Michael Veitch's one-man show Hell Ship is aptly named. And he has a personal connection to the dramatic, and tragic, true story.
In November 1852 the clipper Ticonderoga arrived in Melbourne's Port Phillip Bay. During its three-month journey from Liverpool, typhus ravaged the 800 passengers and crew.
About 100 people - most of them evictees from the Scottish Highlands on assisted passage who were seeking a new life - died during the non-stop voyage and were buried at sea. It was said schools of sharks began following the vessel.
When the "fever ship" arrived in Victoria, news of iwhat had happened aboard it spread quickly in Melbourne and caused a panic. The Ticonderoga was forbidden to come into port and had to anchor near Portsea in quarantine, where another 100 people died. Three hundred more were very ill but eventually recovered. The surviving passengers were finally able to disembark and begin their new lives.
Veitch wrote a book about this little-known piece of Australian history and later adapted it into Hell Ship, a play he is now touring. As for the personal connection - an ancestor of his played a vital role.
"There were two doctors on the voyage - the younger one was my great-great grandfather."
That man, James William Henry Veitch was apprenticed to a doctor at the age of 16 and graduated from the London School of Apothecary five years later.
"He came from a long line of naval surgeons," Veitch says.
"His father, James Veitch, was a really big deal - he served with Nelson at Trafalgar."
He was the first of the Veitch family to come to Australia and did not succumb to typhus. The doctor treated sick passengers during the voyage and for the six weeks the ship was quarantined.
The bacterial infection, transmitted by body lice, has symptoms including fever, delirium and coma.
"You either passed through or didn't."
Something good for him came out of all this hard and dangerous work for the surgeon.
"He was assisted by a young female emigrant, Annie Morrison.
"They married soon after and she became my great-great-grandmother."
The doctor, who was born in 1830, lived a long life, dying at about the age of 80 in the early 20th century.
He had not intended to remain in Australia but ended up settling in Bendigo and became a prominent citizen and philanthropist, starting a school and a hospital in the town.
"My father got to meet his youngest son - that's where he heard the story."
Veitch says that in Hell Ship he narrates the story as his great-great-grandfather but also plays other characters including the ship's captain, Thomas Boyle.
The play, directed by Peter Houghton, began touring last year and is resuming in 2020. It will be performed in venues around Victoria and NSW.
He was one of the University of Melbourne comedians to emerge in the 1980s, starring in TV sketch shows including The D-Generation, Fast Forward and Full Frontal .
Coming from a family of journalists, he has also explored his interest in history, writing several non-fiction books, especially about the aviation history of World War II.
Veitch was last at the Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre a couple of years ago with another historical play he wrote, Flak, about World War II aviators, based on his research and books.
Veitch says that many times after performances of Hell Ship, descendants of the survivors come up and share what they know of the history.
"They've had the story in their families for generations."
- Hell Ship. By Michael Veitch. Directed by Peter Houghton. Moderate language, ages 15+. Chester Creative. The Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre. February 21 at 8pm, February 22 at 2pm and 8pm. theq.net.au.