Captain Austen, a fascinating tale


This article is about the adventurous life of my great grandfather, John Austen, from Rye.

The main photo is John Austen’s cutter Tay on the Waitemata Harbour, Auckland, New Zealand. It is possibly John standing by the mainmast.

Imagine, if you will, three mariners strolling down the Mint, Rye on July 1, 1847, on their way to board the Sussex Lass. It is John Austen (senior) age 54 proudly walking with his sons, George aged 28, and John junior aged 24, who will be sailing with him. John junior is my great grandfather. This article is about young John’s 60-plus years as a mariner of which 40 years were living in New Zealand, sailing the coastal and pacific trades.

His life was full of seafaring adventures – sometimes great and sometimes tragic.
John senior was born in Rye in 1793 and his parents were Samuel and Judith Austen. They settled into Rye following their marriage in Winchelsea on June 5, 1789. John married Mary Cole on 13 December 1811 in Deal, Kent. They had four children, all born in Rye: Mary Anne was born in 1816, George in 1819, Caroline in 1822 and John in 1824.

The two boys followed the Austen tradition of becoming mariners. We know from John’s Mate’s Certificate of Service issued in December 1850 that he first went to sea as a boy at age 13 in March 1837. By 1840 he is an able seaman and by 1845 is working as a mate.

Building a life and business in New Zealand

The records of young John’s voyages indicate that he worked in both the coastal and foreign trade and on ships that ranged from 45 to 190 tons. He had quickly gained experience sailing a variety of ships in local and offshore waters. We don’t know exactly when and how he first came to New Zealand, but we know he was here by 1855, as in May of that year, he purchased his first vessel in New Zealand, the 38 foot cutter Christina.

It seems likely that John identified an opportunity to have his own trading business and make his fortune in New Zealand. At this time, New Zealand was a young, fast-growing colony. Ships were the main form of transport for people and goods as any roads were no more that dirt tracks. The photo below is of Auckland harbour in the early 1860s, busy with sailing vessels at anchor and shipbuilding in the foreground.

Auckland Harbour.

John had arrived in New Zealand on his own, leaving his wife Elizabeth to join him later. They married at Ratcliff, London on April 12, 1852. They settled in Rye and their son John George Austen was born in April 1853. Elizabeth booked passage for herself and 2½ year old John George on the Josephine Willis bound for New Zealand on 3 February 1856. John had sent money from New Zealand for the tickets. Tragically, this ship sank in the English Channel after a collision with the steamship Mangerton. Elizabeth and her son perished along with 70 other passengers.  A newspaper report of the tragedy states that a letter from John had arrived in Rye that day saying John was coming back to Rye and she should wait for him.

John remained in New Zealand and carried on with his new life in the Pacific. He subsequently remarried in Auckland, New Zealand on October 12, 1858 to Anne Wilcox. Anne had arrived in New Zealand with her parents as a one-year-old in 1843.

By the time of his remarriage John had sold his interest in Christina and purchased another cutter, the 38 foot Tay, described as a very fine fast sailing boat. There are reports of John racing her against other similar boats and taking bets on the outcome. In the photograph above a number is shown on the mainsail. This indicates the photo was probably taken during the annual race day regatta held on the Waitemata Harbour. Many of the coastal traders competed in this regatta.

Success with his business enabled him to further upgrade his boat and, in late 1858, he purchased the 48 foot Aquila. This larger vessel enabled him to trade in the Pacific Islands where he took various goods and people to the islands and primarily brought fruit back to New Zealand. This was similar to his work in the orange trade to England from the Mediterranean. A typical advertisement for the Aquila is as below;

Newspaper advert for the cutter, Aquila

He owned the Aquila for around 10 years, and in 1863 it played a valuable role by taking a party of gold prospectors to Lake McKerrow in the South Island of New Zealand. From there they explored the rocky mountains of the southern Alps. Lake McKerrow is reached by crossing a treacherous bar into Martins Bay and John Austen was the first European to cross this bar and enter into the lake. This area is in the south west coast of New Zealand known as Fiordland, notorious for its cold and stormy weather. The coastline features many spectacular fiords including the well-known Milford Sound. Martins Bay is just north of Milford Sound.

The photo below shows the narrow opening of the bar. I have visited this bay and felt in awe of the incredible skill shown by John in navigating a 48 foot sailing ship through the treacherous opening and down the narrow stretch of water leading into Martins Bay.

Martins Bay, New Zealand

There are a number of newspaper reports of the prospecting venture and John’s role. He also kept his own record in his ship’s log, as he did for all his voyages. His accounts are all well written and fascinating to read.

In April of 1865 he made another step up by purchasing the 85 foot brigantine Reliance which enabled him to sail further out into the Pacific Islands and to Australia carrying larger cargoes. He also shipped timber that had come from the kauri forests of the North Island down to the South Island townships that were rapidly growing. Aquila was advertised for sale as shown here.

Newspaper advert for sale of the Aquila

Below is an example of the newspaper advertisements seeking passengers for the Reliance.


The wreck of the Reliance

John successfully traded between New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and Australia in the Reliance over a period of three years. Tragically, he then suffered the complete loss of the Reliance in April 1868 when she ran aground on the Indispensible Reef in the Solomon Islands. He wrote a detailed account of the wreck and the amazing survival of himself and most of the crew who were at one point chased by hostile natives who threw spears at them. They spent 27 days in a long boat and travelled some 1,100 miles before coming across a schooner which rescued them. John complained he suffered headaches for some years as the result of being hit in the head by a spear.

The loss of the Reliance, which was uninsured, dealt a heavy financial blow to him and he never again owned his own boat. He did however sail as master of boats owned by others and carried on his career as a mariner until as late as 1897 by which time he was aged 73. During his years at sea, he had many adventures including numerous encounters with storms, several groundings, a charge of smuggling that was not upheld and being robbed.
In his final years of sailing he often sailed as mate instead of as captain. He was mate on the fine sailing ship Ysabel shown below.

John and Anne’s family

John and Anne spent most of their life in Auckland but moved around New Zealand so John could take advantage of coastal shipping opportunities. They purchased some land in Napier in October 1859 and lived in that town for a time with John regularly sailing out of the Napier port. In 1863 they moved to Invercargill before returning to Auckland in 1864.

They had 10 children. My grandfather Arthur was the tenth child, born in Auckland in 1885. Only one of John’s sons went to sea; he was named John James Austen but sadly died of pneumonia aged 37. My grandfather Arthur trained as a cabinetmaker; in addition he worked as an entertainer and first appeared on stage at age 13. He was a song and dance man and also entertained as a clown.

Captain John Austen died in Auckland on 5 August 1899 at age 75. Anne died 28 April 1923 at age 82. She was only 16 when she married John and often sailed with him along with their children when they were very young. She was often left on her own to raise the children while John was at sea so her life was very demanding when we consider the number of children she brought up and the tough times she must have endured in supporting John’s ventures.

We are not certain but we think the photo below is Anne.

Sadly we have no photo of John, other than the photo of the Tay although we are not sure if it is he.

About the author
I am retired and live with my wife Juliana, north of Auckland, New Zealand at the beachside suburb of Snells Beach. Juliana and I share a keen interest in family history. She is a retired librarian and has applied her great research skills in gathering and organising the information on our respective ancestors.

The photo below shows me in Rye and was taken on a visit about 10 years ago outside the heritage centre. We have been back again since then because we love the town so much and it is a great credit to the residents of Rye that the old buildings and their surroundings are in such great condition. When I walk the streets of Rye I really do feel that I am walking in the steps of my Austen ancestors.

Greg Austen outside Rye Heritage Centre

My ancestors on my mother’s side came to New Zealand in 1865 and were from Ely in Cambridgeshire. My DNA tests support the fact I am 99% English.

Image Credits: Greg Austen .

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