‘Mad chase’ to solve the mystery of a little girl’s handwriting in a ship’s log

Historian Anna Claydon was wading through the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest collection of whaling logbooks when she found a little girl’s handwriting in the 1850s log of the whaling vessel Nimrod. It caught her attention.

It was the coronavirus pandemic that afforded Dr Claydon the time to go back and explore who this little girl, Esther Mary Paul, was and how she came to be doing her lessons in the logbook of the Nimrod, which had been on voyages through the Pacific to the Bering Strait, and back to Tasmania.

Dr Claydon was homeschooling her five-year-old when Tasmania was locked down, and her own husband had gone to sea as a ship’s captain.

She had no external research requests on her desk and so went back to what she called her “Bowerbird file”, where she had made note of Esther’s lessons.

Colour photograph of a woman standing in front of colonial paintings
Anna Claydon kept the story of Esther Mary Paul in her “bowerbird file”, waiting until she had time to do more research.(ABC Radio Hobart: Rachel Edwards)

How Esther’s story was revealed

Dr Claydon didn’t even know what the connection was between Captain Jacobs, in whose logbook Esther had written, and the girl herself.

“I had found this little girl’s handwriting in the logbook and it was an immediate mystery,” she said.

Dr Claydon then found Esther’s birth record — but she was born six years after the voyages on the Nimrod were recorded in the logbook.

Colonial era painting of a large whale breaching with smaller vessels around it.
The Nimrod had been on voyages through the Pacific to the Bering Strait, and back to Tasmania.(Supplied: W L Crowther Library, State Library of Tasmania)

It turned out that little Esther had been writing in the logbook while living in an intergenerational house with her grandmother, mother and her aunt, Charlotte — who had married Captain Jacobs.

“It was at this point I started to feel my way through all these relationships that were being bundled up together, and that fractured into a few different stories,” she said.

Esther was not always well behaved

While Esther wrote her address over and over again in the logbook, it seems that she often received punishment in the form of writing lines.

A page from the logbook of the whaling vessel Nimrod.
A page from the logbook of the whaling vessel Nimrod.(Supplied: W L Crowther Library, State Library of Tasmania. [C6030] CRO82/1/3)

“There’s another one, ‘Behave at Sunday school, Behave at Sunday school’, and another one, “Love your grandmother Esther, Love your grandmother Esther, Love your grandmother Esther’.”

Home schooling in the 1860s

The entries revealed even more about little Esther’s apparently unusual life.

Dr Claydon said that while Esther “would have been in the target population for early public schools in Tasmania, the kinds of things she was learning were very different than what was being taught to primary school children at that time”.

Most children in the public school system at that time were being taught from the “exquisitely dull Irish National Readers”, Dr Claydon said.

“Esther’s education is much more eclectic, and it’s clearly devised by her family and they seem to be grabbing hold of anything they find interesting.

Colour photo of a laptop and a young girl writing to the side.
Anna Claydon’s daughter did her lessons at home when Tasmania was in lockdown.(Supplied: Anna Claydon)

The depression of the 1860s

Dr Claydon said that Hobart in 1865 was a profoundly different place from 10 years earlier.

Esther’s father had become a pauper, residing in the Brookfields Invalid Depot, on the site of what is now the North Hobart football oval, and her mother was a nurse or midwife at the notorious Cascade Female Factory.

While Esther is only visible to us from a few lines she wrote in a logbook when she was five, more of her family’s story was recorded when her parents had a very public spat in the letters of the newspaper, with her father demanding that the wife he deserted support him financially.

In 1880, when Esther was 20, she married a prominent young chemist called Harry Lithgow and moved to Launceston, where the couple had three children: Vera, Harry and Vincent.

Dr Claydon has discovered that Esther’s husband was a keen photographer and is hoping to track down a photo of Esther, who died at the age of 44.

‘A story of women’

“I think the thing that is so compelling to me is the hidden history of Hobart in the late 19th century,” Dr Claydon said.

“These are whaling logs but what spills out is a story of women.

“There is a logbook to preserve men hunting whales in the Pacific but what jumps out is the story of struggle and survival of these women.”