Part Six: the harbour master

What happened to Sarah?

Charles Morgan Lewis could be precious. His older brother was John and his younger sister was Sally but it was Charles who got his mother’s family name. Having a middle name suited his later, slightly vainglorious but generally productive, years.

He was born at Norwich in Norfolk in 1804–05, to Sarah Morgan and Benjamin Lewis. A few months later the family moved to Haverfordwest at Pembrokeshire in Wales, where his parents lived out the rest of their uneventful lives. John, the older sibling, was the first to escape the tedium of the family home. He worked for a time on merchant ships, before signing on as the master of a decommissioned Navy man-of-war called the Wolf, refitted out as a whaler in 1830 and dispatched by her owners to New South Wales.

HMS sloop of war Wolf, off Dover in 1828, prior to being decommissioned and sold. Sent to Australia as a whaler. Drawn and etched by E. W. Cooke.

For seven years from 1830, John Lewis sailed the southern oceans, hunting and killing whales to harvest their oil. The seas around New Zealand were his favourite fishing grounds and like most whalers, the Wolf could be out for 12 to 18 months at a time. John was 28 years old when he took command of the Wolf. He was generous in his praise of the Australian colony – though he was hardly ever there – and he soon persuaded his 26-year-old brother, Charles, to join him. His sibling could claim previous employment on secondment from the British navy to ship’s commander in the navy of the King of Siam (Thailand).

On 28 July 1832 the Sydney Gazette announced the arrival of the ship Medway, ex-London, and listed her cabin passengers. Their shipping reporter had to apologize in the next edition: ‘Among the passengers of the Medway, by some mischance, we omitted the name of Mr. Lewis, brother of Captain Lewis, of the Wolf.’ Most passengers were unfazed if they slipped into the colony unnoticed, but Lewis was keen to establish his family connection to the devoutly Christian whaling captain. Big brother John had sailed two weeks earlier for the whaling grounds and would be away for at least a year.

Lewis was a friendless new arrival in Sydney and it did not take long for Sarah O’Donnell to catch his eye. Sarah was a free settler who had previously lived in London. That much I know but all else I do not. She was loud, talkative and must have been a good drinking companion. To the lonely mariner that probably meant that she was fun to be around. He courted her, with strolls through Sydney’s public park called the Domain, exhibiting all the traits of an infatuated lover. It was five worrying months before Lewis got a job. Finally, on 23 December 1832, he was officially appointed the master of the colonial schooner, Governor Phillip, and only then because her new master fell ill. In a moment of impetuosity that would prove to be disastrous for both parties, the young couple married at the St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral on 19 February 1833. The now salaried sea captain set his wife up in a cottage in Erskine Street, with Sarah soon demonstrating that she had a taste for silks, trinkets and other niceties, including alcohol.

For the first year of their marriage, all was well. Captain Lewis’s duties as ship’s master consisted of tracking back and forth between the two penal outposts at Norfolk Island and Moreton Bay – with the occasional trip to New Zealand. Under his command he had two mates (quickly reduced from four), a carpenter and 14 seamen and the little ship transported a mix of hardened prisoners and army guards, some of the latter with their families. Lewis was hardly ever at home, or he might have noticed sooner that his wife was drifting. She was living in an area notorious for its ruffian gangs of unemployed ex-convicts, who could not give up their thieving habits. She was also surrounded by grog shops that offered the kind of company she craved. She did have two servants, one a girl called Amelia Pearce, described as aged about seven but probably older,  the other an apprentice boy, James Thomson, who was about 11. With no adult servants to help her and no will of her own to do much, the Lewis cottage was in a state of perpetual disarray. Sarah started drinking too much, and when she did she could be loud and quarrelsome.

By 1834 the rules for the two colonial vessels, the brig Governor Phillip and the schooner Isabella, had been changed so that when the vessels were docked at Sydney Cove, the captains and their crews could continue to live on board. For the two captains it meant that each had a cabin, tiny but quiet, and the additional advantage of a steward to cook and serve their rations. When things got too noisy at Erskine St, Lewis found solace in his floating quarters.

Lewis was initially forthcoming and popular with Sydney’s shipping reporters, who sought him out for news about the two remote penal colonies, plus any other tit-bits for their vital shipping columns. Having his name frequently in the papers meant that he soon became a well-known citizen about town. His first real friends, however, were probably Henry and Elizabeth Bull, and he met them in 1835 at a particularly low point in their lives. Henry Bull was already suffering from an ultimately fatal lung disease, probably consumption, and with a wife and two very young children to support, there was a pressing need to find a suitable income. The couple had arrived in Tasmania with goods to trade and auctioned them there at a significant discount, losing most of their savings. They had moved on to Sydney and holed themselves up in a cottage while they wondered what to do next. Henry’s solution was to use what was left of his money to buy a half share in a schooner called the Friendship, in partnership with Captain John Harrison. The plan was to sail the schooner to the warm climes of Tahiti, where Henry would get well and the two men would set up a plantation and grow sugar. They also intended to use the schooner for regular trade between Sydney and the islands of the South Pacific. It was a lovely dream and the Bulls dared to dream it.

Friendship stamp

On the way to Tahiti, the Friendship stopped off at Norfolk Island to deliver some cargo and Captain Harrison and some of his men tethered the schooner to a buoy that had been put there the previous year by the crew of HMS Alligator, with the promise that it was reliable and sound. Apparently it was not. During a gale the Friendship broke her moorings and was wrecked. All aboard the schooner were saved by many of the 300 convicts at the penal settlement and safely brought ashore. The convicts even managed to save most of the Bull family’s possessions. For two and a half desperate months the destitute passengers and crew of the wrecked Friendship had to live off the less-than-charitable goodwill of the settlement’s commandant, until Captain Lewis finally turned up in the Governor Phillip, on one of his regular runs. He promptly provided the stranded party with passage to Sydney and both Bull and Harrison, after a little gentle prodding it seems, finally repaid Lewis with testimonials of gratitude in the Sydney press.

Henceforth Captain Lewis enjoyed sympathetic treatment from both Henry Bull and the Revd John Dunmore Lang, the founder – and subsequently the part-proprietor with Bull – of The Colonist newspaperUnfortunately for Captain Lewis, however, Sarah was soon making her own news in the Sydney papers (Sydney Herald 27 April 1835:

“On Thursday last, as Mrs. Lewis of Eskine-street, was in attendance at the Police Office, as complainant in a case of assault, her home was entered and robbed, though not to a serious amount, the thieves having been disturbed.

Lewis had been away on one of his regular voyages when Sarah noticed that some of her possessions were missing, including a watch and some spoons and plates. She had only been absent from her house for about 20 minutes, she said, and suspected her neighbour’s concubine, who had previously admired the watch. She reported the theft to the police but since she had no evidence or proof to back her accusations, nothing more was made of it. Subsequently, the small girl in her employ claimed to have seen the watch inside the neighbour’s house.

When Lewis finally returned home from one of his voyages he was confronted by an agitated Sarah demanding that he go with her to the police station and report the theft again, requesting that a thorough search be made of the neighbour’s house. The police obliged but they privately thought that the choice of items claimed to have been stolen was a little suspicious and suspected that they had been pawned by Sarah for alcohol. They had no reason to suspect this, other than that her reputation in Sydney as a drinker was already established.

Nothing was found in the search and it might have ended there had it not been for the fact that the neighbour, Mr. John William Thurlow, was an articled clerk to Mr. Charles Henry Chambers, an attorney of the Supreme Court. In July 1835 he sued Captain Lewis in the Supreme Court for defamation and demanded £250 (the equivalent of almost two years wages) for damage to his reputation. He also had William Charles Wentworth, one of the town’s leading lawyers, to present the prosecution’s case. Lewis was found guilty of the charge (Sydney Gazette, 16 July 1835). He had the sympathy of the judges though, and the £25 compensation payment was modest; but Lewis had been publicly humiliated in the press as a result of his wife’s accusations to the police, and that was something he would have found hard to forgive.

Thurlow’s claim was based on the fact that he was studying in preparation for admittance to the Supreme Court as an attorney. His reputation had been seriously sullied by the captain’s request that his house be searched for a stolen watch, he maintained, even though Sarah Lewis did not personally blame him for the theft, but rather the woman who was cohabiting with him as his wife. His standing among the colonists at that stage, however, was already a little tarnished. Thurlow fancied himself as a talented poet until one of his poems, published in a local Sydney newspaper, was proven to be largely plagiarized from a well-known poem by James F. Montgomery.

Fortunately the Colonist newspaper was always on Lewis’s side and in its 27 July 1835 edition it published a childish but cheeky and very brave satire in the form of lyrics of a song. It speaks for the friendship between Lewis and Bull that the latter was prepared to risk what little was left of his rapidly dwindling finances on a clumsy joke.

(A Scene in the Supreme Court.)

I call’d her Mrs. Thurlow,
When I saw her in his house,
Although I knew they were not bound
By matrimonial vows:
And I tell it openly to show
How all the while I knew
The house I used to call my friends
Was nothing but a stew.

I call’d her Mrs. Thurlow;
For what is there in names?
(A strumpet may have five a-week:)
Her maiden name was James.
True; I might blush for shame, you say;
But what is it to me,
When bless’d with such a friend as mine,
To share his infamy!

I call’d her Mrs. Thurlow,
And I’ll call her so again;
For I always speak to lady fair
In complimenting strain.
‘Tis true, her neighbours said she stole
More than my young friend’s heart;
But was it fit for aught like that
My friend and I should part?

I call’d her Mrs. Thurlow;
And I swear ’tis my belief,
Whate’er she ever was or is,
My friend is not a thief.
A thief’s companion he might be;
But what of that, say we?
While my friend shares the lady’s smile,
I’ll share his infamy!


With the Colonist’s readers chuckling over the court case at Thurlow’s expense, Lewis was able to emerge from the experience with his own reputation intact.  Even so, the court case was effectively the end of any romance in his marriage to Sarah, although they never divorced. They continued to share a house and belongings and Lewis remained responsible for providing his wife with financial support. They had moved to Gloucester Street and away from their old neighbourhood for obvious reasons and that was the easy part. Keeping his wife out of  the newspapers was more difficult. She kept popping up in the police columns, vocal and even abusive at times but always presenting herself as the sinned against and never the sinner (Sydney Gazette 31 Oct. 1835).

An individual residing in Cumberland street preferred a charge of felony against the wife of Captain Lewis, on Thursday last, at the Police Office. It appeared that Mrs Lewis went to the complainant’s house, with the members of whose family she had some high words, and carried of a parrot and cage, as the complainant had been informed by his wife and daughter. Upon this he gave Mrs. Lewis in charge for alleged felony. It appeared from the statement of the complainant, that the parrot had been given him as a present by the husband of the prisoner a short time previous ; but the cage he admitted belonged to Captain Lewis, who had merely lent it to him. Their worships strongly censured the conduct of the complainant in giving a respectable female into custody on such a frivolous and vexatious chargeone which, even if it could be entertained at all, he admitted himself to be an incompetent witness to prove, and had not brought forward those who he alleged could prove it. The complaint was dismissed ; and the accused (who wanted to be very loquacious in the Court) was recommended by the Bench to place her case in the hands of some professional man, as the best way of teaching the complainant how to demean himself in the future, when abusive words spoken might tempt him to trump up charges of felony against the speaker.
[ . . . we confess it is somewhat novel to us that a party should be handed into custody in consequence of party feeling, on a charge of ‘stealing their own property.’]

Reports were already appearing in overseas papers about the loss of the barque Charles Eaton in the Torres Strait, and the supposed captivity of some of her passengers and crew. The fact that the second mate aboard the ship, William Mayor, was Elizabeth Bull’s brother, made it inevitable that Lewis would be following the events surrounding the Charles Eaton with close interest. It soon became obvious that the colonial government would have to send a rescue mission to the Torres Strait, and Lewis indicated that he would be willing to take on the assignment. His offer was accepted.

By May 1836 the Governor Phillip was in dry dock, undergoing repairs, but the colonial schooner Isabella was always going to be the obvious choice for the mission anyway, being the smaller vessel of the two. It had already been used for one successful mission to New Zealand in 1834, to rescue survivors of the shipwreck of the Harriet who were being held by a Maori group for ransom. The Isabella’s usual captain, who had already assisted in that rescue mission with not a shred of credit or extra remuneration¸ swapped colonial vessels so that Lewis could captain the Isabella on her rescue mission to the Torres Strait.

Elizabeth Bull packed a box of goods for her brother, and gave them to Captain Lewis in the ultimately vain hope that the second mate would still be alive. Lewis came back with two survivors, the cabin boy, John Ireland, and the child William D’Oyly. Mayor’s skull came back, in a crate with other skulls belonging to passengers and crew of the ill-fated barque. Lewis said little about the rescue mission to the Torres Strait on his return to Sydney, and part of that may have been a desire to spare Elizabeth’s feelings. She must have been devastated.

The events surrounding that rescue mission and its outcome have already been covered in my other posts and need not be repeated here. Sarah, meanwhile, continued to get her fair share of publicity (Sydney Gazette 12 Nov., 1836):

On Thursday a woman and child entered the house of a Mrs. Sarah Lewis in Gloucester-street while in a state of intoxication, and wished to lie down as she was afraid to meet her lord and master in that state. Mrs. Lewis recommended her to go home to bed without effect, she persisted in taking a rest where she was, and forced her way up a ladder into a bed room and laid down, and Mrs. L. covered her with a blanket ; at this time there was a quantity of wearing apparel lying about the room ; on awaking the woman got up and went away, when a gown and silk handkerchief which were there in the first instance were missed. She was given into custody.

The woman was clearly known to Sarah, as a drinking companion if not a friend, but Sarah always took her complaints directly to the police and they ended up in at least one of the local papers.

Gravestone of Henry Bull, printer/editor of the Colonist newspaper, aged 32, and two of his children, Emily Catherine, aged two, and John Brooks, aged six months. Buried at Devonshire Steet Cemetery in 1837–1838. A pauper’s headstone, paid for and shared with a friend. Photographed 1900–1901 by Josephine Foster. Glass plate negative held at the Mitchell Library, Sydney. Hundreds of headstones, including this one, have been relocated to the Pioneer Park at the Bennelong Cemetery, Botany Bay. Emily was the infant rescued by convicts at Norfolk Island.

When Captain Lewis left Sydney in May 1838 with the intention of returning William D’Oyly to his relatives in England, he had already arranged to receive half his usual salary for 18 months. Of this, half had to be paid to him and half to Sarah, who would remain behind in Sydney and needed to be provided for. The total amount was about  £105, so that Sarah received  £52/10s to live on for 18 months, barely enough for a sober and frugal woman, which Sarah was not. By December 1838 Sarah would also have received the alarming news that the Isabella was being sold and her husband no longer had a job to return to. What did Sarah do? I cannot say. This is a woman’s side of the story and history does a poor job of recording women’s lives. By this time, Henry Bull had died, along with two of his three small children, and his wife was so destitute she had to rely on charity for the fares to England in 1838 for herself and her surviving child. Poor Elizabeth Bull. In the short time she resided in Australia she had borne the murder of her brother in the Charles Eaton massacre, plus the loss of her husband, two children and the family’s entire fortune.

By 1837, Sarah’s brother-in-law, Captain John Lewis, had also returned to England with his wife. One of the few people that Sarah could still turn to for assistance in 1839 was the Revd John Dunmore Lang.

Lewis arrived back in Sydney from London on 1 September 1839 and immediately re-applied to Governor Gipps for the reward he had initially been promised for rescuing the two shipwreck survivors from the Murray IslandsHis application was rejected by the Legislative Council and he was given a job as the harbour master at Port Phillip (Melbourne) instead. On 10 October 1839, a deceased woman called Sarah Lewis was discreetly buried, with the funeral rites officiated over by the newly arrived and appointed Revd Fullerton of St Lawrence Presbyterian Church, the Revd Lang’s church. The church record notes that she died at Macquarie Place. Captain Lewis had been married for just six and a half years and his wife would probably have been aged in her mid-to-late twenties. No parents are recorded, nor any spouse, but Fullerton is known now for not bothering to keep detailed records for deaths and marriages. There is nothing suspicious about this woman’s death, no police or coronial enquiry.

So far I have traced only one Sarah Lewis living in Sydney at that time and that was the captain’s wife. That of itself means nothing and there could well have been another woman in the town who shared her name. What I can say is that Lewis delayed his departure to Port Phillip, Melbourne, for a few weeks, with enough time after Sarah’s funeral to sort out his affairs. He was already beginning to present himself as single, and he went to Port Phillip alone. Once there, he built a large house on government land at what is now called Williamstown and ran it as a boarding house for his boat crews. The 1841 census records that eight men, all government employees, were being housed in the boarding house with Lewis, who indicated for census purposes that he was single. The fact that he was ultimately forced to give up the boarding house at a financial loss only increased his own and others’ conviction that he was hard done by. For several years prior to his physical collapse from a severe stroke in December 1841 and his subsequent resignation as harbour master, he had petitioned for a reward for the Charles Eaton rescue mission. Not once did he mention what happened to Sarah.