Every Picture

SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE once said that “every picture tells a story”. So here I am looking at a picture and thinking of a story. The picture is an early family photograph from the 1800s – a woman seated, a man seated next to her. Three children standing at the back; boy, girl, boy, a younger child asleep on a lap gently steadied by the hands of the woman, I'm assuming the Mother. My Granny’s careful notes written on the back list the family member's names. The boy, girl, boy are Joseph, Elizabeth and Walter; the Mother and Father, Ann and James Brooks. The sleeping child perhaps is Samuel, question mark, “b. in Australia”. The boy standing at the back and to the left of the picture has a strange look about him. His right eye is distorted somehow as if a fold of skin has dragged itself down onto his cheek. I remember my Granny, when she gave me the picture, saying that a photographic expert she spoke to had thought that perhaps the emulsion had slipped a little after exposure and the final chemical process had fixed this strange anomaly forever.

The Brooks family, 1800s

The Brooks family, 1800s

I turn the picture over. The whole framed object is terribly fragile. The backing has come unstuck and if I’m not careful the whole thing will slip out spilling its various layers. First is the frame, then a metal oval mount, the glass picture plate itself, a piece of black velvet, another piece of plain glass, a piece of thin card, and finally a piece of 5mm polystyrene stuck onto yet another paper photograph which has been used as the backing, finally surrounded with gummed paper, the very tape that has come unstuck. The brown tape crinkles under my fingers as I peer at the aged image. I think the picture was made using the collodion positive process. Rather than completing the process at the negative stage, the glass plate image is bleached with silver salts reversing the image back to a positive. If I separate the glass plate out from its safe layers and hold it up to the light it looks like a negative. When sat back in its frame with the black velvet background the positive image resumes. The image itself is so delicate on the surface of the glass I hold my breath as I look, convinced that even the air from my lungs might damage it.


I’m fascinated by the story the picture hints at enhanced by my Granny’s notations on the back. Underneath the list of names and birth-dates, her small neat words say,

Emigrated to Adelaide, S. Australia, ss Hercules, April-July 1853



My Granny spent some time researching family history but I’m not sure after she died where her notes went. I remember being sort of interested in the vague manner of a 21-year-old. Now I’m thinking about something my Dad said to me recently. My Great, Great, Great Grandfather, he thought, was a surveyor in Australia in the 1800s who helped to map the Northern Territories. Mmm. I wonder.

I search for “Hercules 1853” and find the passenger list of HMS Hercules, recorded by the South Australian Register on Wednesday 27th July 1853. On the previous day, HMS Hercules arrived at Port Adelaide, “one hundred and ninety souls to land – the 8th ship from England to S.A (South Australia)”. Sitting at the top of the list is the name, Brooks. The first name James. Age 23. Occupation Miner/Sapper. Birthplace Bernisdale, Snizort.

Bernisdale. Where is Bernisdale? And Snizort? What a fabulous word. What is the H.I.E Society? And what is a Sapper?

I discover that Bernisdale is a small village, a township on the Isle of Skye situated near the River Snizort where it flows into a deep dark fjord, the sea-loch, Loch Snizort Beag. I imagine it’s a beautiful yet bleak place whether the summer sun lights the land for the longest days or as winter heads in cloaking the same land in the icy air. The forecast today as I write this describes the Isle of Skye as ‘uncomfortably cold’.

I learn that a Sapper & Miner is a military engineer in the corps of the army that is now known as The Royal Engineers. So James Brooks, born onto an island where farming and agriculture was part of life, was not a farmer. I’m a bit confused. Something isn’t right here. The name ‘Brooks’ sounds English, not Scottish. I’m certain that this side of the family was from the north of England.

I search further for the “HIE Society” - The Highlands & Islands Emigration Society. This was a charity set up to help provide assisted passage to the colonies for the very poor living in the Scottish Highlands & Islands. I phone the Skye & Lochalsh Archive Centre. The helpful voice on the other end of the line tells me that it was the potato famine caused by blight (similar to Ireland) that left many families living in the Highlands & Islands starving and destitute at this time. Families had been squeezed into pockets of land that were too small for more than one family group and the landowners and government of the time were looking for a way to “create space”. HMS Hercules was one of the ships that journeyed these desperate families to a new life in Australia.

Yet James Brooks and his family are listed as Sapper & Miner, not an emigrant of The Highland & Island Society. So why was he on this ship? The listing informs me that the family boarded HMS Hercules at Campbeltown, Argyllshire not at Skye.

I phone The Highland Archive Centre. I am directed to the Scotlands People website where for the princely sum of £7 I am able to locate James Brooks on the 1851 census. The parish is Temple, Midlothian, Scotland, he is 21, living as a lodger, his occupation is Sapper & Miner and his birthplace is Cheshire. Frustratingly I can’t read the name of his birth town. The elaborate cursive writing is almost impossible to read. It takes me some moments to even be able to find his name.

I gather together all these snippets of information. James Brooks was born in Cheshire, not Skye, and joins the Sappers & Miners, perhaps as a teenager. The passenger list ages him at 23, his wife Ann 24 and their eldest child 6. In Campbeltown, Argyllshire when his youngest child Walter is just a baby, the family board a ship, the HMS Hercules, on 26th December 1852.

The journey of this tall ship of immigrants commanded by Captain Baynton had hardly begun when it runs into a storm. Taking refuge for a number of days at Rothesay the ship sets sail again. Again its passage is thwarted by outbreaks of disease, smallpox and typhus. The ship is quarantined in Cork, Ireland for several months. 56 people die and 17 children are orphaned. Some passengers are transferred to different ships, creating the split of many families in the process.

Finally, the tall ship leaves Cork in April 1853 sailing for some three months before arriving in South Australia. I think about this journey. It’s hard to imagine the conditions; a terrifying storm, rampant disease, months of inescapable quarantine, and yet more months at sea before arriving at a place on the other side of the world.

I scroll the passenger list again and find a stow-away, another James, a Macdonald, the son-in-law of Donald McAskill a shepherd from the Highlands. I wonder why he is a stow-away while his wife and her family are legal passengers?

I return to my picture, the photograph from so long ago given to me by my Granny. I talk to my Dad about the picture and what I've discovered. Now living in Australia it seems fitting that he picks up the trail of the Brooks family on their arrival at Port Adelaide, in the southern hemisphere's winter of 1853.

historical online sources: The Ships List  Scottish Archive Network  Wikipedia  HMS Hercules