & we all had a beautiful swing – even Mamma & Papa.

I play at whist almost every night just now, as the Capt. and Mr. Pyne prefer remaining on deck, and, about a week ago, I had a. game at Chess with the Capt. which lasted from 3 o’clock to half past 10 o’clock, when I was vanquished.

We often think and speak of our dear old friends at home and my album of portraits is a great treasure. I can almost fancy the people are speaking to at times,

June 3rd Crossed the line last Friday, May 31st at a quarter past 11 o’clock, We were not aware of the fact until the sun’s altitude was taken at 12 o’clock. It seemed impossible to imagine that was had crossed the much-looked-for line, for there was no usual demonstration, not even a glass of champagne at dinner to drink success to the good ship “Waterloo”. I certainly expected a little fun; but we lead a. very quiet sort of life here.

On the same day two ships were in sight. We spoke with one, but only know she came: from Calleo (South America), as the time was all taken up in answering her questions. A soldier’s wind being prevalent which is favourable-both ways. Consequently we were both going at a tolerable pace. If she were bound for England, she will in all probability report us at “Lloyds”. A most unusual number of ships, brigs and schooners have been in sight since we crossed the line.

The Thermometer has never been more than 82 in the shade, and we have as yet been blessed with a. pleasant breeze. I am beginning to be tired of the voyage already. It was just five weeks last Sunday since we left Gravesend. Mr. Pyne thinks there is no good in counting the weeks as I do, as it does not make the time go a. bit quicker. He is the drollest boy imaginable. I don’t know what we should do without him, he. keeps us all alive. It is very difficult to keep account of the days of the week – we have quite arguments about what day it is, sometimes.

June 5th Rose at half past 5 o’clock to see the sun rise. I watched very anxiously from my port for half an hour as he did not rise till 5 past 6 o’clock. My patience was well repaid however, it was a glorious sunrise. I watched his progress for about 20 minutes, and then dressed and went on deck.

June 9th There was a good deal of joking about my early appearance the other morning. I managed, however, to rise as early the next morning, a headache prevented me from doing so the two following; but while the warm weather continues, I hope to have resolution enough to follow up the good beginning.

The weather has been very squally all the morning. There were only ourselves, Mr. Pyne, & the 2nd Officer Mr. Johnson at prayers.

June 16th Last Sunday, early in the morning, a comet was seen by the officers on watch and next morning, Mamma, Maggie, Mr. Pyne & I went on deck in most picturesque costumes a little after 4 o’clock to see it; it was very bright, about a quarter the size of that beauty that was seen in England in 1858. It has been visible every morning since. I wonder whether it will ever be seen at home.4

The Great Comet of 1861, from a 19th century engraving

We were becalmed nearly all last week, but although there was no wind, there was a great swell upon the ocean, & the motion of the vessel. being fore & aft, we have had the swing up for several nights. It answers most beautifully. We only require a push to send us off, and than an occasional one, as the motion of the vessel swings us, sometimes to an immense height. In the warm weather, and when the moon was not visible, the phosphorescence on the water was very bright.
On Friday it was discovered that all the wine the steward had in use was exhausted, and there was no more to be found in the place where the Cuddy stores were stowed-away. They were obliged to open the hold and take out part of the cargo to see whether it had been put there by mistake. The search commenced at half-past 9 in the morning, and at 3 o’clock the cases of wine were not forthcoming.

Dialogue at time, between Messrs. Peters and Johnson, 1st and 2nd officers:-

1st Officer, “The Captain thinks we had better give it up, Johnson, but I asked him to allow us another hour, as there is no wine to go on with.”
2nd Officer. “Oh! Then it will never do to give it up yet.”
1st Officer. “No, for if we were, we should never hear the end of it from Mrs. R. and the girls.”
2nd Officer (laughing) “Oh! The old man would be the worst.”

Half an hour after the above conversation, the wine was fortunately discovered. The cases were not properly directed and had been put down in the hold by mistake as part of the cargo.

Last Monday was a most eventful day. The children and I were busily engaged as usual with our studies, when the steward rushed in a little before 1 o’clock and informed us that a shark was alongside. The commotion was general and we were all soon on the poop, where the unusual confusion and bustle on every part of the deck, showed that every living soul on board was up except the poor invalide in the steerage. It was a most exciting scene: the sailors were rushing about in all directions and every face wore a merry smile mingled with great interest and anxiety. Several huge pieces of pork were hung around different parts of the vessel, as baits for this monster of the Mighty Deep. But he was undoubtedly a dainty fellow, as he passed them by, simply contenting himself with a smell and kept sailing round most gracefully and rapidly. The boatswain soon appeared, harpoon in hand, and then the hunt commenced in earnest. The poor boatswain, shaking with laughter and the perspiration pouring off his face, was called first one side of the ship, and then the other, then fore, and then aft, as the fish made his appearance in the several parts. At length he made a successful dart with the harpoon, and some rope being thrown round the tail, the shark was hoisted up amid great cheering.

The slaughter of the poor thing was entered into with great spirit and relish by the butcher who cut him to pieces with most astonishing rapidity. The heart was throbbing more than an hour after it was taken from the body. The Doctor had expressed a wish for the head and the man who cleaned it was bitten three times in doing so, and, even after that, the Doctor was favoured with a bite, which he immediately burnt with caustic.

The shark was ten and a half feet in length, the butcher possesses the backbone, which is to be converted into a walking stick. There was another shark in sight, but like a sensible fellow, he kept a respectable distance. A sucker was found on the back of the shark which we have preserved in a bottle of spirits of wine as a souvenir of the 17th of June. Some of the shark was cooked for luncheon, and when brought to table looked very like fried sole, but tasted something like eel with a peculiar strong flavour. A mouthful sufficed to gratify our curiosity. We could scarcely summon sufficient courage to swallow that, as witnessing the process of disecting had most effectively taken away our appetites.

No less than 7 vessels have been in sight to-day. We spoke with one this morning, about our own size, the “Hornet”, bound to Calcutta from London, She most characteristicly remarked on the fineness of the weather. We answered that it was too fine (having been becalmed several days). “Not for your lady passengers?” she gallantly replied. At dinner a smalll schooner was almost within verbal communication. She was so near that we could distinguish the only lady that was on board, with her large cloak, white bonnet, parasol,etc. We spoke with her, although she was rather beneath our notice. She was from London bound to Algoa Bay.

June 20th Spoke with the “Valor”, a French ship going to Batavia from Bordeaux.

June 25th The weather has been extremely rough this last few days and Jennie has been very ill again. She is always sick when the sea is at all rough. Papa sprained his foot yesterday, and is unable to walk. It is very awkward for him to walk when the sea is rolling much. On Sunday I was sitting upon an American chair,5 half-asleep, when a sudden lurch of the ship sent me and the chair over, and knocked my mouth against the corner of the table. My upper lip has been slightly swollen in consequence and the bruise has made its appearance today. The children say I look as though I had a moustache coming.

The cape pigeons just now are innumerable; they are very pretty birds, with beautifully marked black and white wings and look very graceful while flying. Several have been caught by means of a line with a. hook and piece of fat pork at the end; The Capt., Dr. and Mr. Pyne often amuse themselves by shooting them while on the wing. An albatross was flying round the vessel all Sunday; and at dinner our mizzen topsail was split

June 30th For two days last week the sea was rougher than it has been since we sailed. We all enjoyed watching the beautiful high waves. We are obliged to be on the alert at dinner. The other day several glasses of wine and a bottle of claret were upset by a sudden lurch. When the sea is so high, we have wooden shutters instead of our glass windows, as the sea, dashing up against the glass would break it.

We found it very awkward at first; but are becoming somewhat to like it in one respect. The weather is gradually getting colder, it is winter here at present, but we are in the same longitude as Greenwich to-day, so our time corresponds with the time at home. I could not attend to the prayers this morning for thinking of our pretty Church at home with all the well-known faces. It is so nice to be able to think that our friends in dear old England are the same times similarly occupied as ourselves.

Papa has been very unwell this last few days. The sprain was more serious than we thought at first.

The rain has been pouring down most perseveringly all day, but we ought not complain, as this is the first time we have been obliged to keep below all day since we sailed, which is exactly 9 weeks. So I we have been singularly fortunate. The wind is very favourable today, which renders the rolling of the vessel most disagreeable. She is first jumping, then rolling. We are pitching so dreadfully at present, that the Doctor keeps bursting out various exclamations, the most frequent of which is “Oh, I’m blowed!” Mr. Pyne, at a loss to know what to do with himself, has at last taken refuge in bed; he considers going to sleep. a very good way of passing the time!

July 1st The height of the sea has increased considerably since yesterday, indeed it is so high that at times we are unable to see the horizon. The waves are continually dashing over the forecastle, lower deck and poops. The sailors are being knocked down and drenched by the sea every few minutes. Just as the Steward: was laying the cloth for dinner, an immense wave dashed over each side of the poop, meeting in the centre, and came pouring down the companion and through a small hole in the sky-light, into the Cuddy. Appy was sitting at the table, under the: sky-light, and was consequently drenched. The water also came in at our ports, and swamped our cabins.

One of the boats was so full of water, that, they were afraid it would be carried away before they could bail .it out. Fortunately no very serious accident has occurred, one. able bodied seaman fell from the forecastle to the lower deck and hurt his spine, but not very much.

July 5th The wind is now against us, and our progress is very trifling. The motion of the vessel is always most unpleasant when we have a head wind.

Last night Papa fell down while undressing and struck his head against a box, which has produced a deep cut over the left eye; he has also sprained his left hand, and is altogether very unwell The weather is very cold.

July 7thPassed Cape of Good Hope, but a good way south.

A mollymawk – presumably the bird Juliana meant when she said the captain had caught a “mollymoke”

July 8th So rough that we are obliged to remain below. A Mollymoke was caught by the Capt. this morning. It was a fine, large bird, being 4 and a half feet in width when its wings were spread out.

July 19th For the last fortnight, the weather has been very cold and most changeable. We have also experienced very squally weather and numerous trifling disasters have occurred. Yesterday our main top gallant mast was carried away. Two of the sailors had a very narrow escape, as they had only been down a few minutes before it fell. It was most fortunately a most beautifully moonlight, so the men were able to bring down the mast and sails (which had been hanging over part of the deck) with greater safety. It was a long and dangerous business, however, for they commenced at 6 o’clock and had not finished till past 3. When the mast broke, the noise me like a peal of thunder.

Papa has been obliged to keep his bed for nearly a fortnight, and is really very ill. He feels the cold so much, and there is no fire for him to sit by, or warm the Cuddy. It was not a sprain in his foot, but an obstruction in some of the vessels. He is so weak, too, and has no appetite.

My sisters and self have all had chilblains on our hands and feet. The Capt., Dr. and Mr. Pyne amuse themselves in the afternoon by carrying the children on their backs, up and down. the poop.

Notice of the arrival of the Waterloo in Sydney, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 August 1861

July 29th The wind has been , and still continues very changeable. Yesterday we were quite becalmed, and the sun was also unusually hot for this time of year. The sunset was most beautiful and quite tropical. Last Thursday, July 25th, we passed the Island of St. Pauls, and sailed on that day 243 knots, the longest run we have made all the voyage.6

On Friday we received a practical demonstration of the necessity of wooden shutters when the sea is high. They had been taken down from the Cuddy windows, and Mamma was sitting with her back to one of them, when the window was suddenly smashed in by a wave. Mamma, of course, received a shower bath, and the water was about 2” deep in the Cuddy.

August 2nd Winds very favourable. The day before yesterday we sailed 235 knots and yesterday 220. Papa is a little better.

August 10th The wind has been very changeable, as usual. The Captain wished to go through Basses Straits, but contrary winds prevented him, so we were obliged to go south of Tasmania, which we passed yesterday. Fancy our joy at again beholding land; and we might have sailed by the island fifty times, and not seen the magnificent sight we witnessed yesterday. About 4 o’clock the tints in the sky were most exquisite, and were reflected on the cliffs and snow-capped mountains of Tasmania. It would be impossible to describe the scene. The effect it had upon my spirits was most salutary, and, I trust it may to a certain extent be a type of the future in our new home

Dear Papa is very ill, and we are really very much alarmed about him.

August 18th On Sunday, early in the morning, the dear, interesting donkey breathed his last. The sudden change from heat to cold proved too much for him. We were all sorry to lose our old friend, so near the end of the voyage, too. One of the Greyhounds also, about a fortnight ago.

Yesterday was Grandmamma’s birthday. The Captain ordered a cake to be made, and we all drank her health with champagne.

[Diary ends]

The following letter was enclosed in the diary:

August 20th, ’61

My dear Grandmamma,

My journal has been written in such great haste that all inaccuracies. must be excused. We were all glad to see by dear Ellen’s note that you were well, and trust that you are still keeping so.

You will be sorry to hear that dear Papa is very, very ill. He is so weak and wasted, and has no appetite.

We arrived in Sydney last Thursday morning, Uncle soon met us in a little boat as we were going up the harbour, and we are now staying three miles from Sydney with a Mrs, Miller, a friend of Uncle’s. We all start for the Clarence tomorrow evening, except Mamma, Papa and Jane. It will be very painful parting from dear Papa in his present delicate state of health, but all we can do is to put our hope and trust in One who is ever merciful.

And Goodbye & with best love
Believe me, in great haste,
Your affecte. Granddaughter


The story has a sad corollary. Juliana’s father died on 24 August, just nine days after the Waterloo‘s arrival at Sydney. Juliana herself returned from Australia some time later – census records from 1891 show both her and Appolicia in England. Juliana died in Tunbridge Wells in 1916. She never married, so presumably has no descendants to read this diary – but I’m grateful to her for writing it.

William Robertson’s death notice, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 August 1861
  1. The Robertsons’ housemaid, Una Coe – see 1861 Census. []
  2. George Cruikshank, ‘A splendid spread’, from The Comic Almanack, 1850. []
  3. Apparently a reference to an old maritime custom of applying chalk to the shoes of people who ‘trespassed’ on the forecastle, which was where the crew’s quarters were situated. []
  4. This must have been ‘the Great Comet of 1861’, designated C/1861 J1. It was seen in England – from 30 June 1861 onwards. It was visible to the naked eye for about three months in all.  http://www.phenomena.org.uk/comets/comets/comet1861.html []
  5. Possibly a forgotten term for a folding chair of some sort. []
  6. Presumably she means 243 nautical miles, which is probably pretty good for a sailing ship. []