Really pining for the fjords

If you had visited the magnificent Crystal Palace in the summer of 1887 the attractions awaiting you were many and varied. There were cycle races pitting men against racehorses, balloon ascents pitting man against the birds and a Japanese acrobat known as the Original Little All-Right and his act known as the Slide For Life. His tour de force was to first walk up an inclined rope strung from the upper gallery to the floor. At the top he would then seat himself on the rope and slide down. Once seen, never forgotten.

Flushed with the excitations of these feats of Victorian derring-do, you might try to calm yourself by looking at some of the static exhibits in the gigantic glass palace translocated from Hyde Park and rebuilt nearly eight miles outside London.

20th century aerial view shows how vast was the Crystal Palace

20th century aerial view shows how vast was the Crystal Palace

Tucked away inside the huge greenhouse was a diorama featuring an unassuming-looking little single-masted sailing boat. It certainly wasn’t a big boat — about 20 feet long and seven wide. It could have been an inshore fishing boat. The ship was called The Homeward Bound.

What do you do if you’re a sailor thousands of miles away from home, hundreds of miles inland, landlocked in the middle of the hot South African veldt, pining for the fjords of your hometown in Norway north of the Arctic Circle? You build a boat to sail home, that’s what you do. It’s worth recalling the now forgotten story of two brothers and their friend who did just that and sailed it home 10,000 miles across two oceans in 1886.

A Norwegian colony had established itself in Natal, but some had become disillusioned with their new country. Three men in particular wanted to go home. Brothers Ingvald and Bernhard Nilson, along with their friend Zephanias Olsen did so, but liked setting themselves a bit of a challenge. So, rather than take passage back to Norway (they could easily have afforded it), or work their way as crewmen or even make their way to the coast and there build themselves a vessel, they decided on the crazy notion to chop down trees and make their own boat right where they lived, weeks inland and beyond the Drakensberg Mountains. They weren’t in a hurry though. Waiting for the timber to season was one excuse why it took a whole two years to construct what must have been the first and last ocean-going vessel ever built in Witzies Hoek.

It wasn’t quite as crazy a project as it first sounded (though I bet his practical Norwegian neighbors thought so). Ingvald had previously been at sea for many years. Now he was running his own blacksmith’s shop in the South African back country, so tools and expertise in boatbuilding weren’t too far removed. He employed both Bernhard and Olsen, so work on their ark  would be fitted in round making wheels and nails and plough shares for the farming community.

homeward bound4

When The Homeward Bound was finally finished, the ship was loaded on the largest wagon they could find. It took a full span of oxen to drag the four and a half ton boat over about 250 miles of bad roads down to Durban or Port Natal as it was then known. There the three men bought sails and on May 2 1886 cast off. Ten months later, after landfall in St Helena, the Azores and Spain, surviving countless storms and near starvation, they arrived in the English Channel. homeward bound

As the tiny boat entered Dover Harbour, its decks weather worn and sea stained, the hull covered in barnacles and weed, the locals at first were disbelieving. “The Homeward Bound looks anything but a capable craft to perform such a voyage,” was the universal opinion.

homeward bound2What today would be hailed as a triumph of human endurance was greeted sniffily by many. Said one newspaper columnist: “Their achievement is a magnificent testimony to their pluck and endurance, and one can only regret that such qualities have not found some more useful outlet than the making of a totally unnecessary voyage”.

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8 Responses to Really pining for the fjords

  1. Hi i live not to far from bluegumbosh the farm where the homeward bound was built. Do you know where the little craft now rests.


    • actonbooks says:

      Hi Michael-Lee,
      History has a way of closing over people like a wave on the ocean. I cannot find any record of when the boat was moved from the Crystal Palace. The exhibition may have purchased it outright, or merely paid the threesome a fee for a time. It may have even been in a dusty part of the glass and iron building when it burned down half a century later.
      I do not think the men stayed in Britain for the rest of their lives as they do not figure in UK death records.



  2. Leon Strachan says:

    Hi Martin, we also live near Bluegumbosch. Enjoy your blog, but would like to know which source you used please. We are planning to visit the site where The Homeward Bound was constructed. Regards Leon


    • actonbooks says:

      Hi Leon, In answer to your question; the ubiquitous first chapter of history, contemporaneous sources gave me most of the information. That was largely UK newspapers and the Illustrated London News as I recall. But like a jigsaw where individual pieces are distributed like messages in a bottle across the globe there may be more in the South African archive, but librarianship has become a dying art in your country, sadly.


  3. Peter Davie says:

    Hi Leon, Sep de Beer who used to own the Harrismith Chronicle (his daughter married Hans Lotter), had the full story on Homeward Bound. There were also photos of them sawing planks and building the boat on uncle Leonard Liddel’s farm and of the boat sailing into Madeira and in Chrystal palace, The boat was burnt in the fire and one brother went back to Norway and the other stayed in England but could have also joined him at a later stage. I had a copy of the story but someone borrowed it.


    • Leon Strachan says:

      Hi Peter! Thank you for this. Marie Lotter’s kids weren’t interested, so she distributed her collection in her twilight years to whom ever came for a visit. The result is that it is impossible to know who has that file. (Fortunately I copied Willy Liddell’s invaluable exercise book with his pencil register of all residents in his lifetime (with abridged family histories)). We have found a lot of info re Homeward Bound in British Newspapers of 1887, which answered most of my questions. Can you remember what wood they used?


  4. lizfinnie says:

    I have information about the Homeward Bound. We lived on the farm where the boat was constructed, a later subdivision of Bluegumbush called Delhanna owned by the Liddell family at the time. It was my Great-grandfather, Adolph Johannes Cronje’s commissariat wagon they used to transport the boat to Pietermaritzburg. (See Story of Harrismith, 1842-1920 by E.B. Hawkins, p. 117. (Dad said they tried tying two wagons together with riems but that obviously didn’t work). Then it was loaded on the train to Durban where they had the boat on show (I think on the beach where the circus pitched the tent in later years), the proceeds helping to pay for their supplies. According to my father, the three mariners were “jobbers” – people who went from farm to farm as builders and blacksmiths and referred to as “tramps”. I’ve heard the story that they had property and therefore had means but I don’t think this was the case. What I was told, James Greaves Liddell allowed them a small plot on Bluegumbush (later a sub-division called Delhanna) to set up a blacksmith’s shop where they practised their trade. There is confusion regarding the wood they used – American pitchpine, gumtrees and yellowwood – perhaps some of each? My Dad said they used yellowwood given by my great-grandfather Adolph Cronje. This is not impossible as Adolph had recently finished building Patricksdale house (where I also lived). All the wood in the house had been cut in the valleys near the Royal National Park, taken to Pietermaritzburg on ox-wagon to be milled and returned to the Free State on ox-wagon to Patricksdale farm. No doubt there was milled wood leftover which Adolph could have let them have. Bluegumbush had many gumtrees growing but they are not native to South Africa. The question is when were they planted, would the trees be big enough for the purpose? I don’t have the answer. I think American pitchpine would have been imported? This would cost – did they acquire some from one of the farmers? I don’t know enough about the forestry business at that time. I have more information about the men themselves.
    (PS. Apologies, I might be reposting as I’m not sure the posting worked the first time)


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