After many years of search we believe we may at last have an image of the Skelton barque on which William and Margaret voyaged to Van Diemen’s Land. This photograph was taken recently (2017) from an original painting owned by Mr Ian Brown of Sydney, who has very kindly granted us permission to display it here.
Our thanks for this discovery are due to our research colleagues Mike Wilson and Jenny Brown, Mike for tracking down the existence of the painting and its possible general location, whilst Jenny focused us to a member of the Headlam family who was able to tell us just where it was. Mike has also produced the documents linked here, Items of Interest Related to the Skelton, and here, Comparison-of-Skelton-with-260-ton-barque. An image of Captain Dixon, who mastered the ship on its voyages to Australia in 1820 and 1822 is also shown in the gallery below – click on gallery images to enlarge them.
The Headlam family were fellow travellers on board the Skelton in 1820. It is known that the painting was in the possession of members of the Roadknight family, in particular Alfred Hill Roadknight. Three generations of the Roadknight family were voyagers on board Skelton, Alfred’s father Thomas was one and he was aged 6/7 at the time of the voyage. One can imagine the excitement of a young lad of a 5 month voyage on the high seas- it would feature strongly in his mind all his life.
Members of Brown, Roadknight and Hill families were well known to one another in Hobart and later in the Geelong area, the Roadknight and Brown families being very involved in the Geelong Historical Society, and historical matters generally. Ian’s late father, Dr Philip Brown, acquired the painting at an Estate auction of chattels from the Estate of Alfred’s daughter, Gladys Clare Roadknight after she died in 1971.
Alfred Roadknight’s mother, Caroline Frances Hill was the daughter of one John Sleath Hill, the Hill family having come from London in the early 1830s. This chart depicts the ownership trail which we have been able to trace so far, Skelton Chart Based on research to Feb 2018 – readers will note the close family connections of all involved.
Identification of the artist of the painting had been somewhat uncertain, and for the present the painting’s subject continues to be so. An alleged ID we are advised by Ian Brown being a handwritten note on the painting’s back saying it is the Skelton, placed there in the past presumably by an earlier member of the Roadknight or possibly Hill families, this note also referring to ‘Captain Hill’s ship’.
There has been a suggestion that Captain Dixon might have displayed some artistic flair – if he did indeed create this image we must assume he was an accomplished artist as well as mariner: he is said also to have produced a painting of his later residence beside the Isis River in Tasmania, west of Campbelltown – a residence he named Skelton Castle – shown below. This painting is held by the Dickson Gallery, Mitchell Library in Sydney, and may be viewed by appointment. It is displayed in our Gallery below courtesy of The Dickson Gallery. To this writer (with no artistic expertise) the image of Skelton has a fairly professional look to it compared to the Skelton Castle image so that if Dixon did paint the latter it would seem to rule him out for the Skelton image. But other evidence also rules Dixon out as artist.
As advised by Ian Brown, and also as stated in his late father’s 1970s notes about the painting, they took the painting out of its frame and discovered on the front lower left hand corner, the previously hidden (by the frame) signature G B Fraser – it seems reasonable that we must accept this as the artist’s name being precisely where an artist would traditionally place it (alternatively over on the right side). Unless of course George was a very naughty boy and plagiarised by placing his name there.
We note from the chart of ownership G B Fraser was married to a daughter (Mary Selina) of John Sleath Hill, whilst another daughter (Caroline Frances) was married to Thomas Roadknight. Thomas was on Skelton, aged 6/7, with his father and other Roadknights. So all these families were very closely linked by marriage and blood and all knew one another intimately, and it is reasonable to believe they all knew the origins of the painting – what it was of, by whom and where the scene was set, as it changes ownership between them up until the Browns acquired it.
Hand written on back of the painting is ‘Water Colour by Captain Hill’, and, ‘His ship at Peak of Tennerife (sic)’. So contradiction there re Hill and Fraser as the artist. One might speculate that Captain Hill commissioned Fraser to paint the scene to his memorised image from having been at Tenerife – would he permit Fraser’s name to be there if he painted it, it would be his own surely.
It is clear from the handnotes left by Alfred Roadknight that the Roadknights believed the painting was of the Skelton – were not the Roadknights close enough to it all to know it was the Skelton ? It seems reasonable to believe so, and that Alfred was motivated to purchase and retain it in the family when it became available in an Estate Sale in 1881 – he purchased it from within his own family group of the Hills, and Frasers, and aunts by marriage.
And they would have known the artist was Fraser if he was, perhaps even Hill if he was – we have suspected this ‘Captain Hill’ was a family connection with John Sleath Hill perhaps John Sleath Hill himself in his earlier life. However research so far has discovered no evidence of JSH having been a sea captain, rather as this John Sleath Hill Tree states, he was a ‘steam boiler manufacturer, merchant and Chapman’ – also from the various birth dates and locations, that he did not arrive in Australia until sometime after 1830. This tree also shows he married three times, and that daughters Mary Selina and Caroline Frances were half sisters.
Was a Hill ever Captain of Skelton – not according to Lloyds Register at least, (Lloyds does not include details for 1818 and 1819, Skelton launched in 1818? – was Hill involved then ?). Records of passenger arrivals in Hobart show that Hill was not aboard Skelton either on its 1820 or 1822 arrivals.
However, a very recent research disclosure, has found that John Sleath Hill’s older brother, Samuel Hill, was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and this again opens the question of whether the painting is of a ship other than Skelton. Whilst we have no record of Lieutenant Samuel Hill, having captained an RN ship, we cannot rule that out, or that he may later have captained a Merchant Navy ship, and been entitled to be addressed as Captain be that officially, or just within his family and friends’ circles.
There has also been some debate as to whether the painting is set in Trinidad or in Tenerife in the Canaries, with passed down legendary stories from arms of the Headlam family proposing one or the other. Trinidad and Tenerife harbours both have rugged mountains beyond their foreshores and immediate hinterland. Extensive browsing of the many images available on the internet of both locations has been inconclusive.
The Tenerife mountains look to be a better fit as to height and ruggedness, but the indigenous group on the left foreground of the painting were thought by some to better support a Trinidad location – the indigenous of Trinidad derived from American Indians and were of darker skin colour than the Guanches of the Canaries, whose origins were of the generally paler skinned Berbers of North Africa.
More scientific expertise was sought during 2017 to assist in answering the location question. Accordingly advice was sought from Professor Arie Boomert (Dr. Arie Boomert, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, The Netherlands). Professor Boomert is a recognised Authority on the indigenese of the Caribbean region. The writer provided Professor Boomert with all the data we have assembled with the question ‘Can you identify the painting contents, scenic and indigenese, as indicative of Trinidad. His definitive reply is quoted here –
“I am sorry but in my opinion Fraser’s painting definitely does not show Trinidad (Port-of-Spain) as the mountains behind the city show a quite different view than is presented here. Besides, the canoes in front of the harbor are very much different from those common in the Caribbean, especially because of their high-rising front and back parts. The dress of the people shown on the painting is different as well from that worn in the early nineteenth century in Trinidad. Actually, I think that this painting may show a scene in the Near East of perhaps Southeast Asia”. With kind regards, ARIE
On this basis it is reasonable to eliminate Trinidad as the location, in favour of Tenerife – precisely as believed by the best witnesses we have, the Roadknight family.
The artist – most likely the artist is the G B Fraser who signed the painting precisely where it is expected an artist would sign it.
Is it the Skelton – the Roadknights believed so, even with the reference to the unidentified Captain Hill on the painting’s rear. Captaincy of the Skelton between the years 1820 and 1828 has been confirmed from Lloyd’s maritime shipping and sailings Register. A Captain Hill does not figure during this period, but there is no Lloyds record for the years 1818/19.
Re Professor Boomert’s reference to Sth East Asia – there is nothing in Lloyd’s register of a voyage to that area by Skelton.
It may also be the artist painted the scene from memory so that the mountainous backdrop whilst based on one of these locations was an example of somewhat ‘creative realism’, as were the inclusion of indigenous subjects – such creativity was a not uncommon practice of colour artists.
Skelton was shipwrecked and lost in 1828 after striking a submerged rock near Anguilla Island in the Caribbean – all on board survived, Captain Percy being in command then – but did its Log survive, and if so where is it today.
Addendum Notes – the Headlam family in planning for a commemorative reunion in Hobart in 2020, the 200th anniversary of Skelton’s arrival in Van Diemens Land, have commissioned the writing of a book on the family. It is to include some of our material about Skelton, the search for its history, and for its image.
The author has kindly made available new research material which may in due course assist in identifying who Captain Hill was. This shows that John Sleath Hill’s older brother, Samuel, was a Royal Navy officer who served at sea at Lieutenant rank, and was elevated to Commander rank on retirement no doubt to recognise his good service record and to award him increased remuneration in retirement (retired officers went on ‘half pay’).
Whilst any seagoing Royal Navy officer at Commander rank and below could and frequently were placed in command of a warship, and were entitled to be addressed as Captain while in command, such appointees relinquished the title and form of address when their term of command ended. Appointment to permanent official Post Captain rank, was a requirement for ongoing entitlement of the title including on retirement.
Many former RN officers of various ranks became Merchant Navy officers on retirement, and in command assumed Captain rank, and were entitled to retain the title on retirement to civilian life. It is also highly likely that any mariner whether Royal or Merchant Navy having achieved Captaincy, would have wished for, and would have enjoyed the privilege of the title of Captain in retired civilian life.
The revelation of a Commander Samuel Hill, RN, opens the possibility (we have no evidence of it) of his having had a period of command, and therefore Captaincy at some stage of his career, RN or Merchant Navy, and so entitled, at least within his family and friends of being addressed thereafter as Captain.
Were we to discover Commander Samuel Hill did in fact earn that entitlement, then it becomes highly likely he is the captain referred to on the painting’s rear dust cover, and it opens a line of thought that the depicted ship is his ship, which may not be the Skelton. Increasingly, identification of ‘Captain Hill’, and naval officer Commander Samuel Hill, becomes our primary focus in solving the question of our Heading – ‘The Barque Skelton – Is this our Ship’.
A further search (February 2018) of Lloyds Register of Ships for Hill captaincies confirms that across the period 1818 through 1835 there were some 12 or so Captains with the Hill surname but none associated with Skelton. Every Hill name but one, was recorded with a single christian name initial, the one significantly (for research purposes) having two initials, viz, J S Hill. Could it be ?
This Captain J S Hill was in command of only one ship over the period 1822 to 1832, the Brig Katharine – he commanded it in 1822, 1829, 1830, 1831, and 1832. It always underwent its annual Lloyd’s seaworthiness survey at Cowes, Isle of Wight, so a southern England location, its voyage destinations in all records being La Rochelle a seaport on the southern coast of France. However, the Lloyds J S H’s ship, Katharine, was a Brig, a two master, whilst our painting is of a Barque, a three master, so it’s not the Katharine.
What is the real significance of this – unknown at this point – but a basis to justify more intense research about the Hill brothers. Is it possible both John Sleath Hill and Samuel Hill were mariners and sea Captains – certainly John Sleath Hill’s occupation – Steam boiler manufacturer, Trader and Chapman – does not eliminate his having been a seafarer in early life. Indeed where better to acquire the knowledge which a trader in goods needed to be a successful Trader, than when in command of a trading sailing ship.
A Chapman is an old 17/18th century term for merchant trader, usually in such as cotton, silk and woollen raw materials for sale to spinners and weavers, with the finished cloth then traded again.
This prompts the question – what was the economic base of the town and region of La Rochelle – was it in some of these materials – let’s find out. A preliminary perusal of material about La Rochelle indicates that during the 17th and 18th centuries it was the major seaport of France on the Atlantic coast, and that it was the main shipment point for all the traded produce from the mid and southern hinterland of France for trade across the Atlantic both north and south. The most important traded goods passing through the Port were wine, cognac, armagnac, and other fortified wines, and other agricultural produce, but also fashion fabrics (it seems France set the scene for all of Europe in high quality apparel fashions throughout 17th to early 19th centuries).
The city of Tours, half way between Paris (Europe’s fashion capital) and the La Rochelle seaport, was a major location for French silk production, woven silk fabrics including printed silk fabrics for the high fashion markets of Europe, England and the New World.
The Port of La Rochelle is also recorded as having been an active player in the so called ‘Triangular Trade’ Atlantic trading practice – slaves from Africa to the New World, sugar, rum, tobacco and coffee from Carribean/South America and cotton from southern United States to Europe, woven cloths and fabrics from England and Europe to the New World, and for La Rochelle alcoholic liquors, fashion fabrics and apparels shipped out to all across the Atlantic ports.
So, we might well ask – just what was this Captain J S Hill and his Brig Katharine engaged in during that period which took them so often to La Rochelle. If it were to turn out that this Captain is our John Sleath Hill, there is a also a fit with his being described as a Chapman, ‘trader in cotton, silk and woolen materials’. Perhaps he and his brother Samuel were seafarers and traders together. Were their voyages just between England and France, or did they (secretly perhaps) engage in other components of the triangular trade items.
All are circumstantial items in our search for the answer to our primary question – ‘The Barque Skelton – is this our Ship’