This photo, held in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand, shows the wreck of the Weathersfield, the ship sailed by PGH’s grandfather, John Hicks. The foundering of the ship in 1888 was the trigger for John Hicks, his wife and eight children to emigrate from the Scillies, off Cornwall, to Melbourne, where another branch of the Hicks family had already settled. The Scilly Islands are known as a holiday retreat for the royal family and prime ministers, now easily accessible by air from Penzance. But in the nineteenth century the inhabitants of the most populous island, St Mary’s, were isolated from the mainland by a forbidding 36-mile stretch of water. Those on the smaller island of St Agnes to the south were even more isolated, surrounded by treacherous ledges and steeples although in the path of the gulf stream that brought them a climate mild enough to protect them from frost and snow in the winter. Hicks families had probably lived on the islands since they were purchased by the Godolphin family in the sixteenth century, most of them on St Agnes.
By the 1820s intermarriage had ensured that half of those living on the island were Hicks, said to be courageous, self-reliant and combative. Until the St Agnes lighthouse was built in 1858 many of the menfolk were pilots, each pilot boat operating with a crew of eight. PGH’s great-great-grandfather Amor Hicks (b. 1784) was a Trinity House pilot, as was his son-in-law and nephew. In the 1840s there might be as many as 200 ships anchored offshore, needing fresh stores, mail services and pilotage. Once the shipbuilding industry developed on St Mary’s, however, men such as PGH’s great-grandfather James Hicks gravitated to the shipyards on the beach and by 1841 there were 41 classed as shipwrights as well as sail makers, stone cutters, masons and joiners. The men could own a small percentage of the ship’s value, perhaps a 64th, and might take a profit on its voyage to China for rice and tea, to the Black Sea for grain and to Australia for wool.
PGH’s grandfather John Hicks was apprenticed as a shipwright when he was about thirteen, in 1860. By this time 48 ships had been built in the Scillies and the industry was beginning to decline with the onset of steam. It might have been grandfather Hicks who was one of the apprentices who set out on a pilot gig with five pilots, a captain and several other apprentices, only to offload all of the men until only John Hicks was left to sail the gig home. His journey is remembered in the history of the islands because he reached St Mary’s safely but put the bow of the gig through the front window of the Atlantic Hotel. On another occasion John Hicks was said to have piloted the Sunbeam, the yacht of Lord Brassey, later governor of Victoria, and John’s son Ernest remembered him being given a copy of Lady Brassey’s bestselling book A Voyage in the Sunbeam (1878).
John Hicks spent most of his career as a ship’s carpenter on the Weathersfield, an iron ship built in Glasgow and sailed with a Scillonian crew. Its first journey to New Zealand was in 1882, the ship commanded by Captain Sherris (or Sherries), a Scillonian. It was a dangerous and at times terrifying occupation, and John Hicks’s grandchildren remember him telling them that at times when he was climbing the rigging of the ship in a gale off the coast of South America he dreamed of being able to retire from sailing. On the Scillies, as shipbuilding declined, the flower industry developed, prospering from the islands’ mild climate and abundance of wild narcissus and daffodils. Flowers would be sent by steamer and then train the 350 miles to London, millions of them per year. But instead of farming or participating in the new industry many of the Hicks family left. Of PGH’s parents’ generation, several went to London to run a bookshop, some to Portsmouth to work as shipwrights, some of them became customs boatmen and others left when they married. John Deason, born on the island of Tresco, emigrated to Australia during the gold rush and is famous for having found the “Welcome Stranger” nugget, which weighed 66 kilograms and was valued at £9,000.
There are plenty of former Scillonians with the surnames of Mumford, Edwards, Jenkins, Ellis and Hicks in Victorian genealogical records and Richard Trevellick is remembered as one of the agitators for the eight-hour day. John Hicks must have considered leaving the islands as well. By 1888 he had a very large family and for their education, if nothing else, they must have looked to emigrate. Early in 1888 the Weathersfield sailed for Lyttleton in New Zealand with 450 tons of ballast, expecting to load a cargo of wheat. Early on the morning of 9 April 1888 the ship ran aground on the west coast of the north island. According to the papers there were no injuries and the crew landed safely. The local Hawera paper reported that “There is little to say of this further addition to the already many ill-fated vessels whose timbers bestrew the dismal beach between Paikakariki and the Manawatu river”. Its landing point was only five miles from where the Hyderabad had run aground ten years earlier, the remnants of that wreck still visible today. Captain Sherris reported that the Weathersfield had been becalmed off Cape Farewell and then, unable to find his position, found himself thirty miles off course. The subsequent inquiry found that there was a strong current in the Wanganui bight, not reported in navigation manuals, allowing the captain to be absolved of all blame. The inquiry recommended that a lighthouse be built on Stephen’s island, which was completed in 1894. After the wreck the Weathersfield lay on Otaki beach for four years, so this photo was taken sometime between 1888 and 1892. In the meantime John Hicks resumed his career as a shipwright at Duke & Orr in the centre of Melbourne. When his children left the Scillies for Australia they must have sailed directly to Portsmouth because they later claimed that they had never set foot on the English mainland.
Workers at Duke & Orr, or “Duke’s Dock” in the dock in Melbourne, c. 1900. PGH’s grandfather, John Hicks, is the bearded man seated in the centre. The men in suits are likely to be his brother-in-law, the dockmaster John Vickery Legg, and his nephews Jim and Gus Duke. Archives of Duke & Orr, University of Melbourne Archives.