Accidental Immigrants

Accidental Immigrants

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When Thomas Powell and his family left England and sailed for India in the early 1850's they weren't to know they would become a prominent family in New Zealand. They were very much involved in early Wanganui and took part in business, sport, music and local body affairs. Wilmot Powell becomes a captain in the Militia and leads his unit in the defence of the redoubt at Wereroa.

From: Accidental Immigrants, by John Ewan


The Trip to India

BEFORE THE SUEZ CANAL OPENED there was no easy way to get to India. As the Canal was still a dozen years or more away from completion at the time the Powell family was travelling, there were two alternatives: via Egypt, or around the southern tip of Africa.

The Powells chose Egypt. Going to India via Egypt was not necessarily the easier choice. At that time the concession to build a railway between Alexandria, Cairo and Suez had still to be issued (though an agreement was not far off). So it was an uncomfortable journey getting from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. The usual procedure was to disembark at Alexandria and travel up the Nile to Cairo. Then travellers would be taken in flat-bottomed boats to Cosseir1 and transferred to Suez in wagons drawn by mules. The trip from Alexandria to Suez was about 500 miles altogether.

It was Easter Sunday 1851 when the family of four set off from Southampton on their lifechanging adventure, having come down from London the previous day. At 10 am on 20 April the Powells steamed out of Southampton on board the Ripon. P&O records described the Ripon as an iron built paddle steamer, built five years previously to work the Southampton to Alexandria run. Amongst its distinctions was the fact that it had brought the first hippopotamus to England.

Thomas Powell kept a journal of the voyage, and even if there was no hippo on this particular sailing, it makes interesting reading. His brother William was there to see them off and Thomas noted "I felt a greater pang at parting from my dear Brother William than I had experienced before - for the kind interest he has taken in our welfare has endeared him to all our hearts - and it may be this is the last time we may meet on earth.”

Why they chose to leave England is not clear, but things weren’t particularly prosperous in 1850s Britain. Anne Maria (mother) mentions this in her diary. Times had been a bit tough and she had not received funds from Thomas to meet all the household debts at the time, she wrote. Since there is no evidence that they left England owing money, however, their situation must have improved.

These comments of hers were made three years before they left England:2 "I have been enabled by great self denial to get out of debt and I shall have a little money in hand when my dear husband is enabled to pay me what he allows for housekeeping which in consequence of the dreadful depression in trade he could not do last year and I found it very difficult to keep up my little subscriptions such as Missionary etc but thank God I have been enabled somehow to fulfil my duties and my faith is such that I feel assured the cause will never fail.” Yes, it was quite a long sentence, but the message was clear. Times were difficult.

From Southampton several days of seasickness set in. Between bouts of nausea there was time for numerous chess games with a Jewish missionary before the ship reached Gibraltar. As noted, chess had been one of Thomas’ favourite pastimes back in Leeds.

At Gibraltar they spent a day sightseeing, admiring gardens with roses grown as hedgerows. The exotic also caught their eye. Thomas commented on seeing Spaniards, Turks and Moors in "their picturesque costumes”. He also noted herds of goats being driven around town to supply milk at one penny per glass. Muleteers with casks of water were also to be seen at various points.

"The bay is very beautiful,” he commented.

Gibraltar to Malta was achieved in five days steaming. Thomas described this as a splendid run. The third morning was "heavenly” as they made their way along the African coast. He comments on more chess and also reports "my dear wife much better this morning, suffering yesterday from sickness and fainting sensation.”

At Malta the family again took in the sights: seeing the armour once worn by the Knights of Malta, visiting the Roman Catholic Church, and lunching at Morell’s Hotel. He also received a letter from business associate Parke Pittar, who will be mentioned later, enclosing a bank post bill for £50.

The Malta to Alexandria leg was notable only for the arrival of a chess-playing Greek and his wife who had come aboard. "He is a very good player and I lost the two first games.”

The family spent only five hours in Alexandria, so there was just time for a walk around and a visit to the slave market, where Thomas saw about 20 Nubian female slaves. Well, actually, he said "we” saw, but he didn’t elaborate whether the passengers or even his family were all together on the walk. Thomas described the slaves thus: "A few of them had intelligent and interesting faces - and were finely formed about the Bust - and were straight and well shaped.”

But the day - or night - got steadily worse. "We were hurried off at 11 p.m. and put on board a most vile boat which was towed by a steamer up the Mahmoudeeyah [sic] Canal to Atfeh - a more miserable night it would be impossible to pass.”

Once in Atfeh they were transferred to a steamer for the trip up the Nile to Cairo. That lasted a mere quarter of an hour before breaking down, and the passengers were transferred to another steamer. This setback meant they would have a quick turnaround at Cairo. No time for sightseeing, but off on the overland route to Suez.

The stop at Suez was short, but it was an obvious relief after the heat of the desert. On the way across the desert they had stopped at well appointed rest houses, but "the ladies were some of them quite overpowered with the heat and fatigue - and Mrs Campbell fainted.” Adelaide Campbell became a friend of the Powells on the journey out and remained so in Calcutta.

The desert crossing sounded like something out of an adventure movie. "It was an exciting scene driving through the Desert - 5 hours with 4 horses each all going at a gallop sometimes 3 abreast,” he wrote. The Barbary drivers were shouting and cracking their heavy whips, utterly regardless of holes or stones.

Thomas reported seeing English passengers going in the opposite direction. "We met three divisions each with about 30 passengers.”

Then it was all aboard. On 8 May Thomas wrote: "We are all delighted at once more getting into civilisation and after the discomfort of the Nile and Desert we fully appreciate the Harrington. Water and Wines are alike iced - which in this climate is most refreshing.”

The heat was almost unbearable, the cockroaches were the size of mice, and the Egyptians on the Canal "were constantly seen in puris naturalibus.”

By the time they were five days from Suez, Thomas says he had been sick all day. Almost as an afterthought he adds "my dear wife also very unwell.” But two days later they reached Aden and things improved slightly. Well, the temperature was comparatively cooler.

Thomas was moved to write, "We shall be glad when we reach Calcutta for the monotony of a sea life is very wearisome - and with no occupation the time passes very heavily.”

The boredom was eased by arrival at Aden, which Thomas described as "the key to the Red Sea”. He notes that a month previously an officer had ridden out of the well garrisoned camp and was stopped by an Arab. The Arab first attempted conversation, but then suddenly drew a dagger and attempted to assassinate the officer. The officer received a severe arm wound, but jumped off his horse. He grappled with the Arab, whom he disarmed and then stabbed in the neck, killing him on the spot.

The officer "then mounted his horse and galloped back to camp and fainted upon his arrival there from loss of blood,” Thomas noted.

Then came another disappointment. On 26 May they reached Point de Galle in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) but the meeting they were looking forward to failed to materialise. They had been expecting to meet up with Anne Maria’s brother Edward Parr Wilmot. Instead they were told brother Ed had left for England in February in a sailing vessel, the Medway.

Edward had gone to Ceylon seeking a career in law and had earlier written to a distant relative saying he was having difficulty making headway in London. "Unfortunately however, I find every avenue filled with men in the same line of practice, and that my prospect of success is very remote, if not altogether hopeless. Necessity therefore compels me to solicit the indulgence of your kind patronage in procuring some Appointment.”3 The distant relative later became Sir Robert Wilmot-Horton of Osmaston.

Thomas’ diary notes: "My wife was much disappointed as she had not seen her brother for nearly 20 years.” Brother and sister had missed greeting each other by only a few days.

While in Ceylon, however, the Powells did receive an invitation to a dinner with friends of Edward. The meal was at the Mansion House Hotel at the highly unlikely time of 3 pm. They had no choice of the time because the ship sailed at 6 pm.

"We were much pleased with the little we saw of Ceylon with the cinnamon, orange, pine, and coco trees. They form a very agreeable shade from the intense heat of the sun.”

A week later, after a short stop-off at Madras where they did not land, Thomas was able to write "Our next stage I am truly happy to say is the end of our journey.”

Little did he know what fate had in store for him and his family.

Then on 2 June he wrote "Thank God we have arrived at Calcutta after a very good passage.” And as an afterthought he added: "Though from a constant nausea anything but agreeable.”

Thomas’ wife Anne Maria also kept a diary for many years and in one surviving fragment she says:

"We arrived in Calcutta after an overland journey of six weeks by way of Egypt and the Red Sea on the 2nd of June 1851, my dear husband, myself, and son and daughter. We suffered much from seasickness and find this climate very distressing, but it is the Will of God that we are brought out, and we must bear the trial with all the patience we can and may He prosper the efforts of my husband and son to their good in this life, and prepare them for a more abiding peace in the next, where may we all meet to celebrate the Wisdom Mercy and Glory of our Heavenly Father and his dear Son Jesus Christ!”

When reading Thomas’ journal, I noticed that he made no mention of his family by name - and made no reference to Wilmot at all. When he did mention the women, it was "my wife” or "my daughter”. An interesting insight into the mores of the time.

It would be months before they got wind that Anne Maria’s brother Ed never made it back to England. Her diary entry for October contains: "Dear Edward died on the 1st of July 1851 - he hurt his back by a fall at St Helena where they landed and he never recovered [from] it but had his senses to the last and made every arrangement for his wife and four Daughters.”

The news of her brother’s accident had taken three months to reach her. She received a small bequest from him.

Aunt Charlotte Cassandra Wilmot did not share Anne Maria’s fondness of Ed (Edward Parr Wilmot, to give him his full name). In her will she wrote "... from the unkind treatment which I have experienced at the hands of the said Edward Parr Wilmot he cannot expect any further favour from me and I mention this circumstance to prevent any blame attaching to the said Thomas Powell.”4

Edward was 46 when he died.


1 A seaport in Egypt

2 Anne Maria Powell: A Retrospective View Of The Year 1848 (from her Diary)

3 Letter in Wilmot-Horton collection at Derbyshire Record Office. Quoted by Sonia Addis-Smith (née Porter) in a pamphlet "Life and Families of Edward Coke Wilmot and his wife Ann Maria Rann”. Published 2004.

4 Will of Charlotte Cassandra Wilmot of Derby, 1833.

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