Monday, 19 September 2011

'Jamais Arrière' Clan Douglas: Australian Ancestry, ‘Boat People’, Mariners and Vikings

By Ruth Skilbeck

Ghost boats have been sailing in shadowy force through the Australian media, and through my family history, these past weeks. Ghost boats have a legendary tendency to return and haunt the living when they least expect it. They sail into earshot and cause chaos with their cacophony, the wailing voices of those lost at sea, lamenting and beseeching from watery graves, pleading to be rescued and laid to rest; or reclaimed and brought back to life in family histories...
Something strange happened as I was writing these notes on the unfolding and refolding of the ‘circular’ asylum and refugee debate in Australia, the Great Southern Land in which I’m domiciled. I was researching and writing about the ‘ghost boats’, asylum seeker’s rickety “wooden boats” that sink without trace as they head from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore on the perilous voyage to Australia. The untold numbers of men, women and children lost at sea over the last couple of years. 

Jamais Arrière  Douglas. 

Then, quite unexpectedly, I received in the mail, pages from a family history, prepared by distant relatives in Perth. Emblazoned with the Clan Douglas crest Jamais Arrière Douglas. This was sent to me by my stepmother and told the story of a branch of the family that I knew next to nothing about - my paternal grandmother’s side who emigrated to Australia from England in the mid nineteenth century. Apparently Clan Douglas my newfound ancestors were in the middle ages the 'ruling family' in Scotland and Clan Douglas had many castles.

Clan member crest badge- Clan Douglas

I found out I was descended from ‘boat people’ and mariners, with two ship’s captains in the Australian Douglas family tree - hailed as heroes for their numerous daring and dangerous sea rescues: a batch of press clippings from the time recounted the stories.
Thomas Douglas, born in 1823 in Foxton, Cambridgeshire, was a farm hand, his wife Phoebe (nee Wisbey)’s family lived near ‘the chalk pits’. Thomas and Phoebe and their three young children, William, Frederick and Alfred emigrated to Australia, to escape the poor economic times and food shortages that swept England in the mid 19th century; resulting in the biggest waves of migrants recorded, 350,647 persons leaving England in 1852. In 1853, Thomas, Phoebe and children sailed across the world in the wooden sailing ship Sabrina, arriving 92 days later in Albany, WA. They were ‘boat people’.
Thomas Douglas “Pioneer, orchadist and market gardener” and Phoebe Douglas nee Wisbey “our matriarch” prospered in the colony:  They had ten children and within a few years  owned a sizeable estate, numerous properties and land in Perth. Records show Thomas bequeathed a “gift” to his son William to buy a steamship; and a tugboat, Dunskey, was bought in 1896.   
William and Frederick -who sailed to Australia in the Sabrina as infants - were the nautical sons, youthful members of the Albany rowing regatta team who each grew up to be mariners and ships captains.
Captain William Douglas (b 1848) was a “mariner, police officer, pioneering orchadist and gold prospector”.
In May 1885 William Douglas was involved in the rescue of some sailors from the vessel HMS Opal, as reported in the Albany Advertiser and the Albany Mail.  Two sailors from a man-o- war had set out in a small craft in the Albany Harbour.
“The day broke with threatening skies. The strong wind and intermittent thunder presaged a fierce storm, at 11 a.m., according to custom, two sailors set out from the men-of-war in the borrowed boat to return it to the moorings. Captain Douglas in a passing steam launch (Perseverance) hailed them to hug the shore...But they ignored the warning and stood out in the middle of the harbour. Less than an hour later when they were still a long way from their objective, the storm broke over the little craft. The sailors boat capsized in deep water and with big waves breaking over them as they clung to its keel, the two men were in desperate straits...”
Captain Douglas went to the rescue in the steamship, and managed to save one of the men who was clinging to the bow, by the time he had reached him  the other sailor had “swept away and drowned”.  
“The boat had an air tank installed in the bows and that alone kept it afloat...the survivor was being dragged beneath the surface with it and was ....drowning.  When he was eventually pulled into the steam launch he was barely alive. Captain Douglas then headed for the nearer of the warships and after careful manoeuvring the sailor was taken aboard...he presently revived. Next day a signal flew from the mast-head of one of the men-of-war....requesting the attendance of Captain Douglas on board....all hands were piped and the First Lieutenant in their presence expressed his gratitude for the heroic rescue performed by the launch. Watching through our glasses he said we were astonished how quickly you got him out of the sea in such rough weather. In conclusion he handed Captain Douglas a purse of money collected by the ship’s company as a tribute of appreciation.  Captain Douglas, replying stated that he had heard that the young man who had lost his life was the sole supporter of his mother in England, and requested the lieutenant present the money to the mother on his return to England. This was agreed and three hearty cheers were given for Douglas’s gallantry and seamanship.” 
In 1896, after several years  on land gold mining with his Douglas Mining and Prospecting Company, William borrowed 1000 pounds sterling from his father Thomas  and went to Sydney were he purchased the steam tug Dunskey, which he sailed to Albany .
The family history tells another tale of a daring sea rescue this time in the Dunskey. 
“On July 12th, 1899, following a terrible gale, the sailing ship “City of York” ran onto Rottnest Island’s northern shore to become a total wreck. On the next day, in the Dunskey, William effected a daring rescue of the remaining crew still aboard the wreck, while his son Clem and Bill Riley manned the Dunskey beyond the rolling surf, William rowed his tiny 14ft (4.5 m) dinghy to the wreck and in several (some accounts three, others eight) perilous journeys laid his craft alongside the hull to save the surviving eight crew - and a cat. Recommended to the royal Humane Society for his bravery, he nonetheless received little more than the acclamation of his contemporaries for a courageous and very dangerous rescue.”
Several more incidents are recorded in the family history: William purchased and sailed a three masted barquentine “Iris”;  moved into ship building and  built a 5 ton timber steam launch “Perseverance”;  cut and exported she-oak timber to Europe; salvaged wrecked vessels (ships) before settling down to more “prosaic activities” in the 1920s, building a 45ft long lighter (wooden barge). Emma his wife died in 1929; William  died three years later in 1932. 
Captain Frederick Douglas, Master Mariner, was an “early trader on the south coast. Fred owned and operated the schooner Agnes, which was wrecked in a storm at Bremer Bayin 1890 and the topsail schooler Grace Darling, which gave stirling service to the south coastal hamlets before her sale, and eventual wrecking off Lanceline in 1914."
Like his brother William he saved many lives at sea:
“Fred was to figure greatly in the rescue of over 200 passengers and crew from the steamer Rodondo which was wrecked on Pollock Reef on the south coast in October 1894. But for his presence, it is most likely that there would have been few survivors of this dramatic shipwreck.”

Reading these stories, I cannot help but wonder, what would my mariner ancestors, the good Captain’s Douglas, saviours of many lives at sea, have thought of the shipwrecks reported in the modern day online press? The “ghost boats” that sink at night, and the men women and children all lost? Would they have set out to help? If they had rescued the drowning, though, and brought them to shore, then what would happen to them? 
It’s impossible to say, of course. Meanwhile, the circular patterns of history continue.
On my paternal grandfather’s English side of the family we may be descended from another sea faring mob of boat people who invaded England in the 8th century - the Vikings- which is where the surname comes from (Skilbeck in Norweigian means house by a stream). Although another story has it that many hundreds of years ago some blight threatened the Yorkshire village of Skilbeck and its occupants dispersed each taking Skilbeck as their surname as an identifier of where they came from.
Yesterday, I received a letter with news that my London-born nephew, who runs a scuba diving business in a coastal hamlet in WA, is taking qualifications that will lead to him being able to captain a ship...
With so much salt in the family veins, no wonder the ghost boats are circling my mind, ghosts of the future past, their phantom passengers calling out for help, before they hit the rocks.


Quoted text from ' The Family of Thomas and Phoebe Douglas in Western Australia and the descendents of John Duglas b.1731. ' Compiled by Bob Douglas, Kendenup, Western Australia, June 2011. Second Edition.

Clan Douglas - Wikipedia

Jamais Arrière Douglas. Clan Douglas crest

Clan Douglas Tartan:

Clan Douglas  History:

Clan Douglas  Castles: 


Anonymous said...

Hi Ruth found your blog interesting. I am related to Frederick Douglas/Susan Rebecca Wellstead through their daughter Faith Douglas and my father Doug Tracy. Do you have anything more?
Julie Tracy

Anonymous said...

Hi Ruth,
Hope you enjoyed the read, and thanks for the little bit of publicity via your blog - not, incidentally, something I was at all seeking when we began collecting & collating all of these facts and many more over twenty five years ago.
The connections with the sea continue - I too am a mariner by trade; several other relations have taken to the sea in ships either for fortune or fun, and quite a few of us have little yachts and run-a-bouts.
Coincidentally also, there is quite a bit of the publican trade amongst descendants of John Duglas - and not a few of us still enjoy a good whiskey, beer or wine!

Bob Douglas, Kendenup Western Australia.

Ruth Skilbeck said...

Hi Bob,
Great to connect with you, and thanks for your comment and for noticing my blog. I very much enjoyed reading your research into our family history, and it is quite wonderful to be able to make this family connection through the internet as we are now... I am fascinated by the family connection with the sea, and very interested to hear that you are also a mariner and the tradition continues, as it does also through my nephew who grew up in London and has just graduated as a sea captain in Exmouth, Western Australia, perhaps you will meet up one day with him.
As to the publican tradition, well that explains a lot! Quite a few of us in this side of the family also enjoy good wine, and my father even has a vineyard now at his country property.



Anonymous said...

Hi Ruth,
Did you come to the reunion that was a few years ago in South Perth? I was just sipping this morning from the mug we bought there with 'Jamais Arriere' and the crest emblazoned on- fighting words, huh? I guess, we're very distant cousin of some sort, but I've ended up in academia and the media also (and NSW). There seemed to be a lot of bookeepers and nurses in the female line. Strong, independent women.
Nice to read your blog.

Ruth Skilbeck said...

Hi Fiona,
Unfortunately I didn't know about the reunion or would have gone. Don't have the mug though would like to!! At least I have the words and perhaps that is more important than anything.
Great to hear from you.
Stay in touch.

All the best,