The Fastest Ship in the World

On Boxing Day 1852, a clipper ship sailed into the port of Liverpool with a banner draped from its mast declaring it “The Fastest Ship in the World”.  The ship was the  New Brunswick built clipper “Marco Polo”.  The achievement, sailing from Liverpool to Melbourne and return in 175 days,  a world record at that time.  At the helm was Captain James Nicol “Bully” Forbes, a colourful and fearless character of the sea and a master of navigation.

Only five months before, 888 passengers, mostly emigrants, boarded the “Marco Polo” at Liverpool, England for the ship’s maiden voyage to Australia.  Of these,  661 were Scots, including my great, great, great grandfather Charles Hadden, his wife Agnes and sons, William and James.  They had made the journey from Haddington, East Lothian, Scotland to Liverpool,  to embark on a new life in Australia.  In the days before the voyage they would have been accommodated in the emigrant depot at Birkenhead before being loaded into the ship’s crowded  steerage.  The three decked ship was the largest at the time to sail to Australia and while it had rather plush fittings in some parts, for the emigrants conditions were poor.   The Haddens would have been accommodated amidships with the other families, in a small berth with little privacy.  With the firing of a cannon, the “Marco Polo” set sail on July 4, 1852 with Captain “Bully” Forbes intent on sailing to Australia and return in under six months.

Marco Polo Brodie Collection, La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.

Forbes had charted a course which he was sure would cut the travel time, by way of the great circle route.  This would see the ship sail south down the east coast of South America, and then steering south-east of Cape Town toward Antarctica.  The path was as south as possible without getting too close to ice.  It was here Forbes caught the “Roaring Forties” winds travelling  East until he was able to head north into Bass Straight.  For the passengers, this meant enduring the extremes of weather.  As they passed through the Equator they would have felt incredible heat, and then freezing cold as they moved into the “Roaring Forties” and “Howling Fifties”.  Also disease, particularly measles was rife below deck.  The crowded conditions at the emigrant depot and then on the ship had seen its rapid spread.  Of the 327 children on board, 51 died along with two adults.

When the “Marco Polo” sailed into Port Phillip Bay on September 18, 1852  the Victorian Gold Rush was in full swing and Forbes’ greatest concern was keeping his crew on board the ship.  This was made more difficult when coming into dock, with boats surrounding the clipper and reportedly throwing small nuggets onto the decks.  Other ships’ captains had told of not being able to get crew no matter how high the wages offered.

ON TOM TIDDLER’S GROUND. (1932, November 9). Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909-1954), p. 13. Retrieved May 4, 2011, from

Forty or so ships were causing a log jam  in Hobsons Bay.  Their crews had caught “gold fever” and had abandoned their posts.   So resolute  to return back to Liverpool quickly, Forbes had is own crew imprisoned for insubordination and when it was time to leave for England he paid their fines and returned them to the ship.  Despite his best efforts the time spent in port was 24 days, although without Forbes’ ingenuity it may have been longer.  Seventy-six days later the ship was sailing back up the Mersey, to dock at Liverpool, the world record journey complete.

The feat saw “Bully” Forbes retain the captaincy of the “Marco Polo” for another voyage to Australia in 1853 with 648 passengers, reduced from the previous voyage because of the learnt danger of overcrowding.    The ship was extensively renovated before the second voyage and was described at the time to be equal to a floating Crystal Palace.  The “Marco Polo” and Forbes brought over 1500 immigrants to Victoria in the two trips.  Forbes was then awarded the captaincy of the “Lightening” which he sailed to Australia in 1854.  From there he captained several other ships until his sea days ended in 1866.  He died in 1874 at only 52 years old but he had ensured his name would be remembered in maritime history.

The “Marco Polo” completed the round trip to Australia a total of 25 times in the 15 years after the first voyage with around 150,000 immigrants to Victoria.  From 1867, she was a cargo ship until 1883 when she was driven onto the shore at Prince Edward Island, Canada when found to be leaking badly during a cargo run.  A sad end for a ship that safely carried thousands of people to a new life in Australia.   In New Brunswick,  Canada, the “Marco Polo” is remembered proudly and The Marco Polo Project is overseeing the building of a replica ship. The “Marco Polo” is not as celebrated in Australia, but a large number of Australians today would have had ancestors arrive here thanks to the speedy clipper.

What of the Haddens?  Records show they left the Marco Polo at Hobsons Bay in September 1852 and made their own way to Melbourne, most likely to the Canvas Town in South Melbourne, a “tent city” for the thousands of  immigrants.  A son was born at “The Ruins” Mokanger Station near Cavendish in 1864 where they eventually settled.   But more about them later.

For further reading about the “Marco Polo” , the book Marco Polo  The Story of the Fastest Clipper by Martin J. Hollenberg (Chatham Press, London, 2006) has an extensive history of the ship.  Two interesting newspaper articles I found at the NLA’s Trove site,  also tell the story of both the Marco Polo and Captain “Bully” Forbes

8 thoughts on “The Fastest Ship in the World

  1. Welcome to the Geneabloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I have found it most stimulating, especially some of the Daily Themes.

    May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

    Dr. Bill 😉
    Author of “Back to the Homeplace”
    and “13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories”


  2. I can understand why this is a popular post. Very well written and researched.

    This has prompted a new project/blog for me. I think that I had family members arrive on the Marco Polo. However I have just realised that my family history program does not allow me to quickly obtain a list of all the boats that my ancestors arrived on. I need to go into each person individually. So as a result of reading this, I now intend on compiling a list of the boats and years that all my ancestors arrived in Australia


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