WILLIAM (Bill or Billy) THOMAS BERTOTTO
By Shirley M. Joy
The fourth child born to Angelo and Caroline Bertotto was William Thomas Bertotto who was born at Sandringham on the 2nd. August, 1874, not the 22nd. August, 1873 as recorded in William’s Victorian Navy Record of Service.
William was brought up to a life on the sea and joined the Victorian Navy on the 9th. July, 1900, at which time he held the rank of “Training Seaman”. William’s decision to join the Victorian Navy was to have far reaching implications for him as, at that time, Australia was involved in two wars - the Boer War 1899 – 1902, and the China War (Boxer Rebellion) 1900 – 1901.
William chose to serve with the Victorian Naval Contingent which was posted to China to help suppress the northern Chinese peasants (Boxers), who were endeavouring to overthrow foreign rule. China’s central government was on the point of collapse at the hands of foreigners intent on dividing and occupying the country.
Prior to the departure of William Bertotto for the China War - “The proud Councillors and citizens of Sandringham held a farewell function for him at the Duke of Edinburgh Hotel, Sandringham. After many toasts and speeches Cr. Storey was deputed by the friends and admirers of William to present him with a silver Rotherham watch and chain bearing the following inscription -
“Presented to Mr. William Bertotto by his friends of Sandringham, on his departure to China with the Victorian Naval Contingent, July 10th. 1900”,
And a real sailor’s knife with a marling spike. Councillor Storey hoped that William would be as keen as the blade of the knife. An illuminated address was also being prepared, and would, on completion, be handed over to his parents for safe keeping”.
(Extract from the Moorabbin News 14th. July, 1900).
William Bertotto’s Certificate of Service records that on the 31st. December, 1900, he was serving with the Naval Contingent in China. (Courtesy - Australian National Archives, Melbourne).
The book Bluejackets and Boxers, by Bob Nicholls, is an account of the participation by the New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian Colonial Naval Forces in the quelling of the Boxer uprising in China. It also covers events prior to the departure of the Victorian Contingent until their return to Melbourne in 1901. The author of this book quotes extensively from the personal diary of William Bertotto, which was written during William’s service in the China War.
S.S. Salamis, 4,650 tons, was on the Admiralty’s list of ships suitable for use as troop transports, and on arrival in Sydney, she was requisitioned, becoming Her Majesty’s Transport 105. A.H.H. Douglas, her captain, was a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, and her crew would don the uniforms of the Reserve when the ship went into imperial government service.
S.S. Salamis, fully coaled and victualled for the voyage to China sailed for Melbourne to enable the Victorian Contingent to embark. The well organised Victorians were mobilised and sworn in on Saturday 23rd. July, 1900 at the Williamstown Barracks. S.S. Salamis arrived alongside the Breakwater Pier, Williamstown on Sunday 29th. July. The work of embarking the heavy stores, guns and limbers started at once, and was completed that evening.
On Monday 30th. July, 1900, the contingent, including William Bertotto, embarked and, at 4.15 p.m., the Salamis weighed anchor and got under way for Sydney. She arrived in Port Jackson on Saturday 4th. August. There was a decided warlike air abroad throughout the vessel and the Victorians, upon whose caps were written HMS (sic) Cerberus, saluted as their superiors passed through the quarters.
The New South Wales Contingent was making frantic last minute arrangements with the marines being sworn in as late as Saturday 4th. August, the day the Salamis arrived in Sydney.
After visits by local dignitaries, including the Governor, Lord Beauchamp and Sir William Lyne, Transport 105, formerly S.S. Salamis, left Cowper Wharf in the afternoon of the 7th. August, 1900 for an anchorage in Farm Cove before sailing the next day for China.
On Sunday, 9th. September, Salamis arrived on the war front. She joined the great fleet of ships from many nations which had assembled twelve to fifteen nautical miles off the mouth of the Hai Ho. The fleet was estimated as having a strength of 130 warships and transports of all classes and sizes. Orders were received that the Australian brigade was to be quartered as one force in Tientsin, and would be committed to securing and holding the land in that area, and later at Pao-ting fu, one hundred or so miles to the west of Tientsin.
William Bertotto’s diary, written in superb copperplate handwriting, records some of his experiences and events which he witnessed during his time in the field in Tientsin and Pao-ting fu. At times, he faced the miseries of war encountered by most soldiers when engaged in armed conflicts - walking amongst bodies of the dead - victims of battle and plague, sickness, inappropriate clothing and insufficient food, bitterly cold weather conditions, and occasionally swarms of mosquitoes. At one time twenty five per cent of the Contingent was on sick leave with illnesses such as dysentery, influenza, “fever” and “ague”.
The Victorian Naval Contingent left Australia with blue serge uniforms and greatcoats, but these were quite inadequate, for the severe winter conditions. The British obtained some winter clothing from the Canadian Government and this was to prove invaluable.
William’s diary also describes the lighter side of life in wartime - the holding of a “banyan”, a Royal Australian Navy term used to describe a party where sailors from a ship anchored offshore, go ashore to cook a meal and drink beer on a deserted tropical island. The entries in William Bertotto’s diary also have a ring of optimism about them, suggesting strength of mind and body, and the ability to survive under threatening conditions.
Unboubtedly, his early upbringing in the bracing sea air of Sandringham, under the guidance of his father, Angelo, who, as a professional fisherman, risked his life as he faced the elements in pursuit of his career, resulted in William being an exceptionally resourceful and resilient human being. During his youth in Sandringham he witnesses death on a number of occasions. His baby sister, Margaretta, aged 16 months, drowned in the harbour at Pic-nic Point in 1877. His younger brother Angelo Francis died, aged 7 months, at Picnic Point in 1878, and his brother Angelo Dominico died, aged 9 years, at Sandringham in 1892.
The Bertotto family, like most of the professional fishermen who worked out of the Sandringham harbour area in the 1800s, grew resilient as they tenaciously went about their daily activities. William, moreso than those reared in a less demanding environment, was better equipped to contend with the hardships which he faced whilst serving with the Contingent in China.
By the beginning of 1901, when hostilities had subsided, the Victorian Contingent’s role was limited to that of an occupation force. Their departure had been set for the end of March in the China Navigation Company’s S.S. Chingtu, a steamer of 2,300 tons. The Victorians handed over to the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and stowed all their gear aboard Lighter No. 8 on the morning of the 25th. March. They spent the night at the British base at Hsin-ho and boarded the Chingtu, Transport 106 at 9.00 the next morning. Rough weather at the bar delayed the arrival and embarkation of the New South Wales Contingent until the 29th. March, 1901.
The Chingtu sailed from Hong Kong on the 5th. April, 1901, but did not have a clean bill of health as she approached Sydney, and, as a consequence, entered Port Jackson with a quarantine flag flying. On the evening of the 25th. April, 1901, when at last the ship steamed through the Heads in the dark, she sailed to a quarantine anchorage in the lee of the North Head.
William Bertotto returned home to Sandringham after his posting to the China War and was promoted to the rank of Able Seaman on the 6th. September, 1901. He remained in the Victorian Navy until 1907, when he was discharged at his own request. His Certificate of Service was signed by Commandant W. R. Creswell. The earlier entries in the Certificate of Service were signed by Commander F. Tickell (Captain F.R. Tickell), who was the Commanding Officer of the Victorian Contingent which served in the China War. A copy of William Bertotto’s Certificate of Service is included in this publication.
After discharge, in 1907, William Bertotto once more pursued a career as a professional fisherman at Sandringham.
He was a pioneer member of the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Parish in Sandringham, and resided with his family at No. 5 Moor Street, Sandringham until his death in 1946. He did not marry.
William died “on the beach at Sandringham” on the 24th. April, 1946, having suffered from Angina pectoris - 3 months and Arteriosclerosis - years.
He was buried in the Brighton Cemetery on the 26th. April, 1946.
Grave reference - Roman Catholic, Compartment C, Grave 114. The Bertotto family graves being 113 and 114.
Appreciation is expressed to members of the Bertotto family for their help in the preparation of this “Profile” of the life story of William Thomas Bertotto. The information relating to the details of the China War (Boxer Rebellion), have been extracted from Bluejackets and Boxers by Bob Nicholls. Published Allen & Unwin in 1986.
William's Diary for 1900-1901 courtesy of Shirley Joy & Dennis Bertotto
|| R C
|| 5' 6"
|| Diary used in book 1986
From Volunteer Listing kept by CPO Goding & held by grandson Lawrence Dilks, Williamstown. Prepared by Ada Ackerly, Directory Williamstown Museum, c 1987.
Profile in The Australian Illustrated Enclclopaedia of The Boxer Uprising 1899-1901, Justin Corfield, Slouch Hat Publications, McCrae Australia, 2001.
More details on this person can be found in the Victorian Navy Certificates of Service This is a very large pdf file of 119 mb and takes 13 minutes to download with a 1.5 mbps internet connection.