Frederick Jenner's diary

As part of Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections working from home effort, our teams are busy transcribing letters and manuscripts from our collections which have been digitised and are currently available on Manuscripts Online. My transcription tale is from a 'Diary kept from 1861-1865 by Mr. Frederick Jenner of Teviotdale, Canterbury, containing an account of his voyage from Liverpool to Lyttleton on the S.S. Great Britain, and of his subsequent life on his sheep run, and at Christchurch'.

Image: Diary kept from 1861-1865 by Mr. Frederick Jenner, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 1.

I was drawn to this manuscript for a number of reasons. The S. S. Great Britain was a famous ship and there is an interesting passenger list for the voyage, including the first English cricket team to tour Australia and Thomas Hocken, who worked as the ship's doctor.

The scope and contents of the journal also appealed. This is a substantial journal of 200 plus pages and covers a significant time in the history of Aotearoa. In hindsight it was hubris to think transcribing the journal could be quickly or easily completed.

The S.S. Great Britain departed from Liverpool on 20 October 1861 and arrived at Melbourne on 24 December. I initially really struggled with the handwriting but after some web searches and reading about sailing I have managed to figure out most of the words that were stumping me and I'm learning a lot about rigging and sails!

Thursday Oct. 24th
Fresh breeze & a fine wind
howling to S... in all squall
sails. Noon ditto wind & weath
Lat. 45. 33N Long 11°7'W 225 'm[iles]

Friday Oct. 25th moderate breeze
& fine. Passed an American
Barque. Standing at ?
Midnight squally with
heavy rain, Noon moderate
& fine wind very variable
Lat. 42° 18'N Long. 12° 27'W 204 '[miles]

Saturday light breeze and fine
set all ? studding sails
noon in all studding sails...

This page is a good example of the informational entries in the diary.

Building on an interest in late 19th century cricket tours I was hoping to read about the English cricket team's preparation for their Australian tour but there is disappointingly little on-board gossip so far. Each day's entires consist mainly of weather and wind reports, latitude and longitude readings and a total of how many miles the ship has covered along with the occasional sighting of other vessels and of islands: Porto Santo, Gran Caneria and, most notably in the journal, Trindade and Martin Vaz.

The entries from the page below covering November 16th and 17th stand out. They sight two other ships; one "large ship with a double topsail" and the other an "American barque." There are sketches of these ships and another of Great Britain sailing between the islands of Trindade and Martin Vaz.

Image: From 'Diary kept from 1861-1865 by Mr. Frederick Jenner', page 20.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 1.

The day after S.S. Great Britain passed between the islands the journal continues: "at 7.30 one of the 3rd class passengers (an old man) had a fit and committed the body to the deep." This page stands out from the previous weeks' wind and weather reports.

I have often wondered how I could imagine the ocean journeys our ancestors took to come to Aotearoa. Reading and transcribing these entries has made me consider how the repetitive days of an Atlantic crossing compare to the repetitive days of transcribing an Atlantic crossing during the Covid-19 lockdown. Frederick was young, in his late teens or early twenties at the most during the journey. I wonder if reading his later, more substantial journal entries will illuminate his character and provide clues as to his reticence in these early entries.

Great Britain was a luxury liner and, when launched in 1843, the largest vessel afloat. It is not too much of a problem then that Frederick doesn't tell us a huge amount about life during this crossing or add much to the collected stories of journeys on-board Great Britain as life on board has been well documented by passengers. Indeed, a book was published about this very journey and a reproduction is available at the Bill Laxon Maritime Library.

Image: Illustration of the S.S. Great Britain in 1853, after her refit to four masts, retrieved from Wikipedia.

I have cheated a little and looked ahead and Jenner does write fuller entries as the voyage goes on. Happily we will be able to add this account to the existing record of the famous ship's voyages across the Atlantic.

I do not know if this task exacerbates the Groundhog Day feeling of the past few weeks or if it provides some perspective on repetitive days. Either way it has provided meaningful work from home and promises to get more and more interesting. In addition to recording his experiences of Aotearoa life in this time the transcription will have value in the names and places he records. This enables others to add to their knowledge of how their tupuna lived here.

Author: Andrew Henry, Heritage Collections


  1. Very interesting article. Please keep us updated on Mr Jenner's adventures as you learn more!


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