We know much about the WWI vintage battlecruiser HMAS Australia (I) and the WWII vintage heavy cruiser HMAS Australia (II) but very little about the first warship to carry our nation’s proud name HMS Australia (1886–1905). This story seeks to redress that imbalance.
In February 2019 an email was received from one of our readers, Mr. Lawrence Sellstrom. The origins of his name are Swedish but for many centuries his family has resided in England. Lawrence, who has a keen interest in naval history, recently acquired an old and intriguing sailor’s box of treasures or ‘Ditty Box’. Contained therein was memorabilia from HMS Australia which included original manuscripts of notebooks and diaries, some early photographs, a snuff box, a clay pipe and a knuckleduster.
The box appears to have belonged to Able Seaman Frederick C. Allen, Service No 132076, who was born in Willesborough, Kent on 19 April 1869. He is the assumed author of these works, which are in a good hand and compiled by someone with a reasonable education. In particular, there is a diary entry concerning a fatal accident to a young Able Seaman, William Droudge, and a poem lamenting the death of Lieutenant James St Clair Bower of HMS Sandfly while serving in the Australian Squadron. Lieutenant Bower and three of his crew were killed by natives in the Solomon Islands in 1880; his remains were later recovered and are buried at North Sydney.
During his research Mr. Sellstrom came across an article in an old copy of the Naval Historical Review dated December 1972, The Cruise of HMS Australia 1889 to 1893, which includes reference to the accidental death of AB Droudge. However, the above mentioned diaries provide a different version of events. This then is the mystery we seek to unfold, with some background to this period.
Royal Naval late 19th century cruisers
In the latter part of the 19th century, when the Royal Navy was approaching its zenith, a series of cruisers was built as naval architects strove to find an ideal patrol vessel which could be employed throughout a worldwide empire. Numerous classes of so-called ‘Protected’ and ‘Armoured’ cruisers were developed which the First Sea Lord, Sir John Fisher, famously termed an intolerable drain on the service’s resources as ‘they could neither fight nor run away’. His solution was the much larger and more costly battlecruiser.
The relatively small Mersey class cruisers were the first to completely discard their sailing rig and were solely steam-powered warships. From these origins the seven-ship Orlando class cruisers were built between 1886 and 1889. Of this new class, the second ship to be delivered was HMS Australia.
The names used in most classes of ship follow themes. In the Orlando class this is hard to fathom, as is where Australia fits into the lexicon of: Orlando, Australia, Galetea, Immortalite, Narcissus, Undaunted and Aurora.
The Orlando class, officially known as First Class Protected Cruisers, were 327 feet long, 56 feet beam, and protected by a 10-inch belt of armour. The armament comprised 2 x 9.2-inch guns, 10 x 6-inch guns, 10 x 3 pounder guns and 6 x 18-inch torpedo tubes. They were powered by 3-cylinder triple expansion steam engines, fed by four coal fired double-ended boilers, developing 8,500 ihp. With two shafts they had a maximum speed of 18 knots, with a range of 10,000 nautical miles at an economical speed of 10 knots. They had a complement of 484 officers and men, rising to 500 when operating as flagships. These ships displaced about 5,600 tons and were said to be overweight.
HMS Orlando on the Australia Station
The only ship from this class to serve in our waters was HMS Orlando, the first of her type, which arrived in Port Jackson on 01 September 1888, taking over from HMS Nelson as flagship of the Australian Squadron. She served in this role for nine years until she too was relieved by HMS Royal Arthur on 4 November 1897. Initially Orlando was too large to dock locally and was obliged to use Auckland’s Calliope Dock. It was not until the Sutherland Dock was completed at Cockatoo Island in 1890 that she could dock in Australia.
In 1889 Orlando was temporarily assigned to the China Station, joining a multi-national force to suppress the Boxer Rebellion. Sailors and Royal Marines from the ship formed part of a force to relieve the British Legation at Peking. During this engagement there were a number of casualties and one Royal Marine died. On return to Sydney she was docked at Cockatoo Island where her funnels were extended to improve the updraft of her exhaust gases.
The Cruise of HMS Australia
Australia was built in a separate yard but in the same timeframe as her sister Orlando. Therefore, they should have been identical. Australia was commissioned at Chatham on 19 November 1889 by Captain Martin Dunlop and left Spithead on 26 December under sealed orders. Her destination turned out to be the Cape Verde Islands which were reached on 7 January 1890. Influenza broke out on this passage with 84 men on the sick list (17% of the ship’s company) when she arrived for coal as an unhealthy and unwelcome guest at this small Portuguese colony.
From Cape Verde she went to Gibraltar and met up with another sister, Undaunted, and it seems both ships needed some dockyard work before joining the Mediterranean Fleet – was this the funnel extensions mentioned above? At this time the Mediterranean Fleet was the most powerful force in the Royal Navy.
Most of 1890 was spent cruising the Levant and off the Greek and Turkish coasts. Constant coaling was provided by colliers coming alongside at anchorages where Australia’s crew could load 500 tons in a little over nine hours. On 25 August the Empress Frederick of Germany visited the ship and inspected her company.
Early 1891 was spent refitting at Malta. On 3 February they were reviewed by the Duke of Cambridge before undertaking an Italian cruise. We might gain the impression that this was a succession of pleasure cruises but the RN worked its ships well with constant weapons training, drills, inter-ship competitions and regattas, and concert parties went from ship to ship. Sailing regattas were well attended with crews training for months for prizes with the ships’ companies unofficially placing side bets on the winners. There were the inevitable inspections by squadron commanders and their specialist officers.
The William Droudge Mystery
The ship then joined the Second Cruiser Division and made for Salonica. On 22 May 1891 at Phalerum Bay (an ancient name for the Port of Athens) a sad accident happened when William Droudge, a young Able Seaman, fell over a cliff and was killed. These few words about the death of William Droudge are the only mention to be found on this incident in the earlier 1972 Naval Historical Review report on the cruise of Australia.
On 1 June when still at Phalerum Bay the captain and officers gave a ball, which was honoured by the presence of Their Majesties the King and Queen of Greece and Princess Margaret and Prince Nicholas of Greece.
Here the accidental death of young able seaman some 130 years ago might be left to rest. However, our correspondent Lawrence Sellstrom informs us about a handwritten diary from a member of the ship’s company about this incident which (with minor grammatical changes) reads as follows:
22 May – …had news to say there was a man from our ship lying on the beach, sent a boat for him and a doctor brought him back to the ship. I saw him in the boat and it was William Droudge who inconceivably fell over, or very likely was thrown, over a cliff. He died at half past twelve without returning to consciousness. The Captain is trying to find out all about the cause of his death. The doctor thinks he has met foul play, he died half an hour ago, I have just been to see him. A post mortem will be held.
We feel his loss; he was my best chum in this ship. He was seen by some last night at 9 pm, he told them he would catch them up when he had explained something to a Russian sailor and a Greek. The boat left inshore at 10.15 pm. Droudge remained on shore, and not seen afterwards till about 6 am this morning. He was without any money and his silk and knife gone, lying insensible under a cliff 60 feet high. His forehead was cut, eye bleeding and other unknown injuries.
There were two other men breaking leave on shore, Knight and Gilbert. They came on board at 5 am saying Droudge left them at a public house before 11 pm. He went out by himself to get back, it was then around 10 minutes to 11. That is all that is known. Bill’s footmarks have been found on top of the cliff, they are the only marks.
23 May – I went to the funeral. He had a nice coffin and was placed alongside a shipmate who died in (unable to decipher ship’s name) who was a stoker belonging to Chatham. We came on board soon after and shifted our clothing. It was about 5 pm we then hoisted our boats. The fleet then hove into sight, came in and anchored. They then followed us in half-masting their colours for our shipmate.
They are having a Board of Inquiry and the Captain of Collingwood (flag) has put a detective on the job with two others that can speak the lingo. We can’t find one of his (Droudge) photos yet, we want one to have same copied.
24 May – Sunday, Queens Birthday, decorated ship and fired 21 guns. Church on poop the Chaplain ‘spun a cuff’ about Droudge being on shore in bad company, not leaving until after his leave had expired, and told us to shun drink and such company. He gets drunk himself twice a day, knocks off Saturday, ready for Sunday.
The above concludes all we know of the William Droudge mystery. Proving that tragedy strikes in threes, on 13 June 1891 when at Thaso Island, AB William Collins fell overboard from a fishing party returning to the ship and was drowned. A month later in another boating accident an ERA and a blacksmith were drowned when their boat capsized. It is of note that many sailors could swim as ‘Hands to Bathe’ was regularly piped at 6 pm when at anchor in sheltered temperate waters.
The cruise continues
In August the Second Division was ordered to Alexandria as the Sultan of Turkey, backed by the French, was agitating for the removal of British from Egypt.
In September there was change of command with Captain Dunlop relieved by Captain Holland. On 22 October the whole of the Mediterranean Fleet assembled at Milo (Greek island of Milos) under the new admiral, Sir George Tryon1. On 15 November Australia was back at Malta for her annual refit and remained there until 12 March 1892.
From 15 March to 16 April 1892 Australia, flying the flag of Rear Admiral Markham, was at Alexandria for ceremonies concerned with the installation of the new Khedive of Egypt.
During May the ship was unexpectedly involved in the salvage of the collier Henry Anning which had been in collision with HMS Edinburgh.
From 30 July to 5 August they were at Cadiz in company with two other cruisers and two torpedo boats representing Great Britain at the celebration of the Fourth Centenary of Columbus starting out on his voyage of discovery of America.
On 19 October the ship returned to Malta for refit and it was not expected that she would go to sea again with her present crew. While refitting the crew were hulked in Orion and Hibernia. The crew returned to the ship on 28 January 1893 and on 1 March orders were received to proceed to America as one of the ships representing Britain at the International Naval Review being held in connection with the opening of the Chicago Exhibition2.
The C-in-C, Admiral Sir George Tryon, came onboard to say goodbye and the next day they left Malta, waiting three days at Gibraltar for some officers coming from England. It being too rough to anchor, Maderia was bypassed and they continued to Bermuda, arriving on 28 March.
On 13 April they left Bermuda in company with HM Ships Blake, Magicienne, Tartar and Partridge, and four days later anchored in Hampton Roads, Chesapeake Bay. Already assembled here were 14 American and six foreign men-of-war. By 24 April the International Fleet swelled to 30 ships when they left Hampton Roads and the following day anchored in New York Lower Bay, where another four warships joined.
The ships, dressed overall with stars and stripes at their mastheads, presented a fine spectacle assembling in two lines each of 17 foreign men-of-war, Blake leading the first and Australia the second line. A great number of people crammed into various ships as they steamed past the Statue of Liberty and the river banks were lined with people in their millions. Spirits were dampened when the rain came in with heavy downpours. This resulted in a signal being received postponing the review until 2 pm.
At last the rain held off and the President of the United States, Stephen (Grover) Cleveland, then reviewed the fleet. As he steamed between the two lines of warships the ships were manned, fired 21 gun salutes and gave three hearty cheers. The President in USS Philadelphia later received the admirals and captains from the assembled ships. In the evening the ships were illuminated and there was a fireworks display.
The next day companies of sailors and marines were landed by steamers and marched through Broadway – the first time British troops under arms had landed in America since the War of Independence.
The visit was a great success in cementing Anglo/American relationships. After four days the Royal Navy ships left New York, with bands playing traditional songs and being cheered down the Hudson. They were so well received that eighty-four men deserted from the RN squadron, including nine from Australia.
They arrived back in Bermuda on 13 May and after coaling arrived at Plymouth on 31 May, an absence of three years and five months from England. They then proceeded to Portsmouth to pay off on 17 June 1893. During the commission the ships had been at sea 352 days, mostly in the Mediterranean, and steamed about 41,370 nautical miles.
The first ship to bear our nation’s proud name, HMS Australia, did not venture into the Southern Ocean and discover our shores, but her twin sister Orlando was flagship of the Australia Station for nine years. By studying the history of both ships we gain a composite picture of life aboard these vessels in the Victorian era.
Australia’s cruise started out sailing from the British Isles in the midst of winter, when coughs and colds were commonplace; it was not long before 17% of the ship’s company were laid low with influenza. We know that one member of the ship’s company died in hospital, another in suspicious circumstances, and three drowned. Also nine deserters were left behind savouring the bright lights of New York.
To the present generation it is inconceivable that in peacetime a ship would sail under sealed orders, with her destination only known to a select few, and for an unknown duration. While some well-connected senior officers might be able to bring wives, at their own expense, for holidays to places such as Malta, the majority of her complement had no idea when they would next see family and friends. During this particular cruise it looks that some attempt had been made to exchange at least part of the crew after three years. However, the logistics of such commissions are to be admired, with annual overseas dockings, multiple supplies of coal and all types of provisions, and if required, an exchange of crew.
- Rear Admiral George Tryon commanded the Australia Station from 1885 to 1887. In 1891 as Vice Admiral Sir George Tryon he was given command of the Mediterranean Fleet. He is infamously known for ordering two columns of warships to turn inwards, resulting in his flagship HMS Victoria colliding with HMS Camperdown in which the Admiral and 357 others died.
- The World’s Columbian Exposition was a world fair held in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World. In scale and grandeur, it exceeded anything previously attempted with more than 27 million visitors attending the exposition during its six-month run.