When Shanghai Jack terrorised Newcastle's waterfront

Bygone age: Sailing ships line the riverfront, possibly at North Carrington, when crimping was rife, circa 1890.
Bygone age: Sailing ships line the riverfront, possibly at North Carrington, when crimping was rife, circa 1890.

SHANGHAI Jack was one of the most colourful and fascinating characters ever to haunt Newcastle harbour pubs more than 100 years ago.

Yet he’s virtually unknown today, but why?

In his lifetime, he was a legendary, if notorious figure. The very mention of his name, however, also often paradoxically caused mirth.

Known widely as Jack Sullivan (although his real name was O’Sullivan), decades after his passing he was still remembered for his “unorthodox methods” of obtaining crews for sailing vessels in port, already waiting for weeks, or months.

In the 1920s, a Sydney-based national newspaper labelled him as “the greatest practical joker Australia ever knew and the terror of the Newcastle waterfront”.

By then the late Jack Sullivan was long dead, but skeptics were still shaking their heads in disbelief. Was the inveterate practical joker truly dead, or was it an elaborate hoax for him to escape justice?

Jack Sullivan was indeed dead and, surprisingly, at the relatively early age of 52 years, back in November 1903. The stevedore had returned to his Morgan Street, Newcastle, home about 10pm and went to bed. A few minutes later he awoke, then took a very severe turn to die almost immediately. Might he have been poisoned? There was no inquest, however, as his doctor said he’d died of heart disease. Sullivan was buried a few days later.

Ripping yarn: Practical joker Sullivan is said to have once staged his own funeral.

Ripping yarn: Practical joker Sullivan is said to have once staged his own funeral.

This is where the tale gets interesting. Newspaper coverage of his death was sparse, especially in his home town of Newcastle. Strangely The Singleton Argus seems to have provided the best coverage. Maybe Sullivan had always been a city embarrassment?

It’s understandable. When Maitland-born Sullivan died, it was reported the (then) Newcastle Morning Herald having been caught out so many times before, declined to accept his funeral notice until certificates had been obtained from the undertaker and Dr John Harris, the then resident government medical officer.

“No one is allowed to die more than once in the columns of The Herald,” the press reported.

Little wonder there was caution in 1903 to news Sullivan had died. Stories abounded of him staging funerals of live men (including his own) and once the NSW Parliament even adjourned to falsely mourn a Hunter MP’s death.

He often used barmaids to entice susceptible men to try a tipple and, before they knew it, it was Goodnight, Vienna.

But there was a darker side to the Sullivan’s activities. After he died, the term ‘Shanghai Jack’ was coined. Claims then publicly arose Sullivan was the ‘Prince of Crimpers’, inducing sailors to desert one sailing ship for another, or cruelly abducting them while they were drunk (shanghai-ing) when ship captains were desperate to hire eight or 10 crewmen to leave port with coal cargoes. Crimper and captain then often shared the ‘blood money’ (paid by ship owners) between them. Even Billy Hughes, later Australia’s prime minister in World War I, is said to have once had a narrow escape from being shanghaied in Newcastle.

Those who disappeared for a long sea voyage were sometimes not all sailors, but unlucky civilians drinking in waterfront bars. Some ships sailed with crews consisting of doped, or coshed, clerks, barbers, drapers and grocers “and a minority of seamen”. On one occasion, Sullivan lured a clergyman onboard a departing lime-juicer (British sailing ship) after a plea from a ship’s ‘chief officer’ to go onboard to cheer up a dying seaman in his last moments before the vessel sailed.

Sullivan is also said to have boasted openly of having once shipped a corpse, smelling of alcohol, to make up a crew member short on a windjammer due to sail on the high tide. Sullivan’s stock-in-trade was knockout drops and the dead body was dumped unnoticed into a waiting longboat full of unconscious sailors. No one noticed until the vessel was far out to sea bound for Valparaiso, South America.

Sullivan, for all his faults, was not pilloried for his misdeeds as most of the sailors, “including his shanghaied victims” are said to remember him more kindly than most of their old enemies. The shanghaied ‘skypilot’ (parson), for example, returned more than a year later, bronzed by the sun and physically improved. Instead of prosecuting Sullivan, he thanked him for making a man of him. Many sailors, however, never returned from these long, dangerous voyages.

One of the reasons Sullivan managed to successfully operate for so long was that he often went around  crowded hotel bars at night in disguise. His life-long friends said one day he could be posing as an aristocrat with a monocle, another time as a down-at-heel fireman and the next day as a ship’s chief officer  in a brass button jacket. Then he would try to coax his chosen victim to sample his ‘special grog’. 

Sullivan often used barmaids to entice susceptible men to try a tipple and, before they knew it, it was Goodnight Vienna, and the men woke with sore heads at sea.

Wanted men, including fleeing bank managers, were said to have used Sullivan’s services, and sometimes some of the town’s more objectionable characters mysteriously vanished.

Today’s yarn sprang from an email from Debbie Haddrick, of Sydney, who saw my history article from March. In it, Mrs Cecelia Ryan mentioning her father having been shanghaied to sea from a Cooks Hill pub around 1900 by a man called Black Jack.

“I wonder if Black Jack could be my great grandfather who was known as Shanghai Jack Sullivan and a notable character in Newcastle. I have enclosed articles about him and wondered if you would be interested in this piece of Newcastle history?”

Her research outlined various ingenious pranks Sullivan played on all and sundry. One time he rowed two eager actors, or sea captains (the story varies), to muddy Walsh Island to shoot some ducks. Instead, he then stranded them there, but not before saying he’d left some tucker, a cold fowl and some bottled ale, behind for them. When his parcel was opened, it instead contained two bricks and horse manure. After the tired, dirty duo were rescued, they were greeted at their hotel by a crowd loudly yelling ‘quack, quack’.

Another time, ‘Shanghai Johnny’ had a dummy dangled over a seaside cliff to distract water police on a stakeout so he could safely deliver sailors to a leaving ship.

But the final words should go to descendant Debbie Haddrick. “Unfortunately (Jack) has always been a big family secret because my grandfather was very ashamed and would never speak of him.

“Mum always believed that Jack’s father had been transported (as a convict) and became a policeman in Newcastle. We really know very little otherwise. Jack seems to have been quite a character, but a terrible husband and father.

“My cousin thinks Jack was murdered, but I don’t know how to find any proof of that,” Debbie wrote.