The captain’s beloved six-masted barquentine E R Sterling under sail in all its splendour. All photographs from the museum’s Samuel J Hood Studio Collection of some 10,000 glass-plate and nitrate negatives comprising the maritime work of this versatile photographer whose career spanned the first half of the 20th century.
Death of a shipping line
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE STERLINGS
A trail of misfortunes destroyed Captain Edward Robert Sterling’s beloved fleet of giant sailing ships. Curatorial assistant Nicole Cama found this story hidden among the vast holdings of the museum’s Samuel J Hood Studio Collection, which records this family of North American shipowners and their links with Australia. IN THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY, photographer Samuel J Hood was discovering new ways to make his mark in an industry that was only just gaining momentum. His tactic was simple but effective – he would take his trusty Folmer & Schwing Graflex camera to Sydney Harbour to photograph vessels and their crews. Before his later career in photojournalism flourished, he relied on the income from portraits he took of captains and their families. One of the families he photographed was that of Captain Edward Robert Sterling, an American shipowner and sea captain with Australian interests. Over the years, Hood documented their lavish lifestyle, which seems to come alive through his camera lens for viewers almost 100 years later. What these photographs cannot show, however, are the tragic events that were to unfold shortly after the images were taken. This is the story of a family who experienced the high life and had it snatched away, and of a man whose undying passion for the great sailing ships was crushed by financial ruin as his beloved fleet, one by one, fell victim to merciless seas and the Great Depression.
Captain Edward Robert Sterling was born on 3 October in about 1860 in Sheet Harbour in Nova Scotia, Canada. From an early age he was exposed to the sea; growing up in a coastal town, his love for seafaring would have developed as he watched sailing vessels of all types come into port. According to one news report, he ran away from home at the age of nine to begin his career at sea, and by 21 he was a captain. At some point after this and possibly before he migrated to the United States in 1883, he married Helen B Watt (b 1866), also from Nova Scotia, and the daughter of a ship’s captain. Sterling and his wife were based in Seattle, Washington, and had three children: Ray Milton (b 1894), Ethel Manila (b 1895) and Helen Dorothy (b 1896), who was known by her second name. Ray later followed in his father’s footsteps and became captain of the family’s six-masted barquentine E R Sterling. By 1919, Captain E R Sterling was listed as the president and general manager of Sterling Shipping Company in Blaine, Washington. Throughout the 1910s and 20s, Sterling plied the timber trade between America, Australia and New Zealand. He often made
the journeys himself as captain, along with his family, and it seems that the Sterlings enjoyed their trips to Australia. Hood’s photographs 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.
Sterling’s fleet of schooners and barquentines comprised some of the largest timber sailing vessels ever built The series of intimate portraits taken on board E R Sterling between 1910 and 1925 are Hood’s best photographs of the family. They depict family and crew seated in the vessel’s state-of-the-art saloon which, according to the Cairns Post, moved beyond ‘cramped quarters’ and ‘hurricane lamps’ AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM 13
The Australian National Maritime Museum's quarterly journal Signals.