A Sterling day out with the family

Portrait of Captain Edward Robert Sterling

Captain Edward Robert Sterling, 1910-1925
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

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.

Portrait of Ethel May Sterling

Ethel May Sterling, 1916-1925
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

Ethel May Sterling, Margaret Francis Sterling and Captain Ray Milton Sterling

Ethel May Sterling, Margaret Francis Sterling and Captain Ray Milton Sterling on board E R Sterling, 1921-1925
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

Some of Hood’s photographs portray relatives or passengers on board E R Sterling.

Three women on the deck of E R Sterling

Three women on deck of E R Sterling, c 1910
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

Two women on board E R Sterling, c 1910
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

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.

Portrait of a woman, possibly Dorothy H Sterling

Portrait of a woman, possibly Dorothy H Sterling on board E R Sterling, c 1913
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

Painting of the Helen B Sterling

The Helen B Sterling in Berry’s Bay, Sir John William Ashton
oil on board
ANMM Collection

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.

Nicole Cama
Curatorial assistant

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).

Captain Ray Milton Sterling and his wife and daughter, Ethel May and Margaret Francis

Captain Ray Milton Sterling and his wife and daughter, Ethel May and Margaret Francis, c 1918
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

15 thoughts on “A Sterling day out with the family

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve been writing & publishing details about ER Sterling myself. Can I please reproduce this in my club newsletter? Steve

    Like

    • Hi Christine, thank you for your comment. I am amazed that we have been able to share these photographs of your great aunt online and that you were able to find them! I hope you enjoyed them, we have quite a number of other photos in the collection as well which I can send you if you would like to see them.
      Kind regards,
      Nicole

      Like

  2. Lovely, really lovely! I’m the granddaughter of Ethel and Ray Sterling and have many photos of the ships and family. I loaned 8-9 albums of B&W photos to the family of Jack Francis (Ethel Francis married Ray, Jack was her favorite brother). The family lives in the Melborne area, shall I ask them to get in touch with you? I have binders of additional information – let’s talk about what you would like to know more about?! The story got stranger and stranger, for all of the Sterlings… involving such diverse topics as Marilyn Monroe, the “first” use of radio to arrange cargo, altered passports, lies and jail time.
    p.s. – My grandmother insisted their daughter (my mom) should go to school with other children rather than learn only from her governess and the sailors on board ship, so when Margaret F Sterling was 6 they moved back to Seattle, where both my grandmother and mother lived until their deaths.

    Like

    • Hello Sue
      So wonderful to read your comments, I’m related to you, my mother was Olive Francis the daughter of Robert Francis and Ethel was his sister. I’ve always held a great interest in Aunty Ethel, my Mum used to talk about her all the time. I’ve collected photos, been down to the Mitchell Library to look at the Samuel J Hood collection. Of course I have been in touch with Jack Francis in Melbourne and he gave me a lot of information and talked about you and your sister. I’m so thrilled I found Nicole’s story of The Sterlings on line, she has written a wonderful story after a lot of hard research. I have a letter written by Aunty Ethel to my Mum from Seattle. Would love to meet you both one day. At the moment I’m at Sydney Airport as I fly to France tomorrow for 5 weeks
      Kind regards. Chris Harvison

      Like

      • Thanks again Christine for your complimentary comments regarding my research. Happy and safe travels 🙂
        Kind regards,
        Nicole

        Like

    • How intriguing! Thank you for commenting Sue, the Sterling story is the one that keeps giving. 🙂
      Kind regards,
      Nicole

      Like

    • Sue,
      Pleased to see your note. I tried to send you an email on this subject but it bounced. The Sterling ships continue to make interesting reading.
      regards Jack Francis

      Like

    • Hello Sue, I am also your cousin. Robert William Francis was Ethel’s oldest brother & I am related through that line. I am trying track all the ancestors of John Baldwin Francisco. Could you contact me to discuss

      Like

  3. Pingback: Expert Q&A :: Using the Australian National Maritime Museum | Inside History magazine

  4. Pingback: #HoodsHarbour: Our super sleuths inspire an exhibition | Australian National Maritime Museum

Join the conversation...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s