JOHN BRABYN MILLS

MARINER AND HARBOURMASTER

 

 John Brabyn MILLS (1810-1877), Sealer, Whaler, Sea Captain and Harbourmaster, the son of Peter Burnet French Mills and Jennyfer Ann Mills née BRABYN, was born at Launceston, Tasmania, Australia on Sunday 9th December 1810 (Tas BDM Reference 1811 V32 208.). He married Mary Ann Daniels at Launceston, Tasmania, Australia on Thursday 6th April 1837 (Tas BDM Reference 1837 V36 2838.), the marriage producing three children: Mary Ann (1838-1839), John Daniels (1839-1902) and Robert Joseph (b.1842). He died at Echuca, Victoria, Australia on Saturday 22nd September 1877 (VIC BDM Reference 1877 7889) and was buried at Echuca, Victoria, Australia on Sunday 23rd September 1877.

Personal History:

     When their mother began a liason with George Tait, the two Mills brothers John and Charles, found themselves in disagreement. Though only young boys, and no longer having the duty to look after their mother, they left home.

     Exactly when this occurred is open to conjecture. It would be before John Mills was 16 as the Mills brothers were thought to have been at Portland Bay in 1826 as part of a sealing party. They were young teenagers at the time so would have not come by themselves. It was very common for ships to take on boys as young as ten, so probably the brothers presented themselves at the Launceston docks and were given jobs. It is fairly certain that they had been at Portland Bay before the whalers came calling in 1828.

     For a while John was employed on the "Maid of the Mill", a small steamer that went up and down the Tamar River carrying flour. He left that job about 1829 and went sealing and whaling aboard the "Henry", in the employment of the partnership of Henry Reed and John Griffith, entrepreneurs of Launceston. This was the start of John Mills' long career at sea.

     The "Henry", of 34 tons, was built by John Griffith at his yards at Launceston in 1827. It spent its days taking parties of sealers and whalers to the various sites where Reed and Griffith had interests, and picking up their product which they often took to Sydney to sell. There was a ready market for seal oil and seal skins in Europe and China. The oil was good for cooking, for lamps and as a general fuel. The fur was greatly prized for its high quality and used for making hats, shawls and other fancy goods. The furs were worth between five and ten shillings each in China, and between twenty-five and thirty shillings in England. Oil was sold for four shillings a gallon or forty pounds a ton. As one adult seal could produce five or six gallons of oil when boiled down, the worth of one animal was up to two pounds tenm shillings. A ship load was worth ten thousand pounds or more in England, a fortune considering how easily they were to

catch.

     The fur seal colonies were to be found on offshore rocky islands in Bass Strait, Kangaroo Island, souther parts of Van Dieman's Land and on the coast of the mainland. The ships would drop men off at these places where seals were plentiful and pick them up with their catch in a few weeks or months. The men would work hard in the meantime, killing as many seals as they could, male, female and pup, usually by clubbing, then skin them and boil the fat in cauldrons to produce the valuable oil which was stored in casks. They would build small temporary huts to live in.

     In November 1831 John Griffith launched his newest ship, the "Elizabeth", also built at his Launceston shipyard. John Mills joined the crew under Captain John Hart (later Premier of South Australia in the 1860s), and sailed with him on many of his trips over the next few years.

     A typical example of one of these trips is the maiden voyage of the "Elizabeth" in December 1831.

     The ship left from Launceston and first called at Portland bay to pick up Dutton's sealing crew and four hundred skins. They then set off for Kangaroo Island, stopping briefly at a rocky island and killing thirty seals. They left one man there with water and provisions to be picked up later.On the northern side of Kangaroo Island they anchored in Nepean Bay and dug up five tons of salt from the salt lagoon. From the islanders Hart purchased one hundred and fifty seal skins and twelve thousand wallaby skins.

     These islanders, eighteen of them at the time, had planted small gardens to supply themselves with potatoes and onions and barley for their poultry. They had with them kidnapped Aboriginal women from the mainland whose jobs were to attend to the wallaby snares, catch fish, go sealing on the nearby rocks and do the domestic work. The ship called at Thistle Island in the Spencer Gulf. Here lived a white man with two Tasmanian wives, a stone house, a good garden, wheat and barley, and pigs, goats and poultry. Al he needed was tea and tobacco. Hart gave him these in return for wallaby skins.

     The "Elizabeth" returned to Launceston in February 1832, having been away for three months. Its cargo was 730 fur seal skins, 10,000 wallaby skins, seven tons of seal oil and 25 tons of salt. Hart and Mills went to Sydney in May that year taking with them the skins and oil and returning with casks of beef and vinegar, a whaleboat, oars and cooper's tools.

     John Mills then went back to the "Henry", skippered by John Jones and took stores for a whaling team that Griffith had left on Kangaroo Island. On their return journey they sailed up the eastern side of St. Vincent's Gulf hunting kangaroos. They found good grass- lands, some rivers and two good harbours, and they landed at a creek which is now Adelaide's Port River. It was Jones' enthusiastic report of their findings that influenced the decision to start a settlement in South Australia.

     In April 1833 Griffith and Reed established a whaling station at Portland under the direction of Captain William Dutton. John and Charles Mills were among the twenty four men who manned the station, the first on the Victorian coast. When the Henty's took up land in that part of Victoria about a year later, they landed at Dutton's wharf. There was no other existing European settlement in Victoria then, only some remains of failed attempts.

     John and Charles Mills had been visiting Portland Bay off and on from 1826, staying for some periods of time sealing. From 1833 they spent a large part of each year there. However, their base and family remained in the Launceston area until about 1840 when they set up permanent home at Port Fairy.

     A whaling station was kept in kept in constant readiness, waiting for a whale to enter the bay. The whaleboats were about thirty feet in length, made of cedar wood, pointed at both ends and low in the middle They held from five to eight oarsmen, a harpooner and a steerer. A rope of two hundred fathoms would be wound carefully around a pole ready for rapid movement. Sometimes it would be pulled out so fast by a fleeing whale that water had to be poured over the woodwork to prevent fire. The crews waited on shore alert and ready till the lookout, with his spyglass, saw the white vapour and foam of a whale spouting and called "Thar she blows!", and the chase would start.

     It was a frantic chase: the whale had to be caught before it got too far out top sea, and the rival whaling gangs had to be beaten. When the whaleboat was close enough the harpooner would take the steersman's place in the front of the boat and hurl the harpoon into the whale's flank. The whale, startled, would sometimes dash wildly across the water, usually diving deep down. The rope would be let out and pulled in as necessary and the struggle was on in earnest to get the boat neer enough to the whale for the steersman, whose privilege it was, to go for the kill with his lance. An unexpected flick of the tail could smash the boat to pieces; someone could become entangled in the rope attached to the harpoon; or the boat could be pulled under the water. The greatest danger was when the whale "raised his red flag", when he spouted blood and entered his death flurry, dashing madly about until he rolled over dead.

     The whale was then towed back to shore, a most arduous task. Sometimes it would sink and the station would have to wait a few days until it started rotting and rose to the surface. A dreadful and stinking job it was then to remove the blubber. On the beach the blubber would be stripped off and put into the trypots for boiling down into oil. The head was kept for the whalebone and the carcass allowed to drift, usually floating ashore.

     One whale could give about five and a half tons of whale oil and half a hundredweight of whalebone.

     When the whaling season ws over each spring, some of the men would stay keeping an eye on the station, repairing any damaged boats or other equipment and planting vegetables and wheat on small plots of cleared land. Those men who were not needed either went back to Launceston or went kangaroo hunting or wattle bark cutting. The Mills brothers often did the latter.

    At the end of the 1834 season, the "Elizabeth" picked up Griffith's whaling team and took it to Westernport, thence to Phillip Island collecting wattle bark. Wattle bark was greatly valued at that time because it had a high tannin content and was used in tanning hides. They found the biggest wattle trees they had ever seen and in a fortnight had obtained such an amount of bark that the ship could hold no more. The "Elizabeth" left for Sydney, leaving John Mills in charge of the men. One morning they were attacked by Aborigines as they slept in their tents. Fortunately for them they had placed bags of flour all around the inside of their tents and these took the force of the spears. They fired upon the Aborigines who quickly disappeared.

     During the 1835 whaling season, John Mills went on a sperm whale voyage off the coast of New Zealand. He was first mate to Captain Alexander Campbell on the vessel "Mars". The weather was very bad and sperm whales scarce, so they sailed into Cloudy Bay on the northern tip of the South Island to catch right whales, which were plentiful. While they were there, one of the whaleboats was lost with all its crew, including the second mate. Mills himself usually took charge of that particular whaleboat, but on that day the second mate had taken his place. It was a lucky escape for Mills.

     In 1836, John Griffith set up a whaling station at Port Fairy and made John Mills his right hand man. The new whaling station was first located on Rabbit Island, but later moved to Griffith Island. It was here the Mills brothers and the other members of the team lived in huts they built in the same place they had their sealing site back in 1826. Later they built houses on the mainland.

     This settlement and the Portland settlement were quite illegal and was strongly disapproved of by the authorities, because there was no way of controlling them. By 1840 there were around 100 people in Port Fairy at the height of the season.

     After the whaling season had finished, John and Charles Mills with two whaleboats went out to recover a whaleboat that had been lost earlier in the year. They found it easily enough, half buried in the sand at the mouth of the Hopkins River. Charles attempted to land his boat against John's advice and it was swamped and capsized. It was very rough and dangerous water. The crew clung onto it as it swirled about in the turbulence of the river entering the sea. John succeeded in manoevering his boat through the mouth, threw a line to the men clinging to the other boat and pulled them to the bank. They saved the boat but most of the equipment and food was lost. It took them four days to repair the damage and salvage what they could of the gear. The sea was still too high to launch the whaleboats when all was made ready, so despite protests from the tired and very hungry men, John decided that they had to pull the boats across the hummocks to the calm water of Lady Bay, where Warnambool now is, two and a half miles away. They then rowed back to Port Fairy against a strong breeze, landing exhausted.

     The sealers who had lost the whaleboat in the first place told John Mills about a wrecked ship they came across in the sand dunes. John and Charles Mills investigated the wreck. John Mills is recorded as saying:

     "I stood on the deck, not knowing what timber she was built of, and tried to cut a splinter out of her timbers, but my clasp knife glanced over them as if they were bars of iron."

     The mysterious ship became known as the Mahogany Ship, and speculation about its origins have fascinated people ever since. Mills himself never lost interest in it. The wreck lay, and still lies, about one hundred yards from the seashore and thirty feet above sea level. It was periodically sighted up until 1880. Drifting sand had covered and uncovered it, though it now appears permanently covered. The timber it was made of was dark and very hard, like mahogany, and the ship was an ancient kind of about 100 tons.

     Both John and Charles Mills spent the 1837 whaling season at Portland; John was in charge of Griffith's station. Late in 1836 John had been given command of the "Thistle", a vessel of 57 tons. Mills carted goods back and forth between the ports of Portland, Port Fairy and Launceston: sheep, cattle, and building materials one way and whale oil and whalebone the other. He brought the first stock to Port Fairy.

     In December 1837 Captain Mills took John Henty to Portland from Launceston, then made his way back to Port Fairy where the crew loaded a cargo of wattle bark. When they were ready to go, a terrible storm was blowing, so the "Thistle" waited at anchor for calmer weather. But on Christmas Eve one anchor chain snapped and the next day the other one went. The ship came crashing ashore and was wrecked. This was the first of many shipwrecks for both Captain Mills and Port Fairy. As there was no other ship in port, they went by whaleboat to Port Phillip, which took them four days, and then they managed to get a ride on a ship leaving for Launceston, so they could report the loss

     Captain Mills spent the seasons of 1838 and 1839 at Port Fairy in charge of the whaling station. Periodically he made trips to Launceston taking goods to and fro. He went whaling at the Schouten Islands off the Tasmanian coast late in 1839. Then for the next few years he was sperm whaling as ship's captain in the Soouth Seas.

     Sperm whailing was quite different than bay whaling. Voyages were long, anything up to four years, and all the work had to be done on board ship as the sperm whales inhabited the deep open waters. The ship's deck held the trypots for boiling down the blubber; they were ugly brick structures comprising two large cauldrons with furnaces below. Sometimes the cauldrons could catch on fire, a very dangerous possibility. There were six or seven row boats on board, which were used for the chase - a far more dangerous chase than that involved with bay whaling for the seas were rougher and the whale, when caught, had to be cut up on board rather than on shore.

     The first of John Mills' voyages was in 1840 in the "Lady Mary Pelham".  For his second he took the barque "David", which was owned by the Henty Company, on a very successful trip. With a full load of oil, Mills was on his way back when disaster struck. Mills was ill and the first mate took over. Off the coast of New Zealand, through a mistake of the first mate's, the ship ran ashore and became a total wreck. The crew carried Mills thrity miles to the nearest settlement and saved his life. The captain, however, had had invested his savings in outfitting the vessel for the journey, and lost it all.

     Not easily put off, after recovering in Launceston, he set out again, this time on the "Lady Rowena". This trip was also ill-fated. After being away for sicteen months, the ship'd planking was found to be so rotten that the ship was condemned and sold in Tahiti. Mills returned to Launceston and resolved to take up no more long voyages.

     In 1843, there was a radical change in Port Fairy, ending one era and opening a new one. There was a very severe economic depression in Australia; right whales were becoming scarce; and the all of Port Fairy and a radius of several square miles around were sold. This alienation of the land and the economic factors caused Griffith to close the whaling station and return to Launceston.

     John Mills was not without employment. Under the direction of the new landowners, the town of Port Fairy became a trading port for the expanding pastoral and agricultural interests in the surrounding area. Captain Mills became master of a trading vessel, the "Essington", and brought his family across to POrt Fairy to live and this town then became his permanent home.

     From 1843 Mills and the "Essington" travelled betwen the ports of Sydney, Launceston, Portland and Port Fairy, carrtying merchandise back and forth and bringing immigrants and stock from Van Dieman's Land to Port Fairy.

     On 3rd May 1852 the "Essington" struck its anchors and sprang a leak. It had to be beached but that failed to save it and both ship and cargo were lost. All on board escaped injury, but Captain Mills was a part owner of the ship and lost heavily. The townspeople of POrt Fairy took up a collection to compensate his bad luck and presented him with 170 pounds. Mills had a letter of thanks published in the "Belfast Gazette" on 11th June 1852. The letter read:

     "Gentlemen, to you who yesterday presented me with a purse containing 170 soverigns and the other subscribers thereto, I beg to tender my most grateful and heartfelt thanks for that substantial proof of your regard.

     "I must frankly own that the knowledge of possessing your esteem and that of my fellow townsmen is very pleasing to me, and although the kindness of your feelings may have found expression in terms of which I do not merit, yet they will be to me an incentive not only to retain the goodwill of those I so much respect, but for greater exertion for their advancement, as far as my humble efforts can, in the community in which my lot has been cast.

     "Your errand was so unexpected that you will readily find excuse for my inability to express to you at the time my sense of the great compliment conferred on me, and I earnestly wish that the joy shed about my hearth, even in greater measure, experienced by each of you.

     "I have the honour to be,

Gentlemen,

Yours very faithfully,

J.B. Mills."

     Mills was appointed to the position of harbourmaster and pilot of Port Fairy in February 1853, and held this job until his retirement in 1871. His salary was 400 pounds per year, and his main duties were to supervise the harbour and safely guide in the many ships which called in those years. In 1853 nineteen foreign ships and fifty six coastal traders entered the port. Port Fairy vied with Portland for being the biggest town in Victoria apart from Melbourne and Geelong; its population was approaching two thousand. The gold rushes added to the traffic, as there was a direct road, rough as it was, to Ararat. Some gold came back through Port Fairy for export.

     In bad weather in July 1866 the "Balmoral" was wrecked. It was loaded, ready and waiting for calmer weather before it set out. Its cables broke and it was driven broadside towards the beach and hit a submerged rock. It rolled and lifted dangerously as Mills and five other men rowed a whaleboat up the river, carried it across the dunes and with great difficulty lauched it through the raging surf. They reached the ship and took off all the crew. Minutes later the ship rolled over and an hour later it was completely broken up.

     The same morning, another disaster occurre. As soon as the men from the "Balmoral" were safely ashore, the "Mary Grant" broke from its moorings and drifted until it grounded. John Mills went out in the same whaleboat to rescue its crew. Landing this time was extraordinarily difficult and took hours because the breakers were so high. Some of the men were standing up to their shoulders in the freezing water with waves breaking over their heads in the effort to beach the boat.

     The "Pearl" went ashore twice, in 1852 and 1854, and was refloated both times. On one of these occasions, John Mills took charge and set off for Sydney with a load of passengers to get the ship repaired. Just out of Port Fairy, a leak was noticed but Mills did not want to turn back, believing that the pumps were capable of handling the problem. The wind was good and the trip was made in record time. This was rather fortunate because just as the last man stepped onto the wharf at Sydney, the "Pearl" sank. It was repaired in Sydney and Mills brought it back to Port Fairy again.

     Captain Mills was enterprising enough to make extra money from his knowledge of seamanship by the salvaging of goods and anchors from Port Fairy Bay. he would watch from his verandah with his spyglass and note exactly where a ship lay when it foundered. Then he would gather his men, row out and collect whatever he could for reward or sale. There were a dozen or so wrecks at Port Fairy in the decades that Mills spent there, and there were many more along the other parts of the western coastline.

     Captain Mills continued living in the house in Gipps Street until his retirement on half pay in 1871. He then went to live with his son John who was manager of the Bank of Victoria at Inglewood and later at Euchuca. Captin John Mills died at Euchuca and is buried there.

Places and Items of Interest:

1. John Mills lived in what is now known as the Mills Cottage at 40 Gipps Street, Port Fairy. It is now classified "A" by the National Trust and is on the Register of Historical Buildings. It is not known exactly when the first part of the Mills Cottage was built; nor is it known who built it or when John and Charles first lived there. Charles' family came to Port Fairy to live in about 1839 or perhaps a little earlier and it is presumed that he built the first part of the cottage then.

     A multitude of building techniques were used in the various stages of the construction of the cottage, and there are a lot of interesting features. More rooms were added as they were needed over a period of twenty years. The iron supports for the front verandah were made in Australia's first foundry by a man named Dawson; only three examples of his work are known to be still surviving. The front section of the house, comprising two rooms, was prefabricated; it is roofed with iron tiles brought from England (subsequently covered by roofing iron). The roof of the rest of the house has wooden shingles. All the windows are of handmade glass; the small window in the pantry is hand painted and one window in the front of the house has John Mills' signature on it, done with a diamond ring.

     The hinges of the the tiny cottage doors are handmade. Many handmade nails can still be seen. the door on the pantry is a ship's cabin door made of very had red-coloured wood. The walls on one of the back rooms were lined with newspaper, beginning with the "Argus" of 29th July 1853 and covered with fifteen alternate layers of different newspapers to 1930. The wall paper in the passage was imported from Germany in about 1853. The chimneys are of sandstone and rubble, mortared by river mus which contains fossils. The kitchen has a sandstone flagged floor.

     After some sections of the cottage had been built, the land became part of John Atkinson's Special Survey, and Charles had to take out a lease on it. This lease was dated Augst 1845 and the rent set at 7 pounds per year for one acre and twelve perches (land for which Atkinson had bought for 1 pound per acre). After John's family came to Port Fairy in 1843, as far as is known both families lived in the cottage, with an Aboriginal maid, until about 1847 when Charles moved to his farm.

     It is open to the public as a museum.

 

2. Inscription on the wall of the Maritime Discovery Centre at Portland, Victoria.

     "But I say this to you all - when I have to leave the whaling scene, through one cause or the other, I will leave the chase and killing of one of God's greatest creatures with relief".

John Brabyn Mills,

Whaler, Portland, 1836

Reference Material:

1. The Mills Brothers of Port Fairy, Alan Broughton, privately published in Melbourne, Victoria in 1980. 

 

2. Tom Browne (who wrote "Robbery Under Arms" under the pseudonym of  Rolf Boldrewood) had a squatters lease near Port Fairy said of  John Mills (in "Old Melbourne Memories"): 

     "Captain John Mills, afterwards Harbour Master at Port Fairy, was the elder of these two brothers, in a way a grand personage, not  quite as tall as his younger brother. He was over six feet tall,  powerfully built, and a very handsome man to boot. There was an  expression of calm courage in and about his face and general being  which always reminded one of a lion. The Mills will always live in  men's minds on the west coast of Victoria, among the heroes of the  storied past." 

 

3. A series of newspaper articles from " The Windsor and Richmond Gazette ", Australia, 13 July to 24 August, 1928. 

 

4. The Australian Biographical Directory, this entry by Clive

Turnbull: 

 

"  Mills, John Brabyn ( 1808-1877 ) and Charles Frederick (1812-1855) whalers and pioneers, were born at the Officers' Quarters, Launceston, sons of Peter Mills; they were baptized by Rev. Robert Knopwood. They lived with their mother on the farm at Norfolk Plains, but early took to the sea. Long before permanent settlements were formed on the southern coasts of the Australian mainland sealing, whaling and kangaroo shooting on the shores and islands had their hey-day; wattle bark stripping began in the 1820's and all these pursuits were very profitable.  The history of these ventures out of Launceston largely depends on tradition orally transmitted or written  down by old men. However, there is enough evidence in reliable shipping and export records to accept the broad outlines of the story, in which the names of the Mills brothers occur frequently with those of others such as Griffiths, Dutton and Wishart, all men of fine physique, high nautical skill and courage, as much respected for their integrity as for deeds of daring. 

 

According to tradition Captain James Wishart sailed the `Fairy' into Port Fairy, Victoria, on 25 April 1810; at some later date he gave his charts to John Mills, who with his brother Charles visited Port Fairy in 1826, and thereafter established shore bases on the southern mainland coast for sealing and whaling.  The degree of permanence of these bases in relation to the well-organized settlement of the Hentys at Portland in 1834 has led to much discussion. Miss Olive Mills, a grand daughter of Charles Mills, claims that ` John and Charles Mills who settled permanently in Victoria in 1826 and remained there until the death of Charles Mills in 1855 and of John Mills in 1877 should have the right of being recognized as Victoria's first settlers '. 

 

N.F. Learmonth, who made an exhaustive examination, summed up that ` it seems almost certain that at least one of the Mills brothers was in Portland Bay as a temporary settler before the arrival of William Dutton ' in 1828. 

 

Captain John Mills, ` sailor, sealer, ship master, pelagic and Port Whaleman, Port Officer, pilot ', after a wide experience in Australian and other waters suffered a financial loss in 1849 by the wreck of the brig ` Essington ' of which he was part owner, and soon afterwards retired from the coastal trade.  In 1853 he was appointed Harbour Master at Belfast ( Port Fairy ) and in 1855 Outport Pilot as well. He retired on a pension in 1871 and died in 1877 at his son's home in Echuca.  Charles Mills also left the sea and lived on his farm at Rosebrook, near Port Fairy, where he died after a sudden illness on 16 November 1855. 

 

*** N.F. Learmonth, The Portland Bay Settlement...1800 to 1851 (Melb, 1934 ); O.M.L. Mills, Why Should Their Honour Fade? (Melb, 1960 ); Mills papers ( ML, la Trobe Library, Melb, and in family possession ). ***" 

 

5. Harpoons to Harvest, The Story of Charles and John Mills, Pioneers of Port Fairy, by Ray Carroll, Warrnambool Institute Press, 1989,  ISBN 0 949 759 10 4. 

 

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