Deadly Voyage:

Stowaways and the Case of the Arran

Ship owners and masters have long thought stowaways problems. They also pose difficulties for researchers trying to track them down today. Although stowaways frequently appear in the MHA's Crew Agreements and Logs, an unknown, and perhaps significant number have not been recorded at all. From 1850, a regular method of engaging and discharging seamen existed. But no law required masters to keep a record of stowaways. For the family history researcher, finding these men and women is demanding work.

Some seamen began their careers by stowing away. They might not otherwise have been accepted as employable by the master. Captain LS Leslie of Liverpool, testifying before the Select Committee on the Passengers' Act (1852), stated, "I found two white boys on board, stowaways, one a captain's son who had run away from home, and I took him in the cabin; the other I put to do duty with the men" (Committee on Passengers' Act 1852, 735). The experience of 23-year-old Jacob Nelson was not an uncommon one. He was found aboard the Agnes Sutherland in May 1875 and put to work as an ordinary seaman for 1s per-month. (ON 45873, 1875) In another large port city, Liverpool, evidence collected from a widowed mother of seven children in 1913, revealed her eldest to have stowed away and subsequently to be working as a seafarer ("Report on Condition of Widows", 55).

Because many families simply could not afford having another mouth to feed, children of the lower classes often worked to support their families. They were sent out to mines, brickyards, woolen mills, and factories. They were employed as farm laborers, chimney sweeps, rag pickers, matchbox-makers, and beggars (Pinchbeck and Hewitt, 170). There were those who scoured sewers to find coins, jewelry, iron, and rope, while "mud-larks" collected items from the riverbanks when the tide was out. Thousands more lived in ditches, under bridges and hung around wharves (Kohli, 3). Because their poor physical condition meant it was unlikely they would get a job in the regular fashion, some stowed away on merchant vessels hoping to get signed on. Others saw stowing away as a means to emigrate to North America.

Not all stowaways had good fortune. They were among the most vulnerable of sea-goers because they depended on the good will of the master and mate. Some were beaten, refused food, abandoned at a distant port and, in one dreadful example, put onto the ice floes.

The Arran – a 1,063 ton ship – sailed from Greenock, Scotland for Quebec on April 7, 1868, with a cargo of coal and oakum (ON 47585, 1868, MHA). The vessel was searched for stowaways, and two were found, cuffed, and sent ashore. While at sea, as many as seven other stowaways were discovered. These supernumeraries would cause a considerable strain on the vessel's cramped accommodations and limited stores. The first stowaways to appear were Hugh McEwan and John Paul, both aged 11. McEwan's widowed mother had recently moved to Glasgow. Sending her son to Greenock on an errand, she was likely anxious when he didn't return. At least McEwan was properly dressed, but his friend was barefoot. David Brand and James Bryson were both aged 16. Peter Currie and Hughie McInnes were aged 12. McInnes' mother was widowed; he, too, was without shoes. The eldest of the seven stowaways, Barney Reilly, is reported as aged 22. He lived in lodgings in the town. He later stated before a magistrate that he stowed away on the Arran with the intent of emigrating to Canada (Mitchell's Maritime Register, 1523).

By the time the Arran had come into sight of Newfoundland during the first week of May, the boys had already received a thrashing (Snow, 171). Having slipped into the grip of ice in St. George's Bay, the boys, half starved, were caught stealing food. Bryson was subsequently stripped, strapped, and made to swab the deck. (1523) When the crew went over the side to prepare the hull against the floes, Bryson and Brand snuck into the master's quarters and stole some biscuits. Bryson later recounted his experiences: "The mate placed my head on deck, seized my legs and held them up to his breast, while the captain flogged me. He gave me from 15 to 20 lashes."

Three days later, the seven boys were ordered to go ashore. The master was, in fact, driving them onto the ice. Starved and only half-dressed, one boy, McEwan, fell beneath the ice and was never recovered. McGinnes, suffering from swollen feet and fatigue, collapsed. He was left behind by the boys. That evening, as the boys came towards the edge of the ice, they could see the shore and houses on the hillside. They decided to paddle on blocks of ice. A woman then appeared from one of the houses. It isn't clear whether she saw the boys or heard their cries. A boat was launched, and the four survivors were gathered from the ice, blind from the glare of the ice-fields, and frost-bitten. The following day, the ice broke up, freeing the Arran and letting her proceed to Quebec. (Blake, 281)

Back in Greenock, a small closely knit port town, rumors began to swirl that something dreadful had happened to the boys. A letter home from one of the Arran's crew members brought certainty to their suspicions. A mob gathered on the wharf on Thursday, July 30, 1868, awaiting the ship's return and with the apparent intention of lynching (Blake, 281). When the vessel arrived and was moored, the mob exploded in a fury of curses and threats. Several men jumped on board searching for the master, but the officers locked themselves below deck until they could be escorted by police. A letter to the chief of police in St. John's confirmed the worst: two of the boys had perished. The next day the master and mate were brought before a magistrate and charged with assault (282).

This ship's master made no mention of the stowaways in his log, and if it hadn't been for the ensuing court case and the accompanying press coverage, the identities of these boys and their stories would likely not have come to light. The trial began on November 23, 1868 in the High Court of Judiciary at Edinburgh. The survivors were brought to St. John's in a schooner and from there home. The first mate, Kerr, pleaded guilty to assault. He was sentenced to four months imprisonment. Watt, the master, was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen months (Maritime Register, 1523).