Category Archives: History

“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.


“One of the Finest Harbours in the World” – Charlottetown in 1860

Detail of 1845 Chart of Charlottetown Harbour showing navigation features noted in Sailing Directions.

In  conjunction with charts, Sailing Directions were one of the most important aids to navigation in the 19th century and they continue to be useful to sailors. The Sailing Directions or “Pilots”  provided instructions as to the best ways to approach a harbour and warned of dangers that might be encountered. The earliest Directions for Prince Edward Island date from about 1810 but were much improved following the hydrographic surveys of Admiral Henry Bayfield. He was the author of the authoritative guide which was published in many editions and still is the basis of the guides used today.  The following excerpt is from the 4th edition Bayfield’s St. Lawrence Pilot, Comprising Sailing Directions for the Gulf and River, published for the Admiralty in 1860. [a fathom is 6 feet and a cable is 1/10 of a nautical mile or 608 feet]

Charlottetown Harbour is 4 ½  cables wide at entrance between the cliffs of Blockhouse and Sea Trout points; but shallow water, extending from both shores, reduces the navigable width of the Channel, reckoning from the depth of 3 fathoms, to about  2 ¼ cables; and as the shoals are very steep, it would require to be well buoyed before a ship of large draught could beat in or out with safety. Cliffs of red sandstone 10 to 30 feet high, form the shores on either side, the land rising gradually from them in undulations, and being partly cultivated and partly wooded. An old blockhouse and signal post stand on Blockhouse point, the west point of entrance. The next point of cliff on the west side of entrance is Alchorn point, and at the distance of half a mile from the blockhouse are the remains of Amherst fort, on the hill, 93 feet above high water. On the same side, north of Alchorn point, is Warren cove, and lastly, Canseau point, with its white beacon, 1 ¼ miles from the blockhouse. Canseau shoal extends off Canseau point to the distance of 3 ½ cables, and will be cleared by keeping the blockhouse just open, clear of Alchorn point; observing that the extremes of the cliff of Blockhouse and Alchorn points in one, lead over the point of the shoal in 16 feet at low water.

On the opposite or eastern side of the entrance, and less than a mile within Sea Trout point, is Battery point, with its shoal; the latter running out 2 cables, and having on its extreme point a buoy moored in 3 fathoms at low water. Outside that depth, on either side, the water deepens abruptly, and there are 13 fathoms in the middle of the channel. The red beacon and Scotch church tower at Charlottetown, clear the shoal off Battery point in 10 fathoms, and at the distance of 120 yards.  Within the harbour, in addition to the flats of mud and weeds extending off shore, there is the Middle Ground, with 17 least water, and for the situation of which the seaman is referred to the plan of the harbour; it my be well, however, to notice that the white beacon on Canseau point and McKinnon’s log house in line, lead through midway between it, and the flat of the southern shore.

Immediately within Canseau and Battery points which are the inner points of entrance, the channel expands into one of the finest harbours in the world, having depth and space sufficient for any number and description of vessels. In sailing in, York river will be seen running in to the northward; the Hillsborough river stretching away to the E.N.E. far as the eye can reach; and Elliot river running in to the westward. The confluence of the streams of these three rivers, between Canseau shoal and the mouth of York river, form the Three Tides, where there is excellent anchorage, used occasionally by laden vessels preparing for sea, the usual anchorage being off the wharves of the town, where the channel is 2 ¾  cables wide, and carries nearly 10 fathoms water.. Of the three rivers which unite in the harbour, the Hillsborough is the largest, being navigable for vessels of the largest draught to the distance of 7 or 8 miles, and for small vessels 14 miles above, where there is a bridge 2 miles from the head of the river. There is portage of less than a mile across, from the Hillsborough near its head to Savage harbour on the north coast of the island. York river, the smallest of the three, is crossed by Poplar island bridge, 2 ¾  miles from its mouth. Elliot river may be ascended 4 or 5 miles by large vessels, and 9 or 10 by small craft and boats. The shores of all three rivers are settled, and the country generally fertile.

Charlottetown, which is now a city, is advantageously situated on the northern bank of the Hillsborough river, a short distance within its entrance, and at the point where the deep water approaches nearest to the shore; its wharves, however, still requiring to be 240 yards long to reach the edge of the channel. The city is extremely well laid out, with spacious squares and wide streets at right angles; but these are as yet thinly occupied by houses of the rapidly increasing population. The new Provincial building, occupying the centre of the principal square is the only stone erection in the place. The houses, with the exception of 9 or 10 which are of brick, are all of wood; and so also are the churches and the chapels. The Scotch church, with its square white tower, will easily be distinguished, being the most to the westward, and appearing with the red beacon (used with it as a leading mark, and standing close to the on the left side of the city. Still farther to the left will be seen the Government house, by itself, and distinguished by its colonnade.

No part of the city exceeds in elevation 50 feet above the sea at high water but the land rises gradually behind it to the height of 150 feet at the distance of 1 ½ miles, and is well cultivated, whilst yet sufficient wood has been preserved to give to the country an agreeable and park-like appearance.

The site of Charlottetown, as the capital of the island, and the seat of the provincial government and legislature, appears to have been extremely well chosen, whether in regard to its almost central position, its extensive inland communication by means of the rivers which unite their streams before it; or the superiority of its harbour, which possesses, moreover, the important advantage of having the greatest rise of tide in the Gulf anywhere below Cape Chatte, with the exception of Campbelltown in the Restigouche, which is inaccessible to vessels of large draught. All kinds of supplies may be obtained at Charlottetown, but water only from wells with pumps, which are numerous in the town. In the year 1856, 619 vessels (35,931 tons burthen) entered inwards, and 603 vessels (42,365 tons) cleared outwards; in the same year the total value of imports amounted to 182,499l., and of exports to 54,090l. In 1858 the population was about 8,000.

Although primarily for navigation purposes, the Sailing Directions also could contain useful information about changing shore facilities and landmarks. The 1891 American edition of the Sailing Directions contained the following information about Charlottetown:

The Provincial building occupies the center of the public square, and is flanked on either side by the law courts and post-office, both substantial brick structures. The market house, a large wooden building, with a belfry at the west end containing the fire alarm, is situated west of the post-office, while St. Paul’s Church, a wooden building with a spire, occupies the east end of the square. The new Presbyterian Church, a handsome stone building, is situated at the NW. end of the town, and a convent, built of brick with a small belfry at the top, is conspicuous from the harbor. The Roman Catholic Cathedral, a wooden building with a large gilt cross at the top of the spire, and Bishop’s palace, of stone, near it, also show prominently. The lunatic asylum, a tine building of stone with a high tower, stands just north of Falcon Point. The railway station is at the east end of the town, and may be known by the wharf in connection with it, on which stand large chocolate-colored warehouses. St. Dunstan College, a Roman Catholic seminary, built of brick, stands on a hill 150 feet high, 11/2 miles to the northward of the town. The telegraph station is situated in Queen street, which runs northward from Queens Wharf, and is in connection with the Anglo-American Telegraph Company.

Sailing Directions continue to be published to this day and are a part of the suite of navigation tools available to sailors.