Herbert James Graham Kell

The master of the SS Wimmera on her final voyage was 44-year-old Herbert James Graham “Paddy” Kell. Born in the district of St. George, Edinburgh, Scotland on 29 September 1874 to James Graham Kell, a Civil Engineer, and Cordelia Cannon, he was the […eldest of…girls and…boys].

As a child he lived in Wales and attended Christ College at Brecon.


Together with his brothers, it was intended that he join the Royal Navy, and so, in September 1889, at the age of 15, with his younger brother, Philip, he was sent to start his sea career as a cadet in the school training ship Conway in England.


HMS Conway

Formerly the HMS Nile (1839), the training ship Conway was lent to the Mercantile Marine Association in 1875.

Originally a two-deck ‘second rate ship of the line’ in the Royal Navy, and which had seen service in the Baltic Sea and North American and West Indies Station, the Conway which Herbert Kell joined in 1889 was a specialist training college for both merchant marine and naval officers. At that time she was moored in the River Mersey off Birkenhead.

Besides the Kell brothers, amongst the many thousands of young men who received their initial nautical training aboard the Conway were poet laureate John Masefield who later wrote of life as a cadet. Others went on to become high-ranking officers of the Royal Navy.

Herbert Kell’s time as a cadet aboard the Conway ended in July 1891 at which time he was issued with his Ordinary Certificate. His record of conduct was described as very good although for his ability, the near 17-year-old was rated as Fair.

A Career at Sea

His first ship was the 1899-ton four-masted iron sailing ship Falls of Afton on which he served, firstly as an Ordinary Seaman, then as Apprentice, and then as Able Seaman between 26 September 1891 to 30 May 1895. During this period the vessel was operated, firstly by the Falls Line of Glasgow before being sold to Wright, Graham & Co. in 1892.

Whilst serving aboard the Falls of Afton, Herbert Kell visited a number of ports around the globe, including Port Elizabeth (or Algoa Bay), South Africa; Newcastle, New South Wales (April 1893); and San Francisco, California.

On the 2nd July 1895 he sat for and passed the examinations to obtain the Certificate of Competency as Second Mate of a Foreign-going ship. Several months later, on 11 September 1895 he signed on as 3rd Mate of the 4126-ton steamer Richmond Hill on which he served on and off until 15 March 1896. The vessel was owned by the Wilson-Hill Line and operated on the London-New York service.

On 19 July 1896 he returned to a square-rigged sailing ship, the four-masted steel barque Falls of Ettrick, also as 3rd Mate until 12 February 1897. During this time the ship was engaged in the Rio and New York trade by the Falls Line (Wright, Graham & Co.)

On 11 February 1897 he signed as 2nd Mate on the Worthington-registered square-rigged sailing ship Silver Crag [Silvercrag] on which he remained until 15 December that year. During this period the ship traded between New York, Saigon and Dunquerque.

During this year his father, James Graham Kell passed away in Newcastle-In-Emlyn in  Cardiganshire, Wales.

Nearly six months elapsed before he gained another position. On this occasion he joined the 1741-ton Glasgow-registered square-rigger Falls of Clyde sailing between London and San Francisco. He served as 2nd Mate on this ship for a little over six months from 18 June 1898 until 20 December 1898.

On 13th February 1899 he sat for his Certificate as First Mate although was initially unsuccessful in passing the subject of navigation. A week later, on 20 February, he was again unsuccessful, and a further examination on 28 February also met with failure.

On 10 March 1899 he signed as 3rd Mate on the 2295-ton steamer SS Clydesdale and remained on her until 28 July that year.

He served on the latter three vessels in the Foreign Trade. A number of months passed until, passing his examination on the 1st November 1899, he was granted his Certificate of Competency as First Mate of a Foreign-going ship.

Within six weeks, and no doubt relieved of his recent success, on 13 December 1899 he signed on as 2nd Mate of the London-registered 1497-ton SS Swanley. He remained on and off this vessel until 15 October 1900. Within a fortnight he had signed on to the Cardiff-registered 1845-ton [coal company] steamer Dewsland, again as 2nd Mate. He remained with the ship only briefly until 30th January 1901.

In London, on 11 April 1901, he sat for and passed his examinations for his Master’s Certificate and on the following day he was officially awarded the Certificate of Competency as Master of a Foreign-going ship.

Soon after, in June 1901, in London, he joined the Huddart Parker Company as 3rd Officer on the company’s newest acquisition, the cargo steamer S.S. Barwon as that vessel made her maiden voyage to Australia.

Over the next seventeen years Kell gained promotion and saw service as 2nd and Chief Officer, and then as Master on many other of the Huddart Parker vessels; namely, the Despatch, Nemesis, Westralia, Courier, Riverina, Excelsior, Hygeia, Meeinderry, Rotomahana, Burrumbeet, Victoria, Wimmera, and the Ulimaroa. He also served as acting Chief Officer of the Union Steam Ship Company’s Pelican on a voyage to Adelaide and as extra mate on the Loongana to Lyttelton and on the Coogee on return to Port Philip. In June 1912 he assisted in supervising Lloyd’s survey of  the Ulimaroa in Sydney.

Captain Kell held a foreign-going Master’s Certificate and had exemptions for the ports of Sydney, Hobart, Melbourne, Adelaide, Albany, Geelong, Fremantle, Bluff, Lyttelton, Dunedin, Newcastle, and Auckland.

Early in his career Captain Rainey [of the] S.S. Westralia reported in January 1904 [that] “Mr Kell is a first class officer & at all times strictly sober.”

Captain Thomas Free also reported, “Mr Kell is a good officer sober reliable active & intelligent…”

[SS Courier on the River Yarra, Melbourne]

On 28 March 1905 Kell resigned his position which was, at that time,  1st Officer on the Courier, “…in order to proceed Home on private business.” He embarked the Tongariro in Wellington and took his passage to London.

Later that year, on 11 September 1905, he re-joined Huddart Parker and signed on as the  1st Officer of the company’s newest steamer, Riverina, for the ship’s maiden voyage to  Australia.

S. S. “RIVERINA” [by C. Dickson Gregory]
Postcard. Author’s Collection

His postings as Master were frequent, relatively short and over the next couple of years he was at various times in command of the Westralia, Wimmera, Ulimaroa, Victoria and Riverina whilst those vessels were variously employed in the Sydney to Hobart, Sydney to New Zealand, Melbourne to Sydney, and Melbourne to New Zealand and Sydney runs.

On Thursday 4 March 1909, at which time he was Master of the Westralia, Captain Kell arrived in Sydney from Hobart. On that same day he was married at St. Augustines’ Church, Neutral Bay, to Miss Christina Mary Wallas, the elder daughter of Mr. Thomas Irwin Wallas, (at that time of Cumberland, England, but later, as a bacteriologist/clinical chemist, of Macquarie Street, Sydney) and Mary Sophia Wallas (nee Graham). Little time was spent on a honeymoon as the Westralia sailed again, under his command, on the following Tuesday 9 March 1909.

The Kell’s first child, a daughter, Cordelia Mary Graham Kell., was born in Mosman, Sydney on 12 November that same year. A second daughter, Alison Gertrude Graham Kell, was born on 4 April 1911, also in Mosman.

In December 1911 Captain Kell first joined the Wimmera as her Master when she was employed on the Sydney to New Zealand trade.

“Passengers and crews have always spoken in the highest terms of Captain Kell, and his reputation among the various crews who have served under him has been a singularly good one. He was recognised as a strict disciplinarian, and evidence of this, according to saved officers, was seen when the disaster occurred.”

He “was one of the most popular officers in the Australasian service.”

By June 1918 the Great War had already taken its toll on both his own family and that of his wife. He had already lost both of his brothers.

Philip Arthur Graham Kell, with whom he had entered the Conway many years earlier, was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve, and was serving on the cruiser HMS Cressy when that ship, together with HMS Aboukir and HMS Hogue, were torpedoed by a German submarine in the North Sea on 22 September 1914, less than two months after war was declared. Over 560 men were lost on the Cressy alone.


Another brother, Fergus Graham Kell, who was a tea merchant based in China, died in Amoy [Xiamen] on 18 October 1915 leaving Herbert the only remaining male Kell in his family. His surviving sisters had also been on service throughout the war, some as army nurses and one as motor driver at the fronts.

By June 1918 also, Captain Kell, his wife Christina and two young daughters had been residents of Auckland for about 12 months and were living at the [boarding house] Rexcourt in Symonds Street. They had planned to purchase to their own home and Christina was again pregnant, with the couple’s third child due in December that year. Paddy Kell had a great deal to look forward to.

Feature image:
Captain Herbert James Graham Kell Master of the SS Wimmera on her final voyage.
Photograph courtesy of Sue Holden.

© Ralph L. Sanderson 2004-2021