Such was life

18 years old and in charge of the ship

The British barque Trafalgar docked at Williamstown on 16 December 1893 after a harrowing voyage. Several of the senior officers had died from fever on the journey, and the charge of the ship had fallen to 18 year old William Shotton.

Formal portrait of a young man, William Shotton.

William Shotton, a youth of 18 who navigated the ship Trafalgar from Batavia to Melbourne, IAN01/01/94/21

The ship had left Cardiff, Wales, early in the year and transported a load of coal to Rio De Janeiro. From there they had sailed to New York to take on a load of kerosene to be transported to Batavia (Jakarta).

Photograph showing four-masted barque Trafalgar in harbour

Trafalgar, H99.220/2539

When they arrived at Batavia several sailors deserted. The ship’s captain contracted a fever and died and the command fell to the chief officer Richard Roberts. Shortly after leaving Batavia he, too, succumbed to fever, followed soon after by the second officer.

Six men died in all, and many crew members were laid low. William Shotton, the young, inexperienced third officer, had to assume command.

‘One by one the crew went down, and at last I had to take charge [...] All our best men went, worse luck, and the scum of the ship remained. They wouldn’t even secure the sails. I gave orders, but they wouldn’t obey. I didn’t care, I said to them, ‘If you don’t like to work you needn’t. This has to be done, that has to be done, and if you won’t do it, I can’t help it; and, as they didn’t do it, I did my best.’
William Shotton, quoted in The Capricornian, 6 January 1894, p 37

They sighted land at Port Fairy, but a gale was blowing up. Shotton decided they must run before the gale. The ship scudded along ahead of furious winds. The gale subsided and Trafalgar finally made the heads on the morning of 16 December. They anchored in Hobson’s Bay at 10pm that evening.

The Board of Marine Enquiry had high praise for William Shotton’s actions, and he was awarded a gold watch by the Government in honour of his bravery (The Advertiser, 25 December, 1893, p 5).

You can read more about the dramatic voyage in the Argus, 18 December 1893, p 5.

‘I would go through it all again tomorrow. I was never happier in my life. A sailor loves the sea, and the more dangerous his adventures the more valuable his experiences’
William Shotton, quoted in The Capricornian, 6 January 1894, p 37

Written by Andrew McConville
Librarian, Digital Access Team

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