John McMillan
(1883 - 1968)
Biographical notes

Able Seaman (A.B.) - Nimrod 1907-09

John McMillan went to sea at 14. he joined the Nimrod in May 1909 where he served for 4 months. In 1910 he settled and married in Sydney Australia, eventually moving to the suburb of Lambton in Newcastle (Australia).

Correspondence with Lord Shackleton about John McMillan here


S.Y. Nimrod

August 31st 09

Jogn McMillan has served on board the above vessel under my command from May 7th 09 to August 31st 09 as an A.B.  during the whole of which period he has carried out his duties to my (?)ire satisfaction, he is a strictly sober man.

John R. Davis


The following was written in 1990 by his daughter, Mrs Myrtle Hoy, nee McMillan who donated the piece to a "History of Lambton":

    I found Scottish sailorman John McMillan in bed, his small grey head peeping from a curl of eiderdown. A few days earlier he had fractured three ribs in a fall. It wasn't his week.

    His wife, snow-haired, smiling, announced his visitor and called for a clearing of the decks. "Put your teeth in, Johnny. You're hard enough to understand at the best of times!"

    I explained that I had dropped by to talk about ships, the sailing ships of another era and the men who manned them. I apologised for the intrusion, but my host wasn't listening.

    At the mention of sail his chin appeared above the eiderdown; his old eyes lit up.

    "Sailing ships? Yes, I can tell you about the sailing ships. Brave ships they were ..."

    For a long period John McMillan served in sailing ships, three-masted barques most of them, that took him to the four corners of the earth as apprentice, able seaman and second mate.

    For him they were things of beauty; a raw, unforgettable beauty and still man's noblest answer to the ancient challenge of the sea.

    He delights in talking about them; writing verse about them. On his bedroom walls pictures of them abound.

    He is a dreamer ever faithful to his dreams. "I didn't leave the sea," he confided. "The sea left me. When the sailing ship disappeared the heart went out of me. It was like losing an old friend."

    I said I understood. He cocked a cooperative eyebrow.

    "My memory isn't what it used to be, but I can still recall details of most of my voyages. What experiences they were!

    "There was the run in the old barque Gulfstream we thought would never end. From Antwerp to Vancouver it was, and we met foul weather and head winds all the way. It took 218 days.

    "Then there were the voyages around Cape Horn - more than a dozen of them. Bad weather usually, but not always. I remember being becalmed off Cape Horn for 48 hours. On another occasion we survived a bad tossing at the Horn only to catch fire on the other side. We made the River Plate, but sank under the weight of water they pumped into our holds.

    "I never saw the Horn, of course. Few men of sail did. At that point all sailing ships kept well out to sea. They were the days. We'll never see those ships - or those men again."

    Born in Glasgow 84 years ago (1883), the son of a marine engineer, John McMillan went to sea at the age of 14 - as a mess boy in a steamer that tramped the Baltic. When the ship was laid up a year later he found himself a berth on a sailing ship and settled down to serve his time as a seaman.

    He thrilled to the life, and studied hard to make his way in it.

    Within five years he had won his second mate's certificate and was earning the magnificent sum of £5 a month - with keep.

    He saw little of home and family, but in a day when a "quick" run to Australia occupied 100 days this was to be expected - and accepted.

    He told me: "In those days it was not unusual for a sailor to be away from his home port for two years. The ship was his home, and he rarely left it for more than a few hours at a time." Sailing with veterans, he heard all the strange stories and legends of the sea, and took them to heart ...

    "They believed many things, the old timers. They believed that when an old sailor died he became an albatross and followed tall ships over the sea."

    Work was difficult, dangerous and constant, with conditions sometimes approaching the impossible. Accommodation was barely adequate; the food ...

    "When I look back I wonder how we managed to stay alive. For breakfast you got coffee and biscuits, for dinner a piece of corned beef or corned pork and for supper a little tea and more biscuits. Water was rationed and we were always thirsty. As an apprentice I shared a bucket of water a day with eight other lads. We didn't get it all, of course - some had to go to the cook for tea-making." Yet he loved it. Every minute of it.

    When berths in sail became hard to find, and the magic of the sea soured as a result, John McMillan looked to steam. But only to keep the wolf from the door. In 1908 he joined the Shackleton Antarctic expedition as a crew member of the Nimrod, a steam and sail vessel and a compromise not to his liking.

    The Nimrod remained in Antarctic waters "a twelve month" looking for groups of islands that were never found, and John McMillan suffered the twin disasters of deep freeze and boredom ... "We were well fed on that voyage tinned stuff, and naturally there was no shortage of water, but cold ...!"

    Arriving in Sydney around 1910, he married a girl from his native Glasgow and set about raising a family. For many years he worked on dredges at various points on the coast. Later he moved to Newcastle and the fo'csles of the BHP ore carriers. Since retirement at the age of 65 he has lived quietly in his little cottage in Lambton, grandfather and great-grandfather, dreaming of the old days, remembering the faces and ships that stole away with time.

      Thinking of those old legends, giving his fancy form -

        I wonder when I die, if I, an albatross, will soar on High,

        And watch those white crests breaking Down on the southern sea;

        Or lie with outstretched wings One chill grey morn

        High o'er the swaying masts Of some brave ship

        That battles round Cape Horn.

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