The ordeal of Mary Bluett

My ancestors Thomas and Mary Bluett travelled to New Zealand in 1841. Thomas was a lithographic printer and produced the first charts of Wellington and Port Nicholson, as it was then known. Thomas was, however, a ‘ducker and diver’ and kept getting into business difficulties.

He moved to Sydney and then to Hobart, Tasmania, and much of the work he produced is preserved in museums and libraries.

This notice then appeared on the front page of the China Mail, published in Hong Kong, in issues from March to April 1845:

MRS BLUETT, wife of THOMAS BLUETT, has been left by him with her two children in this island entirely destitute of support. Several influential persons have benevolently subscribed towards a fund in her aid, to enable her to proceed to England. Any further subscriptions for her will be received by the Hon Frederick W Bruce the Colonial Secretary. Victoria 19th March 1845.

Mary joined the 608-ton free trader ‘Tory’ at Hong Kong on 14th May 1845. The first part of the trip was relatively uneventful, rounding the Cape and making for Ascension Island. Having missed that landfall they carried on for home. Then the trip took a horrific turn.

News reached England on 10th November 1845 of a tale of mutiny and murder which in modern parlance was a headline-grabber. Extensively covered in the press, the case was a shocking one which involved Mary as a key witness.

16 of the crew of the Tory were brought to the Thames police office at Wapping where the hearing was conducted, and placed in the dock charged with murder and piracy on the high seas. These men carried a variety of injuries, one of whom, Gair, was unable even to stand. A Frenchman, called Morris remained on board the hospital ship ‘Dreadnaught’.

Captain Johnstone, a 35-year old Scot, claimed that while on the homeward voyage from Hong Kong, his crew had risen up against him and in a piratical manner attempted to seize and carry off the vessel. Although the attempt had been frustrated, more than one death had resulted. A man named Mars, repenting of his involvement, had confessed to the captain, so the other mutineers brutally murdered him. When the attempt was repressed the mate, Rambert, jumped overboard. Another man called Reason, who had also given information to the captain, had died suddenly, supposedly by poison. On arriving at Deal, on the Kent coast, the captain had applied to the authorities and the crew was put in irons.

However, prisoner Lee told a very different story. He stated that after drinking all day with the mate, the captain ordered the larboard watch aft, where they found him armed with a sword, and with him, the two mates Rambert and Mars armed with bayonets. The captain turned on the mates and accused them of mutiny, and started hacking at them. He then ordered Rambert and Mars to be put in irons and whilst fettered, he came at them every two or three hours and cut away at them. He then sent them, still in irons, one to the main-top and one to the mizzen, where they were lashed down. The captain cut the first mate, Rambert, viciously over an extended period, and upon release, the man ran aft and jumped overboard. The captain did not alter course.

Yelverton described how the captain’s mood had changed after visiting a French ship, and had abused first mate Rambert for allowing the ship’s boat to be ‘bruised’. The two men had spent the afternoon drinking in the captain’s cabin before calling the crew out on deck. Once the violence started, Yelverton recalled seeing a piece of Mars’ head sliced off, the size of a man’s hand with the hair on it. The Captain took Mars into his cabin and they could hear the sound of choking. Later the crew found Mars pinned to the door with the captain pitching the cutlass at him over and over again. Mars’ ordeal carried on for hours.

Gair’s statement described being made to kneel in front of the captain, shackled, whilst the captain hacked at his head and body with a cutlass. Cone also described being hacked about the head with the cutlass and being put in irons and left tied to the hatch for two days. He was then hoisted up to the mizzen-top; two other men were put on the main-top, with shackles round their necks.

The magistrate Mr Broderip found it hard to understand how a ship with a crew in a mutinous state had even been brought into the Channel, particularly as the captain had not requested assistance. Because of this and other evidence put before him, he decided to discharge the men and put the captain himself on trial.

Johnstone arrived in an almost fainting condition and spent the rest of the trial slumped forward in his seat. Witnesses expanded upon the earlier testimonies.

The captain had ordered Mars to be dragged on deck with a rope and then ‘squeezed’ with it – presumably meaning that the rope was twisted tighter and tighter around him. Apprentice, Henry Slack, described the sight of a worm coming out of Mars’ mouth (so even the man’s internal parasites had had enough!).

Other witnesses supported this story with further elaboration – one describing Mars’ hands cut to pieces, the joints hanging out, the bones of the small fingers sticking out. Another described how his upper lip was nearly cut off and had to be lifted to feed him bread soaked in coffee.

Steward James Glover gave evidence that he had entered the captain’s cabin to find Reason horribly mutilated, and clearly dying with wounds to his temple and forehead and stab wounds in his chest.

Rambert had leapt overboard while being chased around the deck by a cutlass-wielding Johnstone. The captain had ordered the log to be falsified to explain the deaths as a result of mutiny, and ordered the crew to sign false statements under threat of death.

As the hearing progressed, crowds of 300 people were reported outside the police office. The story was attracting huge interest and the following is part of the report in the Illustrated London News of December 6th 1845.

Mary Blewitt [sic] was next called, and said, “I reside at number 13 Albany Street. I was a passenger on board the ship ‘Tory’. I remember three of the men being in irons, in some part of the rigging. I was in the cabin, as a cabin passenger, for the first fortnight. I was afterwards on the half deck, a little more forward, but not left of the poop.

On the twenty sixth of September, I believe, about three or four o clock, I heard Captain Johnstone demand the mate be found, and brought, wherever he was, to him. Barry Yelverton was the one who found him, and brought him to the Captain. I was then looking on, of which Captain Johnstone was not aware, he had a pistol in his left hand, and a cutlass in the other. I believe the pistol was loaded, for Captain Johnstone always ordered them to bring his pistol loaded.

The Captain stuck Rambert right and left – on the head first, and afterwards on the body. Rambert was not armed, but his hands were free. During the time Captain Johnstone was striking him, he begged for mercy to spare him. Captain Johnstone replied, “Oh you overgrown monster; you cowardly brute!”, and with that he cut him with his cutlass. Rambert said, “Ask the sailors, Captain Johnstone, if I ever said a word against you”, on which the captain seemed to get more enraged, and struck him more violently than the time before. “Go on your knees”, he said, which Rambert did, and then, after calling him an “overgrown monster” he struck him severely with the cutlass.

Rambert exclaimed, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God! I’m killed”. With that he dropped on one side, and said, “Oh” when Captain Johnstone sent for the irons. After that the carpenter came and put the irons on the monkey hatch, on the half deck. Rambert was bleeding very much at the time in question. Rambert asked the boy, Slack, to tie his head up. The boy said he had nothing.

During that time, I believe, the captain retired into his cabin for refreshments. Captain Johnstone had not made many minutes delay when he came up again, and went up to the mizzen mast-top were the man, Stephen Cone, was in irons. He struck at Cone in the most violent manner, so violent that I heard the blows from where I’d been looking on. I could not see what the captain struck with, only that he went up with a cutlass in his hand. With that I cried out, “My God, my God! If that is Stephen Cone, he will kill him”. I said this to Mrs. Thompson. That was the first time I spoke while the captain had been striking Rambert. With that Rambert heard my voice, and said “Mrs. Blewitt [sic], I am dying, give me a handkerchief to tie my head up, I am bleeding to death”. I replied, “I am in that state I am not fit to move; I am so exhausted and faint”. With this Rambert said, “He is coming down again, he will kill me. Oh my God! Oh my God!”. To that I made no reply.

As Captain Johnstone was coming towards Rambert, he said; “Where is the overgrown monster?”. With that he said to the carpenter, “Where is he?”, and then ordered Rambert to be taken away to the main hatch. After this, I believe the captain was forward to some of the men, and I heard as far as I can recollect, that Rambert was to be taken out of irons. Directly after that I heard a rush on the poop. I saw Rambert trying to make his escape, between the end of the boat and the companion. Julian was on the poop at the time, with a musket and bayonet on top of it. I saw Julian presenting the bayonet towards Rambert. With that I heard the captain crying out, “Where is he? Where is he?”. “He is gone overboard”, said Julian. The captain answered, “The bugger, I shall have half of them overboard before sunset today”.

The next words I heard were Captain Johnstone calling a boy, and ordering a glass of grog for all hands, but I do not know whether all the crew were there. I was so exhausted and faint that I lay down and observed no further, only I was in hope that there might be peace”.

The Times quoted her final remarks –

Your Worship, I was treated very unkindly by Captain Johnstone, and was obliged to come ashore at Deal on 9th of last month to save my life and the child’s. He had me down in the cabin on the 7th of last month, having sent for me by Slack. “My God, Harry”, I said, “does he want to kill me?”, and the boy replied, “I do not know, I am sure, Mrs. Blewett [sic]”. I went to the cabin where Barry, French, and Mr. Spence were, as well as the captain. Mrs. Thompson seeing me alarmed accompanied me; besides, it was the wish of Captain Johnstone that she should.

Captain Johnstone said, “I wish you to understand, Mrs. Blewett [sic], that I am going to put you in irons for the remainder of the voyage, and you are going to be hung at the Old Bailey”. He said, “Is that not it, French?”, who answered, “Yes, I believe it is, sir”. I said, “I’m willing to die, Captain Johnstone, for I’ve had no peace since I came onto this ship; but may I speak one word or two. I embarked on board on 14th of last May, and from that time to this I never heard a man belonging to the crew say a word ill against you or the ship either; and if any soul can say I ever said a word against you let him say it”. I was in such dread and fear of the Captain, I apprehended that I should never come out of the cabin alive”.

The captain was eventually sent for trial at the Old Bailey where the Attorney General himself acted for the prosecution. Johnstone ended his days in the ‘Bedlam’ mental asylum.

As for Mary, she was not entirely innocent in this whole affair. Her address at the time of the trial was Albany Street, off the Commercial Road in East London. Having claimed to have only a farthing to her name when she arrived back in London, she seems to have quickly acquired money as we see from this article from the Morning Chronicle, December 6th 1845.

It seems that Blewitt [sic], though a married woman, with a husband still living, had contracted an intimacy with [the ship’s cook] Dunn during the voyage and determined to make him her ‘second’ in despite of the laws against bigamy. Having to appear with her as a witness on Wednesday’s inquiry, she resolved that her intended should show to the greatest advantage, and to that end she rigged him out in ‘spick and span new’ toggery, and they went arm in arm to the court. On the way she handed him the key of her apartment, of the contents of which he was, no doubt, well aware, for better security, fearing she would be flurried whilst giving her evidence. With the natural curiosity of her sex, Mrs Blewitt [sic], conceiving that she was the heroine of the piece, [attended] the whole performance, but Dunn, as soon as he quitted the witness box, hastened to Mrs Blewitt’s [sic] apartment.

Mrs Blewitt [sic], on missing her gallant escort, whom she expected to find in the opposite public-house, had sundry misgivings, and hastening to her lodgings, discovered that her faithless swain had anticipated her visit, forced her desk, abstracted £20 and bolted. She gave instant information at the Denmark Street station house, when it was ascertained Dunn had set sail for Liverpool.

During the time of the trial, we know that Thomas called on her at her lodgings, so at that point 24 year old William Dunn must have realised that there was no future for him and Mary, so took off with her money. Dunn’s actions probably worked to Thomas’ favour because without her ‘stash’, Mary would have had no choice but to move in with her husband.

However their reconciliation was short lived, as Thomas died in an accidental shooting just a few months later.

Paul Barton, Special Agent

© Paul Barton, Special Agent  2008