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THE LAST DAYS OF JAMES CORNISH 1834 to 1882
( Eric Cornish [mem.no.50])

What's so special about James that makes me write an article about him? Well, besides being my great grandfather, he is the only member of my family known to have died at sea. As those will know who have researched maritime family connections, there is available a lot of information about those who went to sea, and so it proved with James. Here is his story.

James Cornish was born on 14th November 1834 and baptised on 17th May 1835 at St George-in-the-East, Stepney which was the eastern boundary of London at the time. His father, William John, born in Rotherhithe, had moved up to Stepney and had worked variously as a rope maker and a bricklayer. More interestingly, William had a complex marital life. He first married Jane Stobey in 1822 who had five children between 1825 and 1831. After her death William married Susannah Slade (nee Burch), who already had a son by her first husband. So, in addition to our Jame's blood brothers John and Robert, he had six half brothers and sisters.

James at first lived with his parents at 24 George Street, Stepney. He married Jane Liffen on 20th April 1858. Jane had probably lived in Janet Street, Milwall, but had originated from Great Yarmouth, Suffolk, where her father was a coal porter. Perhaps not surprisingly, Jane was unable to sign her marriage certificate, an X being put by her name. However, the marriage in St Mary's Church, Stepney, was publicised by banns, so the couple were nominally C.of E.

James and Jane set up home at 2 James St./ Devonport St. in Ratcliff, but had moved by the time of the April 1871 Census.

While James and Jane lived their rather parochial life, and had their children Henry James, Samuel James, Florence Jane and William George between 1859 and 1869, events were moving in the wider world. 19th century scientific and engineering ingenuity led to increasing numbers of ships being powered by steam engines, and to Bell and Coleman developing their refrigerating machine. This, driven by a small engine, could cool whole rooms. Such developments came into their own in the late 1870's and early 1880's, when a food shortage in Europe led to insatiable demands for meat and fruit which could be met only from overseas. February 1880 saw the first consignment of 40 tons of frozen mutton from Australia being landed in London. Such was the demand that a profit margin of 300% was made! By the end of 1880, snowstorms in London led to supplies running low: the ship " Protos" brought a welcome 4500 sheep and lamb carcasses and 100 tons of butter from Australia. This trade from the Antipodes to Europe was complemented by the great desire of many poor people to migrate to Australia and seek better times.

This is the background, then, of the voyage of the " Rangitiki" (Fig. 1) which left London on Friday 31st March 1882, arrived at Christchurch Harbour (Lyttleton) on 5th July 1882 returning to London on 18th December 1882. This sailing ship was built in Hull in 1863 and had a net tonnage of 1182. She had been given her new name when purchased by the New Zealand Shipping Company ( now incorporated in P&O Lines ) and had already made ten trips to New Zealand, each time carrying 400 emigrants. She carried on board an engineer ( on a sailing ship ) presumably to run a refrigerator to supply first class passengers with non-salted meat on the way out and to bring back a load of frozen meat for sale back in London.

The ship was quite comfortable for the few first-class passengers who had three crew members designated to look after them. The majority of the passengers (fig.2) segregated entirely from the first class, and from each other by their sex or marital status, were rather less comfortable. This was worse in tropical zones and rough seas as the portholes would have to be closed to keep the sea out. There was only 4ft 10in distance between the sea and the deck on which the passengers lived. The lack of ventilation must have been unbearable. It was to improve such conditions that Samuel Plimsoll developed the load level line which came into compulsory use in 1890.

So James Cornish signed on with Captain Thomas Milman in mid-March as ship's butcher, for the princely pay of 3:10:00 a month (equivalent to 150 a month in current terms) all found. "Ship's Butcher" is not what you might think: he was in charge of meat for the crew. There was a main butcher whose job it was to look after the passengers' needs. Food to be distributed to the crew (fig.3) was laid down in company standing orders: each crew member got 1.25lb of salt beef on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and 1.25lb of salt pork on the other days. In addition each man received 0.5lb of flour and 0.25 pint of dried peas three times a week, and 0.5lb of rice as a treat on Saturdays. Each day there was issued 0.125oz of tea, 0.5oz of coffee, 2oz sugar and 3 quarts of water for all purposes. The ship did not expect to call at any ports on the way after leaving Plymouth, and would take 96 days to cover the 12,582 miles to Lyttleton.

There was just one snag with the sailor's pay. The purser would issue half the month's pay at the end of each full month served, and give the other half only when the crew member was back on board to work the ship back to England. This measure was taken because so many crew members signed on just to get a free passage to the Australias. Because of people jumping ship, harbours in Australia and New Zealand were at that time choked with ships trying to collect enough trained crew to take them back via the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn to England. Some of the 32 crew made no bones about the fact that they wanted a one-way trip, including Mr Johnston the ship's surgeon. These five would receive no pay for the trip, just their food, but would get a written honourable discharge from the shipping company so they could later, if need be, be taken on another ship as an "honest sailor". Ten of the crew who left London on this voyage jumped ship in New Zealand, thus forfeiting their pay; poor consolation for Captain Milman who had to replace 50% of his crew before returning home!

James Cornish probably knew he was not well when he embarked, as dropsy was a favourite "Cornish" illness then and later. Perhaps conditions at home were very bad financially: it seems probable that he arranged to give the cashable half of his first month's pay to Jane, because when he died he actually owed money to the Company! Food was free, the ship held half his month's pay, presumably there was no shop on board, so it is a mystery how he came to owe money.

We know very little of the voyage, as at that time, from 1874, ship's logs were filed for three years and then discarded unless exceptional in some way. The " Rangitiki" trip this time was obviously routine, as its log has not survived.

"Rangitiki" left West India Dock (fig.4) at 11.20 am on 31st March moored near Southend that night and on 3rd April stayed a full day at Plymouth for final loading. The course (fig.5) took them across the Bay of Biscay, past North Africa, until on 27th April, at 4o 30' N and 25o 50' W (700 miles west of Liberia), James died of cardiac dropsy. This illness, not now fashionable, seems to be a combination of oedema and a heart attack, and was no doubt severely aggravated by the high salt content of his diet. James was buried at sea: it was not of course until the ship reached London again at the end of the year that poor Jane knew of her dreadful loss and terrible future.

On the ship's return the death was reported to the authorities, who issued a death certificate and stated that there were no suspicious circumstances involved. James' possessions should have been listed and returned to his widow. Such lists are extant, but those for a few years around 1882 are lost. Certain it is that his goods, such as they were, would have been sold by the company to recoup this mysterious debt.

So ended the undistinguished life of James Cornish. He left Jane, who died in 1884, and his two younger children: Florence, aged 16; and William George (my grandfather) aged 13. Presumably Florence got a job and the elder brothers chipped in to help them survive.

Survive they did: how my grandfather fought his way upwards to found the family fortune is, however, a story for another time.