Monday, 9 May 2016

Ship deserters

Desertion by crew members was not uncommon in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.  My wife's English grandfather, Felix Arthur Burns, was one such example, having parted company with the barque Elizabeth Dougall after sailing from France to Sydney as a cabin boy in 1879.

There were probably tens of thousands of crew members who left their ships for a variety of reasons once they made landfall in Australia.  They usually departed individually, although in some cases entire crews deserted.  An index of ship deserters at Queensland ports for the 50 year period 1862 to 1911, for example, lists 3,800 individuals who deserted.

The earliest record of a Lithuanian-born deserter we have found so far is that of Stanislav STANKEVITCH (Stasys Stankevičius would be the modern Lithuanian version of his name) from Vilnius who absconded from the Russian ship Kreiser in Hobart in 1823 (Govor, E., Australia in the Russian Mirror; changing perceptions 1770-1919, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1997, p8).

At least one of the men who served in the First AIF was a ship deserter.  John BRENKA is listed as having deserted from the Ajana at Port Adelaide on 30 September 1914.  He went on to serve Australia in the Gallipoli campaign (10th Battalion) and then on the Western Front (50th Battalion) where he died on 23 August 1916.

Desertion was less common in the twentieth century, with stricter controls and perhaps better conditions for crews, which makes the motives behind the following stories more intruiging:

  • Max LIPSSCHUS is featured in the New South Wales Police Gazette of 2 April 1924 with the following text: 'Sydney - the above is a photograph of Max Lipsschus, who deserted from the s.s. Hanau, at Sydney, on the 21st ultimo.  Offender is a seaman, 30 years of age, .. a native of Russia, and a prohibited immigrant.' (source:  This story seems to have ended well, as in 1939 a Max Lipschus, living at King street, Newtown (Sydney), placed a notice of intention to apply for naturalisation in the Sydney Morning Herald stating that he had been born in Kretinga (Lithuania), was of Lithuanian nationality, and had been living in Australia for 15 years. Max went on to play a brief role on the committee of the Australian Lithuanian Society in the late 1940s.  
  • On the other hand we don't know the outcome of this story, which may not have had such a happy ending:
Deserter Captured (1936, March 20). Port Lincoln Times (SA : 1927 - 1954)  p. 5. Retrieved May 1, 2016, from

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