My Thoughts


The Fairlight

This was the time of Queen Victoria who had taken the throne in 1837 and ruled for almost 64 years. London had become a political, financial and trading capital of the world but while the city grew wealthy and Britain’s holdings expanded, 19th century London intensified as a city of class separation. For most, poverty ruled and millions lived in overcrowded and unsanitary slums. London had become a city divided. On one hand we see the London immortalised by Charles Dickens in such stories as Oliver Twist. On the other London saw the Great Exhibition of The Crystal Palace that was intended to display to the world the great beauty and bounty that was Britain, a wealth generated from her colonial rule.

Further north Britain was experiencing the explosion that was the industrial revolution. At the time Manchester was part of Lancashire. Work was available but only in the most depressing of conditions. Pay was minimal.

In his book, Journey to England and Ireland, pages 104 to 107, (published by Yale University Press) Alexis de Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, wrote, ‘A sort of black smoke covers the city. The sun seen through it is a disc without rays. Under this half daylight 300,000 human beings are ceaselessly at work. From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilise the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gild flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish; here civilisation works its miracles, and civilised man is turned back almost into a savage.’

Into this industrialised Britain John was born in 1855 to parents Richard Hughes and Frances Williams. Life expectancy was short with many babies never reaching the age of five. Those that did could only aspire to reach the ripe old age of fifty. For most, a life of 35-40 was normal.

(I have found reports of both Richard and John appearing in police records but have found no details. Maybe it was this that influenced John to travel to Glasgow.)

John was in his early twenties when the Port Jackson Steamship Company in far off Australia placed an order for a ferry to be built in Whiteinch, Scotland. Whiteinch sits on the River Clyde, near Glasgow. The cost of this ferry was sixteen thousand pounds, a princely sum. The company mortgaged themselves heavily for the 315 ton, 51.5m steel hulled vessel.

The ferry set sail for Australia in 1878. John joined her as a fireman (the man below decks whose job it was to shovel coal into the boiler). They were detained in Egypt because, with her double bow shape, it was thought she was a vessel of war. A quick letter from the owners saw the boat once again steaming for the far off lands. They arrived in Sydney after fifty-six days at sea. Sails had been added to the ferry to augment the limited coal supplies. We can only imagine what those days below deck would have been like. She was not a large vessel with only two wooden decks barely above sea level. There would not have been a great deal of room around the hot and steaming boilers. At least more room would be created as their supplies of coal diminished.

To make things more uncomfortable, they were struck by rough seas in the Indian Ocean. Remember, they were cut off from the world, no phones, no radio. If they sank, no one would know their fate for years. Reports of their loss would only be recorded after they had not shown up by a reasonable date. But they came through unscathed and her master, Captain Mickleson, praised her sea-worthiness.

The ferry was named the ‘Fairlight’ after a district near Manly of the same name. she began her career plying the waters between Circular Quay and Manly in 1878. She was considered the most well-appointed ferry on the run with cushioned seats and carpets. John stayed in Sydney, living in Manly, and continued to work as a fireman aboard the Fairlight.

Three years after leaving London, John met and married Georgina Hunton in 1881. They had a son soon after and named him Charles Edward. Things were improving for John. Unfortunately tragedy struck. Charles died aged three and two years later Georgina died of a lung disease, possibly tuberculosis which was prevalent, aged 27.

John went on to marry again on May 8th, 1888. He and wife Hannah Laura Munnings were together until his death in the Manly Cottage Hospital in 1902. He was forty seven. John left behind Hannah and a family of seven small children. His youngest child, Lionel Ambrose Septimus Hughes, was born only weeks before he died.

For ten years, on the anniversary of his death, a notice was placed in the newspaper, the Sydney Age. It was read the same, acknowledging his wife and family and it always ended ‘from a fond mate.’ There is no record of who placed these notices. The thought is that it could have been the ‘best man’ from their wedding who remained a life-long friend.

Scroll to Top