Shanghaiing in Newcastle and the Labour Schooner the Coquette & its Hunter region origins

Patrick Lindus is Cultural Collection’s first UON student ‘Historian in Residence’. His project looks at Newcastle’s Maritime history- with a particular focus on the practice of Shanghaiing in Newcastle, and the Labour Schooner the Coquette. Patrick uses his historical research skills to locate the diverse sources associated to this topic, including visual, written and oral sources to curate these archives on a digital platform. This project develops ideas about the study of history in the digital age, and role of digital humanities, archives and oral histories.

I came to Cultural Collections looking to volunteer to work with the Hunter (Living) Histories/Coal River Working Party team. Dr Ann Hardy, who co-ordinates Hunter (Living) Histories, asked me if I had any thoughts on what I might like to investigate. I said that it may be interesting to research the impact of the changeover from sail to steam powered ships on the shipbuilding and repair industry in Newcastle.

It was decided that this would be the area I would research and develop an article for the Hunter (Living) Histories or the Cultural Collections webpage. The UON’s Cultural Collections at the Auchmuty library was able to come up with a list of sources in their archives that related to the maritime and shipping histories of Newcastle. This same list can be found at the end of this article.

I went through a large number of sources and began to feel as though the issue I was looking to find wasn’t really a problem, historically speaking. The transition between wind and steam power was much more gradual with sail powered cargo ships still entering the port up until about the late 1930’s. It seems as though there was not one sudden total collapse of livelihoods for shipwrights trained to fix and build sailing ships, rather the steamships became more and more dominant over a number of years and shipwrights would have seen the change happening and adapted to the situation. This was why there were never reports of massive unemployment of shipwrights or a demonstration by their guild/union to draw attention to such a plight. From an examination of primary sources it would seem that there weren’t significant social and economic problems arising from the transition from sail to steam, given the lack of relevant information, therefore I began looking at other historical events and themes to explore. Whilst researching maritime histories I came across a manuscript (discussed in further detail in the section on Blackbirding) about a shipbuilding firm in the Upper Hunter, at Eagleton. In the late 19th century this firm built the kinds of ships, Barques and Schooners (both wooden sail powered ships) that I was interested in finding information about. I searched for newspaper articles on Trove about each of the ships that were mentioned in the manuscript. The schooner known as the Coquette produced numerous Trove results and surprisingly had a very interesting history. I found articles about the schooners final years as a ‘labour ship’ involved in the Blackbird trade. The Coquette was a ship built in the Hunter Region and was used in the very unscrupulous and exploitative practice of blackbirding was alarming and thought provoking. This was a significant piece of historical information that saw my research change direction to create an article that explored this information about the Coquette. I brought this idea to my supervisors, archivist Gionni Di Gravio and Dr Ann Hardy, and they helped me develop it further by suggesting that I incorporate this new knowledge into an article that addressed the themes of Blackbirding and Shanghaiing practices in Newcastle. These practices were also occurring in other parts of Australia at the same time as they were happening in Newcastle. I began by searching ‘shanghaiing’ in newspaper articles on Trove, mainly looking in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner’s Advocate. Gionni and Ann gave me leads on where else I could look for information relating to Shanghaiing. Ann suggested a few oral histories from the Margaret Henry Oral History Project that mentioned Shanghaiing, and also brought to light the figure of Black Harris, an alleged Shanghaier who was very central to the memory of this shady and underhanded practice. Gionni then found a picture of the man on the cultural collections Flickr page, which was a great addition to the article as I believed that the photo would help the readers connect with the history on a different level, for me history becomes more personal with photographs like these.

The final step was to create the article itself and make sure that these pieces of information fit together in a way that was clear and effective. I integrated definitions of Shanghaiing and Blackbirding with the relevant sections to enrich the central historical practices being discussed. I didn’t realise however, that this was not the end of my research. Following the publishing of the article online Gionni was contacted by Mr Russell Rigby who suggested I might want to add a section on ‘Crimping’, which was another shady maritime practice in the same period, which was even more prevalent than shanghaiing. Russell provided me with a further list of Trove article that covered the practice of crimping and described specific cases of it occurring. These articles were written around the same time the practices occurred during later decades on the 1800s and early 1900s.

After updating this new information on crimping from articles identified by Russell Rigby, I was asked to write a reflection of the work I had done in creating my online article. The process of researching and writing, reworking information to construct an interesting story has been an invaluable experience.  Reflecting on my process and practice has also been positive and constructive.  I have learnt that new information will often come forward to enhance the story. One benefit of publishing online is that research is never ending,  research can always be enriched.

Photographer: Ralph Snowball, courtesy of Cultural Collections University of Newcastle.

This post looks at shanghaiing and associations with blackbirding in Newcastle, through a survey of written and visual and oral sources found both on-line and in Cultural Collections at the University of Newcastle.


According to Collins dictionary online Shanghaiing refers to the practice of kidnapping (a man or seaman) for enforced service at sea.

The following articles have been found in Trove.

Shanghaiing article 1
Here are some other newspaper articles referencing this case of shanghaiing:
Memories of Shanghaiing in the Newcastle consciousness are not as distant from our own time as one might think. In the late 1980’s students participating in the Margaret Henry Oral History Project interviewed some of the oldest residents of Newcastle alive at the time. Two of the interviewees recalled the stories told about sailors being shanghaied out of local pubs. The other thing that these interviewees would recall when talking about shanghaiing was that there was one semi-legendary local figure, referred to by Elizabeth Woodbine as Black Harris.

Reflections of Islington – Elizabeth Woodbine – 8 June 1989- John Lewis (interviewer)

“There would have been a bit of blackbirding going on in those days”- Interviewer
“there used to be a big fella, Black Harris, he used to swindle them onto the ships. But uh not that I know of.”- E W
“Do you know how he operated?”- Interviewer
“He’d frequent particular hotels?” Interviewer
“I think Hudson’s and the Blue Bell, the Blue Bell was a bad one. That’s where the rugged thirteen used to hang around, the Blue Bell.”- EW

Wickham in the 1910s – Doris Piper – 13 July 1988- Margaret Probert (interviewer)

There was a man, I wish I could think of his name. He was a very, very big man with a bit of dark blood in him and he used to shanghai men for these boats. Can’t think of his name. He was notorious, he was a character in Newcastle and he was there for years and years and he just used to Shanghai these fellows, drunk or whatever they might be. Give ‘em to the captain of the boats, for a price.
The Cultural Collections Flickr account has a photograph of Black Harris, scanned from the Bert Lovett collection. Here is what the imposing figure looked like in his later years.

Black Harris

Source: Norm Barney Photographic Collection, held by Cultural Collections at the University of Newcastle

The practice of crimping, which is far less frightening an idea, was even more widely believed to have been practiced in Newcastle. With a commission on navigation spawning newspaper articles on the matter, most of which come from the Sydney Morning Herald rather than the Newcastle Morning Herald. The articles are too long to fit into the space of this post, however here are the links to a few and an excerpt from an article that gets across a rough Idea of what crimping is.

The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) Fri 17 Feb 1905 Page 5

The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) Mon 20 Feb 1905 Page 3

Referring to the activities of a crimp known as Paul Kruger- “He was found guilty of decoying seamen from employment they followed on one ship to like employment on others”.

In other words crimping was recruitment of sailors who agree to voluntarily desert the ship they had made a deal ‘to crew’ in favor of another ship, and was done through an intermediary between the deserter and the ship Captain that was willing to procure sailors in this way, this person was called a crimp and they were often the masters of boarding houses.

An early report of crimping in Newcastle, dating from 1878, comes from the Newcastle Morning Herald and details one of the significant problems with crimping, that crimps would often face the penalty of a fine of which they could easily afford thanks to the profits they were making from crimping.

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW : 1876 – 1954) Tue 4 Jun 1878 Page 2

As will be seen by our police report,
the crimp MOORE was sentenced to pay
a fine of £5, and costs, £2 8s. 6d. It
is a pity that the law does not allow of
the Bench using its discretion as to
whether the punishment shall be im-
prisonment or fine in such cases. We
think if the Bench possessed this dis-
cretionary power, imprisonment would
be the rule and not the exception, as
fines in nine cases out of ten are no
punishment at all, the facilities which
the crimping fraternity possess of mak-
ing “‘ another haul” from their dupes,
enabling them to escape comparatively
scathless. The magnitude which this
evil has reached in Newcastle is almost
beyond belief, were it not for the many
facts that have come under our notice,
showing how complete a system of
crimping prevails. When a master of
a ship wants a crew, instead of going to
the shipping office, he pays his respects
to a crimping knave, and as a particular
favour, requests said crimp to supply
him with the number of men required.

According to an article in the Evening News of Sydney from 1899, crimping had existed in Newcastle for about 15-20 years before the time of writing the article, therefore could have been occurring as early as 1879 so we know that crimping was known to exist in Newcastle even before this.

The fines would become harsher as time went on, for example a man by the name of George Freeman was fined £10 for the crime of crimping in 1907, however it never seemed an effective deterrent. We know this because of the fact that there was a commission into the practice which spurred news articles such as those linked to above and which gave assertions such as this, “The average number of seamen shipped at Newcastle yearly was about 2000. The shipping master supplied about 3 in 10. The bulk went through the hands of the boarding-masters”. The boarding masters referring to the crimps as they were often one and the same people.

A similar scheme that was common in Australia at the same time as Shanghaiing was the practice of Blackbirding. This didn’t occur in Newcastle, however there is an association with the activity and a ship built in the Hunter area. These two practices represent a history of exploited labour in Australia and both have ties to Newcastle.

What is Blackbirding?

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Blackbirding was the 19th- and early 20th-century practice of enslaving (often by force and deception) South Pacific islanders on the cotton and sugar plantations of Queensland, Australia (as well as those of the Fiji and Samoan islands).

When I was looking through some information on Newcastle’s maritime history I came across a manuscript by Percy Haslam, Shipbuilding at Eagleton. It mentioned a ship called the Coquette and I decided to investigate the history of this ship. I discovered that this locally built schooner ended up as a ‘labour ship’ transporting blackbirds to Queensland. The following are the articles that I have found that uncovered this unsavoury operation and the fate of the Coquette.

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW : 1876 – 1954) Sat 17 Feb 1883 Page 5:

New Schooner
Yesterday there was brought down the river and moored at the Market Wharf a new three-
masted schooner called the Coquette, which has been built by Mr. James Roderick of Eagleton,
at his yards, Williams River, to the order of Messrs. John Henderson and Alex Smith, of this city.
She has very fine lines and is a splendid specimen of what may be turned out in wooden vessels
on our river, she is 125ft. in length, 24ft. beam, and 10ft, depth of hold and her carrying capacity
will be nearly 400 tons. The Coquette is intended by her owners for the northern rivers trade. She is
the fourth vessel that has been built by Mr. Roderick for Mr. Henderson, and we wish
her every success.

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW : 1876 – 1954) Wed 15 Aug 1894 Page 4:
The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) Mon 7 Dec 1903 Page 8:
Link to the article


 If you are interested in finding out more about Newcastle’s maritime history, Cultural Collections at the University of Newcastle has a wealth of sources covering this area. Here is a document containing a list of some sources relevant to maritime history located in Cultural Collections.  SHIPPING INDUSTRY ARCHIVES
If you can give us any information about Shanghaiing in Newcastle and the Labour Schooner the Coquette, please comment, or send us an email to
Thanks to Russell Rigby for further Newspaper articles.

6 thoughts on “Shanghaiing in Newcastle and the Labour Schooner the Coquette & its Hunter region origins

  1. Fascinating story and alarming that there is no comment at all about the kidnapped men.

  2. My Great Grandfather was Capt Brown, I am interested if there are pictures of him or the Coquette on file.

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