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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Captain B.C. Combe

Basil Charles Combe (1871 - 1926) served for many years on British cableships, eventually commanding CS's Dacia and Restorer. He retired in 1923.

During the early part of his career (which began in 1886) he sent letters home which were transcribed into a journal, to which he also added notes in some sections. The journal entries on this page record Combe's experiences on Orion, which he joined as Second Mate in 1890.

This extract from Combe's journal is published here by kind permission of Roger Barclay, Captain Combe's grandson, who also transcribed the text from the handwritten original.

Roger adds this introduction to the Orion journal:

Voyage aboard the Orion.

Basil joined the new barque Orion as Second Mate in June 1890 at Leith and left the ship (ran away) in Dunkirk in December of 1891. Sickness and crew problems plagued the whole voyage.

The large sailing ship Palgrave mentioned on Pg. 22 of his journal was built in 1884, with a length of 322'-5" and 3185 GRT. She was rigged in 1890 as a four-masted barque after having been dis-masted in 1895. She was wrecked August 11th. 1908.

This account was copied verbatim from the hand written journal of Basil Combe. The passages in italics are extracts of letters sent home to his parents.

Basil C. Combe's Orion Journal - 1890/91


-- First Voyage --

Registered tonnage 2000
Length 290 feet. Rig Barque

June 16th. 1890 Joined the ship as 2nd. Mate in Leith, Ship just launched.

July 11th. Sailed from Leith in Ballast for New York. Captain Barker in Command. Encountered bad weather, Ship rolling heavily; setting up rigging all the way across.

Aug. 25th. Arrived at New York - passage 44 days from Leith. Phillips (apprentice) Gough (apprentice) and Baker (apprentice) ran away from the ship.
Went to Coney Island, had a "Clam Chowder". Had three days run over New York.

Sept. 16th. "We are not having a very lively time in New York as the Captain will not allow the Mate and me ashore together, so as it is rather lonely we stay on board and when the Captain is on shore we have music together, he plays the banjo and I play the concertina. There have been some fearful gales outside lately: two vessels had their masts clean blown out at one puff. On Saturday night the crew all came on board drunk at about 2 a.m. and began to fight. The Mate and I woke up and went forward, but as soon as they saw us they pounced on us and dragged us to the deck and we had a hard job to get away and as they had threatened to murder us it

Pg. 22
(Sept. 16th. 1890 continued)

was not safe to go to sleep,so we sat up all night and the Mate had his revolver ready and if they had come he would have shot them in self defence. The next morning we had them in jail and one in the hospital with his eye badly cut. We shall get rid of all these before we sail, or they might raise a mutiny at sea.

Sept. 26th. We are all very happy and comfortable now as we have got some good men at last, nearly all Dutch, but they are very good men to have. We have three boys who have never been to sea before, so they won't be much use at first, but they will have to learn soon. We expect to start Sunday or Monday. I hope not on Sunday as that is our only quiet day and I look forward to a good rest. It is not the same now as when I was apprentice, I have very little time now to myself as, if I go away for five minutes the men all slack work. The Palgrave, one of the largest sailing ships afloat, has just come in and every one has left, the Captain and all as they are afraid of her capsizing at sea. They have an awful time to get men. I was offered very high wages if I would go as 2nd. Mate, but I know when I am well off: it will have to be a much better thing than that to make me change.

Oct. 1st. Sailed from New York with "Yankee notions" for Melbourne. During passage down South

Pg. 23
(Oct. 1st. 1890 continued)

had very bad weather, lost several spars, and nearly a suit of canvas [sails]. Captain, Mate and seventeen of the crew all poisoned with the sugar - myself and six men on deck - I took the sights of the sun and Mrs. Barker the time by chronometer. Captain wanted to be buried off Gough Island when he died. We hove to off the Island expecting him to die, but he did not. Captain gradually recovered, crew sick and unable to work, went under short canvas. Arrived off Melbourne Heads. Hands came from the shore and moored the Ship. Passage from New York to Melbourne 104 days.

Jan. 13th. 1891. All hands paid off and left the ship. I got poisoned two days before arrival at Melbourne. Captain would not let me leave the ship, so I ran away to the hospital. Three of the crew died in hospital.

Jan. 8th. "At sea Lat. 40.25 S. Lon. 126.9 E. You will have been looking out for our arrival for some time I expect. We have been 100 days out now and are still 800 miles from Melbourne, but we hope to do that in about 5 days. I have been in splendid health nearly all the voyage, but there has been a great deal of sickness on board. The Captain has been very ill and one day he called the Mate and me into his room and told us he could not live through the night and told us what we had to do and the course into Melbourne and all other particulars.

Pg. 24
(January 8th. 1891 continued)

"Then on the 20th. of December the Mate was taken ill with the same complaint and violent pains across his body. This was rather hard on me as I was not used to their work, but luckily the Captain was getting rather better and I could ask him things and I think he is pleased with me as he told me several times I was doing very well. The Cook, Sailmaker and eight of the boys were all laid up also for a week but thank God I have not had the slightest touch of any sickness. It was very hard for poor Mrs. Barker as she had to be up with the Captain night and day and when both he and the Mate were ill together she came and helped me when I took the position of the ship. We had a very rough Christmas day running before a gale of wind and shipping seas by the bow. We were then in Lat. 42.12 S. and Lon. 70.28 E. so you will be able to fine out on the chart out exact position. The Orion is not nearly so fast as the old Aberdeen, she used to do 15 knots in a breeze and the Orion can only go 11. Our fastest days run was only 248 miles, still she is a much easier ship to handle in a gale. We have not seen anything since we passed the Cape (Dec. 11th.), not a ship nor even a bird. It has seemed a long time.

Pg. 25

January 13th. 1891. Arrived at last. We came into Port Philips Heads at 10 a.m. and sailed up to Melbourne all up the Bay which is 40 miles long, all sails set and waiting for orders, it was a lovely sail. The Bay is only about a mile broad. At 2 p.m. we came to Melbourne and would have sailed right alongside the wharf, but there was no room for us, so we anchored just off. Just before we came in we found the Ship leaking badly, this was on the 10th. and for two days and nights we had to keep at the pumps. We have stopped it now, but we shall have to get divers to work to see if it is merely one of the rivets got out or if she has been strained in the rough weather we had. If it is the latter it will be a bad business.

Feb. 3rd. We have not had a very long stay here, but quite long enough for me. The sickness I told you about has not gone, but it has got worse and it has come to my turn now to catch it. All the Doctors round have been down to the ship as they found the Sailmaker (who has been in Hospital a fortnight) had taken some type of poison and this is the case with all of us, we have been nearly all poisoned, but as we do not know with what; everything has been taken ashore to be analyzed and then we shall know tomorrow what it is.

Pg. 26
(Feb. 3rd. 1891 continued)

"The Mate, Boatswain, Sailmaker, Cook and one man have left being too ill to work. The Carpenter, 5 men 4 boys and myself are still on board but in the sick list. I am glad to say my touch, so far, was very slight, but it is in me still, and I fear I shall have another touch. We are not allowed to eat any ship's food or water. The Captain sent me up to the Hospital on Saturday and I have got some medicine now that is curing me fast. The Captain was afraid he would have to leave me in Hospital and go to sea without me, but I am glad to say I am nearly all right again now. Last week I nearly made up my mind to leave and go to the Hospital, but the Captain was especially kind to me and so was Mrs. Barker: if they had not been I should have left. My great rage for the Colonies has ceased and the sooner we get home to dear old England the better. We have been ashore so little I have not made any friends this time. I went to Church one Sunday and it was so nice, just like home and I fear I thought more about home than the Service. The Clergyman seemed a very nice man and I made up my mind to find him and get friends with him, but I have been too ill since.

Pg. 27

Feb. 12th. "In Hospital - - The week before last I wrote to you thinking I was clear of the poisoning, but after that it came on again and as the Captain said the only way to get clear of it, to keep at work, so I would not give in, but on Saturday and Sunday I was so bad I could scarcely get about and on Monday morning I went straight to the Hospital before he was up and they took me in at once. In the afternoon the Captain came to see me and was very attentive and nice to me. I had not been long here when the Carpenter came so we are both laid up together. The Doctor says it may be six weeks before we get clear of the poison out of our systems so I told the Captain and he has paid us off, but told us to join in Brisbane if we could.

Feb. 16th. Ship sailed for Brisbane with half the cargo, leaving part cargo for Melbourne. Hobart Town and Ports. Chief Mate left the ship sick, he being carried ashore to his friends in Melbourne. Sailmaker, Carpenter and myself left in the hospital. Sailmaker died after three days in hospital. After being two weeks in hospital Carpenter and I left. Carpenter stayed with friends. I stayed at the Coffee Palace for a fortnight. Captain telegraphed for the Mate, Carpenter and me to join the ship in Brisbane.

Pg. 28
(Feb. 16th. 1891 continued)

Carpenter and I took the Steam for Sydney. Left the Mate behind in Melbourne nearly dead. Stayed one night in Sydney then took the Steam again for Brisbane.

Feb. 16th. "The Orion sailed today for Brisbane. I hope we shall be able to rejoin before she leaves there; we have both improved wonderfully. The Doctor says that if we had kept on board we might never got the poison out of our systems. When I first came here I could hardly walk and had lost all power in my wrists and hands and had a blue line around my gums making my teeth quite loose and I had not swallowed anything for five days. Everyone here is so kind and the nurses are awfully good to me. The poor Sailmaker died last Sunday so they do not mean to let us go until they know we are perfectly clear.

17th. Victorian Coffee Palace - The Carpenter and I are both just out of hospital so we have come here to stay for a few days, a sort of boarding house and we are going by Steamer on Thursday to join the Ship at Brisbane. I felt quite sorry to leave the hospital, everyone was so good to us, it was more like home. I am going out for a drive in the Country this afternoon to see if it will strengthen me and do me good as I am still rather weak. I am glad to say the weather has been nice and cool lately. I hope Brisbane will not be very hot.

Pg. 29

Mar. 3rd. 1891 Rejoined the ship in Brisbane River as 2nd. Mate - Found Mr. Maynard the new Mate had been having rows with the crew, one man taken to Hospital from the results of the Chief having fired at him, wounding him in the legs. Chased around the wharf by a drunken madman.

Mar. 3rd. "We have rejoined the Orion but find the new crew the Captain had to ship at Melbourne are a dreadful set and have been having fearful rows. Last night one man had been ashore and came back drunk and got fighting with the rest. The Mate and I had to separate them and the Captain came out with his revolver and would have fired only he saw us. We then pulled up the ladder and gave orders for no one to go ashore and I was sent for the police. While I was gone the drunken man got down by a rope and ashore, but he could not get out of the dock as the gates were locked. When I came back with the Police the Mate met us and told us about this man so we separated to hunt for him: at last I found him behind a case containing a piano when he rushed at me with his knife, but I was too sharp for him and whistled for the others who soon came up and caught him and took him away.

Mar. 15th. Sailed from Brisbane with remainder of cargo for Newcastle.

Pg. 30

Mar. 26th. 1891 Arrived at Newcastle, discharged cargo and loaded for San Francisco. Crew broached cargo on passage from Brisbane to Newcastle. Hatches being all sealed they got down the ventilators and passed up the tins of meat, Florida water, Tongues, Oysters etc. in bags. Found the ringleader who gave the names of four more of the crew. Seven of the crew were put in jail for six months hard labour. Discharged cargo and loaded coals.

Mar. 28th. "We arrived here in Newcastle on the 26th. but of all the three Colonial Ports I have visited I think this is the worst. We are now looking to get home from San Francisco by Christmas Day. It is a long time to look forward to, but if we do - it will make up for all the trouble and worry we have had on this voyage.

Apr. 4th. Sailed from Newcastle with coal for San Francisco.

May Fine weather passage, passed several of the South Sea Islands, Hawaii, Honolulu etc.

June 5th. "At sea - at 4 p.m. today we sighted the Sandwich Islands. Hilo is the one we saw. It contains the largest volcanos in the world: it is 3500 feet high and is visible 100 miles off. We are well to the Eastward of it. This is the group that Captain Cook was killed upon. We were very glad we had a breeze to carry us through these Islands as they are all Cannibals who live on them. We crossed from East to West Longitude on May 4th.

Pg. 31
(June 5th. continued)

so we had to add another day consequently had May 4th. twice over.

July 4th. Arrived at San Francisco, passage 91 days from Newcastle. On arrival all hands ran away. Smashed a Boarding House Master's boat in with stones, sank the boat, nearly drowning him and two sailors. Mate put in jail for stabbing a woman ashore. Carpenter used to feed him with biscuits and water he took from the ship every evening. Left him in jail, he getting six months hard labour. Discharged coal and towed up to Port Costa. Engaged a new First Mate, Mr. Wilson. Loaded wheat and ready for sea. Shipped a new crew, having a policeman from shore to watch then till the ship sailed.

July 12th. "If you remember I told you we had to get a new Mate from Melbourne, he was supposed to be a teetotaller, but the last three nights he has taken my leave ashore as I did not want to go and he had been later each night. Well last Friday I asked him to get me some paper when we went ashore for which I gave him a dollar, he also borrowed my hat as his hurt him and mine was a new one I got in Melbourne. Next morning when I went to get my orders from him he had not returned and when breakfast came the Captain enquired for him and still he was not there, nor did he turn up all day. We were beginning to wonder if anything

Pg. 32
(July 12th. continued)

had happened to him, when just after tea a messenger came from the City Hall saying that Mr. Maynard was in prison and wanted bailing out. This all startled us, but the Captain sent me up at once to see about it and find out what the charge was. I went, armed with a card of the Captain's with my name written on the back to introduce me: when I presented it to the Warder he looked at both sides and told me to follow him. We came at last to the cells, or rather dens, so dirty, and the prisoners caged in like so many lions, all looking through their iron bars. We then both stood in the middle of an open space with these cages all round and imagine my feelings when the Warder looks again at the card and shouts out in a loud voice - "Any one here by the name of B.C. Combe" Oh!! I was horrified!! and then to mend matters I hear "Combe - Combe" being passed from one den to another and it was some time before I could make the wretch understand that Combe was my name and that it was Maynard I wanted. He was then called and answered "Here I am" I went to him and found him looking very miserable and dirty and so was my new hat, all battered in on one side. The Warder then let him out with me and I had to go with him to the office to hear his charge, but when

Pg. 33
(July 12th. 1891 continued)

I heard it was for using concealed weapons and the bail was $250 I hesitated and the police took him back. Poor fellow I could not help pitying him as he went back and I went and bought him some other food as he had only bread and water. Then the Captain went to see him, but as he has told several different tales about his doings that night he is to take his trial tomorrow and the Captain does not think he will get off.

20th. The Mate did not get off and from all accounts it is a good thing for us: We have a new man in his place who seems very nice so far.

August 10th. "Port Costa - We have come down here to load up wheat for home. We took in 3000 bales today and when they were in the hold they looked nothing, did not even cover the bottom. Each bag weighs 140 pounds. This is a funny little place, it is 32 miles up the country and there are no people living here but Stevedores and their wives. There is no town or village, but just a few houses along the Railway track. The grocer is Tailor and Fishmonger combined; besides this there is one Butcher and one Barber and nine public houses. Then there are five boarding houses where the unmarried labourers live. There are no roads, but all the houses stand not more than 10 yards off the

Pg. 34
(Aug. 10th. 1891 continued)

Railway road. The fields are very pretty and plenty of fruit and orchards all about the place. The wharves for the ships are only 100 yards off. We have been working very hard ever since we came here putting up shifting boards, dunnage, lining and matting in the ship all ready for the cargo - now we will have to work day and night and the Mate and I have to take turns at keeping the tally. We have two gangs, the day men work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the night men from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. It is a good job it does not last long, but they are well paid (1 pound per day) and there are only five men, but they carry bags the whole time.

Aug. 16th. Sailed from San Francisco with wheat for Dunkirk. Encountered very bad weather off the Horn, lost a boat and sprung the fore topsail yard.

Dec. 20th. Arrived at Dunkirk, passage from San Francisco 126 days.
Left Dunkirk and the Barque Orion on Christmas eve - Crossed over the Channel from Calais to Dover. Ran away from the ship. Went home.

Passed for Chief Mate in London
Joined the S.S. Silvertown.

Copyright © 2003 Roger Barclay
Last revised: 28 March 2003

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Last revised: 12 November, 2015

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