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Saturday, 5 February 2011


Another Austin Cooper from my collection! This one’s grandfather was my 3x great grandfather, so we’re cousins of a kind. Austin Samuel Cooper was one of three seafaring brothers from a family with a tradition of army rather than marine service. His brother Commander Astley Cooper RN died at home aged 29 of typhoid which presumably he contracted overseas; Edward Cooper was a Captain in the Mercantile Marine who drowned at sea. Austin survived.

Captain Austin Samuel Cooper (1835-1897)

Austin signed on with the Merchant Navy as a midshipman with the Green Blackwall Shipping Line. A book by Basil Lubbock, “The Blackwall Frigates,” charts the line’s history. In the preface he writes:

“They were first class ships – well-run, happy ships, and the sailor who started his sea life as a midshipman aboard a Blackwaller looked back ever afterwards to his cadet days as the happiest period of his career. … The training was superb, as witness the number of Blackwall midshipmen who reached the head of their profession and distinguished themselves later in other walks of life.”

Green Line’s SS Carlisle Castle
(by Thomas Goldsworth Dutton, c1868)

Lubbock might have had Austin in mind when he wrote this! Austin advanced through the ranks during his time at Green’s and in 1868 was appointed Commander of the newly launched sailing ship the Carlisle Castle. She had been built specially for the company’s London to Australia run, and Austin remained at her helm for nine years.

The Carlisle Castle was only the second of the company’s ships to be built of iron. Dicky Green, the son of the founder, who had died in 1863, was very much against them; and the introduction of iron ships is considered to have spelt the beginning of the end of the Green Line’s heyday. Her heavy rigging slowed her down considerably when wet, but she was nevertheless a solid, reliable workhorse on the run between London and Melbourne.

Her best times for the run – 80 days going out and 87 coming back – were achieved on what was probably Austin’s last trip as Captain. The return leg, against the prevailing Westerlies, was achieved in race conditions against three fast ships of the wool fleet who were also on their way home. Austin will have been disappointed that his best day on that journey only made 270 nautical miles, because he had on earlier trips occasionally broken the 300 barrier. But he came in second of the four ships, an honourable end to a successful career.

Green Line’s SS Seringapatam
(by Thomas Goldsworth Dutton, after 1843)
on which the SS Agincourt was modelled
He earlier served as Second Officer on another Green Liner, the Agincourt, which made the same Melbourne run. It was while in Port Philip Bay at Melbourne, on the 26th March 1860, that Second Officer Cooper saved a man’s life. I don’t know the exact details of the situation, but I have elsewhere read the sad story of a Midshipman Reynolds. Reynolds first fell into the sea from the high rigging of the Agincourt in high winds two years after Cooper's heroic act. He survived that fall, but not another one six months later from another ship, the Alfred, when Reynolds was attacked and killed in the water by sea birds before the lifeboats could get to him. Perhaps the former Midshipman Cooper acted in similar circumstances to save a life at sea.

Cooper’s more successful rescue won him the Silver Medal of the Royal Humane Society. (The Society, originally called The Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned, was formed in 1774 by two doctors keen to promote the new medical technique of resuscitation, following a series of unfortunate burials of victims who were not in fact quite dead. The Society still exists today.)

The flag of the Green Blackwall Line

More on Austin Cooper’s life after maritime service in my next blog.

In addition to Basil Lubbock's book Blackwall Frigates, some information in this article comes from the Royal Humane Society's website, some from the National Maritime Musuem's splendid Blackwall Green webpages, and some from Richard Austin-Cooper's Butterhill and Beyond.

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