John Michael Skipper was born on 12 July 1815 at Norwich in the County of Norfolk, England, the eldest son of John and Jane Skipper; his father was a solicitor in the city and his mother, Jane, was the sister of James Stark the artist and a member of the acclaimed Norwich School of Landscape Painting.
John Skipper was educated at the Norwich Grammar School where he did well at classics and modern languages. It had always been intended that he would enter the law in some capacity or other, but he was more interested in art and was keenly encouraged to pursue this path by his uncle, James Stark. In time, further distractions caused him to abandoned his studies to become a midshipman with the East India Company; and in 1833 at the age of 18 years, he joined the Company’s sailing ship ‘Sherbourne’ outward bound for Calcutta. By the time he returned to English shores some months later, he had decided to emigrate to Australia.
As part of his plans to settle on the other side of the world, Skipper arranged to be articled to Suffolk-born Charles Mann, the newly appointed South Australian Advocate-General who, at the time was still in London, having not yet taken up his appointment; he was to do so when he sailed in the Coromandel to Australia in the latter half of 1836 where he arrived at Holdfast Bay on 12 January 1837. John Skipper had already sailed to the new Colony in the barque Africaine, along with 99 other passengers of mixed circumstances, having arrived at Holdfast Bay on 6 November 1836. During the voyage, he sketched and painted scenes both on board and beyond.
This three-masted barque of 317 tons, was the First Fleet’s seventh settler ship to drop anchor in the new Colony and the first to disembark emigrants at Holdfast Bay (Glenelg). The ship was a fairly new vessel having been built in 1832 in Newcastle, England and was originally destined to sail to Canada. It was also the first privately owned ship to bring fare-paying settlers to South Australia from the United Kingdom and was chartered by the South Australian Company, leaving London in June 1836. The ship’s newly married skipper, Captain Duff, joined her at Deal on 1 July together with his bride. This made 99 souls on board – within four months the number would total 100. Amongst this number were two government officials, Colonial Secretary Robert Gouger, Emigration Agent John Brown and his wife, plus the 58 fare-paying ‘new settler’ individuals, some of whom with wives and children. The ship was however plagued by controversy, drama and loss of life not usually associated with such a voyage.
Besides carrying passengers, provisions, bricks and building materials, the Africaine also carried a Stanhope Invenit No. 200 printing press which belonged one of the passengers, a Welsh newspaper proprietor and printer Robert Thomas (More of him and Skipper’s relationship with his family later). Suffice to say here that Thomas was to establish South Australia’s first newspaper, the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register; to do this, he had not only brought along the essential printing press, but also the necessary staff to operate his proposed business; his employees included Robert Fisher, aged 21 years, printer; Joseph Augustus Hill, aged 16, printer; E W Osborne, 19, printer; Frederick Whitman, 17, printer; Andrew Jacobs, 29, labourer; James Windebank, labourer; and Mary Littlewhite, 21, servant.
As for living facilities for the duration of the voyage, the Barque Africaine did offer some comfortable accommodation. The best cabins, above the deck at the stern, were for the Captain John Duff, (the ship’s joint owner along with Thomas Finlay), and Robert Gouger and wife Harriet. Forward of them, with less headroom, were the intermediate passengers’ cabins. An open area with tiers of bunks was for assisted emigrants in third class. It is not known where John Skipper was accommodated but, given his family’s circumstances, it is reasonable to assume that he was a fare-paying passengers – and thus reasonably near to Robert Thomas and his family.
It was this particular one-way voyage for Skipper which brought him into the company of the Thomas’s for the first time; they were a family whom he never knew before the Africaine set sail, but it was with them that he was to cement a close relationship – and particularly with one daughter, Frances Amelia. Those of the Thomas’s on board comprised of Robert Thomas, his wife Mary (nee’ Harris) a poet and Diarist and their eldest daughter, Frances Amelia – whom Skipper was to marry on 28 December 1839 – the third anniversary of the colony’s ‘Proclamation Day’ – more of that later. There were also the Thomas’s younger children of Mary and William Kiffin Thomas; his name ‘Kiffin’ originated from a place name in Wales; a Welsh word “cyffin” also means “limit” or “confine.”
It was both John Skipper and Mrs Mary Thomas who were to document life on board the Africaine, including the conflicts which broke out from time to time, plus one particular tragedy that happened on arrival; Mary wrote in her Diary and Skipper sketched. It was from Mary that we are aware that she clashed with the ship’s surgeon, Dr Charles Everard; on the other hand, she was ‘much taken’ with the treatment received from “kind-hearted” Irish doctor, John Slater. We discover however that this man was prone to outbursts of temper. One day on board he shut himself up in his cabin with a loaded pistol, threatening to shoot anyone who disturbed him. Robert Thomas’s printer apprentice E.W. Osborne, managed to calm Slater on this and other occasions throughout the voyage.
One wonders what sort of relationship Osborne and Slater had, for it was these two who died together! It happened thus: When the Africaine arrived at Cape Borda on the Kangaroo Island’s north side on 4 November 1836, and after 133 days at sea, Thomas’s apprentice, Osborne and Dr Slater, along with Charles Nantes, John Bagg, Richards and Richard Warren, set out to walk south and meet the Africaine at Kingscote. This trek was despite Captain Duff’s reservations – but with Robert Gouger’s blessing. In fact, it was Gouger who actively encouraged both young Osborne and Slater to join this escapade. Unfortunately, as events turned out, all six men became lost in the Bush and, after several days of having used all their food and water and worn through their boots, only Nantes, Bagg, Warren and Richards reached the settlement – Osborne and Slater were never seen again and their bodies were never recovered!
The Africaine then sailed via Kingscote and Rapid Bay to arrive, in bad weather, at Holdfast Bay on 8 November 1836. The rough weather delayed the landing and small boats belonging to the ‘Cygnet’ had to get passengers off the Africaine and to the sand bar closest to the shore. From there, women and children were carried on the sailors’ shoulders to the beach. These difficulties in landing the first immigrants were to influence Colonel Light’s proposal for a jetty. It was passenger, Robert Fisher, in a letter he was to publish in the newly established newspaper later that:
” Captain Duff had no right whatever to land the passengers the way he did, much less to have treated us with the cool inhumanity he did after our safe arrival. Nor ought Mr Robert Gouger have urged such a mad-headed project, then be the first to decline to be carried on sailor’s shoulders to the beach”.
Once on shore, all the settlers were housed in tents and some built reed huts; also, many were not without health problems. Some years after they had disembarked from the Africaine, a daughter of Robert Thomas, named Mary after her mother, wrote:
“…. our eyes became affected with ‘ophthalmia’ [conjunctivitis] (prevalent amongst many of the settlers, natives and dogs).”
Her own son, William became totally blind on Sunday while attending Devine Service in the open air and was led back to their tent by his brother. Mary, herself was nearly blind for the next three days and could scarcely find her way about.
As for the 317 ton three-masted barque Africaine, the First Fleet’s seventh settler ship to drop anchor in the new Colony, well, she was wrecked in a storm at Cape St Lawrence in 1843 with the loss of two of her crew. She was on a voyage from South Shields, County Durham to Quebec, Canada.
John Skipper had witnessed much during his journey from his home in Norwich, Norfolk to his arrival near to where Adelaide would be established. He too lived in a tent as he began the long journey to establish new roots; presumably he also experienced the same deprivations as with every other new settler during this time. One may also wonder if he ever assisted Robert Thomas in setting up accommodation in which his printing press would be housed. Thomas’s wife Mary enlightens us on this point by way of ‘The Diary of Mary Thomas, which she would publish later. In it is the following extract which says:
“About 20 December 1836, we built a rush hut a short distance from our tents for the better accommodation of part of our family…… and in this place (about 12 feet square) the first printing in South Australia was produced.”
No mention is made of John Skipper but it would have been surprising if he had not been near at hand, particularly if Frances Amelia was present.
Speed was of the essence when it came to getting Southern Australia’s early printing press up-and-running; it would be needed in the preparations for the Colony’s inaugural ‘Proclamation Day! – which happened barely 7 weeks from the 8 November 1836 when John Skipper and the rest of the new settlers first set foot on land.
Proclamation Day in South Australia celebrates the establishment of government in South Australia as a British province – by the way, this process did not come about in just one day. The province itself was officially created and proclaimed back in 1834 when the British Parliament passed the South Australia Act, which empowered King William IV to create South Australia as a British province and to provide for its colonisation and government. It was ratified on 19 February 1836 when King William issued Letters Patent establishing the province.
The Proclamation announcing the establishment of Government, and of which we now speak, was made by Captain John Hindmarsh beside The Old Gum Tree at the present-day suburb of Glenelg North on 28 December 1836 and in the presence of all the new settlers, including John Skipper who painted the scene which shows The Old Gum Tree and Gouger’s tent and hut, supporting the view that the bent tree is the genuine site of the ceremony. Interestingly, the proclamation document had been drafted aboard HMS Buffalo by Hindmarsh’s private secretary, George Stevenson and, unsurprisingly, it was printed by non-other than Robert Thomas on his newly imported Stanhope printing press, housed in a 12 x 12-foot reed hut. It may no doubt be surmised that, from the quilled text of the final proclamation text provided to him by the officials, it was Thomas himself who made a more striking layout for print and the public.
Within the legal field in which John Skipper found useful employment he continued to maintain his association with Charles Mann and also with E. C. Gwynne, particularly during the years 1836-43. In March 1840, maybe with the support of these two gentlemen, he was admitted as an attorney and proctor of the South Australian Supreme Court, practising between 1843 and 1851; he then joined the rush to the Victorian goldfields and returned in 1852 with many sketches – but little gold. In 1852-72 he was clerk of the court at Port Adelaide. After the death of his wife, Frances Amelia, he married her younger sister Mary on 28 April 1856.
Chiefly remembered as an artist, Skipper combined a lively mind with acute observation and a natural and cultivated skill with some aesthetic sensibility. His sketches and paintings of the landscape, the flora, fauna and Aboriginals of South Australia, and of the streets, buildings, people, way of life and notable events of Adelaide are of some artistic quality, but great historical interest. Most of his drawings and paintings are small, though his oil on canvas, ‘Corroboree’, painted in 1840 measures 106 by 152 cm. He illustrated records of some of Charles Sturt‘s expeditions from descriptive notes lent him by the explorer. He also illustrated copies of journals of his voyages and of South Australian almanacs, embroidering margins with drawings of minute delicacy. Most remarkable is his illustration of his personal copy of G. B. Wilkinson’s South Australia with about 360 tiny marginal sketches, including personal comments, reminiscences and puns.
John Skipper retired in 1872 and lived on a small pension on his farm at Kent Town, now an inner urban suburb of Adelaide, where he died on 7 December 1883. Surprisingly, for a man with a legal background, he never made a Will. He was survived by three sons and four daughters; his eldest son, Spencer John Skipper (1848-1903), was a journalist and satirist in Adelaide.
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