I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The gold rush in Australia in the early 1850s drew adventurers from around the world, but surely none were as intrepid as those aboard the Mystery. By ocean-going standards she was a small vessel but the seven men aboard planned to sail from Cornwall in western England to Australia, a journey of 11,000 miles.
Perhaps the word ship rather oversells the vessel called the Mystery; probably boat would suit her better. She was what is known as a “lugger,” a name that does not suggest a swift passage across half the world. However, such names can be deceiving, as we'll see later.
Mystery’s job until 1854 was as an inshore fishing boat out of Newlyn Harbour. For non-nautical types a lugger has two or three masts equipped with four-cornered sails. The illustration (below) gives a good idea of this type of craft.
The Mystery was just 37-feet long and weighed 16 tons. She had a complement of a captain and six men.
Times were tough in Cornwall in the 1850s, the tin mining industry had collapsed and fishing was always a hard way to make a living. So, the prospect of digging for gold seemed appealing to the lads in The Star Inn in Newlyn, which is where the plan to sail to Australia is said to have been hatched.
As we all know, most schemes conceived under the glow of alcohol tend to look more than a bit dodgy the next morning. But, for the undaunted Newlyn sailors, sobriety did not bring a change of heart.
Richard Badcock, William Badcock, Charles Boase, Job Kelynack, Lewis Lewis, and Philip Curnow Matthews, all had an ownership share in the Mystery. Her skipper was Richard Nicholls, a man with a background as master of commercial vessels. They were almost all related by blood or marriage.
The original plan was to sell the boat and use the proceeds to buy passage to Australia. Then, Captain Nicholls suggested they sail the Mystery to Australia. The crew agreed it was a good idea - "More rum please landlord."
The boat was prepared for the rigours of the open ocean by adding some decking and zinc coverings. In dark of night on November 18, 1854 they set sail.
In the age of sail, mariners had no choice but to work with the trade winds. So, after leaving England, the Mystery headed west in the opposite direction to their destination. They ran into some rough weather and the boat’s jib was split. After 35 days, they reached Trinidad in the West Indies and did some repairs.
Then, they turned south against the prevailing winds and through the doldrums to Cape Town. They reached the tip of Africa after just 60 days of sailing. The people running the Royal Mail there were so impressed by the speed of this little vessel that they entrusted the post bound for Australia to her crew.
After a week in Cape Town getting a re-supply of water and provisions they set off across the Indian Ocean, aiming for Melbourne.
On February 18, 1855, they ran into a storm. Captain Richard Nicholls wrote in his log:
“A terrific gale of wind – heaviest so far experienced. Our gallant little boat rides the mountains of sea remarkably well. Not shipping any water, dry decks fore and aft. I am confident she is making better weather than a great many ships would, if here.”
They survived that tempest and a few others and arrived at Melbourne on March 14, 1855.
The Mystery, a “slow lugger,” had completed the 11,800 nautical miles (21,900 km) in 116 days.
The Trade Winds
Later Lives of the Crew
Of the seven men who sailed aboard the Mystery, five returned to Cornwall and none took up gold mining.
In October 1874 a letter appeared in The Cornish Telegraph newspaper. It was written by one of the crew, Philip Mathews. He had stayed in Australia and wrote the letter in response to an article the newspaper had run about the voyage of the Mystery. He corrected a few errors and gave an update on some fellow crew members:
“I have seen the death of Mr. Charles Boase, one of the crew, in your obituary of the date referred to, making three deaths out of five. Lewis Lewis died in Castlemaine Hospital, Victoria, some ten years ago. I am the only one of the crew now remaining in this part of the world. I would also inform you that the Mystery is the smallest craft on record that ever made such a long voyage.”
Three of the five that returned to England went back to fishing. Captain Richard Nicholls also returned to his previous occupation but in 1868 he died after being hit by a horse-drawn cab in London.
The Spirit of Mystery
In October 2008, professional yachtsman Pete Goss took a replica of the original lugger out of Newlyn Harbour en route to Melbourne. The plan was to repeat the 1854-55 voyage.
The boat, called the Spirit of Mystery, had a few modern upgrades, such as electricity to power running lights and satellite navigation aids. However, Goss navigated the old-fashioned way by Sun and stars and he and the crew used oil lamps and a coke stove.
Small pieces of wood from two storied English sailing ships, the Cutty Sark and HMS Victory, were incorporated in the design and some of the rigging was donated by the SS Great Britain.
Nature decided to give the Spirit of Mystery a hard time in the Indian Ocean just as it had done with her predecessor. On March 4, 2009, a rogue wave hit the boat and rolled her onto her side. She righted herself, but the dingy and life raft were lost and one of the crew members suffered a broken leg.
They arrived in Melbourne on March 9, 2009. It took the Spirit of Mystery 140 days to complete the journey.
The Mystery was sold for £150 and was put to use taking pilots out to large ships to guide them into harbour. In March 1869, she was wrecked off Rockhampton, Queensland. All crew members were saved.
The word “lugger” probably comes from the Dutch “logger,” which means a slow ship. The description doesn't seem to apply to the Mystery.
The crew of the Spirit of Mystery were welcomed to Melbourne with a pint of beer and a Cornish pasty each.
- “The Voyage of the ‘Mystery’ from Newlyn to Melbourne.” Margaret Perry, Newlyn Info, June 16, 2006.
- “Mystery: One Gallant Little Boat: 11,000 Miles to Australia.” The Cornish Bird, January 5, 2017.
- “Historical Boat Reaches Australia.” BBC News, March 9, 2009.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 06, 2018:
Thanks, Rupert, for this interesting piece. I still cherish all your stories, whether historical, romance or otherwise.