The Last Convict Ship: The Edwin Fox

May 2023

The historic ship Edwin Fox has a remarkable history. Built in Calcutta in 1853, she is the only surviving ship that transported convicts to Australia; one of the world’s oldest surviving merchant ships; she served as a troop ship in the Crimean War; carried indentured servants to the Caribbean from China and immigrants to New Zealand. She is now preserved in Picton, New Zealand. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Heather Fryer, a volunteer researcher at the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Mariners Mirror podcast; we are enjoying the beautiful spring weather and the spring in our step that we have for having broken 300,000 downloads. It’s a wonderful achievement, and we are growing an impressive global footprint. So firstly, let me thank you all so much for all of your heavy duty listening that you’re doing and that you continue to do. Don’t forget to not only listen to our latest releases as they happily land in your podcast apps, but do please go back into our back catalogue and check out all of the fabulous stuff we’ve recorded in the two short years since we’ve begun. If you’re interested in naval history, let me recommend our mini series on great sea fights. If you’re interested in famous vessels, let me recommend our mini series on iconic ships. If you’re interested in a global perception of maritime history, then listen to our episodes on maritime Africa, maritime Wales, maritime Australia. And know that we’ve got many more coming your way, maritime China, maritime Sweden, among many others. To celebrate our international outreach today, I thought I’d line up something special. So we are beaming our way across the world to New Zealand to find out about one of the most interesting historic vessels I’ve ever come across, the Edwin Fox, now living out her retirement at the wonderful port of Picton in the very north of the South Island of New Zealand. What a ship. Built in India to British specifications the Edwin Fox is not only one of the world’s oldest surviving merchant sailing ships, she’s also the only surviving ship that transported convicts to Australia. She also carried settlers to both Australia and New Zealand. She carried troops in the Crimean War, she carried indentured servants to the Caribbean from China. To find out more I spoke with Heather Fryer, a volunteer researcher for the Edwin Fox Maritime Museum.  Now Heather has one of the best accents I’ve ever heard, it’s half Yorkshire, half New Zealand.  She’s lived in New Zealand for many years, but her vocal chords have some form of permanent jet lag. As ever I hope you enjoy listening to her as much as I enjoyed talking to her. Here is a perfect example of the fuel that keeps our global maritime heritage alive.  The deeply knowledgeable, the hard working, but above all the exemplar of of a woman generous with her time and talents for the benefit of historical knowledge, here is the fabulous Heather.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Heather, thank you very much indeed for joining me this morning.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure.

     

    Sam Willis 

    The more I find out about this ship, the more interested I am in her. She sounds absolutely fantastic. Tell us a bit about the Edwin Fox and how she began her life.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Well, she was built in the shipyards of Thomas Reeves. He had a shipyard on the banks of the Hooghly River in Calcutta, or Kolkata as it’s known now. It was built in 1853 in  such a  remarkable nine months, which we think is a very short period of time. It’s built mainly of teak and saul.  And I think they estimated about 1000 teak trees to actually complete the ship   So that’s quite an amazing amount of trees. That’s one of the reasons we can’t restore it because we can’t get the trees anymore. So at launch, it was around 836 tons and 159 ish feet long. So not a big ship and not a pretty ship, just built as a workhorse.

     

    Sam Willis 

    A classic example of a workhorse as well.  Those teak trees are interesting because being made of Indian hardwood makes her almost impervious to rot, which is probably one of the great advantages you have that she’s still here.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    It is absolutely. So she she left the shipyard heading to London. As soon as she got to London, very strangely she was taken to the docks, dry docks, stripped down and a lot of extra metal knees adding for strengthening and a few other modifications. And that was to achieve the A1 Lloyd’s standard that she needed for trading. So it’s a bit strange, a brand new ship and she goes straight into drydock and gets repaired.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I wonder whether that was because they changed the rules during her construction or whether she was just built for one thing and then was required to do another.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Not sure, we’re not aware.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, we’ll try and find that out.  I think that’s an interesting crossover between shipbuilding and the classification, and the rules and regulations. So yes, she was  changed a little in London, was she then good to go to start her career.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I’ve never heard of him, who was he?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Yes, basically. I mean, she started as a fully rigged ship, and she did get changed later on in her life to a barque. But yes, she started life as a fully rigged ship, named after Edwin Fox; it’s only recently been discovered who he was.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Well, he’s Edwin Goodhew  Fox. So he’s a London businessman, auctioneer, insurance broker. He was on the board of many businesses and seemed to have worldwide interests, and we’re not quite sure of  the connection between Reeves and Fox as to why the ship was named after him. So that needs a little bit more research as well.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, well, I should call out to any of our listeners. If anyone’s interested in doing some research, do please get in touch with either myself or Heather and we can put some work your way.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Yes, all volunteers are welcome. So I guess after that, the next kind of interesting point was that as soon as she got to London her builder Reeves was there also shortly after, and he got persuaded to sell his interest in the ship to Sir George Hodgkinson.  But Sir George never actually paid Reeves, and that’s where the ship went into auction later on, and joined part of  Duncan Dunbar’s  fleet.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Fascinating stuff. And do we know  much about her early career, what she got up to?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Well, she had quite an interesting career. It nearly ended before it started because on her maiden voyage, she actually was in Table Bay South Africa, just getting rid of her cargo of rice and retaking water. She got caught in a storm with many of the other ships and she collided with a frigate called the Devonshire and her rigging was very majorly damaged.  She had to go back to port for two or three weeks for repairs. She served in the Crimean War. She was under the moniker of Transport 109 during  the Crimean War; she was one of the few ships to escape the  great storm that struck the Crimean War arena in 1854. She spent about 15 months just basically taking troops backwards and forwards, bringing the invalids back, and carrying stores around.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That’s interesting. So there must have been a sudden demand for shipping to move troops, and as you say, to bring invalids round.  I don’t know much about the process of how that worked, the flag went up, were ships comandeered, were they purchased, were they rented. Do you know how that works?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Well, I think it’s a very canny Duncan Dunbar because he paid a lot of money over the odds for the ship, that he already had a commission with the British government to provide the Edwin Fox to that war arena. So he knew what he was doing. He was a pretty astute businessman.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That sounds very sensible. So an interesting career there. Have you managed to find any accounts of of people sailing on her during that period?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    We have, we found quite a number of the troops and the leaders of the troops. We’ve also found a couple of instances of Crimean War veterans who were court martialed and brought back on the ship as well. And what we’re doing is we’re researching into each of those people to try and find out what happened to them and where they went, or what happened in their later careers.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, fascinating stuff. Is a lot of that material in the National Archives in London, is it spread all over the place?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    A  lot of it’s on a favourite site, Ancestry. But also a lot of is in the British newspapers, a surprising amount is in the British newspapers. You have to just go trawling through them line by line to find out what’s happening with the ship.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, well that’s great stuff. So those are two resources, which are online, and they’re accessible to anyone all over the world, which is brilliant.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Yes, yes. So after that, she obviously spent a lot of time shipping cargo backwards and forwards. And then I guess in 1857 her most inglorious part of her career occurred when she was rented to transport indentured workers, they were better known as Coolies, from Hong Kong to Cuba, and to work in the sugar plantations there. So that was to fill the backlog, obviously they were abolishing slavery at the time, and the workers weren’t forthcoming. So it’s fair to say not all of the people who joined would have wanted to join. They were very poorly treated, and in fact, the Edwin Fox was one example put forward in the British Parliament’s under papers submitted by Lord Carnarvon who was vehemently against that industry. And he gave the example of the high mortality rate on the ships, Edward Fox an example. 309 people were taken, but 40 actually died on the way. And that kind of death rate was common amongst those kinds of ships, which is absolutely appalling.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And those are Chinese going to Cuba with it.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Yes,  Chinese labourers?  Two terrible aspects. A lot of them didn’t want to go and it was very difficult for them to get back because not many ship owners wanted to bring them back to China, because there wasn’t an awful lot I suppose, of profit in it. Although the Edwin Fox did bring one lot of people back in 1871, I think through to India, of all places. I guess not a very proud part of her history.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    No, but I understand she was also involved in taking convicts to Australia.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Yes, so we had one voyage from London to Fremantle, where she took approximately 280 convicts, the pensioner guards and their families went. So it’s one of the only voyages we found where there was no deaths on the voyage, which is quite remarkable. And there’s some pretty interesting characters in there. There were two of the members of the first Great Train Robbery which occurred, so I’m not sure, probably well before your time, but in the  1970s  there’s a film made about that with Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland. So I think in today’s money it’s about 1.4 million dollars worth worth of gold that they managed to steal and run away with. So they were part of that robbery.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    And they were caught and then sent to Fremantle,

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Yes,sent to Fremantle for a long period of time.  One of them rehabilitated but  the other one was just a bit of a lost cause to be honest.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That’s interesting.  I was recently at the the Shipwrecks Museum of Western Australia and Fremantle, which was built by convicts. So I wonder if they had a hand in that, in the construction of that building?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    They may well may well have done, who knows.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Are the  records good for researching into convicts and convict ships?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    They are, they’re very good. We’re hooked into a couple of organisations in Western Australia. So there’s a group who are looking at convicts across all of the ships.  And then there’s a another group who do a lot of research on the pension accounts. So we’re  exchanging information as to who was on the ship and what they did and what happened to them in later life.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So it’s probably quite remarkable that the Edward Fox survives as  a convict ship, as a documented convict ship. Are there any others?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    No. This is the only wooden convict ship that remains. It’s one of a lot of instances; we think it’s the only wooden ship from the Crimean War that served as a transport ship. And we also believe it’s the only wooden ship left from Duncan Dunbar’s fleets, and the only wooden immigration ship left, which is where she headed for later in her life in the 1873 period.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So just go back to the indentured workers; were the indentured workers’ voyage before the trip to Australia?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Yes it was, I got those a little bit out of sync. So the convict voyage was 1856 and then it was followed by the Coolies going in 1857.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Interesting, but then starts having a career where people are travelling on board who actually elected to do so, which is a significant difference to the previous voyage.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Yes, so she played a stint in the Indian conflicts. So again, she was transporting British troops backwards and forwards.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So t hat’s the Indian Mutiny in the 18

     

    Heather Fryer 

    1. So it’s a little bit beyond the Indian Mutiny. It’s just when the British colonialism was trying to force their power onto the Indian people. I don’t think it’s actually a recognised conflict period, although perhaps some of your listeners and readers can help with that as well. But as well as the soldiers she also carried a huge amount of alcohol as well. And she earned a nickname at one point of the booze barge because she carried so much alcohol, pale ale and whisky and romps backward and forward.

     

    Sam Willis 

    From the UK to India?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Yes, and vice versa.  And in fact, on one of the trips, when she was heading for Sri Lanka the captain ran her aground, and they had to jettison vast amounts of alcohol to refloat the ship. So no doubt he wasn’t very popular at all.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That’s interesting. The amount of alcohol being taken to India, was that for consumption by British people who were living and working there or were they  selling it to  the locals as well?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Well, I would say the vast majority was for the British people living, working and in the armed forces.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Amazing. Do we know if the alcohol came  from London and the southeast or from different ports in the UK?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    I think it came from the southeast, from the London area, but again I can’t be certain on that. I know that the London docks was a huge area for alcohol warehouses, so it’s probably all stored there.

     

    Sam Willis 

    A faint kind of fragment in my mind is telling me that the history of India Pale Ale has something to do with alcohol in India in this period, IPA. But do you know anything about that, I know nothing about it?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Other than the fact the ship was used for transporting it backwards and forwards, no. Not as a huge beer drinker, I can’t help you on that.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I tell you wha,t some of our listeners are, so please guys and girls, please get in touch and tell me what I’m supposed to know about Indian Pale Ale being transported to India, clearly aboard the Edwin Fox, fascinating stuff. And then a really extraordinary period, settlers getting on board and then travelling to Australia and New Zealand. Tell us about this.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    So she made four voyages under Vogel’s immigration scheme, bringing immigrants from England through to the various ports in New Zealand. She did a voyage in 1873, 1875, 1878, and 1880. And we’d think approximately 800 migrants were on board, although it is a little bit tricky, because the passenger lists didn’t generally catch everybody, quite often they just had heads of family. And we’re finding a lot of people that would have travelled, but were never registered as travelling on board, which is quite strange when you start looking at the families. The 1873 voyage was probably her most dangerous passage, she again got caught in a storm. She was almost demasted, rescued by a steamer called Copernicus, Captain Hudson, who was lauded at a time for being a hero for basically getting a rope  onto the ship and dragging her into the port of Brest, where she was repaired.. She spent about three weeks there being repaired.  About 23 passengers refused to get back on board, they had to replace the surgeon on board, because unfortunately, he’d been killed during the storm, as had an Able Seaman. Lots of injuries, you know, broken legs, chopped off fingers, all cuts sorts of things, between the crew and the passengers.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And they are remarkably common on the ships, the people losing their fingers. And if you’ve ever been on a ship you understand why, those hatches and anything else that traps, it’s awful.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Yes.. So the interesting footnote is that the replacement surgeon they sent over after being carried across from his hotel to the passengers by the the agents on two occasions due to alcohol was deemed not suitable to join the ship as a replacement. And they ended up sending him back to London and found a third surgeon so they did finally get somebody. So yes, they had quite an interesting voyage at that. But they all made it and  throughout the voyages we have a number of obvious deaths because of the conditions on board, but a remarkable number of births and also quite a number of Edwin Foxes and Edwina Foxes named after the fact they were born on the ship as well that we’re finding.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I think giving birth on ships is interesting because there’s a time issue isn’t there?  People tend to know they’re pregnant and they tend to not go on board ship for nine months, which means they definitely know that they’re going to give birth on the vessel and  they’ve chosen to do it. I think that’s absolutely fascinating; I should like some more research into that. In terms of the people going out to New Zealand;  you’re calling us from New Zealand now. Where did the settlers arrive? What was the  traditional route to get into New Zealand?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    So there’s two for the Edwin Fox’s two ports of entry, there was Dunedin which is in the bottom of the South Island and the other is Lyttelton, and then a number of the settlers would take smaller steamers and travel up the South Island and settle into the Nelson Marlborough area, which is where the museum is. And then the other area the ship would go to is Wellington, which is the capital city on the North Island, and they would start their lives there and again work their way up country.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And which port were they leaving from in the UK?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Just from the London ports down there, and then through the Downs, and then across?

     

    Sam Willis 

    Do we know how long the voyage  took?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    It took between three and four months, except for the first voyage when they had the storm. So yes, between three and four months was the average depending on weather conditions, and where they stopped off en route to stock up.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So the people giving birth are minimum of five months pregnant when they get on board,

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Yes, you thought you’d notice that wouldn’t you, to be honest.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Well, I mean, it’s interesting, what were the conditions like on board, do we know?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    In the later ships, in the Edwin Fox era, they were relatively good compared to the earlier ships, but we have an exhibit in our museum, which replicates the steerage apartments as you want to call them, bunks, and they’re basically a lot shorter than you or I would be these days and probably  maybe a metre and a half wide. And they were for up to three people in each tier and those two tiers for them. So six people in a tier of bunks, you know, one bucket of water, kind of a week to bathing, and the food was also pretty appalling as well. So it just shows the conditions they left that  they were willing to leave to spend months on board, you know, with all the conditions, the uncertainty of getting there, and the pregnancies, and what they were looking forward to when they got to New Zealand eventually

     

    Sam Willis 

    Fascinating stuff, it makes me really think that it was quite accepted behaviour, it was quite run of the mill that you you would be prepared to give birth on a cold, windswept wooden sailing ship halfway around the world. Which also says a lot about society in their kind of preparation and understanding for coping with life at sea, which I think we’ve lost now. I mean, no one would go on a cruise now to give birth would they?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    No.They always had a surgeon on board and the passengers, the female passengers, a couple of those were picked to be the matron and nurse. So they didn’t have as much care as they could be provided. But yes, it’s a hard choice to make.

     

    Sam Willis 

    This has all come out of the blue,  I’ve been inspired by this. But maybe that’s the reason they went on board the ship, or one of the reasons, because they  knew there’d be a surgeon, they knew there’d be a nursemaid, there would be help.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Yes, it could well be, conditions were probably better than in their home towns.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, fascinating stuff. And so what about the later bits of her career? What does she get up to?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    So around the 1882 period, she was back in London. So she did a few more voyages carrying cargo around but then basically she was obsolete. She was laid up in London for two, two and a half, three years. Not with anything to do basically, and then she was saved by the need in New Zealand for freezer hulks for the burgeoning sheep freezing industry and sheep export industry. So she was commissioned for that in 1885.

     

    Sam Willis 

    That can only happen after people had invented freezers, which happened at the same period. And there was, I forget the name of the first, there was a first  refrigerated cargo that went from New Zealand back to the UK and  changed everything in shipping.  It obviously then advanced and then had frozen meat, something  I don’t think about.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Often it tastes nice. It’s such a year in 1885, again, ended up in drydock. They chopped out quite a few of the deck bunks, they put in metal plates, they put in the Bell-Coleman refrigeration equipment, 500 tons worth of coal, and basically she sailed across to Lyttleton and that was her last voyage under under her own sail. And then she spent the next few years when she got to Lyttleton being towed around various parts where the freezer industry was active. She could hold up to about 14,000 carcasses at one point which is quite an amount for a ship of that size. And then in 1897 I think it was, she was towed up to Picton which was her last open sea voyage. By this time her masts have gone, she had quite an ugly looking wheelhouse on top with all the equipments things, and she ended up at the Picton freezing works, where she was there until about 1900 which was when she then got too small for that, and they built an onshore freezer works. And basically at that point they decommission her, the freezing units, there’s a huge hole in the side of the ship, and she was used for the next 50 years as a coal hulk.

     

    Sam Willis 

    And then didn’ rot, didn’t fall apart, this is the miracle moment. This is when the    ships like her disappear, but she managed to not die.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    She managed to not die, she got worse and worse obviously. They did start off using her as accommodation for the freezer works, but by 1903 she was condemned for accommodation and basically in 1955 she was just abandoned by the freezing works and left there to rot.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Yes,, but somehow been saved. So tell us who decided to save her. How did that work?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Well, this was one of the minor miracles. In 1964 a group of people in the New Zealand Heritage Trust decided that they wanted to save her. At this point she was still just a derelict at the side of the freezing works.and they argued for a number of years with the council to try and tow her away from there and put her somewhere safe. It took until 1967 before that was agreed. A lot of discussions about yes you can, no you can’t. There’s discussions about taking the ship out and the Royal Navy using it as target practice to sink it. Thankfully, they didn’t.

     

    Sam Willis 

    They were always up to that the Navy in that period, they were smashing up maritime heritage left right and centre.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    In 1967, the ship was actually moved to a local Bay called Shakespeare Bay, which was very shallow water, and they tied the ship to the trees by the beach, foreshore. And the planning for that wasn’t particularly well thought out because as soon as the tide went out, the ship fell on its side, pulled out the trees, and just lay there for the next 20 years basically with the tides coming in and out and causing all sorts of havoc with the ship.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, but she’s going into an interesting stage now, what’s the current situation?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    Well, she’s she’s in drydock. She’s nice and safe and sound now in drydock. We have a wonderful museum and lots of artefacts for the ship. And we’re now moving into the next phase of her life. So she’s 170 years old now and in the area around where the ship is dry docked it’s undergoing huge renovations for new ferries that are arriving in a couple of years. So there’s a really close partnership between the museum and the project team, we’re doing that work to make sure she’s not damaged during that process, because she’s now a category one heritage listed ship. And they’re making every effort they can to make sure she’s not damaged. So they’re monitoring dust, they’ve got the vibration monitors as they’re going to be doing some pile driving for new docks, and they’re going to shrink wrap the whole dry dock area to protect her from dust to make sure she  doesn’t get damaged in that way.

     

    Sam Willis 

    I’d like to see that, sounds like an excuse for me to come to New Zealand. I have to say it’s definitely one of the most interesting ship histories I’ve come across for years, I think it’s brilliant. And I wish you all the best with your projects. Please tell our listeners how they could find out more about the ship. Do you have a website or social media or something?

     

    Heather Fryer 

    We have an Edwin Fox museum site and we have a lots of artefacts and histories online out of the New Zealand museums site. And we have just become a content partner with digital New Zealand which is a New Zealand government’s initiative, which has about 200 content partners, 34 million or so records and counting.  And we’re building stories on there and pulling information from our collection and from everyone else’s collection around the world as well. So those are three really good places to find more information and everyone is always welcome to come through and visit the museum itself.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, I want to come and see what it’s all shrink wrapped, that sounds cool. That really appeals to me, that kind of ma  engineering project to save maritime heritage. I have really enjoyed talking to you, what a wonderful project and I wish you all the best.

     

    Heather Fryer 

    OK, thank you very much.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Thank you all so much for listening. I hope I can hear you all now busily booking your flights and ferries to New Zealand to support the brilliant Edwin Fox. No doubt you will be needing entertainment on your long journeys to New Zealand, so let me encourage you to go to our YouTube channel. Yes, that must be your first stop to see a whole library of amazing videos presenting the maritime historical world in an entirely new way. We’ve recently posted a couple of brilliant animated maps illuminating the maritime history of Australia. But there’s much much more; who could ever forget our use of artificial intelligence and digital artistry to bring ships figureheads to life. Please remember that this podcast is brought to you from both the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and the Society for Nautical Research. Be sure to check out the Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s latest project, Maritime Innovation in Miniature, filming the world’s best ship models with the latest camera technology.  To find it just Google Maritime Innovation In Miniature, that’s Maritime Innovation In Miniature. And the Society for Nautical Research, you can find them@snr.org.uk where you can join up. It’s a great way of not only meeting people who share your interest in maritime history, but also of learning about the maritime past from the very best in the business. That’s all for now. Keep listening. But above all, keep spreading the word, tell everyone you know about the Mariners Mirror podcasts, tell them at the yacht club, tell them at the library, tell them at the museum, tell them at the supermarket. Anything you can do will help us on our mission to spread the gospel of maritime history around the world. See you soon.

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