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Historical Information

West Coast Region - Bay St. George District

Bay St. George - Stowaways I

The following was originally written by Don Morris, in a column he wrote called Vignettes of the west.

Transcribed by Steve Gillis with permission granted by the Western Star

Fate of the stowaways (part 1)

This is part one of a two-part sequel to a dramatic sea story, which was featured in this column about six years ago. It was a narrative about the voyage of the Scottish vessel Arran bound from Gennock to Quebec in April 1868, and seven stowaways found aboard. Throughout the voyage the youths, the youngest only 10 years old, were terribly ill-treated by the captain and the mate. When the Arran was caught in the ice in Bay St. George, the skipper ordered six of the boys over the side and directed them to make for land as best they could over the exceedingly dangerous ice.

Information from the Highlands

I am indebted to Don MacInnis of the Highlands in Bay St. George for much more additional information on this horrendous episode of cruelty at sea and the eventual fate of the hapless young stowaways. Mr. MacInnis has more than a passing interest in this incredible tale of the sea for it was a woman named MacInnis, one of a number of families of MacInnes, in the little seaside village of The Highlands who first spotted the miserable little band of stowaways – more appropriately now in the role of castaways – struggling towards the shoreline of St. George’s bay. Don MacInnis believes that this woman was the wife of John MacInnis his great-grand father. He writes in his letter to me: " All of the MacInnis’ of the Highlands are her descendants."

The Arran sailed from Scotland April 7, 1868. Her master was Robert Watt and her first mate was James Kerr, a particularly sadistic man. As was merely common form in those days, the Arran was searched for stowaways while still following the tugboat down the River Fifth. Two urchins were duly brought out, cuffed, and put on the tug to return to their native town.

But when the Arran was out at sea seven other adventures appeared from their places of concealment. It was to late to put them back, and it must be agreed that the Captain Watt had good cause to be angry at this addition to the strain on his accommodations and his stores.

Who they were

The names, ages and origin of the stowaways are of interest because the narrative will trace them through their ordeal and to their various fates. There was Hugh MacEwen, aged 11 and the son of a widow living in a poor district of Glasgow; John Paul, also a child of 11, of Grennock; Hugh MacInnis age d12, another widows son, but Grennock; Peter Currie, aged 12 of Grennock; James Bryson 16 of Grennock; David Brand aged 16, of Grennock and Bernard Reilly, a young man of at least 22 who lived in lodging in Grennock.

Why did they stowaway? Every boy of the period who was a real boy tried for the adventure of it. It was Fashionable.

Harsh treatment

The earlier story in this column told of the harsh treatment of the boys during the Trans- Atlantic crossing. Accounts of the trip tend to show Captain Watt was somewhat more humane towards the youths than the mate James Kerr, who had a mean, cruel streak begging description. The boys were flogged at the mere hint of a wrongdoing. Some of them were stripped and made to stay on deck in the freezing cold of the North Atlantic. While the crewmembers witnessed this mistreatment, they were, apparently helpless to intercede on the boy’s behalf. But some of the crew made excellent witnesses to the defense when the skipper and the mate were eventually brought the court.

Caught in the Ice

The Nightmare for the stowaways continued during the voyage. On May 9 the Arran slipped into the grip of the ice in St. George’ Bay. It was here where the Captain decided to ditch his unwanted human cargo. He ordered the boys over the rail, giving them the scantiest of rations, and ordering them to walk towards land. They went overboard, the young ones weeping bitterly. A couple of the boys bare footed, all were poorly clad, ill-nourished and all show signs of ill-treatment.

Said one account of the boy’s plight: " One can only too easily visualize that pathetic procession over the featureless ice. It was hard going- torture for the small ones. The ice was rough and jagged underfoot. God knows what it was like to the bare feet of infants."

The struggle to shore

Struggling towards the shoreline, the castaways – for that was what they were now –

Had many difficulties. There were hammocks to circumvent holes and channels to cross. Sometimes they had to make a raft of a sheet of ice and paddle their way across a stretch of water. Members of the Arran’s crew were later to estimate the distance from the ship to the shore between five and twenty miles. Characteristically, the mate put it as low as five miles.

The first of the wretched little band to die was Hugh MacEwen. He started to weaken and lag behind the rest. He fell through the ice several times and on the final the ice closed over him. Hugh MacInnis was next. He bare feet were swollen and he whimpered in his fatigue. The others tried to get him to walk, but the child was done. They were forced to leave him. He was crying.

The rest were saved. Towards 7 p.m. they came towards the shore and were spotted by Mrs. MacInnis. And it was one of the ironies of life that this little group of Scottish lads happened to meet as their rescuers and benefactors people of their own race on the lonely shores of Newfoundland.

Part II

It was a woman from the Highlands, a hamlet on the shore of St. George’s bay, who was reported to have been the first to spot the little string of young castaways struggling over the treacherous sea ice towards the shoreline. Her name was Mrs. MacInnis. It was late on a day in May 1868.

The figures the woman sighted were Scottish lads whose misfortune it was to stowaway on the Arran, a wooden sailing vessel which a month earlier had left Grennock Scotland, bound for Quebec with a cargo of coal. It wasn’t until the Arran was well at sea when the six stowaways were discovered aboard. The youths ranged in age from 11 to 22.

As described in last week’s part 1 of this sequel to an earlier column on the Arran, the stowaways were brutally treated by Captain Watt and his sadistic first mate, James Kerr, as the ship continued her voyage across the North Atlantic towards eastern Canada. In St. George’s Bay the Arran became stuck in ice and it was here that Captain Watt decided to jettison his unwanted human freight. He ordered the boys, scantly clad, half starved, over the vessels side and directed them to proceed over the ice to the Newfoundland shore.

And now the youngsters, who had already sailed through a nightmare while aboard the Arran, faced an equally horrendous ordeal – getting ashore over the jagged, rough ice peppered with deadly open holes of black water. The first of the pathetic little band strugglers to succumb was Hugh MacEwen, aged 11. The next to fall victim to the death trek was Hugh MacInnis, 12. The others tried to save and comfort their stricken companions, but couldn’t. And so they continued on towards the beckoning shoreline.

Described in Book

In his excellent book of sea stories, Down to the sea, author-researcher George Blake, describes what happened next:

" Towards seven in the evening they came in towards the shore and the edge of the ice, to find about a mile of sea between them and the land. There were houses on the hillside, but there was also water. Bernard Reilly (about 22) wished to swim to shore, but the good sense of David Brand (aged 16) prevented that and, instead, the two of them set out to paddle on blocks of ice, while James Bryson (aged 16) and John Paul (aged 11) shouted with all the strength left in them.

" Brand was half way to shore when a woman appeared from one of the houses, and whether she heard their cries or merely chanced to see these unexpected figures against the whiteness of the frozen sea does not signify. A boat was launched and one by one in the mirk the survivors were gathered in.

" They were housed that night under the roof of one MacInnis, a farmer-fisherman, and it is strange enough that they had fallen in with one of their own race (Scottish). They were sadly worn; young Paul in a state of complete collapse, and frost bitten. Next morning they were blind from the glare of the ice fields, a condition that did not clear up until a week had passed. But they were safe, even if more than four months were to elapse before they saw home again".

Aboard the ship

Let us leave this quartet of tired but relieved Scottish lads under the protective roof of the kind MacInnis family and turn thoughts to the ship, which they had passed so many miserable weeks. Author Blake writes:

" Meanwhile the men in the Arran, it seems, were feeling the weight of a grey oppression. It was in evidence that Captain Watt placed a look out to follow the movements of the boys and latterly he climbed into the rigging with his spyglass in what must have been a desperate desire to know the consequences of his hour of passion. But the ice was featureless, enigmatic. The ice broke up on the following day to free the Arran and let her proceed to Quebec."

At Quebec Captain Watt learned from another vessel that two of the group of boys he had ordered over the rail of his hip unto the ice had died while trying to reach land. The crew of the Arran freely talked grimly of the conduct of their captain and first mate. One of the crew lost no time in sending a letter to Scotland describing the ordeal and fate of the stowaways and soon news of the shipboard brutally spread through Gennock.

Captain, Mate Jailed

When the Arran finally reached home port there was a mob to meet her who would have gladly lynched Captain Watt and his mate. The pair were charged in a criminal court and convicted. The skipper sentenced to prison for 18 months; Kerr got four months. Author Blake tells us that Captain Watt and James Kerr both went back to sea after serving their time. The captain died in a foreign port about a year after his release. The brutal Kerr survived to sail the seas for many a year.

And what happened to the survivors of the Arran?

Bernard Reilly, his health restored, left Newfoundland, went to Halifax and got a job on the railway. The other three stayed for a while in Bay St. George helping with farming and fishing chores. They were eventually fetched to St. John’s via schooner by the government and then obtained passage for Scotland…and sent home in style.

It is known that one of the younger boys died of consumption two years after his ordeal on the Arran and on the ice. James Bryson with his family appears to have immigrated to the United States. John Paul the "wee Pauly" of his companions learned a trade in a Gennock shipyard and died in the fullness of time. David Brand obtained some prominence. In time he founded a substantial engineering firm and in his death in 1897 prompted obituary notices in Scottish newspapers.

And so, as the author of Down to Sea wrote… "They passed into the night one and all."

I wish to thank again Don MacInnis of the Highlands for furnishing me with extracts from George Blake’s book which gave me more details of the sad saga of the Arran and her helpless stowaways.

© 2001 Stephen Gillis and NL GenWeb