No image of Captain William McDonald’s ship Britomart has yet been located – it had previously been a Royal Navy Brig-Sloop warship of similar lines to HMS Suffisante shown above – Britomart saw Royal Navy service between 1808 and 1819. Suffisante was formerly of the French Navy 14 guns (so overall smaller than Britomart) – it had been captured by the British.
The Pelorus shown here was another Royal Navy Brig Sloop 18 gun warship of the same class as Britomart and it was also launched in 1808. For a period it was stationed at Port Jackson.
Captain McDonald sailed Britomart home to England in 1836 with his spouse Agnes Smith, and daughter Agnes Eliza on board. They had been in Tasmania since arrival there on Britomart in 1834. Between then and 1836 William had been busily sailing the ship on local voyages between Hobart and the mainland, to Sydney but mainly to Two Fold Bay (Eden) carrying passengers, livestock and general merchandise.
What was it that prompted a return to England so soon after having already suffered the risks and privations of a five month confinement in a small vessel on the high seas, and with his family once again aboard with him.
It is unlikely, that as we might do today so easily, to have been motivated by a desire to take a vacation and perhaps just drop in on the cousins back home for a few days – all that, we may do these days with 24 hours each way travel with little risk.
There must have been some really pressing reason to compel William, and Agnes to venture back home so soon – a voyage which if all went well had to mean at the minimum almost a year of absence from Hobart, assuming it was their intention to return. And return they did almost three years later.
In the research which members of our group have uncovered over the past 10 years two reasons have emerged which most probably explain William and Agnes’ initiative for the voyage – reasons which were related to business, and personal motivations.
The first item came from Jenny Gould’s investigation, during a visit to the Falmouth locale in England, into William’s origins which discovered evidence that he had been previously married- whilst not absolutely confirmed, it has an excellent fit and appears likely. Jenny reported as follows –
Sometime around 1810 it is possible that William married. The only McDonald marriage that has thus far been found is as follows:-
William McDonald married Mary Rowe 15 of July at Falmouth in 1810. We know that William joined the Packet Service at Falmouth, so hopefully this is the correct one.
Only one child has been found – William Henry McDonald b.23 June 1812 Falmouth, c.25 June 1812 Falmouth. As this child was christened William it does give some hope of it being the right one.
This would explain (and further confirm) why it was that William and Agnes relationship was what today would be called ‘defacto’, to all intents and purposes married but never formalised officially. The evidence for this is to be found both in declarations in William’s ‘Last Will & Testament’, in media reports of his death in Hobart, and also in Glenden Andrews discovery of evidence of Agnes Eliza’s christening in the Saint Mary Major church in Exeter, England, as Agnes Eliza McDonald Smith, not McDonald.
These circumstances alone could be a reasonable explanation for their sailing back to England to perhaps sort out William’s marital circumstances maybe including an attempt at divorce or annulment; and perhaps enter some sort of arrangement for the alleged son from a union with Mary Rowe; perhaps he owned property in Falmouth or in that area, even inherited from his parents in St Ives. Plenty of valid circumstances in all of these items.
The second reason emerged during recent research (2018) regarding ownership of the Britomart. It had been assumed that William owned Britomart when he sailed it to Australia in 1834; but this has been shown not to be the case when tracking recorded ownership details from Lloyd’s Register of Shipping (and confirmed in Australian published records of shipping arrivals/departures). See here – Britomart – Some History
This research has shown that ownership of Britomart passed to William sometime after he sailed for England in 1836 and prior to his return to Hobart in early 1839, no doubt after arrival in England, therefore during late 1836 and 1838. On return to Hobart he transferred the registered home port of Britomart from London to Hobart (ref. Lloyds).
We might therefore, not unreasonably, speculate that William having commanded Britomart from early 1834 through 1839, which period whilst in Australian waters included many coastal trading voyages, presumably profitable voyages, recognised an ongoing maritime business opportunity, which might be even further enhanced by ownership of Britomart.
To achieve that goal he may have been obliged to return to England to negotiate acquisition. He may also have recognised an even more fruitful opportunity in sale of Britomart on return to Australia – maybe he even had a lucrative deal in place before sailing back to England. As it happened he sold Britomart to Captain Gluyass in Port Philip late December 1839.
William continued to accept engagements in command of several other coastal passenger/cargo ships in the several years after sale of Britomart. He died in Hobart in 1846. Eliza died in 1864. Both were interred in the Hill Street Weslyan cemetery. We understand some time after this cemetery was closed all bodies were exhumed and re-interred in a mass plot at the Cornelian Bay cemetery near Hobart – unfortunately there are no markings.
As to Britomart, for Captain William its sale was perhaps fortuitous – on its first voyage with Captain Gluyass it foundered on Clark Island in the Furneaux Group, Bass Strait, with the loss of all on board. This link elaborates – The Britomart Story