When every story tells a picture

New book about migrant ship the Conway paints vivid human picture

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A FOREST OF MASTS: The busy Canadian port of Saint John, New Brunswick, where the Conway was built in 1851. At the time, it was said to be one of the finest vessels ever put to sea there, according to author Harley Stanton.

A FOREST OF MASTS: The busy Canadian port of Saint John, New Brunswick, where the Conway was built in 1851. At the time, it was said to be one of the finest vessels ever put to sea there, according to author Harley Stanton.

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My Cathedral of the Sea digs deep into history of vessel that brought 2000 to Australia.

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It started as a mission to find a picture, any picture, of the ship that brought his forebears to Australia.

Twenty years on, Tasmanian retiree Harley Stanton still hasn't found an image of the Conway, a Canadian three-master built in 1851.

But it was by no means a wasted effort. It stirred him to dig deeper into the ship's history, culminating in his recently published book My Cathedral of the Sea, the story of a remarkable vessel.

In all, the Conway made five voyages to Australia in the mid-19th century, bringing some 2000 emigrants, some of whom went on to play important roles in the country's development.

"My interest grew beyond the desire to find a picture or painting; instead I wanted to understand the experience of family members who had made this journey and the ship on which they had travelled," Dr Stanton says in the recently published book.

That he did. The much-travelled former health professional with the World Health Organization - he lived in five countries over the course of his career - dug up a wealth of stories.

On its first journey to Australia in 1854, for instance, the Conway was out on the Irish Sea only a day out from Liverpool when it was "blown by a storm way up to Scotland", he told The Senior.

PEOPLE AT ITS HEART: Harley Stanton spent 20 years researching and writing My Cathedral in The Sea.

PEOPLE AT ITS HEART: Harley Stanton spent 20 years researching and writing My Cathedral in The Sea.

"Then there was a fatal cholera outbreak and that was usually enough to end a ship's voyage.

"But they cleaned the ship, lost a few passengers and put a new doctor on board who would keep better order, then sailed on to Australia."

In 1860, the Conway barely survived a cyclone about 200 miles off Madeira in which it was dismasted.

Fortunately, after foundering for a day it was spotted by a ship bound for Australia.

All on board were taken to the Spanish provincial island, but it was decided to scuttle the Conway by having the ship's carpenter drill holes in its keel.

But clearly it was made of sterner stuff than that and stubbornly refused to sink.

It then survived being stripped by a band of opportunist raiders - forced to scarper by the arrival of a much bigger English ship - before finally sailing under jury rig with six crew to Barbados.

"She went on to sail 15 more years," Dr Stanton said. "She was a survivor."

He said that as the ship approached the Brazilian coast passengers would be told they could now write letters home. These were then put in a barrel bearing a British flag which was thrown overboard. People living on the coast would then bring it ashore and ship it back on the next Blighty-bound vessel.

"I have evidence in my book that one of the letters arrived in England and that this postal service actually worked," said Dr Stanton, who was struck by how often the diarists - typically wives and mothers - unknowingly confirmed each other's stories.

Speaking to The Senior, the author, who also drew extensively from logs and contemporary newspapers, said he was often touched by diarists' accounts of deaths at sea.

And it was not always family members they sorrowed for.

"When crew were on the ocean and up in the topsails, 120, 130 foot above the deck, it was very, very treacherous.

"On occasions they would lost their footing. A young sailor would go overboard and there was nothing much anyone could do."

But Dr Stanton said that overall the Conway was known as a safe and sturdy ship. "In Saint John it was once said she was one of the finest vessels ever to be built in this port."

It had also some unique features for the time.

"For instance, it was eight feet between decks: the same height you would have in your house.

"Later in her life she was fitted with ventilators and a distilling apparatus that provided fresh water."

His research also shed light on other aspects of seagoing. One was just how fast sailing ships like the Conway could go. He learned that while a vessel could find itself becalmed in the doldrums for days, it could make up for this with impressive speeds if the winds were right.

Looking back over the 20 years it took to bring the book to print, Dr Stanton said highlights included the privilege and pleasure of meeting some of the world's finest maritime historians.

Writing it also helped him contribute to Australian social history and to "grow as a person", he said.

A large part of this was "actually bringing it to completion after so much time searching and going down rabbit warrens that went nowhere".

Including THAT picture. If you do happen to come across it, do let him know.

Read more: Portraits and artifacts tell the rich history of sail

Read more:CSIRO solves mystery of SS Macumba wreck

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