Von Luckner in Western Australia?

March 21, 2011

Mac, hi

I may have raised this with yourself or your readers before, but I am most interested in establishing when Count Felix von Luckner was ever in Western Australia, in the years say 1896 to 1900.

As you probably know, Lowell Thomas in his book Sea Devil reports him working in the Cape Leeuwin lighthouse as an assistant lighthouse keeper, and while there having a falling out with another keeper after making a pass at the keeper's daughter, by the sound of things.

I have an interest in the history of the south west of Western Australia and have been trying for years to find some
kind of supporting evidence to prove that he was there, in addition to his claims that he arrived on the Russian vessel Niobe, that he at one stage sold the Salvation Army's newspaper War Cry at Fremantle and later joined up with a circus troop.

He may well have used his mother's surname, and have thus been known as  Phyllax Luddecke. Try as I might I have not been able to find any supporting evidence, such as pay records at the light house which only opened in 1897 or 8 or thereabouts, or anything from Germany on his early history.

I wonder if you or your readers might have some clues on where I should try next: the merest snippet would get me going again!

I look forward to hearing anything -- my fingers are crossed!

Cheers and thanks
Tim Blue


It is certainly not easy to document von Luckner's time as an Assistant Lighthouse Keeper in WA.

James N. Bade in his von Luckner an Assessment, printed by Peter Lang Frankfurt am main in 2004 has this to say

"Assuming the name of Phylax Ludicke, he joined a Russian ship, the Niobe, as a cabinboy, and jumped ship when it arrived in Fremantle, Australia 5."

For a while, he writes, he joined the Salvation Army, selling the War Cry. 6 the reference is: Graf Felix von Luckner, /Seeteufel: Abenteuer aus meinem Leben, /Berlin and Leipzig,1926.

5: Ibid, pp. 9-19

6. Ibid, p19

This may assist just a little.


Mac, hi

Many thanks for that, and coming back so quickly.

But again, the big flaw -- it's again just von Luckner blowing his own trumpet. Of course it may well be true, but it's not looking too substantial.

By the way I have tried the Salvos on this as well but they have no records either, quite understandably in a sense in  that not many organisations would keep lists of casual employees from more than 100 years ago.

I shall press on, but thanks for trying. Actually I think my  next effort will be to look at the shipping records in
Fremantle, to see if it had the Niobe arriving some time. Even to establish that would be handy. I am on my way

Tim B


There are any number of different references to von Luckner sailing in the Russian Niobe and jumping ship in Fremantle, I believe that it is most likly true that he did so.

Surely so many different sources cannot all be wrong.


    * Bade, James, N. /Von Luckner: A Reassessment. Count
Felix von
      Luckner in New Zealand and the South Pacific.
1917-1919-and 1938./
      Peter Lang GMBH, Frankfurt am Main, 2004.
    * Bromby, Robin, /German Raiders of the South Seas/,
      Sydney and Auckland. 1985.
    * Cowan, James, /"The Pirate of the Pacific: German
Naval Officer's
      daring Escape from his Prison Island and Recapture
in Mid-Ocean,"/
      The Wide World Magazine, July 1918. pp. 253--260.
    * Davis, E. H. /"The Man Who Met Von Luckner: True
Story Of An
      Encounter With The Seeadler"/, The World News, 25
June 1938, pp. 7
      and 40-41.
    * Frankenstein, Norbert von, /"Seeteufel" Felix Graf
      Wahrheit und Legende/, Hamburg, SSC-Verlag 1997.
    * Fraser, Eleanor, /"Count Felix von Luckner and the '
      Sea Breezes 66, 1992, pp. 772-776.
    * Gardiner, Robert (editorial director), /Conway's All
the World's
      Fighting Ships 1906-1921/. Conway Maritime Press,
London 1985.
    * Henry, Howard, /"The Sea Devil came Calling" ---
Count von Luckner
      and his visit to Aitutaki: August/September 1917/.
      Pacific Publishing Company, Auckland, 2001.
    * Hoyt, E. P. /Sea Eagle (alternative title: Count von
      Knight of the Sea)/ David McKay Co Inc, New York,
NY, 1969.
    * Luckner, Felix von, /Seeteufel erobert Amerika/,
Koehler &
      Amelang, Leipzig, 1928
    * Luckner, Felix von, /Aus dem Leben des 'Seeteufels'/
, edited by
      Wolfgang Seilkopf, Mitteldeutscher Verlag, Halle. 2000.
    * Luckner, Felix von, /Ein Freibeuterleben/, Woldni &
      Dresden, 1938.
    * Luckner, Felix von, /Out of an Old Sea Chest/,
trans. by Edward
      Fitzgerald, Methuen, London, 1958.
    * Luckner, Felix von, /Seeteufel: Abenteuer aus meinem
      Koehler, Berlin and Leipzig, 1926. (first published
    * Luckner, Felix von, /Seeteufels Weltfahrt: Alte und
      Abenteuer/, Bertelsmann (Gutersloh) 1951.
    * McGill, David, /Island of Secrets: Matiu/Somes
Island in
      Wellington Harbour/, Steele Roberts & Silver Owl Press,
      Wellington, 2001.
    * Newbolt, Henry, /History of the Great War Based on
      Documents: Naval Operations, Vol IV/, Longmans Green
and Co,
      London. 1928.
    * Pardoe, Blaine /The Cruise of the Sea Eagle: The
Amazing True
      Story of Imperial Germany's Gentleman Pirate/ The
Lyons Press,
      2005, ISBN 1592286941
    * Ruffell, W. /"The Search for Von Luckner, Part 1"/, The
      Volunteers: New Zealand Military Historical Journal,
Vol.5, no.5,
      pp. 14--20.
    * Ruhen, Carl, /The Sea Devil: the Controversial
Cruise of the Nazi
      Emissary von Luckner to Australia and New Zealand in
      Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, 1988.
    * Schmalenbach, Paul /German raiders: A history of
      cruisers of the German Navy, 1895-1945/ Naval
Institute Press,
      1979, ISBN 0870218247
    * Thomas, Lowell, /Count Luckner the Sea Devil/,
Garden City
      Publishing Company, Inc, Garden City, New York 1927
    * Thomas, Lowell, /The Sea Devil. The story of C.
Felix v. Luckner,
      the German war raider/. New York: Doubleday, Page &
      London: William Heinemann 1927.
    * Thomas, Lowell, /The Sea Devil's Fo'c'sle/ New York:
      Doran & Company, Inc. 1929
    * Tichener, Paul, /The Von Luckner Incident/, Lodestar
      Auckland, 1978.
    * Walter, John, /The Kaiser's Pirates, German Surface
Raiders in
      World War One/, Arms and Armour Press, London, 1994.
    * Yarwood, Vaughan, /The History Makers: Adventures in
New Zealand
      Biography/. Random House New Zealand. Auckland, 2002.
    * Alain Dunoyer de Segonzac, "Luckner, l'aigle des
mers", Magazine
      "Chasse-marée", n°40, march 1989.
    * Patrick de Gmeline and Josephine Sinclair, "Lückner
l'aigle des
      mers" published by Lavauzelle publishers, France,
illustrated with
      paintings (first and fourth covers) and drawings
from the French
      painter Claude Le Baube
September 1985.

Here is an extract from The Cruise of The Sea Eagle by Blaine Pardoe. The Lyon Press, Guilford, Connecticut. 2005.

At the age of thirteen, Luckner ran away from home to see Buffalo Bill http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo_Bill>'s Wild West Show. He signed up, under the assumed name of "Phylax Lüdecke", as an unpaid cabin boy on the Russian sailing ship /Niobe/ travelling between Hamburg
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamburg> (Germany) and Australia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australia>. His story might have ended there, because the Russian captain, fearing that the lives of other crew members would be endangered, refused to allow a lifeboat to be launched in order to pick up Luckner when he fell overboard in the middle of the ocean. The chief mate <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chief_mate> defied
the captain (who had threatened him with a harpoon), and launched a lifeboat with the help of volunteers. As a number of albatrosses circled over Luckner, one swooped down and seized his outstretched hand in its beak but Luckner grabbed the bird in desperation. Although pecked severely, he hung on for his life. The flapping of the bird's huge wings and the circling of the other albatrosses gave the crew of the lifeboat a point to aim at in his rescue.

Best wishes,


Here is some evidence that/ Niobe/ was in WA. Sheer bloody persistence does pay off!


Dear Mac,

Thank you for your email.

I have searched the Fremantle Shipping Register (Cons 1076 Item 2) for the period 1894-1899. I have found only entry for the arrival of the Niobe (please see 1st attachment). However, a cursory search of the National Library of Australia's newspapers online search engine (http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper) has thrown up other occasions when the Niobe may have visited the Port of Fremantle (please see 2nd attachment). I did have a peruse of the passenger/crew lists in the Fremantle Passenger Arrivals (Accession 457) microfilm for the latter half of September 1899 in the hope that I would find a list of the Niobe's crew. This proved unsuccessful.

As I am sure that you will appreciate, we can only undertake limited research on behalf of clients. This is unfortunate when the research is on the history of such an intriguing and enigmatic gentleman.

Of course you are welcome to engage a researcher in W.A. to undertake a hunt for information on Count Von Luckner's arrival and residency in W.A.

With best wishes,
Tim Lethorn
Archives Officer
State Records Office of Western Australia

Mate, that's fantastic. Gawd almighty.

Looks to me like the newspaper has the record of its leaving Albany to go to Fremantle, while the big ledger has a different date for a departure from Fremantle some time in February. All that would seem to fit.

Do you think the Niobe could be called a cutter? (As the ledger says?)

Maybe that was the language of the time for a three or four masted sailing barque. Anyway it all looks pretty good I think I had tried the SRO office previously and got nowhere and thought the only way forward would be to search the newspapers myself on a trip to Perth.

Interestingly the direction of travel looks about right too -- from east to west -- which would fit with his description in Lowell Thomas' book that he had rounded Cape Horn, rather than the Cape of Good Hope which one would normally have expected a vessel from Europe to have done. I wonder if there is a logbook somewhere in
Germany -- sounds a bit hard to do that for the moment.

Let's assume this is our boat and that our man was on it. Given this date I can now search Trove maybe for a circus in Western Australia, and if one pops up that would be excellent too! At least we know the lighthouse was in operation even if not for long at that time.

Mac, we are cooking with gas -- you have made my day!

Thanks a million


Tim b


I think they are being a bit loose in calling Niobe a Cutter, normally a single masted vessel, whereas she was pobably a four masted sailing ship.

Some detail about a Circus in WA:

*Circuses* Historically, most circuses seen in WA have come from the east.

The first recorded circus performance in WA was an 'international circus' presented by the acrobat Frank Stebbing,
advertised in the Perth Enquirer on 25 April 1869, as the first equestrian entertainment in WA.

The gold rushes were a magnet for circuses, which sometimes received payment in dust and nuggets. The Hyland family came to WA in 1910 and became our resident circus for some decades. Today with increasing government restriction, fewer circuses can afford to come here, but the Lennon organisation, including Burtons and Stardust,
occasionally makes the trip across the Nullarbor. Perth and some regional centres are on the itinerary for international tours, like the Canadian Cirque du Soleil.

The original 'Wimmin's Circus', including West Australians Rose Wise and Sarah McNamara started in Melbourne in the 1980s. Other West Australians, Anni Davey, Mel Fyffe, Matt Wilson and Joel Salom all became pivotal members of Circus Oz. Festival Circus, Bizircus, Suitcase Circus and Flip 'n' Flop are among the small groups which have travelled throughout the state combining circus-style performances with training for children. Matt Yates' Lunar Circus, from Margaret River, is known for its bold energetic performances. *Reginald Bolton*

See this URL: for some Circus History/


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