Thursday, May 9, 2019

Mathilda Wattenbach ship - built in Jersey 1853 - Later called Racehorse

The magnificent Mathilda Wattenbach was built at Frederick Clarke’s West Park shipyard at Mont Patibulaire – “on the beach” near where the Grand Hotel now stands - during 1853.

At its peak the business occupied two acres of the foreshore and employed 400.

Clarke, born at Grouville in 1812 - the son of a pensioned RN gunner and Esther Valpy - produced 62 vessels from this most basic of workplaces from 1844 to 1867. Earlier he had built smaller craft at Havre de Pas and La Folie.

The Mathilda Wattenbach (MW) won the General Post Office contract in December 1853 for taking the mails from Liverpool to Melbourne and Sydney. Her initial owners were important shippers such as T.H.Wattenbach of London and several foreign locations. Melhuish was of Liverpool, London and other places.

Melhuish was probably from the extensive Devon/Cornish shipbuilding and former smuggling family which had links with South Wales. They had expanded greatly into international trading during the nineteenth century.
Wattenbach, Heilgers & Co of London, Hamburg and Calcutta were most likely of Swiss origin and part of a major international business - which lost their Danish flagged ship Calcutta just before Clarke launched the MW - but the loss did not interfere too much with their substantial trading. They also owned a Bremerhaven built Augustus Wattenbach barque besides others of similar tonnage.
John James Melhuish at Liverpool had dissolved his ship owning partnership with Robert Kent at Liverpool in February 1852 and was probably useful to the Wattenbach empire as the means of flying the British flag thus giving access to the extensive British overseas territories and markets.
A fine painting from the National Maritime Museum collection shows the three masted, metal sheathed timber ship under full sail soon after her launch but details of the artist are not known. She measured 211 feet from stem to stern, 35 feet wide and 20 feet deep in the hold and was usually calculated at about 1,077 tons burthen.

She was among the largest vessels constructed in Jersey although Clarke had several such craft on the stocks at this time according to the contemporary Jersey Almanac. She was first surveyed at St Helier, registered at Liverpool and then embarked upon a known career sailing the world’s most distant oceans for the next twenty years under many captains for a long, ever changing list of owners out of several British ports of Registry.
The details of several contemporary vessels indicate that the business relations were complex. The F.C. Clarke barque built at Jersey in 1852 was owned at Liverpool by Melhuish & Co but listed as sailing from Jersey to Calcutta under Captain W. Melhuish in 1853. He also supposedly commanded the Jersey built Ann Holzberg barque too, for Melhuish & Co that same year on a similar voyage.

The William Melhuish Jersey built ship, sailed from London to Philadephia for Liverpool owner Melhuish whilst the F.C. Clarke was later owned by Holzberg at Liverpool but sailing for India from London. The F.A. Althausse Jersey built barque was also owned by Melhuish at Liverpool in 1855 when the Jane Pratt Jersey built barque, Captain H. Clare, was also Melhuish owned at Liverpool and trading to India.

The Helen Heilgars ship, built at Jersey in 1854 of about 1,000 tons was similarly owned and sailing to Calcutta, according to Lloyds Registers.

Clarke built a dozen vessels for Melhuish commencing with the Robert Bradford barque in 1849 – “constructed with raking stem and stern post on Messrs Hall of Aberdeen’s plan” according to a Lloyds surveyor. Alexander Hall’s distinctive curved bow design was a feature of many speedy opium and tea trade clippers.
MWs first voyage from Liverpool to Sydney under Captain John Clare’s command almost ended in disaster when she was dismasted and had to put into Lisbon for repairs. For the fifty-six passengers this would have been a worrying experience but she carried on to Melbourne, arriving there on 27 April 1854.

Leaving for Sydney on 7 June she ran foul of another vessel in the bay losing her bowsprit and rudder but after more repairs arrived on 28 July.
The profitable life for such ships was usually short. Not only due to the cruelties of the sea and weather but also because after ten years they were likely to lose the prized Lloyds A1 registration which was the key to obtaining top freight rates.
For a decade the MW proudly sailed alongside the smartest of the “clipper ships” racing to exotic destinations in China, India, Australia, New Zealand and many ports between. But the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 would soon allow steamers to compete with, and eventually defeat the sailing ships on these routes.
Passengers proved to be the mainstay of her business for some years.

In June 1862 she loaded 350 “Non-Conformist” emigrants at London destined for Albertland, near Auckland. Offering forty acres of land to every paying passenger the New Zealand government soon had 800 committed volunteers with the necessary skills and enthusiasm.
Following some nifty – and slightly devious re-registration – the MW was renamed as Racehorse in 1864 and emerged under the ownership of Alexander Fotheringham and John Smurthwaite on the Sunderland Register, sailing for Hong Kong.

More Southern voyages followed but during 1866/7 she was listed transporting “indentured Indian servants” to British Guiana which was akin to sanitized slave trading.

John Fotheringham’s name had appeared in the East India trade from the 1820s as owner and captain of vessels.

Smurthwaite was a Sunderland based shipbuilder, broker, owner, merchant and wharfinger but featured as bankrupt in the Edinburgh Gazette during 1865.

The Racehorse was probably now having to try harder for profitable cargoes. Agents’ adverts in the New Zealand newspapers offered freight rates of £20 per ton for the return voyage to English ports.
On 26 May 1865 she sailed from Portland (Dorset) with 280 convicts besides 172 passengers – mostly “pensioner guards” and their families – destined for the Swan River Colony near Fremantle in Western Australia.

The convicts’ cargo had been assembled from all around Britain and some overseas locations too such as Canada, Athens, St Helena, Manila and Shanghai. Many had already been incarcerated – some on prison hulks – for several years. Just two died on the 76 days voyage under the care of Captain Seaward and surgeon Watson.

The shipping of convicts to Australia ceased soon afterwards in 1867 when the Hougomont left London with the final consignment of 280 unfortunates including four men sentenced to ten years transportation by the Jersey Royal Court and about sixty politically troublesome Irish “Fenians”.

Racehorse’s voyage from London commencing 27 March 1868 to Auckland under Captain Seaward almost proved to be her last.

All went well until 16 June, when after crossing the equator in light winds and calms, the ship was hit by a hurricane with huge seas which “pitched her on her beam ends”. The main topmast was lost, along with top-gallants and trysail yards which came crashing down onto the deck, wrecking gear such as the binnacle and splitting the mainsail.

Bosun Charles Crane was washed overboard from the rigging and drowned. The whole sailing crew - ten at most - were mustered but most were disabled and unfit for duty. Full of water, the Racehorse was a complete wreck as she sailed on for Auckland when the storm subsided but the fifty-four passengers, ship and cargo had all survived.

After 101 days at sea the destination was reached and the Auckland Weekly Press described the ordeal “as one of the most tempestuous passages for this time of the year that has ever been made by any similar vessel…”
Her final years flying the British flag saw the Racehorse sailing to Saigon and Java in 1869/70 under Captain Hybert’s command for Spottiswoode & Co and Captain E. Peacock for owner Thomas Oswald & Co., another shipbuilding and merchant business. With the crew now further reduced she sailed initially from Sunderland to China but soon transferred to Exmouth owners Thomas Redway & Co., although remaining on the northern port register.

Redway & Co. was a family business that had been bankrupted in 1865 but specialized in trading with the East and West coasts of Africa and South America before embarking on a substantial ship building activity and made a fortune contracting for the government during the Crimean war.

Their Dartmouth yard was almost destroyed by fire in 1878 along with several vessels on the stocks and so the remaining business resources were diversified to Hull fishing ventures and building Milford Haven docks...
Clarke’s yard failed due to the progress of steam but it was the railway that defeated him in the 1860’s, not smoking iron ships. His last vessel was the St Vincent in 1867 but In spite of a fierce and expensive court battle the St Aubin to St Helier line was laid on the same West Park foreshore across his site and that signaled his failure.
But the fate of the Racehorse ex Mathilda Wattenbach remains less certain because she ceased to appear in Lloyds lists or Registers after 1871.

Lost at sea, sold foreign or seized for some trading irregularity were all hinted but she slipped quietly from public gaze and into history like so many thousands of other magnificent sailing ships over the centuries.


  1. See article in JEP 8 July 2019 .
    As Racehorse and described as a Siamese barque captain Petterson she was trading between Bangkok and Hong Kong and grounded and wrecked in the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on 24 October 1874.