“One of the most daring acts that has ever occurred in Charlottetown”

Fishing fleet off Rustico Harbour. Illustration from S.G.W. Benjamin The Atlantic Islands as Resorts of Health and Pleasure

When he was called up onto the deck John Furness knew there would be trouble. A boat with about fifteen or sixteen men had appeared on the starboard side of the schooner. It was half past eleven on the night of the 24th of November 1870 and besides Furness, John Thomas and James Stewart were the only ones aboard the schooner Clara F. Friend lying in Charlottetown Harbour. Two months earlier the Clara F. Friend had  simply been one of the scores of American fishing vessels chasing the herring schools off the north side of the Island. Built in Gloucester Massachusetts in 1866 the sixty-five foot schooner was typical of the fleet which was a regular visitor to Island waters between August and November each year. However at the end of September she had been surprised by a Royal Navy patrol gunboat, the H.M.S. Plover, in the act of fishing within the three-mile limit and had been seized by Captain Poland and taken to Charlottetown to await the decision of the Vice-Admiralty Court as to her fate.  Furness and his shipmates had been hired by the Court to guard the seized vessel pending the outcome of the legal proceedings. The arguments and evidence had been presented in court two days earlier and an adjournment been given to give the judge time to prepare his decision.

Calling down to the longboat Furness asked who the men were and what did they want. “Are we far from Southport?” was the only reply.  One of the men in the boat declared he was coming aboard for a drink of water and several others tried to board the schooner. Furness was armed with a musket and bayonet but the men from the boat rushed him and disarmed him. Taken below he recognized one of the men as Thomas Grady, the master of the schooner at the time of her capture. Other crew members he knew to be John Howe and Michael McCarty. Later in the cabin he met with the schooner’s owner Charles Friend who had also been in the longboat. He assured the three guards that they would not be hurt if they went along and didn’t cause trouble.  Friend told them he had been waiting in Charlottetown for three weeks for H.M.S. Plover to finally leave the port which had not happened until after the court session ended as several of the gunboat’s crew were required to give evidence.

With his crew assembled aboard Captain Grady ordered sail to be set and under the cover of darkness they stole through the harbour entrance. When about three miles out from Blockhouse Point the three guards were put into a boat with four oars and cast adrift. The men were asked to tie the boat up to the wharf in Charlottetown and were told they would not be forgotten when their captors got home to Gloucester. As the schooner made her way to open sea the three men rowed back to the harbour entrance getting there at about half-past three and then made haste to Charlottetown to raise the alarm.  By daylight the Clara F. Friend was nowhere to be seen.

Plover Class gunboat similar to the vessel which twice captured the Clara F. Friend. imperial War Museum photo Q40622

With no vessels in Charlottetown to give chase Lieutenant Governor William Robinson immediately telegraphed to Admiral Fanshawe in Halifax and to Captain Poland on board the Plover in Pictou. The gunboat set out for the Strait of Canso where it was believed the Clara F. Friend would be heading on her way back to American waters and her home port. The Plover  had no sight of the schooner in Northumberland Strait but the warship lay in wait behind a spit of land at Mulgrave and at eight in the evening a crew member spotted a vessel passing through the Strait without lights.  After a chase of several hours it was confirmed that the vessel was indeed the missing fishing schooner and she was once again taken under armed guard and returned to Charlottetown to the immense satisfaction  of the Lieutenant Governor.  Robinson had informed General E. P. Scammon, the American consul in Charlottetown, of the brazen theft of the vessel. Scammon immediately sent a telegram to the U.S. Secretary of State and wrote to Robinson stating: “How such an act, equivalent to piracy in our own statutes, could have been perpetrated by sane men, I cannot understand.”  The editor of the Charlottetown Herald was equally appalled terming the event “… one of the most daring acts that has ever occurred in Charlottetown.”

The decision of the Vice Admiralty Court was quickly confirmed and the Clara F. Friend was forfeited to the crown for the fishing violation and the Marshal of the Court was ordered to sell her at public auction on the 19th of December 1870.  Isaac C. Hall, an American merchant resident on the Island and deeply involved with the American fishing interests, bought her for £520. The Herald noted “She is worth a great deal more but the people here did not wish to bid against Mr. Friend.”

Several of the night-time boarding party appeared before the City magistrate’s court and were bound over for trial in the January sittings of the Supreme Court. The grand jury found “a true bill” for assault and rescue against Charles Friend, Michael McCarthy, Edward Moar, John Walsh, John Howe and others unknown but the action was put over to the next session of the court and it seems it was never proceeded with.

The Clara F. Friend continued to fish, occasionally showing up on a list of American vessels to whom licenses had been granted by the Dominion government. Her story came to an end on a stormy February night in 1895 when she was wrecked on Eastern Head near Liverpoool  Harbour and her entire crew lost.

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