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James Gorman, VC - His Life in Australia

The life of James Gorman VC., in Sydney is well recorded. On arrival he first resided at 259 Kent Street, from where he could look out over the busy wharves of Darling Harbour, then the centre of Sydney's maritime industry, now the home of the National Maritime Museum. James found work almost immediately as a Sail maker.

He moved to a dockside house in Sussex Street and it was while residing there he met twenty year old Marianne (Mary Ann) Jackson. Mary Ann had arrived in Australia with her parents Robert and Elizabeth Jackson and her siblings onboard the ill-fated Beejapore from Methwold, Norfolk in January 1853. Fifty six passengers died during the voyage including Marianne's youngest sister. A further 62 died while in quarantine. Thirty two year old Elizabeth Jackson was hit by a horse and cart and accidentally killed, four days after being released from quarantine. Two weeks later her youngest daughter who had been born during the voyage died.

On November 10 1864, James and Marianne were married at St Philip's Church, Sydney. While still residing at 259 Kent Street, their daughter Anne Elizebeth was born 25 September 1865.

In 1865 Henry Parkes, the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales, told parliament that only one third of the school age children in the state attended school. He believed there were many hundreds roaming the streets that were illiterate.

With the support of the Premier James Martin QC, Parkes succeeded in having Legislation passed which empowered the police to place homeless boys found vagrant or begging in the streets in the growing number of "Ragged" schools and orphanages. By doing so Parkes and Martin hoped to clear the Sydney streets of destitute and neglected boys and provide them with an education.

When Parkes learnt that Robert Towns the owner of merchant ships and whaling vessels wanted to sell the Vernon, he persuaded the Government to purchase it for use as a training ship. Constructed at the Blackwall shipyard in London in 1839 the Vernon, owned by Mr Green, had been contracted to transport 370 government migrants to Brisbane. It had a crew of 44 and was also to carry 400 ton of general cargo. The Vernon was impounded upon arrival in Brisbane in 1864 and sold to Robert Towns to repay debts incurred by the Captain following a mutiny during the voyage to Australia.

Marianne Gorman aged twenty three years died of a fever in July 1866 and was buried in the Devonshire street cemetery. On 17 April 1867, Parkes employed James Gorman VC as drill master and gunnery instructor on the Nautical School Ship Vernon. His duties were to teach the boys all facets of cutlass and rifle drill in addition to gunnery practice which included the aiming and firing at movable targets.

The boys, the majority of whom were children of widows or woman, who had been deserted by their husbands, came from all parts of the state and were required to attend school each day in addition to learning a trade, seamanship, carpentry, tailoring or shoemaking.

With James living on board the NSS Vernon, Annie Elizabeth was cared for by her uncle William Coates who had a butcher shop in Kent Street, and his family.

In 1869 while still acting as gunnery instructor, James was appointed as Master at Arms in Charge of the lower deck, making him responsible for the discipline and welfare of the 135 boys onboard. He told a select committee of Parliamentarians that he believed the younger boys would be better served if they were given more schooling, recreation and rewards for good behaviour in place of the continually scrubbing of the decks they were required to do daily. He maintained that from 4.30am till they went to bed at 8.00pm the boys did not have a half-hour to call their own during the whole day.

Questioned about his disability, James was asked "Did you not come on shore in the ship's boat?" He replied that he could not land in the usual place from the ship's boat as it was too difficult for him and when leaving the NSS Vernon he had to be taken by a Waterman to Circular Quay.

In 1872 now Sail Maker and Officer-in-Charge of the lower deck he was reportedly pleased that many of his suggestions had been implemented improving the life of the boys. Some of his charges were as young as 23 months when assigned to the Vernon.

The annual reports from the Superintendent James Seton Veitch Mein of the NSS Vernon to the Colonial Secretary show that James Gorman V.C. was liked and well respected by both the other officers and the boys.

In his 1873 annual report the Mein wrote "... of the Scarlet Fever that had been in the ship for several months, and that at present we are quite clear of sickness. The great attention and care of the sick by Mr James Gorman, that was specially reported and commended earlier, I think is worthy of notice again here, for it was no doubt due to his skilful nursing that many of the boys recovered so quickly. It affords me great satisfaction to be enabled to state that no death has taken place during the last twelve months."

The following year the Superintendent again reported on the health of the boys.

There was one death during the year by accident, the second fatal accident since 1867, there were less colds and sore throats than any other year due to fumigating the lower decks, The Officer-in-Charge of the Lower deck, Mr James Gorman VC. is a careful and expert hand in the use of this remedy and preventative; he deserves every praise for the care of the sick.

Due to the lack of experienced staff and the Government's attempt to lower the cost of running the establishment down, the ship was without Officers to look after the boys in the sick bay, or to instruct them in the art of sword, gun and sail drill. Gorman's concern for the welfare of the boys saw him voluntarily continued these duties in addition to his appointed duties. This kept him fully occupied from 6am to 9pm each day.

On Monday 1 April 1878, James Gorman VC was promoted to the position of Second Mate with a salary of 130 Pounds ($A260) per year. He retained this position as third officer of the NSS Vernon until 7 June 1881. Then disappointed that the Vernon was no longer teaching nautical skills to the 188 boys onboard, he transferred to the Ordinance Department, taking up the position as the foreman of the magazines on Spectacle Island for a yearly salary of 175 Pound ($A350). Spectacle Island was the first official Naval Stores Complex in Australia and its powder magazine that was built in 1865 is still in use today.

During the time James Gorman VC served on NSS Vernon 1130 boys were received on the Ship. These boys were trained and educated for a minimum of two years. Aged twelve years or over, the boys were apprenticed to the Colony's settlers as farmhands or servants or to factories and businesses as labourers. They remained on the books of the Vernon until released on their eighteenth birthday. At this time many stayed in the employ of those who had employed them, some as partners.

Six weeks after moving to Spectacle Island, on 20 July 1881, James, married thirty-five year old Deborah King, who then lived with him and his daughter in a stone cottage on Spectacle Island.

© Harry Willey, August 2009

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Robert Curran
borclaud @ tpg.com.au