the Chance of a Lifetime
Dowell probably began work on the small sailing craft that brought
coal to his home town of Berkeley, but in November 1853 he set off on his
big adventure. He signed on as an ordinary seaman on the Gloucester
based barque Rory Brown, on which his uncle William
was cook. When the ship reached Melbourne the following March,
he and two other men ‘jumped ship’, leaving his seaman’s chest on board.
His mother Sarah later wrote that William Smith had
'sold your chest for 5s and brought the money for me. He told
us the Captain did not say very much about your leaving – only [that
he] was in a fine way when he first found it out’. Thomas was
evidently owed money by a pilot when he left, but the port went
through a bad time during the early 1850s as the Crimean War reduced
trade, and his aunt Elizabeth Smith wrote ‘Your mother cannot
get the money from J Pick that was owing to you [as] there is no
work for the pilots at the port, I suppose owing to this War'.
Life in the Goldfields
evidently found life was hard in the Bendigo goldfields, as his
aunt Elizabeth wrote ‘I beleave you greatly where you say
a fourtan is not got so easy as people may think so here in England.
How can you work so many feet below the the earth I cannot think.
I do hope you have done yourself some good by this time, as you
say in your letter to me you was 93 feet deep then and only sink
a foot a day - it must be down right hard work.' Elizabeth also
reminded him of a scale model boat he had left behind in England
'I saw your Old Ship up in John Dowell's roam. It is often lookid
at I assure you’.
Life in Berkeley
letters show that life was hard for Thomas’s family back in
Berkeley. His father provided haulage services, but Mr Jones
had 'got such a big Man ... to hall the cole about
the town, so there is no work for any one [else] in that way, and you
see your Father only having two horses he cannot go to
timber hauling for the want of more horses. We have a little
stone hauling now and then. When Thomas's father died in 1862, his mother Sarah was left to carry on the
business. Her letters
to Thomas illustrate how much she missed her eldest son and the struggle she had to keep going,
were regular requests for a little speck of gold, or money, to help
the family back in Berkeley to get by. In 1865, she wrote about
her two sons at home: ‘Moarse is 9 years and Bill is 11 years
hould. I should bee so glad if I could keep them at scool but I
cannot get the moane to do that. Poor Bill was in the Gloster infearmeary
[for] 3 months and Moarse was as bad, but I could not let im go
ther’. However, she did receive help from her brother William
Smith who gave her some of his seaman's pay and worked
the horses when at home.
Sharpness New Docks
1872, Sarah wrote to Thomas about the new docks being built at
Sharpness and the smallpox epidemic there that claimed the life
of her brother William Smith: ‘Your poor Uncle died at the Small
Pox hospitable at Sharpness Point. They have commenced new docks
there for bringing in large bessells, and about five or six hundred
navies [are] employed there besides other work men. Those navies
first had the small pox and it stayed about here a great deal, but
thank God it is better there. Pox hospitals [were] put up
in Sharpness, one for the navies and the other for the people of
the parish'. Five years later, she reported on the arrival of
the railway and the building of the Severn Railway Bridge. ‘We have a railway at Ladymead as will lead over
the Severn as soon as the bridge is a cross - they are half way
cross the Severn with it. Very large steamers and ships come to
Sharpness now, [but] the trade is very bad at present ever
since the strikes’.
(Charles) Morse Dowell
When Sarah’s sons, Bill and Morse,
left school, they began to help their mother with the family haulage
business, but then Morse got a job on the new dock at Sharpness.
In 1877, Sarah reported to Thomas: ‘I have the two boys at home
with me - two men I must say, they are grown tall. Morse is work
with a carpenters at Sharpness. He has carpenters shop and all his
tools. He has made a new cart for me, and he frames picture, make
work boxes and makes mony boxes for his little nieces. He has never
been prenticed but he gets on very well’. She also mentioned
that ‘William Price is a captain of a steamer [but] he had is
licence taking from him for drunkenness’.
Hard Times at Sharpness
1881, Sarah reported on the lack of shipping at the new dock due
to competition from new docks down river at Avonmouth and Portishead.
‘It as been very bad this winter for poor people. The poor men
could not work for weeks [as] the weather so bad [and] there is
no work here for them. The people thought when Sharpness Docks were
done [and] the bridge across the Severn, it would be the making
of the place, but I think it is worse. Most all the ships goes in
Avonmouth Docks down by Portshead for they have so long to
waite for the tides to bring up the ships to Sharpness. ... I am afraid it will be a bad job for the Gloucester
pilots. Them that have not made their don’t get much now not enough
this winter to maintain them’.
Thomas Takes Up Engineering
Thomas and his family had moved from the Bendigo area north to Echuca
on the Murray River, where he studied and became an engineer. This
led to work at a local sawmill and then as an engineer on some of
the paddle steamers which plied the Murray River hauling wool and
timber - becoming what was known colloquially as a 'mudbank sailor'.
The lure of gold led to another move in the early 1890s when new
discoveries were made at Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, and it
was from here that he travelled back to visit his mother in Berkeley.
Following that visit, he returned to Australia with the scale model
boat that was referred to in the earlier letter.
The model boat is still treasured
by the Dowell family in Australia. From the dimensions and hull
shape, it appears to be based on the sloop Berkeley, owned
by Thomas Dowell's grandfather, also named Thomas, who was a mariner
and coal merchant based in Berkeley. When Thomas senior died in
1840, the model evidently passed to Thomas junior, then aged about
in Australia, Thomas Dowell eventually died of Fibroid Phthisis
(a form of TB) in 1901. His brother Morse continued his carpentry
work at Sharpness and eventually became foreman of the Maintenance
Department there. He died in 1925.
are due to Gordon Dowell for making available transcripts of the
letters sent to his great grandfather and for providing the photographs.
The log of the Rory Brown is in TNA BT98/4152.