By Kath Gannaway
Michael Veitch is the author of many critically acclaimed books on Australia’s WWII airman and seafaring adventures, but Hell Ship is personal in a way that none of his other works is.
Hell Ship, and the play which is currently touring Victoria ‘ Hell Ship – the Journey of the Ticonderoga’ is the story of how Michael’s family came to Australia through the lens of a Victorian maritime disaster that has until now been largely hidden.
Michael, an acclaimed author, actor and comedian who lives in the Yarra Valley, will present the one-man show at The Memo in Healesville on Saturday, 22 September.
The book, hailed as his best work yet, is the story of his great-great-grandfather, James William Henry Veitch, a young surgeon on the emigrant clipper Ticonderoga which was bringing 795 men, women and children, many of them economic refugees fleeing the Scottish Highland clearances, to a new life in Australia.
In the spring of 1852, the Ticonderoga limped through the heads of Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay after a three-month voyage from Liverpool.
Overcrowded, by the time the double-decker ship reached Australia, she was a floating hell ship.
Shortly after crossing the equator, typhus had erupted throughout her decks, and in just a few weeks, one hundred people had perished.
Forbidden to enter Melbourne, the Ticonderoga was made to offload her human cargo onto a small beach inside the heads where, for the next six weeks, a makeshift quarantine hospital was established.
Through the tireless efforts of James Veitch, aided by a handful of passengers, including a courageous young Scots woman, Annie Morrison, many lives were saved.
“The beauty of this story is that at the same time as it is a personal story of how my own family came to Australia, it was also one of the great stories of its day,” Michael said.
“The newspapers were screaming with this story and realised what a catastrophy it had been.”
Michael has researched the story extensively and said the Argus newspaper of 1952 made fascinating reading.
“Even for its day, it was considered a huge disaster,” he said.
The connection to family was felt very much in the research and writing of the book, and in playing the role of his grandfather, and others, on stage.
“In writing this story I have given, as best I can, a human face to the people who were on this ship and dug into many of the records of who they were and what it would have been like,” he said.
The plight of the passengers as refugees, and the parallel with today’s refugees is recognised in his dedication of the book “to the boat people of every age and every country”.
The family connection that harks back several generations also embraces the next generation with Michael’s son Thomas, composing, arranging and playing the music created as a CD for the show. Rose Hampton, also a former Little Yarra Steiner School music graduate sings.
An enquiry into the disaster hailed James Veitch as the hero of the Ticonderoga story and while he was briefly feted, he then disappeared into a quiet life as a country doctor in Bendigo.
In telling the true story of one of the most dramatic, but now forgotten chapters of Australia’s early maritime history, Michael brings to the surface a tale of hardship and heroism, of survival and love.
Tickets are available at The Memo, phone 1300 368 333 or email firstname.lastname@example.org .