Finding Family

One woman's obsession with family history.

Don’t bring bananas on a boat. Don’t whistle on board or you might “whistle up a storm”. Don’t say goodbye. Or mention drownings. Or say good luck. Don’t sail on Fridays, or Thursdays, or the first Monday in April or the second Monday in August. Don’t change the name of the ship. And always, always, pay your debts.

It seems like a lot to remember. But any sailor worth his salt would know them all and I’m sure Hugh James Theakston was no exception. He’d been sailing on the open seas since the age of 20 and throughout the years had achieved his Certificates of Competency as Second Mate, First Mate and then as Master Ordinary. When he was given the title of Captain of the steam ship ‘Dolphin’ in March 1888 he’d been working on ships (in the UK and South Australia) for about 25 years.

The appointment initially started off quite well. Hugh relocated from South Australia to Fremantle and made his first trip from Port Adelaide on Tuesday, 28 February. He arrived in Fremantle just under a week later on 6 March.

Dolphin 6 March

Owned by Messrs Symon, Hammond and Hubble, the 147 ton steamer was known for its speed and could travel up to 11 knots per hour. Hugh himself was also well-known in Fremantle (having travelled back and forth from South Australia throughout a number of years) and The Daily News reported that “he has always been remarked for the attention he has devoted to his owners, as well as to consignees, and in selecting him as master of the steamer Dolphin Messrs. Symond, Hammond and Hubble have no doubt fully realised the value of his services.

Four days later the owners conducted a clever little marketing event to help promote their new venture. They invited “representatives of almost every branch of commerce” as well as a number of leading newspaper reporters for a fishing excursion on board the Dolphin. It appears to have gone off without a hitch. Having left the south jetty at 11am with Captain Theakston at the helm, they headed out to Five Fathom Bank for a spot of fishing.


Dr Barnett gave the toast of “Success to the Dolphin and prosperity to her owners” and, in a nod to the owners’ initials (S H H) declared that they should have “Success, Health and Happiness” which was received by those on board most enthusiastically.

With the marketing out of the way, it was down to business. Over the next eight months, Hugh sailed the Dolphin up and down the Western Australian coastline. Several ‘pleasure trips’ much like the initial fishing excursion were also organised.

Pleasure Excursion

Whether the Dolphin was making the owners money and was successful during this time period is unknown. Any financial difficulties or minor cases of ‘bad luck’ wouldn’t be reported in the newspapers. It wasn’t until a serious event occurred that the steamer would make the news. Sadly, this event was the death of the fireman, John Hammond (it is not known if he was related to the owner, Mr Hammond).

On Saturday, 17 November 1888, Hugh and John Hammond were on board the Dolphin which was anchored alongside the Redemptora for the purpose of taking on empty water tanks. They had taken on two already and were in the process of unloading the third when disaster struck. In Hugh’s words:

…Hammond and I were standing on the after part of the hatchway. I afterwards got under the tank, and as we were lowering it into the hatch the hook of the block, suspended to the main-yard of the Redemptora, carried away. Hearing something had carried away, Hammond went a step or two aft and the block struck him on the head and knocked him down; he never moved again.

The force with which the block hit Mr Hammond was so strong it resulted in severe damage to his skull. According to Dr Hope who was first to examine him, death was instantaneous. A Coroner’s Inquest was held three days later and the jury gave the verdict that John Hammond’s death was a result of the block striking him on the head. They further stated that while they felt that the gear used was inadequate, no blame could be attributed to any person.

After a tragedy of this kind you would be forgiven for thinking that the Dolphin was a jinxed steam ship. And if you didn’t, the next event would certainly change your mind.

A week after the death of Mr Hammond, at about 9pm on Saturday, 24 November, the Dolphin was moored some distance away from the pier in Fremantle when Police Constable Gee noticed that there were sparks and flames coming from the vessel. It was on fire.

PC Gee immediately left and informed Mr Hammond and another man, Mr Bingay, volunteered to find Hugh and advise him of the escalating drama. In less than 15 minutes they were all back at the pier and Hugh, Mr Bingay and PC Hopkins of the Water Police (who had joined the party) set off in a boat towards the ship. Back on land, PC Gee alerted the neighbourhood by “vigorously blowing his whistle“.

After hearing the whistle (and perhaps seeing the fire for themselves) members of the public prepared their boats and headed out towards the Dolphin. While many people did so with the intention of helping to extinguish the fire, there were quite a few people who were more interested in having a sticky beak.

The night was as black as ink, dark clouds floated across the sky, and it was an exceedingly difficult matter to navigate a small boat amongst such a crowd. On nearing the steamer, however, it was found that the flames were towering above the funnel, and this acted as a brilliant illumination of the surrounding vessels. On every side were seen the small dingies, crowded with persons whose faces were lit up by the flames from the steamer, while near were larger crafts with their compeiment of spectators.

As Hugh, Mr Bingay and PC Hopkins reached halfway it seems they began to realise that the situation was dire and, from out on the water, they signalled to Mr Hammond that he should obtain additional help.

Reaching the Vessel

The fire alarm in Fremantle was raised and Messrs Hall, Gardey, Captain Newbold and 15 additional volunteers all quickly made their way to the jetty with the fire engine.


The Fremantle Fire Brigade in 1886

At hearing the sound of the fire alarm the people within the town of Fremantle entered into a heightened state of excitement. Residents poured out of their houses and headed straight to the jetty in order to view the commotion.

…an excited mob of men, women and children flocked down the jetty, yelling and shouting and tumbling over one another in their mad excitement to get near the scene of the conflagration…

The firemen arrived and waited a while on the jetty. News was received that the Dolphin may need to be scuttled and, being unable to do anything from their present situation, they returned to the station. Those attempting to fight the fire by way of buckets and pumps soon managed to get it under control but a broken pump resulted in the flames reigniting. Desperate, and wishing to save the Dolphin, the ship ‘Rescue’ (a rather fitting name) took control of her and towed her towards the jetty. The fire alarm was again sounded and at about 11:45pm (having once again responded to the call for help) the Fremantle Fire Brigade took their place on the jetty ready to take action as soon as the steamer came alongside it.

Capt. Theakston immediately informed Capt. Newbold where the seat of the fire was and holes were cut through the deck, and for two hours fifty men were on the engine pumping, assisted by quite an army of buckets which, continued to pour water on the burning vessel till 1:45am, when the fire was declared to have been extinguished.

The fire had originated in the stoke hole and ignited from embers which weren’t completely extinguished when the crew left the ship. While the Dolphin was still salvageable, she had, nevertheless, suffered extensive damage. The decks and windows were destroyed as well as the lining and several planks on her port side. The wooden part of the engine room was partly destroyed and some of the iron (the ship was composite built – wooden planks on a metal frame) was twisted by the heat. Interestingly, The Daily News made mention that the clock in the engine room had its face burnt off and had stopped at 9:15pm. The fire had raged for over four hours.

While initially Hugh was praised in the papers for being one of the first on board and for working tirelessly to save the Dolphin, those conducting the Enquiry (held a few days later in the Fremantle Court) reached a different view.

…we consider that H. J. Theakston, master of the said steamer Dolphin, is highly to blame for leaving his vessel without an anchor-watch or seeing that the men did return to the ship at the time ordered, viz., 9 p.m.

He wasn’t jailed or fined but it was still terribly embarrassing. He also faced the prospect of being unemployed throughout the time it took to repair the Dolphin. This, however, did not take long.

By late January 1889, The West Australian reported that the Dolphin’s repairs had finally been completed and the steamer would soon return to active service with the first trip being an excursion to Rockingham.



Hugh is not listed as the Captain but as he shows up in the shipping lists in March 1889 and Captained the ship for another excursion (this time to Penguin Island) later that month, we can assume he still had his job. After April 1889, his connection with the Dolphin ceased.

His time as Master of the Dolphin had lasted a little over year and throughout that time two rather serious events occurred within the space of a week. It was not the best start to his time in Western Australia. Nevertheless, Hugh went on to Captain many other ships throughout the 1890s until 1902 when he tragically went down with the lugger ‘Katiga’ off the coast of Broome. The Dolphin, on the other hand, received a new Captain appointed by Symon, Hammond and Hubble and, by all appearances, continued to sail throughout the 1890s without great incident.

It seems I may have been more than a little unfair in declaring the Dolphin to be unlucky. Perhaps the bad luck she endured was not of her own making but had stemmed from Hugh himself. Or, perhaps there was more to the story than what meets the eye. I’ll leave you with the words of John Kerr, a witness who spied that something was amiss much earlier than when the alarm was raised at 9pm.

…I saw the Dolphin on fire – about 6 o’clock… Other men said they saw fire. There were others present who said they could see a man on deck, and disputed that the vessel was on fire.


2 thoughts on “The Unlucky Dolphin

  1. Denise Lopes says:

    Hugh’s daughter Hilda Theakston is my great great grandmother

    1. Jess says:

      Lovely to hear from you, Denise. My Great Great Grandmother was Edith Theakston, Hilda’s sister.

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