My latest research efforts have been focussed on an American shipping family, headed by shipowner and master, Captain Edward Robert Sterling. During the 1900s to the 1920s, Samuel J Hood would take his trusty Folmer & Schwing Graflex camera to Sydney Harbour to photograph vessels and their crew and passengers. Hood relied on the income produced from portraits he took of captains and their families before he moved on to photojournalism. The Sterling family were one of those families, and what a fascinating family album he produced! A thorough search of census, birth, marriage and shipping records later revealed a vibrant family life that seems all the more animated through Hood’s photographs.
Based in Seattle, Washington USA, Canadian born Captain Edward Robert Sterling and his wife Helen B Sterling, plied the timber trade between America, Australia and New Zealand. They had three children, Ray Milton Sterling, Ethel Manila Sterling and Dorothy H Sterling. Ray later followed his father’s footsteps and became captain of the six-masted barquentine E R Sterling. It seems that the Sterlings enjoyed their trips to Australia, and the Hood photographs in the collection show the family at the races and happily driving and picnicking around Sydney. On 17 December 1916, Ray married an Australian woman, Ethel May Francis, and within a couple of years their daughter, Margaret Francis was born.
Some of Hood’s photographs portray relatives or passengers on board E R Sterling.
Whilst others raise more questions than answers. The series of intimate portraits in the captain’s quarters on board E R Sterling, for example, are Hood’s best photographs of the family, yet it is difficult to confirm the identity of his subjects. The image below is possibly E R Sterling’s third child, Dorothy Sterling. Apart from a mention in the United States Federal Census record of 1910, however, there is very little information on Dorothy available. She remains a mystery.
What we are left with, in the end, are a series of interesting ship’s portraits highlighting one prominent shipping family’s experiences and lifestyle in Sydney. They convey nothing of the harsher times to come, when E R Sterling was forced to sell one of his schooners, Ethel M Sterling, because he had not paid for the two 240 horsepower diesel engines he had installed in 1926. They show a time of prosperity that would again be put under serious strain with E R Sterling & Company Inc. being riddled with ongoing ship disasters. In 1927, E R Sterling faced a gale near the Falkland Islands en route from Port Adelaide to Britain. After nine months at sea, the vessel sailed into the Thames in complete disrepair and had lost its chief officer, who had been crushed to death by one of the masts during a hurricane. In 1934, classed by The Sydney Morning Herald as one of the only surviving old sailing ships, the Helen B Sterling was tragically destroyed by a fire while berthed in Sydney Harbour.The search for more answers continues. Hopefully we can unearth more information about this interesting family and throw light on Hood’s brilliant photographs.
If you would like to have a family day out like the Sterlings, the museum is hosting an Edwardian family picnic at Rodd Island on 23 September 2012. Bring your cucumber sandwiches, play a spot of croquet and frock up in your Sunday best for a lovely day, Edwardian style.
EDIT 9/08/13: For a more detailed article on the Sterling family see the museum’s publication, Signals. Nicole Cama, Death of a shipping line: The rise and fall of the Sterlings, Signals 102, (March-May 2013).