There were few things that could strike fear in the hearts of passengers and crew of a ship as much as a fire aboard a sailing ship. While there were many ways that a ship could meet its end through tempest and collision, a fire was a particular danger especially in the days of wooden ships. There is a seeming irony in a burning vessel surrounded by water but a packed hold and the difficulty of pumping water to reach the source of the flames consuming the vessel, as well as the lack of barriers to halt the spread of the flames meant that unless extinguished quickly a fire could not be stopped. Unless rescued by a passing vessel or forced into the small and fragile ships boats, passengers and crew could easily perish.
By the mid 1800s regular travel between Prince Edward Island and Great Britain, if not routine, was at least somewhat normal. Each year hundreds of ships crisscrossed the Atlantic with the imports and exports of the colonies as well as passengers. Not all of these were emigrants and many colonial merchants made regular visits to suppliers in the United Kingdom to order goods and do business. Many of these had made the crossing dozens of times and most commercial voyages made provision for a few passengers.
Such was the case with the 500 ton, 141 foot, three-masted ship, the Majestic. The vessel had been built on the Hillsborough River for Charlottetown merchant W.W. Lord and launched in the spring of 1855. The owner was aboard for the maiden voyage and for the next three years the ship shuttled back and forth between Charlottetown and Liverpool, usually taking three to four weeks to sail in each direction. With Island ports closed by ice between late December and April the last voyage from the Island and first from Great Britain were carefully timed but often saw passages in dangerous North Atlantic winter conditions.
The first trip from Liverpool in 1858 was advertised for departure early in April and although leaving on 8 April, a few days after the advertised date, the trip promised to be a routine one. The cargo included hard coal used in the production of gas for the recently built gas plant in Charlottetown, oil, oakum for use in shipbuilding, and general goods including a quantity of liquor. There were also eighteen passengers including a number of children and single men and women.
On the late afternoon of the nineteenth day of the passage, when the ship was still 200 miles east of Newfoundland, smoke was discovered in the after hold. A smoldering fire was coming from a tier of oakum under the cabin floor. The captain and three crew leapt into the hold to try and find the source of the fire while the rest of the crew was ordered to draw water to pour on the fire. After moving a few bales of oakum the fire was seen to be coming from below and water and wet blankets used to try and smother the flames but the dense smoke soon drove the crew from the hold which was quickly sealed to try and reduce the flow of air to the fire.
The ships boats were launched and supplied with water and provisions and the passengers and a few of the crew were put aboard them. With the fire gaining strength the captain changed course to head for Newfoundland with the boats trailing behind. At midnight the fire seemed to have been slowed and captain brought the passengers and crew back aboard to avoid prolonged exposure to the elements and to help fight the fire by carrying water to pour on the flames. from a skylight above the hold. Through the night, however, the fire made slow but steady advances through the ship.
In the meantime two of the crew, both officers, had broached the liquor casks aboard and were found to be too drunk to assist. The rest of the crew and passengers were divided into teams to draw and pour water to slow the spread of the fire. The captain later praised the efforts of the passengers, citing two women in particular, Miss Warburton, daughter of the colony’s Colonial Secretary and Mrs. Tont, a steerage passenger, for their efforts in keeping the others supplied with hot tea, food and “moderate allowances of grog,” and for encouraging the efforts of others. Two of the male passengers, Capt. Lang and Mr. Hillcoat, were also singled out for praise for “keeping the crew in a state of discipline and efficiency.”
Throughout the whole of Wednesday the 28th the exhausted men and women aboard the Majestic fought the flames but by 4 a.m. on Thursday the flames had broken through the stern of the vessel and the situation seemed hopeless. The wind had dropped which halted their progress toward land but also allowed the smoke to blanket the vessel rather than being blown away. A steady rain was now falling on the passengers and crew who had no shelter from the elements.
About noon on Thursday, when all seemed destined for a tragic end, a sail was spotted which proved to be a steamship, the Ospray, bound from St. John’s Newfoundland to Halifax. After transferring the passengers, crew, and what personal effects could be saved from the hulk Captain Nowlan finally abandoned the still-burning vessel at about 4:30 p.m. All aboard had fought the flames for more than 48 hours without rest or relief.
Taken by the Ospray to Halifax it appears that most of the Island-bound passengers travelled to Pictou and across in the steamer Westmorland, arriving in Charlottetown about a month after leaving Liverpool.
The Examiner published a list of the passengers on the Majestic from Liverpool to P.E.I.: Miss Warburton, three Misses Wolfenden, Master Wolfenden, Miss Many, Miss Kinder, Mrs. MacInally and daughter, Mrs. Tont, Mr. and Mrs. Maher, Captain Lang, Messrs Hillcoat, McDeval, Bedler, McGinnes and Connor.
Two reports of the fire were subsequently published. One was from the pen of John Wolfenden, one of the passengers and the other by Edward Nowlan, the captain.
I am indebted to a Welsh researcher Lynne Rees who caused me to stumble on this story. She had been following the story of a Dr. Henry Brougham Hillcoat who tragically drowned in the waters of Port Talbot in Wales in 1858. Hillcoat had been one of the owners of the Keppoch Estate, later the Keppoch Beach Hotel, near the entrance to Charlottetown Harbour. Through further research on Hillcoat’s time on P.E.I. I discovered the accounts of the burning of the Majestic on which Hillcoat had been a passenger.