Book Review – ‘Commanders of Sail’ by Geoffrey D Stephenson

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‘Commanders of Sail’ is an authentic account of the great square-rigged sailing ship Sobraon and the role she and her long time commander Lt James Aberdour Elmslie, RNR played in the transformation of a clutch of exuberant colonies into the new nation of Australia. The book covers the 75 year life of the ship including her service as NSS Sobraon and as HMAS Tingira.

From 1866 to 1891 the Sobraon was the pre-eminent ship in the Australian trade carrying thousands of settlers and large colonial cargoes between London, Sydney and Melbourne. Thereafter, for the following 50 years the ship lay in Sydney Harbour.

From 1891 to 1911, the Nautical School Ship (NSS) Sobraon was home for thousands of disadvantaged Sydney boys who were given a basic education and taught a trade. The vessel had been purchased for the NSW colonial government by its Premier, Sir Henry Parkes, whose early life was similarly difficult.

Then, when the Roy6al Australian Navy was established in 1911 the Sobraon was bought by the Commonwealth Government, given a coat of white paint and fitted out as the centre of training for recruits for the new Navy. The vessel was commissioned into the RAN on 25 April 1912 as HMAS Tingira.

Over the following 15 years – until the ship was decommissioned in 1927, thousands of boys underwent their basic training aboard HMAS Tingira. Though all who trained in her went to sea, the ship herself did not – proudly flying her white ensign she remained moored in Rose Bay, affectionately known as ‘The White Lady of Rose Bay’.

The first batch of boys were recruited from New South Wales and joined the Tingira on 1 June 1912. Drafts from other States quickly followed, completing the first intake of 100 boys who were bound to serve for seven years following their eighteenth birthday.

Seventeen months later, on 9 November 1914, HMAS Sydney sank the German raider Emden in action off Cocos Island. Australia was shocked to learn that a draft of ex-HMAS Tingira boys was on board the Sydney. Thirty 16 year-olds straight from Tingira were included in the ship’s company and did everything required of them, including passing shells and spotting shots. Two were wounded.

One of the casualties, Tom Williamson from Victoria, had been one quarter of an inch short of five feet tall when he joined HMAS Tingira, but had grown to five feet two. Both he and the other casualty, Boy Signalman Tom Stevenson, were still serving in the RAN at the outbreak of World War II.

Fifteen year old boys were rated Boy Second Class on joining Tingira and Boy First Class at sea-going age a year later. They were then transferred to an operational naval vessel for the remainder of their training.

In 1927 the RAN’s ‘Boy Entry’ system was replaced with a ‘Direct Entry’ system according to which young men aged 18 to 25 years were trained at the new single point of entry for recruits: Flinders Naval Depot (HMAS Cerberus) in Victoria.

The final church service on HMAS Tingira was held in Rose Bay on Sunday 12 June 1927. In a sense that final divine service was also a funeral service for the ship.

In 1929 the ex-HMAS Tingira was sold to a private buyer, prominent Sydney boat-builder W M Ford, who wished to preserve the old ship. However the period of the Great Depression was not the right time to raise money to restore an old sailing ship, and following the outbreak of war the old Sobraon – ex HMAS Tingira was broken up in 1941.

The service of the clipper ship Sobraon to the emerging nation of Australia was diverse and unsurpassed by that of any other vessel of her time. Although her twelve years of service as the naval training ship HMAS Tingira was a relatively brief part of her 75 year life it was, nevertheless, an important role she played in the development of the nation following federation. Likewise, although the role of HMAS Tingira is relatively insignificant in the history of the Royal Australian Navy it was, at a critical time, of strategic importance to Australia leading into World War I.

It is said that ‘big oaks from little acorns grow’. And so it was that Boy Second Class David Turner, one of the first intake of boys into HMAS Tingira, wrote an informative postcard to his parents at 7 Kinross St, Pascoe Vale in Victoria saying ‘To my Dear Parents, From their loving son. Dave.’

‘Commanders of Sail’ is a book of 555 pages including 240 pages of large high resolution images. It is available to purchase online at

Geoffrey D Stephenson, July 2014.