Emily White bible

This article first appeared in our November/December 2022 newsletter.

The hulk of the ship, Edwin Fox, is kept in a dry dock in a museum on the waterfront at Picton.

A link with Cornwall came to my attention in a very round-about way. A researcher for the Edwin Fox museum contacted the St Day parish council about a bible that had been donated to the museum. The bible had been presented to Emily White who was a passenger aboard the Edwin Fox on its first voyage as an emigrant ship from London to Lyttleton. The inscription in the bible says "Emily White, July 1864, from Mrs. Williams of Tregullow for her regular attendance at St. Day Church School.”

As you may remember, I was born and went to primary school in St Day. The parish council did not have any records to help the researcher. The clerk of the council approached a good friend of mine, Diane Nankivell, who runs the village post office and she forwarded the message to me. By chance, I have a copy of “The Book of St Day, The Towne of Trynyte”, by J Mills and P Annear, two residents who did a fantastic job of researching local history. The chapter on education includes an account from the West Briton newspaper of an event on 5 August 1864:

“On Wednesday last, the children belonging to the girls’ free school of St Day, numbering 160, were, with the teachers, treated to their annual tea by Mrs and Miss Williams at Tregullow, where swings were erected and other amusements provided for them.

Just before leaving they assembled in front of the terrace and sang several little pieces, after which Miss Williams distributed several books as prizes to those most deserving, and regular in their attendance.”

I passed on this incredible coincidence to Heather Fryer, the researcher at the Edwin Fox Museum. She has kindly supplied information about other Cornish passengers who came to New Zealand on other voyages of the ship. They are likely to feature in future newsletters.

The Edwin Fox was built to an old design in India in 1853 on the River Hooghly, nearly a hundred miles from the sea in the state of West Bengal. The ship had a colourful history. After some strengthening work in London she ferried troops to the Crimean War. In 1855 the Edwin Fox was refitted to carry civilian passengers and general cargo. Her next voyage was to Melbourne, Australia with six passengers and supplies, taking 104 days. She then spent two years trading around Asia without much success or honour. She was believed to have been involved in forced “emigration”, a euphemism because international agreements were banning the slave trade. She arrived back in London with a cargo of sugar from Havana.

Refitted again in 1858, she began a new deployment transporting 282 convicts to Australia. After that, the ship was used to carry beer (Indian Pale Ale) to India and Ceylon.

In 1873 the vessel was sold to Walter Savill and Robert Shaw, who had been chartering ships for the passenger service to New Zealand under the Vogel scheme for assisted migration since 1858. It was one of the oldest ships that they acquired. Having been designed for the Indian trade, her passenger quarters were particularly well ventilated and she was to become popular with saloon, second class and steerage passengers alike.

On 24 January 1873 she sailed from London with a complement of 95 passengers destined for Canterbury and 95 destined for Otago. The weather was miserable and the ship had difficulty even getting out of the English Channel. When they were 150 miles south-west of the Scilly Isles, a storm struck. Ferocious seas seriously damaged the ship, there were many injuries and two were killed. The crew managed to get at some cases of spirits and were nearly all drunk. The passengers were forced to turn to, man the pumps, and do what they could to save the ship. A passing steamer towed her into the French port of Brest for repairs which took weeks. Meanwhile the passengers were garrisoned in barracks, which would have been a shocking and unnerving experience for those used to privacy and consideration in their former homes. When she set sail again on 5 March 23 passengers declined to reboard and presumably returned to England. It is not known if any ventured to New Zealand later. The balance of the voyage was uneventful, except for more deaths on board from fever and con­sumption. The Edwin Fox docked at Lyttelton after 114 days at sea but was placed in isolation at the quarantine station on Ripapa Island for two more days due to the risk of fever.

Emily White was travelling with her mother, Elizabeth, and younger sister, Bessie. Records of the voyage show that one of the White ladies was ‘caught being friendly to a seaman, James Harris’. She was banished to her berth by the doctor. It is unknown which of the three ladies was the culprit but, surely, it could not have been Emily who had won a prize for her diligent school attendance.

Emily was born in November 1854, the fifth of seven children, so was nine when she received her bible prize and 18 when she left Cornwall. We don’t know why her father didn’t emigrate with his wife and can surmise that he had died and the women were looking for a better life. The older children had possibly already married and made their own homes. Elizabeth (who may have been the one flirting with the sailor) married Arthur Jones in New Zealand in 1877.

Thanks to the Edwin Fox Ship and Maritime Centre in Picton, New Zealand for help researching this article and for the use of photographs of the bible.