Bass Strait Traders #3: The grog runner MS YATCH

Vessels in southern colonial waters 1830 - 1850

The grog runner MS YATCH

Strictly speaking, this small vessel did not traverse the Strait between Van Diemen's Land and the mainland. Like other little ships working Port Phillip Bay in the early colonial period, MS YATCH provided a regular service between the nascent settlements of Melbourne and Geelong. But while the 15 ton DEVONSHIRE (a weekly Melbourne - Geelong service from December 1839) and the 13 ton HIND (a regular trader to Geelong from January 1840) still captured the attention of customs and port authorities, Captain Armstrong's 6 ton yacht eluded the government's gaze. As far as the official maritime records go, it is as if she never really existed.

There is only one contemporary source that reports of her nefarious activities, but because its author was 'the law' in Geelong and surrounding districts at this time, it seems fairly likely that this account is true. The writer is Foster Fyans, Police Magistrate at Geelong from 1837 to 1840, and again from 1849 to 1853, and Commissioner of Crown Lands and Captain of the Mounted Border Police in the Portland Bay District from 1840 to 1849. The source is his memoirs of service in the Port Phillip District, covering the five years from his arrival in 1837 until 1842. 

Originally written around 1854, it was edited and published by Phillip Brown in 1986, under the somewhat cumbersome title of MEMOIRS recorded at Geelong, Victoria, Australia by CAPTAIN FOSTER FYANS (1790-1870): Transcribed from his holograph manuscript given by descendants to the State Library Melbourne 1962 (The Geelong Advertiser Pty Ltd, Geelong VIC). The following two extracts are from Chapter 42, fittingly called "Moonshine", pages 211 and 212.

Square bottles of gin
"A new colony [as Fyans wryly notes] at all times produces strange characters...I was not long in Geelong before my attention was called to...a Captain Armstrong, who navigated a boat of some six tons, appearing constantly on our shores, to the great annoyance of the settlers [i.e. the squatters, not their thirsty convict 'servants']. The Captain was no small favourite, courteous and affable to all, with a never failing smile, and a friendly bow to passers. His yacht was generally well supplied with good things -- rarities of the day: pickled onions, red herrings, sausages, strong shoes, tobacco, slops [i.e. clothing]; but the grand ultimatum was square bottles of gin, which the Captain dealt heavily in.
  It mattered not where the Captain lay at anchor, he carried on a lively trade from the surrounding sheep stations. His customers were numerous: hut-keepers, shepherds, and others...The Irishers were very partial to the Captain, wishing him a long life, that he might never die, and that our owld house might never fall on him...The Captain was a cunning being, receiving many kind salutations from his customers in gin, selling it by the bottle at five hundred per cent. The shepherds and hut-keepers in the neighbourhood were at all times in possession of his movements. He was here today, gone tomorrow; but so long as the Captain remained, there was barely a sober man to be seen. 
  Repeatedly the boat was examined; nothing contraband was to be found. So well was he aware of his business that, after the sale of his square bottles of gin, not a fragment of the same left in his boat. He was in the habit of anchoring at Corio for a day to take in passengers for Melbourne, displaying numerous articles for sale, such as bits of salt pork, ling fish, pickles, tobacco, and sowerkrat, without any particular inclination to sell. The exorbitant prices were a prohibition to a purchase. Time was invaluable to the Captain -- barely gone until he returned with the usual cargo, committing the same depredations, withdrawing the shepherds and hut-keepers from their avocations. 
  Many attempts were made by the employers to induce some of them to give information which might lead to punishment. This never could be obtained; indeed so great was the Captain in their estimation that it was impossible to obtain any case against him. All swore by the Captain, who never deceived, not even in a promised plant, to be left in any certain place on the shore."

Not a boat was to be seen

  "On one of these trips to our bay, he was laying quietly for his customers. He came in on a Saturday, and early on Sunday morning a large assembly attended. One of Mr Russell's men, a shepherd, left his flock of sheep, taking a fine horse, belonging to his master, for the spree. On his arrival he was hailed with cheers by a set of drunken men, one after the other mounting the poor animal to show off their horsemanship. This sport continued as long as the horse had a leg to stand on. 
  The owner of the horse came to make his complaint, when it struck me that the Captain was not far off.  Proceeding with our force of two constables through the woods of sheoaks along the bayside, we had a clear view: not a boat was to be seen, nor any indications of a late visit from the Captain. 
  Fortunately, another of Mr Russell's men was of the party; good-naturedly leading the horse home, was seen by an overseer. This fellow was supposed to be the delinquent, and when apprehended became so agitated as to give away the name of the man who took the horse from the station, who was apprehended, brought to court, and had to pay sixty pounds for the horse.
  Even in this extremity, nothing could be gleaned to bring the Captain to justice for sly grog selling. The horse dwindled for a time, when he died from the effects of the brutal treatment of the party."


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