Boer War: Transporting The Troops

On October 11, 1899 the Boers of South Africa declared war on Great Britain.  A short eighteen days later, on October 28th, the troops of the first Australian contingent were gathered and set sail upon the SS Kent, commanded by Thomas Priske, for Capetown, South Africa.

Captain Priske, now 47 years of age, had sailed the world’s oceans for 32 years, embarking on what would be a long career, beginning as an ordinary seaman at the age of 15 in 1868.  Having captained many voyages from London to Australia via South Africa in the nine years since he attained the status of Master in 1881, he was certainly well qualified for this assignment.  Together with Captain Robb of the steamer Aberdeen and Captain Barton of the steamer Cornwall, this trio had the great honour and responsibility of transporting Australian troops to the the front in South Africa.

The departure of the troops was celebrated with much fanfare and was featured at length in the Australian Town and Country Journal on Saturday November 4, 1899.   The images in the slideshow below show us the publication’s masthead, how the ship was fitted out to carry her military passengers and an image of the three Captains commanding the ships that carried the troops.   Excerpts from the article and those of a war corespondent who sailed with the troops provide a very interesting account of the voyage that was undertaken by Captain Priske and his crew in support of the British Government’s war effort.

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The ship was prepared to carry the designated 38 Lancers, 91 Army Medical Corps, 152 horses, a war correspondent (A.B. Paterson), and rather unexpectedly, a stowaway and four pigeons, as they embarked upon the voyage to war in South Africa.

Before they departed, approximately 1,500 troops were gathered at the Victoria Barracks parade ground in Sydney to send off the troops.  Dignitaries that attended included the Governor, the Archbishop of Sydney and a variety of senior military officers.

With the Permanent Artillery Band in the centre of the ground, the rest of the troops were ranged round the asphalted parade ground, with the men of the Lancer contingent and the Army Medical Corps, who were to embark on board Kent, nearest to the Barrack Gates. After them came the Police Band, and then the rest of the troops.

It was a most brilliant spectacle that must have caught the eyes of the visitors. The black square, embroidered with a deep fringe of scarlet, blue, yellow, and reddish-brown, edged with steel, tossing plumes, the shine of brass instruments, and at the back of it all the darker edge of civilians, was quite metamorphosed from its ordinary severe aspect.

As the ceremonies were to get underway…

…a heavy squall of wind and rain began to drive across the ground. In a minute everyone without a coat or umbrella was wet to the skin, and very few had coats. The Governor, in a light suit, with an umbrella, fared just as badly as the ordinary onlooker with ditto. The ladies in white dresses (from the High School) suffered severely.

KENT The Waiting Crowd

Despite the weather:

The band struck up the hymn, “O, God! Our Help in Ages Past,” and many of the onlookers joined in. Verse succeeded verse, while the pitiless rain fell, and turned everything to misery. The troops were wet through; most of the spectators were in a similar condition, and still the hymn went on. At last the A.A.G. could stand it no longer. Riding forward he held up his hand and the band stopped. “I told you twice before to stop!” he shouted above the rain and wind. Two long prayers and a lengthy harangue to those about to depart followed, till even the Governor, who was sheltering the form of the Archbishop beneath his umbrella, looked volumes. For the rain abated not a jot.

At last the Archbishop himself advanced, and, in a voice of great emotion, pronounced the beautiful and solemn “Benediction.” Then followed “God Save the Queen,” sung by everyone.

An hour later, as the band continued to play patriotic tunes, the troops marched out of the barracks in a parade that was estimated to be a quarter mile long.  They marched the two miles to the quay through crowded city streets filled with cheering crowds and decorated with now sagging and soaked bunting.

All the available coigns of vantage on surrounding high buildings were availed of. The roof and windows of the fire station, at the corner of George Street, were crowded. So were the hotel balconies in the neighborhood. The high platforms on the wharves, the fences which surrounded them, every ledge, in fact, which would bear the weight of or furnish foot hold for a human being had its living freight.

KENT Troops Embarking

After arriving at the quay the troops lost no time in boarding the ship in the rain to join the horses already on board.

KENT Embarking Horses

Once all were aboard, the ship set sail from Sydney, cast anchor at Double Bay and finally departed from Port Jackson on October 30th.  From there the ship sailed to Albany, south of Perth in western Australia, where, on November 6th she embarked across the Indian Ocean en route to South Africa.  A.B. Paterson described this part of the voyage as follows:

Leaving Albany the pilot took the Kent through the channel very slowly, while the troops bound for the seat of war all stood on the bridge deck watching, and listening to the leadsman’s cry. Slowly the vessel slipped through, and at last, with a sigh of relief, we dropped the pilot and were away at full speed to the open sea, leaving the lights of Albany blazing behind us under a faint moonlight, we settled down for the long twenty days’ steaming across to Africa.

On Prince of Wales Birthday we worked our way round the dreaded Leuwin, the Cape of Storms. Luckily it was a fine calm day; but still there was a long rolling swell on, and now and again the Kent rolls her gunwales down to it, while the horses slip and slide backwards and forwards in their stalls; at one moment they are sliding downwards with their forefoot braced out in front of them, and the next moment they are swung back on to their haunches, and have much ado to avoid sitting on their tails; and this is one of the steadiest seaboats that ever floated. About sundown we saw the last of Australia for some time, and headed away across the open sea, under a glorious moonlight night.

A day at sea started at 6am with reveille and the day proceeded with much drilling and parading by the troops which was broken up by feeding and tending the horses three times a day.  By 9:35 pm the electric lights were turned off in the troops quarters.

We forge along through the water on our lonely way without a sign of a ship or any other moving object. The daily routine becomes quite second nature to us, and any one of us can tell at any moment what any other one is doing. Reveille, stables, sick parade, feed horses, dismiss, and breakfast, prepare for parade, parade-the very horses know the bugle calls.

After tea the concertinas are got out, and the men sit in the hatchway and sing, or dance stately and laborious sets of lancers in the moonlight. Such is our daily routine, and through it all the Kent is plugging her way steadily over the blue waters of the Indian Ocean, looking as puny and insignificant in that waste of water as an ant travelling over the Old Man Plain. We haven’t seen a bird, or a beast, or a fish, or a whale, or a ship, or any moving thing for 20 days, but just the great stretch of sea and the long rolling swell of the waves. It is a lonely ocean; there is very little shipping traffic in these latitudes.


On November 27, 1899 the Kent reached Agulhas Bank off the South African coast reaching Port Elizabeth on November 30th and docking at Captetown on December 2nd.   The journey took thirty-four days from Sydney.

From Capetown the records indicate that Captain Priske steamed the Kent towards London where she departed from the Royal Albert Dock in early February, 1900 with hospital and veterinary staff (22 officers and 468 men) and 338 horses from companies 7, 8 and 29, bound for the war effort.  The ship then headed back to Australia in April 1900.

The Kent and her crew made other calls to South Africa with general cargo in December of 1900 and August of 1901 before again carrying troops in March of 1902 from Port Chalmers, New Zealand (the 9th South Island Division)  TO WHERE .  Two short months later the Boer War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging on May 31, 1902.

Transport MedalFor their efforts Captain Priske and the crew of the SS Kent were awarded the Transport Medal with one clasp ( SOUTH AFRICA 1899-1902).  The obverse of this medal bears the head of King Edward VII facing left with the legend ‘EDWARD VII REX ET IMPERATOR’. The reverse depicts a map of the world with a transport vessel and the inscription ‘OB PATRIAM MILITIBUS PER MARE TRANSVECTIS ADJUTAM’ (For services rendered in transporting troops by sea).

  • Master – T. Priske
  • Cheif Officer – T.E. Cutler
  • 2nd Officer – H.C. Crawford
  • 3rd Officer – J. De Garis
  • Chief Engineer – G. Dunn
  • 2nd Engineer – J.D. Morrison
  • 3rd Engineer – J. Morgan


Posted in Life and Times.