Blenden Hall shipwreck on Inaccessible Island

Senior Conservator Cristina Allbillos joins Dr Kate on ABC radio to discuss an extraordinary item within the State Library collection and its recent conservation – an 1821 account of the Blenden Hall shipwreck at Inaccessible Island in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, roughly between Cape town and Montevideo.

This surprising item is from the private archives of Thomas Lyell Seymour-Symers, who was the Blenden Hall's second mate. Smyers was born in Scotland and entered the East India Company trading between India, China and Australian ports. In 1830 he married Mary Johnson, a Madras banker's daughter. Four years later, he settled in Albany, operating as a merchant. Another four years later, Mary joined him in Albany, and they had nine children together. 

In Albany, he was owner and master of Caledonia (a merchant ship built in 1829), trading between India, China, Mauritius and Australian colonies. Thomas also explored the southern coast of Australia for harbours. He became involved in local affairs and the timber, whaling and copper mining industries. He died in Albany in 1884.

In a notable incident from 1821, the Blenden Hall ship became wrecked at Inaccessible Island. All but two of the 84 passengers survived.

Blenden Hall was reported to have been at Cape Verde on 8 June 1821. As of 1 December, she had not arrived in Bombay, and there had been no further word of her. The lack of news was because on 23 July 1821, in calm but misty conditions, the ship became stuck in thick kelp, which surrounded the islands. The Blenden Hall was swept ashore by a strong current and drifted onto the rocks at Inaccessible Island. Two seamen drowned trying to swim to shore. However, the rest of the crew and passengers made it to shore safely.

Once there, the survivors became marooned for four months, subsisting on birds, bird eggs, wild celery, penguins and seal meat. They lived in terrible conditions- cold, hungry, some naked and without shelter. The next few months illustrated many of the worst aspects of human nature. It was reported that many survivors argued, fought, stole, drank and behaved abominably. Soon realising that they were not going to be rescued, they began to build boats.

On 19 October 1821, six men sailed for Tristan da Cunha on a boat or raft that the survivors had constructed; the party was never heard from again.

The survivors built a second boat, and with three men aboard, they reached Tristan da Cunha on 8 November 1821. Two boats set out from the island and rescued the remainder of the survivors. The population in Tristan was 16. The rescued crew and passengers outnumbered the locals, creating havoc, and supplies became very low.

After two more months, the British ship Nerina called at Tristan da Cunha. On 8 January 1822, she left the island with the survivors (a sailor and a woman servant stayed behind); she deposited them at Cape Town on 20 January. 

This extraordinary handwritten account is available to view through the State Library catalogue.

Recorded live on ABC Radio Perth on 19 August 2022.


Christine: Now this week on History Repeated, you’re going to hear about a ship that was wrecked at a place called Inaccessible Island, also a great name, in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean roughly between Cape Town and Montevideo. A handwritten account of the wreck has recently been found at the WA State Archives and Dr Kate Gregory, Battye Historian is in the studios to tell us about it.

Hello Kate!

Dr KG: Hi Christine.

Christine: And I’ve got Cristina Albillos who is the Senior Conservator at the State Library here to explain the importance of the history. Nice to meet you, Cristina.

CA: Nice to meet you.

Christine: Now if I can ask the story behind your names Kate, how did you get called ‘Kate’?

Dr KG: Yeah, well I don’t know that there really is a story. I think mum and dad liked ‘Katherine’ actually so I’m Katherine…

Christine: [Gasp]

Dr KG: But never been called Katherine always been... I was ‘Katie’ as a little girl and then ‘Kate’ as a grown up. 

Christine: Look at…

Dr KG: But I think, yes I know. I think they just liked it, but I do know that in 1974 there were many other Katherines and Kates and Katies [laughs]. I come across them all the time.

Christine: [Laughs] Look at that, that’s a Battye Historian answer and I love it. 

Cristina, how did you come to have your name?

CA: Well my mum had three names: ‘Cecilia’ was one, ‘Cristina’ and ‘Teresa’.

Christine: [Gasp]

CA: So, in the end she chose Cristina and I’m glad [laughs].

Christine: Why, why?

CA: I don’t know. I guess growing up in Spain in a very Catholic, it seemed, I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t know, I prefer Cristina to Cecilia. I think, it’s so common… they were so common names so, Cristina sort of seemed to stand out.

Christine: And I always gets called ‘Christina’ and that’s what they called me at Greek school because there was no Greek equivalent for Christine so they called me Christina [with Greek accent] and as an eight year old I used to get annoyed but now I understand that it’s just a thing.

Christine: So let’s move onto this shipwreck because wow, what a story!

Now Kate, how surprised were you when you found this handwritten account? Tell us about it.

Dr KG: Well, it was incredibly surprising. It wasn’t me who found it either so really this has come to light through the work of our wonderful conservators Cristina included [giggles] and so that was the first time that I became aware of this and in fact the private archive in which this sits but it’s just incredibly surprising because it’s this 1821 account of the shipwreck of the Blenden Hall which was shipwrecked on Inaccessible Island in 1821 and so there are just so many questions surrounding this document. It’s in, really well, very good condition now. Let Cristina talk about that but it’s this handwritten account that first of all starts off as a narrative and then kind of switches into a diary mode, so sort of date by date, this is what we did this day. But effectively what it is, is it’s an account of how these survivors, managed to survive in a survivor camp on Inaccessible Island for a period of about four months, before they then eventually made it to the closest island Tristan Da Cunha, and they were there for another couple of months before eventually they were rescued finally, and made their way to the Cape of Good Hope. The ship was bound for Bombay and it left from Jamaica, so it was going… this is part of the East India Company so this is the big story of English trade, British trade; the East India Company at this period of time and so it was an East India Company ship making its way to Bombay from Jamaica and it met this ill fate, being blown off course and wrecked through apparently this masses of kelp and seaweed surrounding Inaccessible Island that they’d been warned of. But unfortunately because they were blown off course, they met this ill fate, but they managed to salvage and they in fact they lived off what they could salvage really because a lot was washed to shore. So they managed to… including … and animals swam to shore so there accounts of lots of pigs and a cow actually swimming to shore…

Christine: From the ship?

Dr KG: From the ship, from the ship. Other animals of course perished. But in terms of… there were two deaths. Two deaths. So two of the sailors died but the rest of the passengers and crew made it to the ship… the island and set up this survivor’s camp. They survived on penguins, on penguin’s eggs, on elephant seal, on seals…

Christine: Imagine being the cow and the pig that survived the shipwreck and then you get to the island, and everyone is like ‘yum, yum, yum’ [giggles].

Dr KG: Well, no they kept them. There are several pigs, and they were hopeful that the sow would have piglets so that you know… it really was extraordinary, and they salvaged what they could. It was kind of incredibly blustery cold. They were…

Christine: What kind of conditions? What do we know? 

Dr KG: Well yeah freezing, cold and they were… some of them were without clothes. It was really quite incredible. So this account is extraordinary because it’s an eye-witness view of what they actually did and how they managed to survive and if we get time a little bit later, there are some wonderful passages that I’d love to read from it because it’s just another world. And then… 

Christine: Well tell us what did they say? Yes.

Dr KG: Yes, go there now.

Christine: Yes, I can’t wait.

Dr KG: [Laughs]

Christine: Don’t keep us hanging.

Dr KG: No, no, ok so there are accounts of that the sort of… and this is written in a narrative style of when they actually… you know the great anxiety on the ship as they actually realised that they were in strife and everything and then when they got onto the island… I’ll read you this little passage:

Men, women and children amounting to 50 souls were thus preserved from a watery grave and landed in a most miserable condition; some with clothing, others with scarcely clothed to cover their nakedness and on a desolate island only known as a mark in the middle of the ocean to be shunned by navigators. They were wet and fatigued as we were when we spent a miserable night, nothing for a covering but the canopy of heaven and to increase our wretchedness, the rain fell in very heavy showers. Very few closing their eyes during the night.”

And then the next paragraph goes on to describe how they then, the next morning got up because they didn’t know if it was inhabited this island, were they going to be in danger. So they got up before light and tried to salvage anything they could, and they met… they were pretty lucky because: 

“We’d not proceeded far before we found some bails of sea cloth that we were taking out to the East India Company. This was an unexpected God send and each took it sufficient to making wearing apparel and tents, wrapping ourselves around with some to keep out the intense cold we were suffering. Proceeding further on our journey, we picked up a few cheeses, bottled pickles, and hams with which some of us sat down and made a not very comfortable but a hearty meal after which we commenced our journey.

And then they found some gin and brandy and they…

Christine: [Loudly] Hey, there you go! [laughs]

Dr KG: [Laughs] But look, honestly it’s just there are so many fascinating passages. There’s… a little later on… I can’t resist this because it is just so incredible.

Christine: Tell me!

Dr KG: So this is a little later on and this is when he goes into diary form. 

“So Monday 20 August, a letter was written with penguin’s blood and put into a bottle, erected a flag staff at the North East part of the island and hoisted a white flag made of muslin in hopes of attracting any ship passing by.”

So it’s just…it gives you a sense of desperation.

Christine: Things are taking a turn. Yes.

Dr KG: They really… and they were there for several months and then it wasn’t until the carpenter managed to construct from the wood that had washed up, a decent canoe and they eventually made a small party made their way to the closest island Tristan da Cunha. That was mind you barely inhabited. There was something like less than 20 people who actually lived on that island.

Christine: I was going to ask.

Dr KG: Yes.

Christine: 20 minutes past 2.

CA: Christine, one woman.

Christine: Oh, really? Was her name Christine? [laughs]

Dr KG: [Laughs]

Christine: Is that what I heard? No [Laughs]. It wasn’t, it wasn’t, no [laughs]. 20 minutes past 2, this is History Repeated. We’re talking about this ship that was wrecked at a place called Inaccessible Island and this incredible account from 1821.

Now I’m watching you read it from… is that the original document?

Dr KG: No, no, no.

CA: This has been transcribed.

Dr KG: This is a typed script. So the original is very carefully…

Christine: I was going to say… they didn’t have a typewriter back then.

Dr KG: Right now in the conservation lab. I looked at it this morning with Cristina. It was very exciting to see the original handwritten.

Christine: Yes, tell us Cristina what’s it like?

CA: Well, when it came into the lab, it was not in good condition. So I think it was probably part of a larger volume and it was extrapolated. The cover was not original and quite highly acidic, brittle and not of good quality really and the binding that it had, it’s new acquired binding, which I can’t date at all, was sort of falling apart and it had created tears along the pages horizontally. So yes, it was five bifolios, two single sheets written hand, in ink.

Christine: What do you do with that? How do you…

CA: Well, full of sticky tape.

Christine: [Surprised] Oh, sticky tape?

CA: Conservator’s worst nightmare.

Christine: Oh no. Why?

CA: Because of the residue it leaves, and it stains the pages and it actually leaves a lot of marks and the paper becomes very brittle and it breaks in those areas so it tends to degrade quite quickly.

Christine: Yes, so what can you do with that, as a conservator?

CA: Well you can do a lot of things, but what we did in this case was we dry-cleaned it, so that means using very soft rubbers and taking all the dirt, surface dirt away from it. I removed the binding and the covers and then removed the residue from the tape, with acetone for example. And then repair it with Japanese tissues and specific glues that… everything can… needs to be something that you can take off again without damaging. So everything has to be redoable.

Christine: I couldn’t do your job just quietly. You’re very patient Cristina [laughs]. I’d be like, “This is too hard.”

So let’s talk more about Thomas Myers. Is that… how do you say… 

CA: I do have something that was really, really interesting… I am going to interrupt.

Christine: Please. Yes. 

Dr KG: Go ahead. 

Christine: No, please keep…yes. 

CA: This is…So because of the paper, it had a water mark that I was really, really curious about and when I went and did a Google search, I found out that it came from Sunridge Mill in  Kent and it was the civil mot 1821 coat of arms and the paper was produced in 1821. So, the mill operated until 1901 and then it was pulled down in 1969 and we know that this mill produced paper for the Bank of England and the Shelley family papers, held at the Bodleian Library, also contained hundreds of documents that used the same paper from the same mill from the same year.

Christine: That’s a blessing right, from your point of view? [Laughs] Kate your face is lit up.

Dr KG: So, so I think the… it’s now, it’s a piece of detective work. It’s now like trying to understand… putting all of these little pieces together so from the conservation perspective it’s looking really close detail what the paper, when the paper was produced, what this watermark suggests. 

Christine: Wow. So tell me…

Dr KG: From my perspective it’s also situating it within this private archive, so it’s found within the Thomas Lyell Seymour-Symers private archive held within the State Library. There was a section of that archive donated in 1952, a later portion donated in the seventies and so it’s now trying to understand how… who the author is. We don’t even know who the author is. So it isn’t… it isn’t Thomas Lyell Seymour-Symers, so Symers later ended up… he was on the ship. So he was the second mate on the ship. His brother George was a surgeon. There were several surgeons on the ship.

Christine: Handy.

Dr KG: So the two Symers brothers were on the Blenden Hall and experienced the wreck and everything, but I don’t think that this account that we have was written by either of them.

Christine: So… ok.

Dr KG: So, yes. We’re trying to piece it together because…

Christine: We’ve only got a few minutes left…

Dr KG: Ok.

Christine: So he ended up working in Albany?

Dr KG: Yes, so he settled in Albany. So he went on. He was a sort of merchant shipping involved with the East India Company. He married a woman by the name of Mary Johnstone, a Madras banker’s daughter in 1830. Four years later he settled in Albany. This is really early on in Albany settlement. Albany was kind of military Garison, settled founded in 1826, before the Swan River colony and… so he settled in Albany and then another four years later Mary joined him. They had nine children and Thomas was very involved in local affairs and in the timber, whaling and copper mining industries and he died in Albany in 1884. This private archive includes all sorts of documentation. It’s a fascinating archive relating to his maritime and merchant kind of business activities at this very early period. So he had a ship called the Caledonia that he… it was a trading ship and so we’ve got all sorts of records from this ship as well. So it’s just… it’s just showing a really fascinating connected history that Western Australia was not necessarily this very remote outpost that you think of in some ways. It was linked through this maritime network, these kind of shipping stories and maritime stories.

Christine: And you’re still uncovering a lot of this story.

Dr KG: This is totally in process, yep, absolutely research on the fly [laughs].

Christine: Have you spoken to Malcolm Trail from the museum?

Dr KG: I’ve got to speak to Malcolm.

Christine: Yes, and Vernice Gillis from the museum at the Great Southern.

Dr KG: I will get on to Malcolm [laughs].

Christine: Yes, because I feel like he’d be yelling at the radio right now.

Dr KG: [Laughs] I feel he’d be as well. Yes, I know so I’ll get on to Malcolm and see what he can share, but I think this kind of discovery is really nice given that in 2026 Albany is going to be starting to look at the bicentenary of its settlement and then of course 2029 we’ll be doing the same… you know, Swan River. So really interesting to find these early documents and see what this primary evidence… how it can shed new light and new understandings on what the experience was like.

Christine: If anyone is listening right now and they know anything about Thomas Symers is how you spell it?

Dr KG: That’s right Symers. Thomas Lyell Symers.

Christine: Sorry about that…yes. Different…yes Symers. S-Y-M-E-R-S.

Dr KG: That’s right there well may be descendants of that family still in Western Australia and possibly living in Albany but I think that the detective work around understanding the significance of this account that we’ve found is just going to be fascinating. So I will keep you up to date.

Christine: Yes, I’m so glad you came in to tell us about it. I think it’s really interesting the Blenden Hall ship and the wreck on Inaccessible Island. 

Do we know how it got that name by the way? Inaccessible Island. That’s.. I mean… is it a challenge? Did they just not want people to go there I wonder?

CA: It was inaccessible.

Dr KG: It’s extremely inaccessible. It’s… yes.

Christine: Well they managed to get there eventually, didn’t they but they had to wreck a ship.

Dr KG: But apparently, it’s actually… there are a lot of wrecks there. So it’s inaccessible but it’s renowned as a shipwreck [laughs].

Christine: [Laughs] Ok. Fair enough.

Dr KG: Much like the West Coast of Western Australia by the Dutch.

Christine: Consider yourself schooled. Look at that. Woah.

It was really nice to meet you, Cristina. Thank you for coming in and for all of your work.

CA: Thank you.

Dr KG: I just want to also suggest… just to let everybody know that it’s also just been digitised. So if people are interested they can have a look at the State Library catalogue and actually have a look and try and… the handwriting is difficult to read. We do have a transcript and I will try and get that digitised on and online pretty soon, as well, but it is just fascinating.

Christine: What do you look up?

Dr KG: You can look up ‘Blenden Hall’ spelt Blenden Hall with two E’s not…

CA: Yes.

Christine: Ah, is it?

CA: Yes.

Christine: So it’s B-L-E-E-N-D-O-N?

CA: No.

Christine: Ah, B-L-E-N-D-E-N.

Dr KG: Blenden Hall. But I will put a link on our website, when we put the radio interview up and people will be able to click straight through to it to make it a bit easier.

Christine: Lucky there’s three of us [laughs] because I’m pretty useless on a Friday afternoon.

Thank you both for coming in.

Dr KG: Thank you.

Christine: That was highly educational, very enjoyable and I’m sure we’ll see you again soon.

CA: Thank you.

Dr KG: Thank you.

Christine: Dr Kate Gregory, Battye Historian and Cristina Allbillos who is a Senior Conservator at the State Library. So that is the Blenden Hall shipwreck. 

If you want to go and look it up, if you have any ties to Thomas Symers, S-Y-M-E-R-S, please get in contact and we’ll pass you through to Kate. 0437 922 720.