David Thomas: the life and death of a ship’s captain

Life Onboard a 19th century Aberdeen Schooner

Captain David Thomas and the Schooner Mercury

Guest Post

 Captain Thomas

A New Ship

It was one of those lucky moments, browsing auction lots at Milne’s in Aberdeen, and what should be there but a large bundle of documents, letters and ephemera, with no clear indication of what they were.   A telegram mentioned the loss of the schooner Mercury.   This had been sent by the ship’s master Welshman David Thomas to an office in Aberdeen. The year was 1891.

Despite being unclear what the rest of the documents contained this was enough to tantalise my taste buds. Bids were made and the bundle was secured. The usual problems had to be dealt with: careful opening of folded and fragile papers, cursory reading to allow sorting and then looking for a chronological path. Fortunately many of the documents were dated and those that were not were identified by contextualising with other items.

And so, with this done, it was down to reading the material and it soon emerged that the paperwork concerned the running of a sailing ship owned by George Elsmie & Son of Aberdeen.   Most of the letters and telegrams were written by the captain David Thomas, informing the office in Aberdeen of the ship’s condition, cargoes carried and discharged, the work of crews and importantly the thoughts of David Thomas on the life and times of a later 19th century ship’s master.

It became apparent that the life onboard a deep-water sailing ship was not an easy one.   Mercury had been launched in 1871.   Built at Duthie’s yard it was three-masted vessel, 144′ x 27′ and was registered at 361 tons.   A well built wooden coppered ship, the schooner took to the water at a time when Aberdeen boasted a high reputation for its fast clipper ships.   Mercury was not like the glorious Thermopylae, launched 1868; it was more of a tramp sailing ship but like the famous clipper ship it had been made by skilled shipwrights and again like the Thermopylae it was literally designed to carry cargoes across the globe.   In the twenty years of its working life its voyages ranged from the Mediterranean to North and South America; to Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Hong Kong.

Captain David Thomas and his crews, like so many others, faced very real hazards.   A master might find his vessel becalmed, distant from land with supplies running low; at another moment the ship could be hit by storms, threatening to take all rigging away and the very survival of all onboard in the balance.

With all this to manage it is not surprising to find David Thomas stressed.   But his letters also tell another story, that the “natural” dangers of seagoing were compounded, indeed brought on, by the pressures of searching for and carrying profitable cargoes.   After all the only reason the ship was built was to make money and this need at times drove the increasingly elderly captain to distraction.

Thomas was forty years old when he stepped aboard the spanking new Mercury.   For the previous fifteen years he sailed for George Elsmie & Son. On his first voyage to South Shields he told Elsmie ship appears to work well: he loaded with coal and sailed for Palermo, carrying fuel for vessels which threatened the sailing trade and for vessels that would no doubt use the recently opened Suez Canal, a waterway designed for steam rather than sail.

Thomas made Palermo just before Christmas and to celebrate bought a turkey.   Thomas then succeeded in getting a charter to carry a dangerous cargo of sulphur, pumice and fruit from Licata, south of Palermo to New York where he arrived in April 1872 having taken just over six weeks from leaving Sicily.   We get a good idea of the perceived value of merchant sailors from their wages: ordinary seamen who’d been taken on for the outward voyage to Palermo and then onward to New York received £14-12/-, this for four months and 26 days of labour; compare this with Shore Porters in Aberdeen who were paid £1 per week in the 1870s or skilled joiners on 25/- a week.

Thereafter until mid 1874 Mercury sailed the world: New Zealand, Australia, Japan, New York, Malta, Smyrna and then on to Hull with a cargo of cottonseed (used in paint manufacture).   For over 30 months the ship, her master and her crews had sailed the world, seeking charters and hoping for safe passage.   To mark the end of its maiden voyage the ship was prepared for the home port of Aberdeen, painting round the vessel from rail to copper painting gilding and relettering port register bows & stern as agreed for the sum £6.   Thus ship-shape and safely berthed the schooner was at the quayside and David Thomas returned to his family at St Nicholas Street.

Receipt for Tow New York 1884

Troubles

The first mention of real troubles comes with a letter to James Elsmie in July 1877 with the vessel set to sail from New York.   Thomas wrote, This has been the worst day that ever I had with this crew . . . They all want to leave.   The catalyst but not the cause was drink.  The captain had earlier taken men ashore to see about getting them new sea-going clothing – he spent $188 of ship’s money.   However, far from being overly grateful his men set about re-selling the garments for drink to bring some joy and compensation to an otherwise hard life.   Eventually the money was spent, the hangovers no doubt receded and all but two returned to the ship.

A much worse situation arose in 1883 when Mercury was loading at Zarate, upriver from Buenos Aires, and again drink was probably central.   This time it involved violence onshore resulting in the Bos’n (described by Thomas as bad a character as I have seen) and others being arrested and held in jail for a month. That was bad enough but the incident was compounded by an apprentice, a boy named Chrystal, getting involved.   The boy was released and Thomas left Zarate for Rouen with five men still locked up which meant signing on other men for the passage east.   Thomas naturally made sure the absent men were taken off wages.   The following year he again found himself with a difficult crew.   The ship was loaded at London, carrying 600 tons of cement for Rio de Janeiro where it was discharged. While there the crew gave trouble, such that the Welshman felt life was threatened and called on assistance of a Captain Pearson inviting him to come onboard for protection.   There was no murder and the ship sailed for nearby Bahia with a cargo of sugar.   Thomas reported back to Aberdeen: this fortnight at sea has straitened the [crew] up a little but they are a bad treacherous lot.  In other words the physical demands of sailing and the cooperation needed to keep a vessel safe acted as a discipline whilst at sea; in port it was a very different matter.

Captain Thomas to James Elsmie, Buenos Aires, July 1885

One final example of a crewman who sorely tried the patience of the captain was Aberdonian John Wood, taken on as mate in 1886 he remained with the ship until 1889.   This pairing of master and mate was never a happy one.   Thomas had a low opinion of the technical skills and moral backbone of Wood, apparent in the letter he wrote to Elsmie, He is a poor useless piece of humanity it is a wonder I have not knocked his brains out before this through fair aggravation . . . during the whole voyage he has no sense and about every change of the moon he is a little bit cranky besides being so home sick and jealous.

When not faced with recalcitrant crewmen Thomas could be dealing with the threats from bad weather which were actually more threatening to his life than the grumblings of men full of drink. A cursory glance at any shipping intelligence of the 19th century brings home just how dangerous life at sea was: ships posted long overdue, news of groundings, vessels lost and men drowned.   Mercury had its own share of near misses.   For example in 1876 making passage Alexandria to New Haven the ship was battered by westerly gales.   The captain had originally calculated fifty five days for the crossing, in the event it took eighty seven days to reach USA.   His letter back to Aberdeen read, We have had a, most fearful passage.   All westerly gales and sometimes very heavy.   I have never seen such a continuance of heavy weather and now it is bitter cold with a deal of ice and snow.   In 1882 sailing from the Britain to South America: 15 days of very heavy weather before entering the plate lost some Bulwark and again 2 chain plates of main rigin(sic) broken.   Still nothing serious.   We had a heavy breeze the night we left Alloa after light winds and fogs and were 5 days to anchors.   In the same year sailing between St Johns Newfoundland and New York he wrote : we got in last night all safe after a severe battle with the ice.   I have never suffered so much as I have done these last six days with cold and fatige (sic) . . . a lot of vessels missing some way others damaged with the ice.

Then in 1885 came a collision at sea.   It was on the short hop from Plymouth to Dunkirk. A telegram to the Aberdeen office told the owner Run into by French steamer coming in this tide.   Know name of steamer.   Lost bowsprit jib booms head gear cutwater stem broken.   Wire instructions.   The steamer was Dragut.   No lives were lost but damage was fairly extensive, Bowsprit & all head gear carried away & we find facing piece of stem broking & the main stem starting from wooden ends & split down to 14 feet & we do not consider the ship in her present state fit to proceed to her destination & we cannot recommend anything to be done to make ship safe to proceed in tow until stem is taking off down to the 14 feet for further survey.   In the end the French owners accepted responsibility and their insurance covered the costs of repair.

These are just a few of the troubles faced by the captain.   They were, irrespective of their seriousness, in a sense incidental to his main duty which was to find charters for the vessel.   The captain was willing to carry almost anything if it could turn a profit for the ship. The capacity of the hold (600 tons) was a limiting factor as was the ship’s ability to handle particular materials which meant heavy bulky machinery was not possible, otherwise Thomas like other sailing masters was open to any offer of charter.   So it was that we find the vessel carrying everything from camphor to coal, glass to guano.   Much of the hustling to get a suitable cargo was down to the hard work of the master.   On top of this he had to keep accounts for all the ships outgoings, oversee the safety of the vessel and ensure the ship was crewed.

Unsurprisingly Thomas began to feel the stress, made worse by encroaching competition from steam vessels.   Following the collision with Dragut he despairingly wrote We are now getting into the unlucky side of the business which has caused me a deal of trouble in mind, and three years earlier in 1883, I fear it is to be a bad look out for sailing ships in the future.

Through the 1880s difficulties grew and as his letters show so did Thomas’s pessimism.   He was ageing, mental stress was taken its toll and when he was hit by illness in 1890, mid winter at Antwerp, he wrote of   feverish cramping feeling and a heavy cold . . . I am scarcely able to get along.   But he was a working ship’s master and he just had to get along.

Last Receipt for Work Done, Aberdeen, February 1891

A Sinking

And he did get along until 1891 when his ship’s receipts for January show Berry and Mackay of Aberdeen checking navigation instruments, new tide tables purchased also a sea anchor, 2 life buoys and 11 eleven life belts as well as 366 pounds of beef.   In the light of what subsequently occurred those items, other than the beef, are perhaps significant.

Mercury sailed from Aberdeen to Grangemouth; loaded with coal she was bound for Rio.   Bad weather delayed the ship in the Firth until the 23 February when she finally got away.   Then on the 4 March James Elsmie received a telegram, Mercury totally lost Longsand   Captain Thomas crew landed here this morning by steam lifeboat. Crew now returned wreck to salve stores if possible.   Vessel full water when crew left her.   Little prospect of doing much.   And that was that for the vessel.   Twenty years service then grounded and lost but with no loss of life.

Auction poster

There was of course an enquiry the outcome of which was six months suspension of Thomas’s master’s certificate.   At the time of the grounding the weather was fair and there was no obvious reason why the ship should have been lost.   It was not unknown for ships to be deliberately grounded when trading conditions were such that an insurance claim could bring in more than continuing in business.   That the ship was provisioned with new life belts etc on what became its last voyage might make us suspicious.   But regardless of any intent on David Thomas’s part we have to acknowledge that the man had lived a hard, dangerous life and it was perhaps a somewhat inglorious end to his career with the schooner, although he possibly had the sympathy of his fellow merchantmen for the predicament he found himself in and the solution he might have found.

However Thomas’s connection with the sea continued until sadly in January 1894 The Aberdeen Journal reported –

Mercury

The schooner Catherine had been sailing out of Montrose, working the busy Baltic trade. According to one newspaper report Catherine had sailed from Elsinore on the 9th November 1893, in other words the ship had been missing for two months in deep winter.   David Thomas would have been about 63 when lost with the rest of his crew.

For a more detailed account see:  “David Thomas and the Schooner Mercury, 1871-1891” in The Mariner’s Mirror 96, No.4 2010, pp.468-482.

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