The Diary of Thomas Christmas

Thomas Christmas 1801-1861 was Master of the Schooner ORIENTAL which was wrecked off the coast of Sicily in 1847. This is his own account of the wreck written shortly afterwards. The Christmas family lived in and around Great Yarmouth in England.

Diary of Thomas Christmas

This book was washed ashore with the drawer and part of my writing desk on Sunday morning after we landed and also an old account book of the "Shamrock" but no vestige of any papers connected with the Oriental.

I quote from memory the following remarks from our leaving Smyrna [Izmir, Turkey] with a cargo of madder roots, wool, Boxwood, Emery Stone and a little fruit. We took in the last of the madder on the Saturday and expected to get something to fill the cabin etc. after the Post arrived. [Madder roots are red roots used in colouring paint.]

Monday was a holiday but Tuesday the steamer not arriving I took my clearance and despatches ready to start.

Wednesday the weather was very coarse and busy a single anchor we let go the best Bower, blowing heavy from the Eastward and not yet able to get out clear of the shipping. [Best bower and small bower are anchors at the bow of the ship.]

Thursday morning at day light weighed and got outside the shipping - but the weather being very unsettled brought up and went on shore with my letter and settled accounts etc. [To weigh = to raise anchor.]

The steamer Frenchliers, in sight, we waited her arrival and received a letter (via Syra) from my nephew D.C.Moore with the melancholy news of my dear and only remaining sister's death but the letter I expected from my dear wife which in her last she referred me to (having written to Syra) I never received and went on board unhappy and disappointed. [Nephew is David Christmas Moore 1825 - 1905. Sister is David's mother Mary Harman Christmas/Moore 1796-1847.]

Friday night, November 5th. At daylight weighed and ran down to the Castle the weather very dismal with rain etc. and very threatening. A French ship of the line "Inflexible" (90 guns) that left the day before was riding below the Castle and as we approached her, weighed and made all sail. I was preparing to bring up but made sail after her and after passing Long Island came up with her and passed her. It was very squally at times so that we stowed the mainsail, jibs and top gallant ship and at sunset passed Cape St Nicholas (of Sero) and closed reefed the topsail. The French ship, carrying more sail passed us again and at 8 passed Ipsera steering for the Doro passage. [They are sailing south west from Turkey towards the Greek islands.]

Blowing very heavy in squalls and dismally dark and thick with rain. Stowed the topsail and about 9 wear ship and hove to with her head to the southward, the wind inclining more to the North. It blew very heavy all night and we lay to with the head of the foresail hauled close down and inner jib. [To wear = to turn the ship with its head away from wind.]

At daylight (6th) set the close reefed topsail and kept away for the Tino Passage. At noon on Saturday the 6th passed between Tinos and Mykoni - blowing very hard at times and very squally. [Tinos and Mikonos, Greek islands.]

P.M. more moderate; shook reefed out of topsail and set top-gallant sail .At sunset passed Serpho, stowed top gallant sail and close reefed topsail. Very squally with rain and much lightning. At 10 passed close to Falconer (stowed topsail at 8) and ran with head of foresail and an inner jib. Midnight - hard squalls at times. At 2 saw Cape St Angelo; more moderate at times.

At daylight Sunday 7th passed between Cerigo and Servir, cleared up from the West and feel little wind. Set mainsail, gaff, topsail, royal and flying jib. Light airs from N to NW. [Cerigo is Kithira, an island off the south of Peloponnisos, Greece.]

Noon: Cape Gaosso NE (this and Cape Malapan). [Crossed out in MS]

P.M. Squally, threatening weather. Stowed small sails and reached S & W the wind varying from N to W & calm with lightning all round.

At daylight Monday 8th moderate breezes from SE. Took sight at 8a.m. which agreed with bearings on Tuesday. Latitude observed 36° - 3' - 60 miles by log. Set square sail, royal etc. [They are sailing from the Greek islands towards Sicily.]

At noon wind more easterly; stowed gaff, topsail and jib. At 4, strong winds and squally with thick rain and sharp lightning from S.W. Stowed mainsail and jibs. At 6 On square sail and top gallant sail. At 8 close reefed topsail and brailed up the foresail. [To brail = to haul in a sail by pulling on the brails (ropes).]

At daylight more moderate - at 9 set square sail.

Tuesday 9 - Prince of Wales' birthday. My wedding day.

Wednesday. No observations - at noon thick cloudy weather with lightning. Ran 140 miles from log W N 1/2 N - At 6 In square sail. At 8 closed reefed the topsail. Ran until 11.30 blowing very hard and very dark and squally.

11.40 called up the fd. (larboard) watch to take in topsail, intending to heave to til daylight. Hove the log, going 101/2 knots. While hauling in the line, the vessel struck on the rocks and immediately fell on her larboard [left] bilge and heeled off with her decks to the sea and soon afterwards the decks rose and the cargo began to wash out abaft [behind] the main mast. We all took to the main rigging where we held on til daylight but it was so thick with heavy rain that we could distinguish nothing but the sea breaking on the rocks. The mate, George Shellspear, being a good swimmer, soon stripped and endeavoured to reach the shore but the sea was so heavy that the drawback took him out to sea and he soon sank - his body afterwards washing ashore about 3 miles to the northward. Every plan was tried to communicate with the shore but everything we threw into the sea went out instead of going inshore. When night coming on we all got forward - held on til Friday between 10 and 11 am. The people on shore launched a boat, making fast a rope from the ship and we all landed very much exhausted and numb with cold and wet. The soldiers then prevented us communicating with other people and before night a wooden hut was built and we got some straw and a fire etc. since which we have had provisions from the Consul and others. The masts stood until the following Wednesday morning at daylight, the main mast going first and foremast soon after. On Thursday morning the vessel parted and the stern frame washed on shore, but everything broke in pieces by dashing against the rocks, nothing coming on sure perfect, only part of my writing desk and a piece of shirt and one boot belonging to myself. The Consul of Syracuse and a Mr. James Roll, who speaks English, from Noto, coming occasionally to supply us with provisions etc. [Syracuse = Siracusa and Noto are in Sicily, Italy.]

On our first arrival, a Mr. Luchesse, Lloyd's Agent, rendered assistance by getting us more clothes and provisions etc. but on Saturday left and did not return until the following Saturday when he and the Consul proposed for me to abandon the wreck etc.

I wrote to Lloyd's agent at Malta and to my Dear Wife and declined abandoning until an answer came from Malta and Palermo as to when our Quarantine would finish. This day the weather was fine and the sea began to go down considerably. [Palermo is a city on the other side of Sicily about 250km away. Malta is about 100km south of Sicily.]

Sunday 21st. Commence with fine weather and smooth sea. Some of the crew got on the wreck and found the fore body of the vessel and part of the starboard side remaining. The fore hatch tarpaulin still remained, with windlass, bowspit and starboard anchor on the bow, much emery stone the bottom, with the cables warps and hawses etc entangled with larboard bow and part of the foremast hanging in the rigging.

Consul and Mr Luchesse attended and brought provisions and 2 shirts for me, and a razor. All hands had a good wash and shave.

P.M. Self and 3 hands got on the wreck and cut away fore stay and lanyards to allow the wreck of the foremast and rigging etc to clear the wreck but being foul of the rocks on anchors below we could not get any of it on shore (excepting stayforesail, much torn and washed to pieces). Picked up pieces of wreck from rock of no value. Fine night throughout.

Monday. Fine and smooth sea. All hands employed searching the holes in the rocks and bringing up pieces of wreck. I went in the morning along the coast with Mr Luchesse and a guard of 7 armed men. Mr L employed in boat and 4 men to pick the loose wool and part of 3 bales. Counted about 80 bales of madders but unable to move them from the ragged rocks. Crew employed in picking up pieces of wreck and spars etc all broken of no value being in Quarantine and so far from Syracuse (about 30 miles). Picked up about 3 bales of wool and brought it near the hut. We (the crew) had picked up 300 pieces of boxwood at sundry times in parcels of 25-50s.

This afternoon I observed much of it had been taken away and a regular now with guards, Lloyd's agent and Consul, they being so strict with us in quarantine and after we save what we can allow others to take it away.

On Sunday we had many visitors from Noto, amongst them many Priests one of whom took some wool and put it in his pocket. Latter part (or Monday) very dull and cloudy with lightning and the sea making ...

THOMAS CHRISTMAS, Schooner ORINENTAL (181 tons N M 2040 M) of Yarmouth was wrecked on the coast of Sicily about 3 leagues to the Northward of Cape Passaro on the passage from Smyrna [Izmir, Turkey] to Liverpool about 10 minutes before midnight on the 10th of November 1847.

Remained on the wreck until 12th about an hour before noon when we all landed from a boat sent out to us by a line from the ship by some fishermen who were not allowed to communicate with us by the Quarantine officers. The mate, George Shellspear, was drowned in the attempt of swimming inshore the first morning after the vessel stranded. All the rest were providentially saved after clinging to the wreck nearly 30 hours without any nourishment and the sea breaking over the vessel with torrents of rain, thunder and lightning. Two more awful nights can scarcely be imagined as every moment was expected to be our last, the vessel and decks being broken up and half the cargo washed out before we left the wreck.

We therefore cannot be too thankful to the Almighty Ruler of All Things for his mercies in saving us from a sudden and awful Death and trust that we may all so improve the short time we may yet be spared in this World that we may be prepared to leave it with a firm Hope of everlasting Happiness in the World to come is the earnest prayer of him who has no power to express his feelings of Gratitude and Thankfulness for being thus miraculously saved from a Watery Grave.

Written in a wooden Hut built within 100 yards of the wreck from which we are not allowed to pass without an escort of armed men, and that only a short distance - to pick up pieces of wreck etc that by chance reach the shore.

But the coast being lined with ragged rocks - everything almost is destroyed before it comes within our reach and the Quarantine is so strict that we cannot go any distance to pick up things that may have been saved.

[signed] Thomas Christmas
Late Master of the above schooner
Xmas Palace [the facetious name given to their hut]
Noto Rocks

November 14 1847

A carved bust of Thomas Christmas 1801-1861,
sea captain and master mariner of
Great Yarmouth, who wrote the diary.

A model of a merchant brig of about 1840
from the National Maritime Museum.

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Compiled by Elizabeth Noyes and Richard Phillips. We are grateful to the late Kay Christmas who transcribed the diary. Thanks also to other members of the Christmas family who helped Kay with her research. Updated 20 January 2005.