“A voyage most disasterous” – The loss of the sailing ship Alfred

A court case on the extent of liability in an insurance claim which was heard in the Court of King’s Bench in London is one of the last places one might expect to learn of the human details of what was termed “a voyage most disastrous.” However the reporting in the London Chronicle in August 1811 allowed a brief glimpse of the perils of the sea.  In an earlier posting I reflected on the danger for vessels of being frozen into P.E.I. harbours by leaving sailing too late in the season. However besides the economic loss there could be a very real danger as recounted in the sparse details in the case of Welsford v. Tunno.

Court of King’s Bench, Westminster Hall in 1808

Samuel Welsford was an English merchant, probably from Bristol,  who was active in the timber and shipping trades in Prince Edward Island in the early 1800s. He was later a partner with shipbuilder Lemuel Cambridge in several shipbuilding and ship-owning activities. John Tunno was an insurer and a member of the Lloyd’s organization who had sold insurance on a ship owned by Welsford.

As the tale unfolded through court testimony  the ship Alfred left England in April 1809 for Prince Edward’s Island to take on cargo, almost certainly timber which was a boom export in the early 1800s. The vessel had been here before and the owners thought with an expected departure from the Island in June or July she might even be able to make two round trips before the ice closed in.  That was not to be. By the time she arrived in the colony several of the crew had become indebted to the captain and deserted the ship. The owner’s brother, who was resident on the Island, tried to replace them but the timber boom had created a labour shortage.  He secured a crew on Cape Breton but they too, deserted. Others were brought from Newfoundland but the boat on which they were travelling was upset and four men drowned.  He then went to Halifax and managed to attract additional men but some of them also deserted. The search for willing crew took months but on the 18th of January 1810 the vessel finally departed the Island.

On the homeward journey at last the vessel carried a pilot, 12 men and an unspecified number of ships boys.  Slipping out of the harbour under a favourable breeze and “with every prospect of a prosperous voyage”, it seemed that the ship had managed to avoid the ice which threatened to close navigation. However, on the first night the wind shifted bringing a gale with snow and intense frost which combined to “render it impossible to guard the ship against the islands of ice which the winds drove from the shore and which rendered it hardly possible for the crew to keep the ship above water.” The pumps froze and could not be worked so the inflow could not be stemmed.  All aboard took to the ship’s boat and eventually made it to shore, totally exhausted and having lost all their belongings. Frostbite took its toll; the court report noting “the captain being in such a condition that his fingers and toes had completely rotted off.” It does not seem that any of the crew lost their lives but by the time of the court hearing in August 1811 they were scattered across the world, working on other ships and the sole eye-witness produced for the court was James Pilchard, a man who had lost a leg in the service of his country, and was engaged on the Alfred as a cook.  The one-legged man spoke to the jury of the dedication of the other crew members in ensuring his safety to their own peril. He had broken his wooden leg while struggling to abandon ship and “such was the humanity and feeling of his honest-hearted companions, in this his calamitous situation, though their own distress was so excessive that two of the most hale among them carried him along…” It was reported that the insurance underwriters had been advised of these circumstances “but they were too cold calculators to be moved by them.”

These details were, of course, superfluous to the court case which was about the insurance for the ship and cargo. Tunno, the insurer, had denied coverage arguing that in delaying departure the captain had placed the vessel in a situation that no ordinary man would consider safe. By delaying the sailing while searching for a crew the ship had been effectively rendered unseaworthy.  Pilchard’s evidence however was that inspite of the late departure they had every prospect of a successful voyage when they left the Island. Had the favourable wind lasted for a day longer they would have been completely clear of the ice danger. He stated that had there been any danger they would not have gone to lose their lives.

The insurers tried to introduce evidence of the dangers of late departure but their witnesses had no experience of Prince Edward Island waters, conceding that the situation in Quebec and Newfoundland might be very different from the Gulf and Northumberland Strait.  Lord Ellenborough reviewed the law and concluded that in order for the insurer to succeed in refusing payment he would have evidence “so strong and cogent as to show it to be madness on the part of the Captain to set out.” It appeared to him that this was not the case as regards the voyage of the Alfred.

The jury, following direction from the judge found that Welsford was entitled to the insurance proceeds and was awarded £250. These funds were for the ship and cargo and unless the owner was moved by the testimony at the court hearing it is unlikely that any of the proceeds were paid to the crew or captain for their losses or suffering . Such was the perilous nature of the employment of seamen in 1811.


3 thoughts on ““A voyage most disasterous” – The loss of the sailing ship Alfred



  2. Gary Carroll

    Have you made an entry on Sailstrait for the Queen Square Cartier Cairn unveiling on 25 August 1934; many Canadian officials & one shipload arrived from France.
    Gary Carroll


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