Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2014

Just William

By John Wright


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William Hawkins is a great name for an old seadog. You can almost imagine the parrot on his shoulder. But, he was also Australia’s longest serving lighthouse keeper.

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The 62-foot tall 1838 Cape Bruny Lighthouse is ...

This Norfolk man’s exploits have surfaced after a hundred years, inspiring a novel by Danielle Wood, winner of the 2002 Australian/Vogel Literary Award with The Alphabet of Light and Dark. Danielle is William’s great-great-granddaughter. In 20 years at sea in the age of tall square-rigged ships, William sailed many times to every corner of the world, delivering one cargo and picking up another, and he wrote about it in a memoir.

His father was also a seaman. William dreamed of meeting up with him in the China seas, where his job in the Navy was “suppressing pirates,” but he would only see his grave.

“I was born at Great Yarmouth [Norfolk, England] on the 20th of May, 1840,” his memoir begins. On May 2, 1845, William (at 5) personally experienced one of Norfolk’s most shocking human disasters, when the suspension bridge over the River Bure in Yarmouth collapsed when people rushed onto it to watch a clown. It was “the first event of my life that was vividly impressed on my memory,” he says, “through which 78 persons drowned. As an advertisement for a circus, the clown (called Nelson) was playing a violin in a tub, and had four geese harnessed to it.”

“The people, myself included, made a rush for the bridge with the result that it collapsed, precipitating hundreds into the water.” The Cooke’s Circus stunt, which went horribly wrong, had begun with the flood tide at the drawbridge on the Quay.Mainly lost were women and children. Bodies were carried to the “Norwich Arms Inn, the Admiral Collingwood and to the Swan,” reported the Norwich Mercury. “27 girls were rescued and put to bed in Vauxhall Gardens.” One woman, Mrs Gillings, hurled into the water with her child, “seized her child’s clothes with her teeth and paddled to safety.”

William was 13 when he went to sea as a cabin boy. The day he left, his mother died. 18 months later he deserted his ship. “My shipmates kept telling me I ought to receive more wages.” So he said goodbye to eight shillings a month and found a ship to take him as “ordinary seaman” for 30 shillings instead.

After the eight-month trip, he got paid off in Yarmouth where, “on a stroll,” he bumped into the previous owner who was now the town mayor, “but made a bolt with a Constable in pursuit.”

As for seamanship, he learned the hard way. The first time William, as lookout, reported “a light on the port bow,” they were already aground. Another time the crew had to bore a hole in the ship’s hull, so it was low enough to pass under fixed bridges. William’s job, at 16, was to plug this hole when the level was right. But “as the water did not seem to flow into the vessel very quickly,” says William, “I went ashore to a sort of sing song and forgot about it. When I returned, I found the vessel in a sinking condition.” He pumped all night and all the next day, but got the sack anyway.

At sea he learned to be resourceful. Once he was caught in bad weather on a “Yarmouth Straitsman” and ran out of food. So they started eating bits of their cargo, which, luckily, was edible (oil cake).

As well as learning from being thrown into a Barbados jail for brawling with the Second Mate, William Hawkins was never one to let a lack of knowledge stop him from getting ahead.

At 20 he impressed his Captain by fiddling with the Mate’s sextant and pronouncing “we shall make St. Agnes Light Scilly Isles [Cornwall, England] at 8 o’ clock tonight.” The Captain was impressed when they did, and didn’t know that “a sight of the Mate’s chart helped me to this conclusion.”

He knew he had to come to grips with navigation to get promoted. So the next time they were paid off in London, William went to Yarmouth to stay with his sisters, Emma, 22, and Lavina, 19. There he joined a navigation school, but couldn’t get the hang of it.

In fact he fell out with the math teacher who tried to teach the concept of “one less than nothing.” William brought much mirth to the class when he kept insisting that you couldn’t have less than nothing. So William went around the world, came back, and found the same teacher there. He bravely sat his exam and passed. He was now a First Mate. He enjoyed sharing power, apart from during mutinies. Picking up sugar in Mauritius, “one of the men tried to stab the Captain,” recalls William, “but a blow from a capstan bar settled him.”

Arriving in Australia, William met a woman called Lydia (nee Gaunt) and “then entered into a coal contract, i.e. I got married.” On the morning of their wedding on March 1, 1864, their coach “drove into a mob of ducks,” killing them. “Instead of rice thrown at us, we were assailed with dead ducks and shocking bad French, but restitution was quickly made.”

So far, William had been fairly safe at sea, but now he was starting a family, a great time, in fact, to run into a perfect storm. Not long out of Hong Kong, “the typhoon burst on us like the roar of a cannon . . .The main topsail was blown to smithereens. Then a tremendous wave came along and struck us on the beam.

The ship had a terrible list and as she met the sea on the other tack, it nearly swamped her.” But after hours of this, they survived. Sailing back into Hong Kong, they found that “several ships had sunk at anchor and hundreds of lives lost.” They’d been lucky.

Two years went by. Lydia’s parents tried to coax him into a shore life, but to no avail. But had William pushed his luck? “After a brief holiday with Lydia, he joined the barque Isabella as Mate, and a few months later was shipwrecked off the Tasmanian coast. At 11pm she struck the rocks off Cape Barren (Island) with terrible force. I was thrown out of my bunk.” William got everyone into the two boats, and later jumped into the surf in the darkness to find a safe place to come ashore. He managed it, but nearly drowned.

At daybreak they saw the ship was still above water, so they went out to retrieve what supplies they could. The ship was about to sink when William arrived. “I got the ship’s papers, chronometer and some clothes. It then struck me that we had nothing to eat, so I managed to get a bag of bread, bag of sugar, some corned beef and a saucepan. There was also a small pig, which I pitched into the boat,” just before it sank.

On the island they found a settler who asked them to leave, because “he was afraid we’d help ourselves to his sheep. Some had already commenced on his vegetables.” They did leave, rowed to safety, and William found yet another ship.

The years went by. Once, in Java, he was anxious to get back to Australia, and he and the Second Mate stowed away on a boat whose Captain had refused him. But they worked their passage and got to Adelaide in South Australia. “I at once wrote to my wife.” After loading bales of wool, they got to Melbourne, Victoria, then across Bass Strait to Launceston in Tasmania, and rode into a rousing reception in its southernmost city Hobart on a mail coach. “The letter I had posted was with us in the Mail Bag.”

But Lydia knew him. After “a brief holiday,” William was off again. Months later he found himself in the English Channel. “I had been absent from England about 14 years.” He saw his sisters “and then paid Yarmouth a visit. I found nearly all my relatives alive and doing fairly well.”

Later he got his Master Mariner’s certificate, but on one trip “a tremendous sea struck the ship, washing the Helmsman overboard.” He got back on board, but it was another warning for William. Men started getting sick, and William escaped from an Auckland hospital in New Zealand to return to his ship.

He finally got his strength back and finally applied for a lighthouse keeper job in Tasmania, Australia’s chilly island state off its mainland’s south-east corner. He was off the coast of New South Wales when the job offer came. All he had to do was get there, because he was now caught in another gale and was “partly given up as lost.” But they made it, and the job was his.

By comparison, William wrote nothing about his 41 years (from 1873) as Australia’s longest-serving lighthouse keeper - the first 3 years on Goose Island in Bass Strait, and the rest at Cape Bruny on Bruny Island, off Tasmania’s south-east coast. He died at 83 in 1923.

Did this man with salt in his veins miss life at sea when he got the job on land at the ripe old age of 33? William’s memoir, written at the request of his wife, describes every sail setting, every prank, and every change of the breeze.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2014 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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