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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 8 (November 2, 1936)

Famous New Zealanders — No. 44 Captain M. T. Clayton, A Great Sailor, And An Artist Of The Sea

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Famous New Zealanders
No. 44 Captain M. T. Clayton, A Great Sailor, And An Artist Of The Sea.

The subject of this sketch, the late Captain Matthew T. Clayton, of Auckland, was a truly great man in his profession, a Master of sea-craft in the era when canvas was in its glory, and a master also of the artist's pencil and brush. He was a product of the age when “the sailor of the sail” was at the zenith of his calling. He sailed in the old East Indiamen and raced in China tea-clippers; he commanded one of the most famous of the Blackwall line ships which traded between the colonies and London in the days of the great gold rushes. He will be remembered by many in the maritime world as the perfect type of a British sailor and skilled navigator; but it is as an artist of the sea and ships that he will be known by most people, and the maritime paintings to which he devoted himself during his later years are his enduring memorial. Good marine artists are rare; and in a maritime country like New Zealand, whose life depends on sea communications, the Clayton pictures are of special value and interest. Those which illustrate this article are selected from many of historical importance and technical accuracy, representing vanished ships, painted by a man who knew the ocean and who had seen much of adventure in vanished phases of sea-life.

Captain Matthew T. Clayton.

Captain Matthew T. Clayton.

Captain Matthew Clayton was a man of the Sussex coast. He was born in 1831, and in his thirteenth year he went to sea as an apprentice in one of the old wooden ships that “iron men” sailed in the seven seas. A sturdy, cheerful lad, he carried that sturdy happy impress through a long life. In his eighties, painting away in his little farm-home at Manurewa, in South Auckland, he was the most cheery of veterans who had used the sea. He saw every kind of sea-trade; he had trafficked in every ocean; he first saw New Zealand waters in 1846; he traded for sandalwood in the Western Pacific; he loaded his guns for defence against pirates in China and Malay seas. After he left the sea, he was Surveyor for Lloyds in Auckland for many a year, and it was then that I came to know him and to appreciate his splendid worth as a man, and a wise mentor in all manner of maritime lore.

In Wellington Ninety Years Ago.

Clayton's earliest adventurous years were those which he spent as apprentice in two old-time barques, the London and the Statesman. In the former vessel he was in Wellington harbour away back in 1846; he described a stormy midnight when he helped to send down the fore and main-topgallant-masts and yards, “black as pitch and blowing hard,” he said, “we were lying off Pipitea Point, and we were nearly driven on shore that night.” A little later he was in the barque Statesman out of Sydney, trading in the New Hebrides and New Caledonia for sandalwood; a risky trade, for all those black islands were cannibal then. Then a life all-around the world, but always under the old Red Ensign.

In a Blackwall Liner.

In 1856 Matthew Clayton, now a chief mate, entered the service of one of the finest sailing passenger lines that kept the seas, the Money Wigram fleet. Those were the days when builder vied with builder in producing sailing-ships of great beauty and speed, and fitted up for cabin passengers in a style that was comparatively luxurious. He signed on as chief officer of the ship Kent, a “Blackwall Liner,” after an interview with the famous old shipowner, who was the chief partner in the firm of Wigram and Sons. This firm owned besides the Kent a splendid fleet of passenger ships of the highest class, most of them named after English counties, such as the Norfolk, the Suffolk, the Essex, the Yorkshire; another of the fleet was the True Briton. The Kent was his floating home for seven years, for the latter half of this period he was in command. She was frigate-built; she was described as a semi-clipper. Though not regarded as a flyer, she nevertheless beat some of the tea-clippers under certain conditions of weather, as will be seen later on. She carried the old-style single, or whole, topsails, huge expanses of canvas with four rows of reef-points. In all detail of rig she exactly resembled a frigate. All the rigging when Clayton joined her was of hemp; wire rigging only came in after he had made two or three voyages. Her masts were of the best Norway pine; all her yards were banded with iron every three feet. An Ai specimen of maritime workmanship was the Kent. She was considered one of the finest ships trading out of the port of London in her day.

The Sailors of the “Kent.”

The crew of this good vessel matched the ship. There was no niggardly skimping of expenditure on crews in those palmy days of sail. The fo'c's'l was filled with prime British seamen, “every finger a fish-hook,” as the old saying is; when topsails had to be reefed there were enough men to reef all three sails at once. On one voyage Captain Clayton had a crew numbering fifty-eight, including eight or nine midshipmen. Besides the boatswain, there were two boatswain's mates, each, like their chief, carrying whistles or pipes page 18 page 19
(From a painting by Captain Clayton.) An ocean race. The “Kent” passing the “Owen Glendower” in the Southern Ocean, 1861.

(From a painting by Captain Clayton.)
An ocean race. The “Kent” passing the “Owen Glendower” in the Southern Ocean, 1861.

slung on a ribbon or cord round their necks as their badges of office; and then there was the fiddler. The Kent never went to sea without signing on a fiddler as one of her crew. His regular duties were to furnish the music for the crew when they were engaged on work at the halliards or braces, or any other of the thousand tasks which was lightened by sea-melody. There were no “chanteys” on board the Kent; the usual merchant sailors' choruses were forbidden—Royal Navy style—and the fiddler, perched on the booms or the forecastle-head, supplied music to take the chantey's place.

The boatswain was an important man. He was always styled “Mister” on these ships. The Kent's bos'n in Captain Clayton's time was Mr. Walker, a tall broad, dark-complexioned man of some forty years, a powerful fellow and a thorough sailor. The boatswain's pipe was a familiar sound on board ship in those days. A great deal of work was done to the silver piping of the bo's'n or his mates—Navy fashion again—instead of to wild songs from sea-roughened throats. Captain Brine—appropriate name that for a sailor—was the commander of the Kent when Mr. Clayton joined her. Captain Brine! It has as salty a flavour as any sea-novelist or sea-song-writer could wish for. As fitting a name as old Captain Stormalong of the sailor chanties, or as that grand old sea-name, Tom Bowling.

Mr. Clayton succeeded Capt. Brine as commander, and was in charge of the Kent until the end of 1863.

The Kent, though loftily sparred, carried nothing above royals; but she had a full set of studding sails—stu'n's'ls Merchant Jack calls them—to spread on each side of her like huge wings; lower and topmast and topgallant studding-sails, and many a brisk tussle the rigging-out and in of the stu'n's'l booms and the setting of these auxiliary sails gave the sailormen of the Fifties and Sixties. By the Seventies stu'n's'ls were going out of date, and now they have vanished altogether.

As to arms, the Kent did not require the rather formidable armament of carronades and small arms carried by ships in the China trade, for fear of pirates. She had a couple of saluting guns on deck, and had a dozen or so of muskets and cutlasses in the cabin.

The Treasure Ship.

The Kent would have been a rich prize for an enterprising pirate had any of those gentry been cruising the Southern Ocean. She was regularly engaged in the highly profitable trade between London and Melbourne in the great gold rush days of Victoria, and on every trip she carried gold to England. On one voyage Captain Clayton had nearly half-a-million in gold bars on board. It was stowed beneath his cabin, in the run, in a specially constructed gold room. This sea-safe was locked and the deck-hatch caulked
(From a painting by Captain Clayton.) The ship “Kent” clearing the icebergs in 56 degrees south latitude.

(From a painting by Captain Clayton.)
The ship “Kent” clearing the icebergs in 56 degrees south latitude.

down until London docks were reached; then the gold was taken up to the bank in waggons, under armed escort. Besides these shipments, the passengers carried a good deal of gold themselves; many of them were lucky diggers returning to their homes.

The American cruisers had their eyes on that treasure-lading of the Kent on one historic occasion, just after the Civil War began. It was in 1861, when the Trent affair nearly brought Britain to war with the United States. The U.S. Government had a warship cruising at the mouth of the English Channel to intercept the Kent or any other gold-ship from Australia in the event of war being declared. This Captain Clayton learned from his owner when he reached London.

On a voyage to London from Melbourne in 1862, Clayton had 270 passengers; the crew numbered 50. The ship carried about £400,000 worth of gold. She was too deeply laden for safety, and shortly before a hurricane struck the ship off Cape Horn the Captain decided to jettison some of the cargo. The falling glass gave him warning. “I knew,” Clayton told me, in narrating the events of that voyage, “that if the gale struck us we would be gone unless I lightened the ship.” He jettisoned about £4,000 worth of cargo, and then in the height of the hurricane sperm-oil was continuously poured on the sea. The captain's act of judgment in sacrificing cargo undoubtedly saved the ship and her precious freighting of lives and treasure.

How the “Kent” Beat the Tea-Clippers.

One of Captain Clayton's paintings depicts an ocean race in which the Kent overtook and passed the Owen Glendower, a ship which brought troops to New Zealand in the war days. This is a story of an even more exciting race.

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Early one calm morning in 1862, when the Kent was one degree north of the Equator, London-bound from Melbourne, young Captain Clayton found himself in company with four China tea-clippers. Those were the days when enormous interest centred in the annual races homeward from China with the first of the season's teas, and only the fastest sailers were employed in the trade. They carried immense spreads of sail, and cracked on tremendously under studding-sails and all sorts of extra wind-savers, from “Jamie Greens” to ringtails and water-sails. The four tea-carriers lay there almost motionless, heading all ways, a mile to a mile-and-a-half from the Kent, and piled to the trucks with sail. Captain Clayton spoke them. Two of them, the barque Robin Hood and ship Falcon, were bound to London; the other two, the Ellen Rogers and Queensborough, were for Liverpool. There was a big bonus on the cargo of whichever got into port first.

The commander of the Robin Hood requested Captain Clayton to keep in company with him, as his vessel had something the matter with her rudder-head. The Kent's captain promised to do so if he could. About an hour later the light N.E. trades sprang up, and all five vessels trimmed their sails for a race. The Robin Hood and the Kent kept company with each other for about two days; the others left them behind. Then the wind increased in strength and the Robin Hood ran away from the more heavily-built Blackwall liner.

The Kent saw no more of the clippers all that race up to English soundings. It was an exciting time on board, nevertheless, for Captain Clayton was determined to keep his ship up as close to the clippers as possible, though he had very little hope of beating any of them. He got very little sleep for the rest of the passage; he was constantly on the watch, taking the utmost advantage of all the winds that blew and keeping his ship crowded with canvas.

“At last,” Clayton told me, in his brisk, animated way, “we got up to the mouth of the English Channel. Not seeing anything of the tea-clippers I made for the Eddystone Light and hove-to to report. I had printed forms on board, in which there was a space to enter any ships I spoke. I had one of these forms already filled up with particulars of the four ships. As I hove-to I signalled for a pilot, and the pilot who usually took my ship into Plymouth came alongside. I gave him my report and a present of rum and tobacco, and made him promise to take my report on shore immediately. Off he went, and I at once made sail again and went up the Channel with a fair wind, studding-sails set.

“By next morning I was off the Dungeness light. It was a cloudy morning. All of a sudden the clouds cleared a bit, and looking astern I saw two big square-riggers coming up after me, crowded with sail. I was the first to see them.

“ ‘Here come the two tea-clippers!’ I said to my chief officer, who was standing near me on the poop. ‘Signal for a steamer!’

“We were then about five miles off the Ness. Up went the flags for a steamer, and one soon appeared, making for us. The tea-ships were now four or five miles behind us, I had every possible stitch of sail set, with three stu'n' sails on each side, the wind right aft. The decks were crowded with excited passengers, and there were any number of bets on. The crew cheered when they saw the steamer coming.

(From a painting by Captain Clayton.) Abel Tasman's “Heemskirk,” off the Three Kings, New Zealand, 1642.

(From a painting by Captain Clayton.)
Abel Tasman's “Heemskirk,” off the Three Kings, New Zealand, 1642.

“As soon as the steamer was alongside, I told the chief officer to run the stu'n' sails in. The crew had them in in about five minutes. It was the sort of work to thrill a sailor. Directly we got the stu'n' sails in, the steamer took hold of us. Looking astern, I saw the two clippers taking in their wings, too, and signalling.

“ ‘Hoist a signal for another steamer,’ I said to the chief officer. In a few minutes another steamer was alongside us. Up-Channel we went with a steamer on each bow.

“ ‘Take in all sail,’ was my next order. The crew were aloft in a jiffy, and in came all our canvas. After we got through the Downs we unbent every sail, sent the stu'n' sail-booms and royal-yards down, and made the ship snug for dock. The end of it was that we steamed up into the East India Docks just half-an-hour ahead of the Robin Hood; the Falcon was the other clipper, close behind the Robin Hood page 22 page 23
(From a painting by Captain Clayton.) H.M.S. “Calliope” in the hurricane, Apia, 1889.

(From a painting by Captain Clayton.)
H.M.S. “Calliope” in the hurricane, Apia, 1889.

again. The passengers and crew all cheered as we got in, and won the race. It was a very close go, especially so because we had not seen the other ships for about twenty-seven days until we met in the Channel.

“The Kent's feat was the talk of the city. My report, sent ashore by the pilot, was the first news of the four tea-clippers that reached the London Exchange, where there was great interest in the race, and there was much surprise at the fact of us beating the fast ships. My owner introduced me to Duncan Dunbar, the great shipowner. Mr. Dunbar looked me up and down; I daresay he thought ‘What a boy to go and beat the China clippers’!”

“Packet cigarettes?” said the tobacconist to a customer, “bit of a back number! Why worry with them when you can roll your own and save money?” “But can you save money?” queried the customer. “Sure thing,” replied the smoke merchant. “Why I can tell you how to make ten beautiful full-size cigarettes for 4d.!—and one of ‘em's worth a trunkful of ready-mades, which are often dry as a chip and flavourless through being kept too long in stock, whereas roll your own and you're always sure of a sweet, moist, and fragrant smoke. I roll all mine.” “What brand d'ye use?” asked the customer. “Riverhead Gold, the finest toasted cigarette tobacco manufactured, bar none. And you can smoke all you want of toasted, mind you. Next to no nicotine in it. Toasting does that. Other toasted brands? Yes, there are four—Desert Gold (another splendid cigarette blend), Cavendish, Cut Plug No. 10 (Bulls-head), and Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog). These are the only genuine toasted tobaccos.” (Here a tin of Riverhead changes hands.)*

Stories and Pictures.

In telling such reminiscences the jolly old seaman lived the best years of his life again. He told of thrilling and perilous days, ice-beset, in the Southern Ocean. One of his oil-paintings reproduced in this article shows his old ship, hard-driven running clear of the icebergs in 56 south latitude and 153 west longitude, far down in the Southern Ocean between New Zealand and Cape Horn. His painting of H.M.S. Calliope steaming out of Apia harbour in the great hurricane of 1889, is the only adequate picture of that great event that I have seen. He was always careful to obtain accurate data for his paintings. He was a seaman and an artist to the end. When last I called on him, at his little Manurewa farm homestead, he was still busy in his studio. That was in 1919, and he was eighty-eight. “My boy,” he said, “my hand is getting shaky and so are my legs, but my nerve is as good as ever. I could take a ship round the world today if my legs would only hold out.”

The brave old sailor left scores of paintings, historical and dramatic, which always found buyers. It is a pity, the thought came after going through Wellington's new Art Gallery lately, that there is such a complete lack of marine paintings there. I should like to see a Clayton or two. We could do without many of the others.

Fifty Years Ago.

It will be 50 years this month (November), since the Manawatu Railway was opened to Palmerston North. I hope you will announce that in your valuable journal for November. When the train arrived at Otaki, about 100 Maoris stood in front of the engine and said the train would go no further, as they had not been paid in full for their land, by the Company.

The late Bishop O. Hadfield, who was a guest on the train, spoke to the natives in Maori, and told them they would get paid.

There was only one house in Crofton then, and five people in Khandallah.—Major Andrew, who gave the name to the place (taken from Khandallah in India), Bob Hannah, Hobbs (dairyman), Harnett (dairyman), and a man employed on the road.

In 1884, there were only ten residents in Paekakariki, viz., Lynch (2), Mackay's (3), Tilley (hotel), Cameron, Ostler, the policeman, and Old Mag and her husband (an old whaler).

All to be found from Manakau to Long-burn were mosquitoes, sand flies and bush.


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