IT IS disappointing to read that John Wells is still clinging to the myth that the Churchill Island cannon came from the Shenandoah (Bang goes that theory, Bass Coast Post, August 9, 2014 - story below).
He argues there is no proof either way and that if there is a connection between Samuel Amess, who brought the cannon to Churchill Island, or John Cleeland, who gave it to him, with Capt Waddell of the Shenandoah, this would give weight to the theory. It does no such thing.
The facts are these. Amess claimed the cannon had come from the Shenandoah. This was passed down through his family. He was almost certainly given it by John Cleeland. In a letter printed in the Australasian on March 9 1907, his grand-daughter Marjorie wrote: “We have a large cannon in the orchard which belonged to the American war-ship Shenandoah and was given to my grandfather by a friend.”
The friend was almost certainly John Cleeland and there is a probable connection between the confederate officers and Cleeland, who ran the Albion Hotel in Bourke Street.
The Murchison Times of 18 February 1916 wrote: “The Shenandoah officers were feted by the Melbourne Club. They put up at Cleeland’s Albion Hotel Bourke Street. He named his grey racing filly Shenandoah.”
While this is much later than the event, Cleeland’s racehorses are a matter of record. It seems probable that he did give hospitality but this in itself does not give weight to the cannon’s origins.
The cannon facts are these. The Churchill Island cannon was obsolete in comparison to the Shenandoah’s armament. This was clearly documented in extensive academic research devoted to the southern raider. In "The last gun in defence of the South", published in 2007, the late Henry Gordon-Clark wrote the story of the CSS Shenandoah and her cruise around the world in 1864-1865. Ph.D Thesis, Monash University.
Gordon-Clark was adamant that the records show the Shenandoah’s guns were superior to the Churchill Island cannon. The Shenandoah was fitted out in Madeira with guns and ammunition brought on the Laurel from Liverpool. Thus its fittings were British and there is agreement that the Churchill Island cannon is not. Wells and others argue that it could have been taken from one of the prizes. Gordon-Clark argues that everything captured was documented; that most whalers were not armed; that if they had been, there was little point in capturing an obsolete piece.
The Shenandoah’s visit to Melbourne was highly public. In the bay, visitors streamed on board. In dry dock in Williamstown, it was surrounded by soldiers when it was suspected of illegally recruiting sailors. The question is, if the cannon was ever on board, how did it get off without being reported?
On July 5 ,1982, Williamstown city historian Wilson P Evans wrote in a letter now held in the Victorian Conservation Trust archive: “In 1950, I carried out research in Australia and overseas in an attempt to ascertain if Captain Waddell presented this gun to Samuel Amess during the stay of the raider in Port Phillip. I found no record that there was any transaction between Amess and the Shenandoah in respect to a gun or guns. The only time it would have been possible to lift the weapon out of the raider was when she was hove to outside Port Phillip Heads. I consider such a transfer unlikely since I hold the pilotage records of the Shenandoah.”
When the Victorian Conservation Trust was responsible for Churchill Island, when it came into public ownership, a world-wide correspondence was conducted to try to determine the origins of the cannon. Tony Dunlap, an armament expert, was engaged to try to determine the origins. All these efforts were inconclusive. I summarised the archival evidence in my paper of 2010, posted on the Friends of Churchill Island website, www.friendsofchurchillisland.org.au
John Wells’s article includes some minor errors about the history of Churchill Island.Samuel Amess’s grandson sold the island on bankruptcy in 1929, and Harry Jenkins bought it in 1936. The final private owner was Alex Classou. The island’s history is well described in Pat Baird’s Churchill Island. History and Herstory, FOCIS, 2nd edition 2012.
David Maunders is vice-president of the Friends of Churchill Island Society.