The gold handled sword


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For many many years members of the John Bowman Wilson family had, as children, heard of the ‘gold handled sword’ which had for over 130 years been passed down through the family only to be somehow lost during the 1950’s.
The sword, it was said, had been awarded to a family member, one William MacDonald, for heroism in his role as a captain in His Majesty’s Royal Navy during a great and glorious naval battle around the 1810/15 period.
William was the father of Agnes Eliza MacDonald, wife Of John Bowman Wilson. The information available indicates the Sword was passed from William to Agnes, then to Agnes’ first son William MacDonald Wilson. This William passed it to his daughter Agnes Eliza. It appears that after the death of this Agnes Eliza the Sword passed out Of the family via her second husband Thomas Baden-Powell Smith.
It seems the family approached Thomas asking for the Sword to be passed on down their family line, but he refused and later sold or gave it away – if true, this was contrary to the terms of Agnes Eliza’s Will.
With the passage of time, and with the passing of those who knew William, the facts of the story became clouded, indeed even a little embellished and glorified. A version in one arm of the family had it that the sword had been awarded for services ‘over and above the call of duty’ during the battle of Trafalgar no less, and awarded by none other than Lord Nelson himself. The recorded dating on the handle of the sword was sufficient to disprove that version.

Yet another version was that William received the sword for gallantly fighting off pirates in true Errol Flynn style in the North sea (probably at that time meaning the Carribean) thereby saving the passenger’s lives and loot.

Successive family researchers, perhaps inspired with such claims to family glory, set out to rediscover the truth that had been known so well to our forebears.

In due course they were rewarded with success for their efforts but the story that unfolded whilst undoubtedly confirming the heroism of William, also revealed one of the more inglorious events in the history of the Royal and Merchant Navies of Britain.
The story of misunderstanding and ensuing battle between the two British ships the ‘Duke of Marlborough’ & His Majesty’s sloop ‘Primrose’ in the Bay of Biscay in 1814 is recorded in Admiralty records held in the Public Records Office near London, and reproduced in separate documents presented on our webpage.
Family Reference to the Sword

The existence of the Sword is quite common anecdotal knowledge in various arms of the family of John Bowman Wilson. More tangible is the written record taken from the handle of the Sword some 40 years back by the late Jack Wilson (John Francis Wilson) on the occasion his son and daughter (John & Winifred) were each photographed holding the Sword.
The engraved message as recorded by Jack reads:-
Presented to the Master, William MacDonald, by the passengers on board the Marlborough Packet as a token of admiration in gallantly seconding his brave Commander in the action fought with the Primrose on the 12th march, 1814.”

The more of us who know of the sword and these details perhaps might over time heighten the prospects of its rediscovery. It is most likely right now in some collectors stock, or possibly proudly adorning the wall of a private collector’s home.

William - Master Mariner
William MacDonald, heroic recipient of the sword, continued life as a sea captain for many years after that incident.
With his family he ultimately took up residence in Van Diemens Land, arriving in Hobart town from London as owner and captain of the barque ‘Britomart’ on December 31, 1834.

The Britomart had originally been a Royal Navy brig/sloop of 242 tons; it was built at Deptford in Kent in 1808, and was decommissioned and sold in 1819, apparently first to a Captain Daniel Peach.
Peach first sailed Britomart to Hobart from England in 1822 carrying merchandise and 7 passengers, returning to England shortly after. We speculate as to whether William might have been amongst the crew on this voyage – further research may reveal this.
Britomart did not ply southern waters again until 1834 by which time it was owned and mastered by William.
During 1834 and 1835 William made many trading voyages in Australian waters, including to Sydney, Twofold Bay, Adelaide, Launceston, and Georgetown. Typically the ship carried mixed cargo, livestock and passengers.

This pattern was interrupted in late 1835 when William sailed to London. On route shortly after departing, he suffered serious storm damage which caused a 10 week delay at Port Arthur for repairs before resuming the journey.

William and the Britomart did not reappear in Australian waters again until late 1838 coming on to Hobart from the Swan River settlement via Adelaide in January 1839.
From then until late in 1839 he resumed coastal trading and passenger transportation, mostly to and from the blossoming Port Philip district.
We have not yet confirmed absolutely that William’s ‘wife’ Agnes, and daughter Agnes Eliza accompanied William on his two and a half year sojourn back to British waters. But it seems certain that they were, as a year before its return to Australian waters young Agnes was on board the Britomart in December 1837 as the following indicates, and as newly uncovered (in 2003 – see Postscript 2 below) information has confirmed precisely as her birth month and year.
An old photograph of her Arrowsmith cousins held by Jean Gordon (McDougall) just happens to have written across its back -
Presented to Agnes McDonald from her affectionate father on her sixth birthday, on board the ship ‘Britomarte.”
Jean advises “ I think it is only written on the back of that photo because it was probably the first thing that Mum could lay her hands on, as she had also written ‘Uncle Arthur born August 3, 1863’ and ‘Dad born April 1855’.

It appears that Jean’s mother was either transcribing or writing down something being told to her by another. Just what was being presented to Agnes Eliza is not clear; probably not the Sword since William later bequeaths that to Agnes’ mother in his will.

Britomart’s Final Voyage

Providentially William disposed of the Britomart in September of 1839 to a J. Gluyas.
Its final voyage, destined to be one of great tragedy and mystery, took place in December of that year when en route from Melbourne to Hobart it disappeared, presumed to have been wrecked, on either Preservation or Clarke Islands in Bass Strait with the loss of all 35 passengers and crew.
Accounts of her loss are filled with intrigue and mystery as the presented reports show.

William – A Person of Mystery (and Agnes too?)
When William died in 1846 he was recorded as having lived in Melville St, Hobart. The newspaper report referred to those surviving him as his wife Agnes, and daughter Agnes Eliza.
From the same newspaper report we know that William came from Cornwall, indeed from the seafaring town of St Ives, and he went to sea as a lad with his father who it seems was also a master mariner.

We have as yet no primary record of the marriage of William and Agnes whose maiden name was Smith. We do know from various official Australian records that William was 22/24 years older than Agnes, who was just 18/19 years of age when her daughter Agnes Eliza was born. William, if he was in fact the father, appears from these records to have been then aged 43/44.

Our traditional knowledge of the daughter, Agnes Eliza, had been that she was born about 1831/1832, and according to word of mouth down the family line and from her death certificate, she was born on board a ship in Antwerp Harbour, Belgium (part of Belgium today, but in dispute by Holland and Belgium then).
We had assumed that the ship concerned was that owned by William when they arrived in Tasmania in 1834, ie, the Britomart (but see the Postscript 2 evidence).
To all intents and purposes as far as the general Hobart community was concerned William and Agnes were married, and we have no hard evidence that they were not. However William’s Will, drawn up in 1846 just three days before his death, in several places declares Agnes to be a spinster, rather than his wife.
It refers repeatedly to her as Agnes Smith rather than as Agnes McDonald, going on to refer to ‘her’ daughter rather than ‘our’ or ‘my’ daughter, Agnes Eliza McDonald Smith, attaching the mother’s maiden name and adding as a note the fact that the daughter was baptised as Agnes Eliza McDonald.
A transcript of the will follows below.
Three years after William’s death in 1846 Agnes Smith married an Edwin Donne (a storekeeper of Hobart). Once again she is referred to in the marriage certificate as a ‘spinster’, and not as a ‘widow’.

All this seems to strongly imply that William and Agnes Smith were never married, and whilst it is possible that Agnes Eliza may have been their daughter, it also seems distinctly possible that she was not.

One can also speculate, because of the age difference between William and Agnes, and the strong circumstantial evidence that they were not married, that one of them, more likely William perhaps, might already have been married. The answer to this may well rest somewhere in Cornwall – St Ives, or Falmouth perhaps.
Whether Agnes Eliza was his daughter we may never know, but he certainly treated her as such if the provisions made for her in the will are any guide.
Readers of the will may note the reference to the Sword and William’s obvious regard for it, being the first bequeathed item mentioned, ahead of other property or money.
Also of interest is his reference to the ‘ten pieces of plate’ given to him for the same ‘Duke of Marlborough’ action by the ‘Merchants of Lisbon’ (presumably British merchants). There is no further reference to the plate in later family anecdote – we may wonder where it is today.
Readers will note that the published articles attached on the Marlborough/Primrose incident make no reference to William, who is described on the Sword as the ‘Master’ of the Duke of Marlborough. Indeed one article refers to the captain, John Bull, as receiving a sword from the passengers for like services. It appears both were so rewarded.
It was usually only on fighting ships that both a ‘Master’ and a ‘Captain’ were standard crew complement. Possibly, being a time of war between Britian and both France and America, armed merchant ships also assumed this type of crew structure.


The preceding storyline was originally written for the Wilson family reunion in 1995 and has had only minor contextual amendment for placement on the website in 2003.

To the 1995 storyline must now be added important new information and analysis including that from research conducted by a professional Archivist (a business associate of one of our Australian researchers) in Belgium during 2003. This has thrown further valuable light on events in the lives of both William and Agnes, and young Agnes Eliza.
Postscript 1

We had always felt that further research, most probably of British based records, may uncover more detail of William’s early life, his suspected ‘first’ marriage, and of Agnes Smith’s early life. We already knew from Tasmanian BDM records that she came from Liverpool, England.

We have wondered what prompted William to go back to England on the Britomart in 1836, and remain away from Australia for over two years. Was it for purely commercial shipping reasons, or was there in fact a deeper motive; one concerned with seeking to sort out his and/or her personal affairs.
Perhaps it was simply for both of them, a final chance to visit family one last time prior to returning to settle down to land based family life together in Tasmania.
Perhaps it was all of these things.
Whilst they did indeed settle to living ashore, it appears William continued to venture to sea as a trader. Shipping records show him making numerous journeys as a passenger on board coastal trading vessels into Victorian, New South Wales and Tasmanian ports.
Postscript 2

Briefed with the basic elements of what we knew about them the search of Antwerp Archive records disclosed the following information –

Agnes Eliza was indeed born on board a British ship in Antwerp Harbour, the date of birth being December 3rd, 1831. Furthermore the record actually states she was born at 7pm.
The ship was not the Britomart, as we had surmised, but the ‘Good Intent’. We will track this vessels history in more detail in due course, but there is no evidence that this ship was ever in Australian waters.
The record declares the father to be William MacDonald, that he was the Captain of the ship, was 42 years old, was born in St Ives in England, and was registered as a citizen of Palmouth (this fairly obviously is an error – it should be Falmouth).
The record further states that William and Agnes were married. But of course there is no reference to primary evidence having been presented to the Antwerp authorities on this matter – it may have been, or perhaps it was simply a verbal statement by William and/or Agnes.
The record goes on to state that Agnes was 19 years of age, and that she was born in Liverpool confirming what we knew.

Postscript 3

The Legend of ‘The Keys to the City’ …….. TBC
Notes by Laurie Wilson, Melbourne, 2003

  1. Name Spelling. William’s name in the Antwerp record has the ‘a’ – ie, MacDonald, just as does the inscription on the Sword that was presented to him in 1814. In later Australian records it is Mc not Mac, including William’s own Will – this had led us to believe there had been a simple spelling error by the passengers when they had the Sword inscribed. It now begins to appear that originally his name had the ‘a’ and it was later dropped.

  2. Married or not?. Still hard to know – we need primary records. The age difference is very great at 23/24years, but we can’t go on this. His references in the Will are hard to explain – and imply both that the child was not his, and that they were not married. Was it an elopement by him (from a prior wife) or by her carrying the child of a former husband or relationship.

  3. Where is the Sword - we must search the Melbourne Museums/Galleries, and the professional Collectors ………..TBC

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