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Launceston reverend's run-in with troublesome ship captain

Like many Launceston residents in the 19th century, St John’s rector William Browne was keen to return to Britain to visit family and friends after a long absence.


Rev. Browne had been sent out to Van Diemen’s Land in 1828 as the second chaplain of the town’s first church.

Sea travel was not without its dangers but when Rev. Browne booked passages for himself and his family in 1853, he must have been pleased he would be travelling on the fast clipper ship Marco Polo.

The previous year the Marco Polo had completed its first trip from Liverpool to Melbourne and back, including time in port, in just 168 days. It was the first time the round trip had been completed in less than six months.

Marco Polo was built in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1851 and bought by the British Black Ball Line to cash in on the demand for passage to Australia where gold had been discovered.

Marco Polo received wide publicity in England and Australia for its speed, with accolades heaped on its young captain James Nicol Forbes. What didn’t get so much publicity was the human cost of Captain Forbes’ fast passages.


A small item in the Launceston Examiner of Saturday, 25 September 1852, stated that 52 passengers, mostly children, of the nearly 900 people crammed on the Marco Polo had died of fever during the voyage to Melbourne.

Captain Forbes was also known for his brutal discipline of his crew and poor treatment of passengers.

The Marco Polo’s second voyage to Australia began in March 1853 and took 75 days, arriving in Melbourne on 29 May where Captain Forbes had his crew arrested to ensure they didn’t desert and head off to the goldfields.

When the Marco Polo left Melbourne on 8 June for England the Browne family were among the passengers. This voyage wasn’t quite as fast, because of ice being encountered in the Southern Ocean and calms at the Equator, taking 95 days.

 And there had been trouble between Captain Forbes and his passengers.

On Tuesday 14 February 1854, a letter to Rev. Browne from his fellow passengers on the Marco Polo was published in the Examiner. It was dated 9 September 1853, and said:

“Reverend Sir, Our voyage being near its termination, we embrace the present opportunity of thanking you for your uniform kindness to the whole of us, during our very uncomfortable voyage, and, at the same time, beg to express our sympathy for yourself and family, for the gross and ungentlemanly treatment you have experienced, as well as ourselves, from Capt. J. N. Forbes.”


The passengers pledged to support Rev. Browne should he want to take legal action against Captain Forbes, but nothing seems to have come of the complaint.

When Rev. Dr Browne and his family returned to Launceston in 1855 it was not with Captain James Forbes!

In 1868, Dr Browne completed 40 years as the rector of St John’s Church which was Launceston’s first church and will celebrate its bicentenary next year.

Images -- TOP: The clipper ship Marco Polo. Public domain image. MIDDLE: Rev. William Browne by Frederick Strange c1850. St John’s Church collections. BOTTOM: St John’s Church by an unknown artist. QVMAG collection.

Written for the Launceston Historical Society and published in The Sunday Examiner, 21 April 2024.

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