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GRW Bourne: An artist in the family and my accidental voyage of discovery

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My discovery of an Australian artist in my family of English agricultural labourers, illustrates (no pun intended), where a few, seemingly random, searches can lead.

I always get excited when I find relatives who have emigrated: the idea of travelling to distant lands and unknown lifestyles in the days before telephones, email and instant communication fires my imagination. So when I came across a distant cousin (first cousin 4 x removed) in Australia, I duly assigned the Australian flag as his profile picture and started looking for records.

I already knew who his parents were, that he had been born in Dover, England, joined the navy and ended up living in Australia, but that was all. By a stroke of good fortune - and I'm not even sure I was particularly looking for him at the time - I came across an obituary in the Bunbury Herald, in Trove, (that wonderful free website). For ease of reading I have copied out the full obituary below although it does, I believe, contain several factual errors.

Bunbury Herald (WA : 1892 - 1919), Thursday 17 November 1910, page 3

Obituary: MR. G. W. R. BOURNE.

Mr. George Bourne, who has been a resident of the South-Western District for nearly 10 years, died at the Bunbury Hospital at 5.30 p.m. on Tuesday. He had been in delicate health for about three months, but it was not until the beginning of the present month that his condition was regarded as serious. On the 9th inst, he entered the hospital, when a diagnosis showed that he had a tumor on the spinal cord. Shortly after noon on Tuesday paralysis set in, and he gradually sank. His remains were interred in the Bunbury cemetery yesterday afternoon.

Mr. Bourne, who was a native of Dover (England), entered the mercantile marine service in 1874, when he was a lad of 16 years. He rose fairly rapidly in the service, and shortly after his arrival in Queensland, 28 years back, he received a first mate's certificate, and was appointed chief officer of the Government schooner Pearl. Prior to his arrival in Australia, he distinguished himself by his courageous acts in assisting to rescue the crew of the ship Eblana, which foundered in the Bay of Biscay on October 10, 1878. London and Liverpool Press notices show that ' 'Apprentice Bourne," as he was styled, was particularly singled out for distinguished gallantry, and he was the recipient of two medals, a sextant, and other tokens of esteem by the London and Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Societies. At the time of the foundering of the Eblana, he was serving his time on the ship Decapolis.

Mr. H. Hislop, who was sent for by the deceased almost immediately prior to his demise, obtained the services of the local constabulary, who with commendable promptitude brought his effects to the station. Mr. Bourne, who was married at Brisbane in 1882, leaves a widow and a son aged about 26 years. The deceased, whose marine pictures were eagerly sought after, was born on July 16, 1858, and was consequently in his 53rd year.

Two things caught my attention: the reference to the Eblana and the fact that, seemingly whilst on his deathbed he arranged for a friend with the assistance of the local constabulary to collect his effects. Then, seeing reference to marine pictures in the last sentence, I assumed he was an art collector, probably in a small way. His story has made clear to me the danger of making assumptions.

Not realising the significance of the reference to the paintings I decided to search for information on the Eblana and suddenly my research took off in many different directions. It would appear that not only was George a sailor with a distinguished and interesting career, but also a marine artist of some note and the paintings referred to in the obituary were most probably by him.

Who was George Robert William Bourne?

George W.R. Bourne was a topographical and marine artists whose late 19th century scenes of Western Australia include depictions of Fremantle Lighthouse and the shipwreck of the City of York off Rottnest Island. [1]

As with so many of my Bourne ancestors George seems to have been somewhat free with his name and it appears the name he was registered with at birth isn't what he was known by. 

George was born on 19 October 1858 at 3 Arthur's Place, Dover to Robert and Elizabeth Bourne nee Drowley. He was actually registered as William Robert Bourne (a good old Bourne family name), but by the time he was baptised the following January, the name George had been added and at various times throughout his life his two middle names were transposed. [Copy birth certificate and baptism record can be found at the end of this.]

He continued to live at 3 Arthur's Place until 1875 when he entered into a four year apprenticeship with the Merchant Navy, serving on the Decapolis. [2]


The Decapolis and the rescue of the Eblana

To precis the report from the Shipwrecked Mariners' Society which can be read in full below, on 3 October 1878 the large iron ship Eblana set sail from Liverpool for Madras. Whilst crossing the Bay of Biscay she encountered a violent storm which set her on her side and caused her to start sinking. The Decapolis heard the distress signal and, over a 14 hour period, assisted in the rescue of the crew.

As a result of his part in the rescue George, who was still an apprentice seaman on the Decapolis at the time received a Silver Medal and a sextant.

George Bourne, an apprentice, who went every time first in the boat that was stove in, and afterwards in the second boat, and managed the lifelines, pulling all the men from the ship to the boat. The unfortunate men lost all their clothes and effects.

...unanimously resolved, that Captain Thomas M Almond, be awarded the Gold Medal of the Society, and that Silver Medals should be awarded to the nine others. GWR Bourne was also presented with a sextant in addition to the Medal, as the Committee considered his conduct most praiseworthy in volunteering to go with each boat to the rescue of the unfortunate men, who, but for the assistance of Captain Almond and his crew, would in all human probability have perished.

Gold Medal 1878/79 — Shipwrecked Mariners' Society

Now it's at this stage that I need to briefly venture into another branch of my Kentish family tree. A cousin has a soapstone model of a sailing ship, carved by one of our naval ancestors. We weren't sure which ship it was so I began searching for images of the Eblana to see if it could be that (whilst all the time wondering how the model would have made its way back to England). Suffice to say here, the model is not of the Eblana and we have now identified the great great uncle, (not a Bourne), who carved it.

During this search for an image I stumbled across George’s painting The Rescue of the Ship Eblana by the Barque Decapolis, 10 October 1878. This is held by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich [3] and it was then I realised that there might be more to him than I thought.

Life in Australia

I decided I had better begin by tracing his life. 

In 1879, at the end of his naval apprenticeship George appears to have decided to stay in Australia and married Florence Anne Payne in Queensland. 

Until 1906 George described himself as a seaman rather than an artist and spent his time between Port Adelaide and Bubury, Western Australia. He and Florence had 4 children that I know of: Pearl Phoebe born 1880 in Queensland, Cecil Charles Drawley 1885, Ella May (Daisy) 1892 and Violet Elizabeth 1896 all born in South Australia near Adelaide. (His obituary above says he had one child, another online article refers to six).

On 7 February 1880, the day after his first child Pearl was born [4]  George was appointed Mate on the Government Schooner Pearl, possibly naming his daughter Pearl in honour of the appointment. [5]

Further Trove newspaper searches resulted in reports of some of the Pearl’s voyages, which viewed from the perspective of 21st century, England really do illustrate a different world and time. I haven't yet worked my way through all the articles and I will need an atlas beside me when I do as the place names are unfamiliar, but to give a flavour this is a snippet from the Queenslander 1 May 1880. [6]

From the report by Captain Pennefather:

When we got within 500 yards of the beach we were met by between 200 and 300 men, who made us signs to go with them to the village. Finding I could not get the boat in any closer without her being left high and dry by the receding tide, jumped out, leaving two men with orders to keep her afloat, while the rest went with me to the village, having to wade knee deep almost all the way in thick black mud. On arrival at the village I explained through Elia and the Saibai men the object of our visit, when a great palaver ensued between them and the Kewais, which eventually ended in peace being made. I explained through the interpreters that Saibai was now a portion of the colony of Queensland, and that they would not be allowed in future to make their skull hunting raids there, or on any of the islands within the jurisdiction of this Government.

From mariner to marine artist

In the 1906 Electoral Roll for Swan, Bunbury, Western Australia George is shown as living in Victoria Street and gives his occupation as marine artist but he began painting, both in oils and watercolours, before 1906. His work includes:

City of Hankow 1899 [7]

Carlisle Castle 1900 [7]

The Loch Lomond in a Gale 1902 [8]

Marloo [8]

Bunbury Harbour 1905 [8]

Dartford (the painting at the beginning of this article) 1910 [9]

And of course, the Rescue of the Ship Eblana of an unknown date [10]

What did George look like?

I haven't found a photograph but there is a description of George in a criminal record. In 1909 he was convicted for supplying a prohibited person with liquor for which he was sentenced to £5 restitution or 1 month. He is described as having brown hair turning grey, blue eyes, a long visage, fair complexion, of  medium build, single condition, C/E, a painter, able to read & write with 2 scars inside his left forearm, wreath and flag and 2 scars right forearm. It's interesting that he is said to be single as he was married at the time. [11]

George and Florence's graves

George died on 15 November 1910 in Bunbury. He is buried in Bunbury Cemetery but I have been unable to find a photo of his grave. [12]

After George's death Florence lived in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia where her son and two surviving daughters were living. She died on 13 August 1951 and is buried in Boulder Cemetery. [13]

Am I sure we’re related?

The answer to that has to be, no not totally - but based on my research below I’m pretty sure we are. Working backwards...

George Robert William Bourne became a naval apprentice on 7 July 1875 aged 16, born at Dover (therefore around 1859). [2]

A William Robert Bourne was born on 19 October 1858 in Dover to Robert and Elizabeth Bourne nee Drowley and baptised George Robert William Bourne on 30 January 1859 in St James’, Dover. The baptism record says he was born on the 9 October (a date which is crossed out and replaced with the 19th on the birth certificate) and in both cases Robert the father is described  as a railway guard.

In the 1871 census, the last before George joined the navy, he was living at 3 Arthur’s Place, Dover (the address on his birth certificate) with his siblings and his parents: Robert, a railway guard, and Elizabeth.

According to this census Robert was born in Appledore, Kent in 1819 and Elizabeth in New Romney in 1821 and these details are confirmed in the 1861 census.

In 1851 Robert and Elizabeth were living in Tonbridge but all the other details are the same.

On the 10 December 1844, Robert and Elizabeth married in St Mary’s, Dover. Robert’s father’s name was also Robert, a farmer.

So I’m now looking for Robert Bourne, son of Robert, born in Appledore, Kent in 1819. Although I have carried out various searches on different sites the results can best be summarised on this one from which shows only one Robert Bourne baptised in Appledore during the period 1810-1825.

A further check shows that the parents of the two from New Romney were Thomas and Sarah, and William and Sarah respectively.

The remaining Robert, the one baptised in Appledore, in the right time frame, 1818, was the son of Robert and Mary.

Robert Bourne and Mary Webb, who I believe are my 4 x great grandparents married in Appledore on 24 August 1800. During the next 22 years they had 10, possibly 11 children, including my direct ancestor Kernal Charles (1815) and Robert (1818), all baptised in Appledore. The tree below shows what I believe to be is our relationship.


Looking ahead

My research has come a long way since that first accidental hit on the obituary but there is still much more to uncover. And it seems I’m not the only one who thinks this: my cousin who has the model ship which led me to the paintings, recently sent me the article below. The article called The rescue of George R W Bourne - from the skip bin begins on page 10 and concludes with this comment: Our research into the life and works of this Australian marine artist is ongoing and will be the subject of a future article for the Journal.



[1] George W. R. Bourne :: biography at :: at Design and Art Australia Online (

[2] UK, Apprentices Indentured in Merchant Navy, 1824-1910

[3] Rescue of the Ship 'Eblana' by the Barque 'Necapolis', 10 October 1878 | Art UK

[4] Australia Birth Index no B025893

[5]  07 Feb 1880 - Official Notifications. - Trove (

[6]  01 May 1880 - Cruise of the Government Schooner Pearl. - Trove (

[7] George W. R. Bourne | artnet

[8] George W. R. Bourne Paintings & Artwork for Sale | George W. R. Bourne Art Value Price Guide (


[10] Rescue of the ship 'Eblana' by the barque 'Decapolis', 10 October 1878 - National Maritime Museum (

[11] Western Australia Convict Records 1846-1930, Convict Establishment, Miscellaneous, Local Prisoners Registers, 1868 - 1870 (V16A - V16C)

[12] George Robert William Bourne (Unknown-1910) - Find A Grave Memorial

[13] Florence Ann Bourne (Unknown-1951) - Find A Grave Memorial


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Great blog, Heather and what an interesting find!
1 year ago
I wonder if we have any members who live near Bunbury Cemetery and who would be willing to get a photograph of his grave for you?
1 year ago
@peepso_user_1485(Suffolk Kiwi)
@peepso_user_265(JaneChapman) Believe it or not, I loved in Bunbury for 18 months. I was there for the millennium New Year, in fact.
@peepso_user_2769(Heather Bradshaw)
Thank you. I’ve made a photo request on Findagrave, as has someone else so hopefully we might get one sometime.