[From Chapter 8 Manx Worthies, A.W.Moore, 1901]
Another trade in which Manxmen had engaged for centuries was that with Spain, Portugal and Italy, in salt fish. Manx sailors took out fish to these countries and brought back wine with them. A story is told of one of the Manx skippers in this trade, named PRESTON, being, when sailing in the Mediterranean, stopped by a French man-of war Her lieutenant cable on board insulted Captain PRESTON, whose foot he pinned to the deck with his sword. Captain PRESTON drew out the sword, and then knocked the lieutenant down. He dill not, however, suffer for this, since the French captain, when the matter was reported to him, saw that the Manxman was not to blame, and though, as there was war between England and France, he and his crew were taken prisoners, he was exchanged in due course*
*"Old Manx Sea Captains," In the Isle of Man Examiner, by the Rev. John Quine.
Among Manx navigators of recent times those who have been connected with the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company have come most prominently into notice, though the first two captains of that company, GILL and QUAYLE, had already established a reputation as commanders of the Manx sailing traders, which before 1830 were the chief means of conveying passengers as well as goods between the island and England.
was brought up in Ramsey to the trade of a ship carpenter, but he soon took to the sea. He became a very skilful navigator and rose to be captain of one of the sailing vessels, the "Duchess of Atholl," which carried the mails between Liverpool and Douglas. He was then appointed to a new and larger vessel of this class, the ' Douglas." In 1830, the now famous Isle of Man Steam Packet Company was established, and GILL was selected as captain of its first vessel, the " Mona's Isle," which was 108 feet long, and of 90 horse power. Under GILL'S capable command she surpassed the rival company's steamer, the " St. George," in speed, the contest being terminated by the wreck of the latter vessel on Conister on the 30th of November, 1830. As the company gradually purchased other vessels, GILL was always put in charge of the largest. He will be remembered as the discoverer of the Queen's Channel into the port of Liverpool.
was equally distinguished in his profession, having sailed in many latitudes. He was in 1833 appointed to the command of the "Mona," of 100 tons, which had been purchased to take the place of the " Mona's Isle " during the winter, as the latter was considered too large and expensive a boat for that service. The " Mona's " average passage was about fourteen hours. The epitaph on his tombstone in Kirk Braddan Churchyard describes him as being " a prompt, fearless, faithful, and brave sailor, who felt and acted like a man." Another sturdy navigator,
was for many years connected with the same company, but for some time he commanded the well-known steamer " Ellan Vannin," which belonged to Castletown. Let me quote a characteristic story of the Rev. T. E. Brown's about him:" I remember sailing with him one day from Ramsey to Douglas. The captain was sitting on an inverted bucket, cutting some tobacco. We were passing under Kirk Onchan. 'Do you know the ould name ?' he said. 'Yes,' I said, 'Kionedroghad." Do you remember Parson Craine ?" " Of course I do,' said I, ' he was my godfather.' 'Well,' said the captain, 'that's the first man that ever hove the water in my face!' " (i.e., baptized him.) He was, indeed, a grand old "salt." He lies near Captain Quayle under a stone erected to his memory by some friends.
When writing of the captains in the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company's service, we naturally think of the ships they commanded, and so, perhaps, it may be worth recalling the facts that the first " King Orry " was built in Douglas, at a building yard which afterwards became " Bath Place," and is now part of the approach to the Victoria Pier; and that the first " Douglas," a vessel very remarkable for her speed, was bought by the Confederates, during the American Civil War, for the purpose of running the blockade. They painted her grey and rechristened her the " Margaret and Jessie." She was a successful blockade runner, but she at last succumbed when only fifty yards from the harbour at Nassau, having received one shot through her boiler and another through her bow from the guns of the Federal gunboat "Rhode Island."
About 1840, a large and increasing demand sprang up in England for oranges. To supply this it was necessary to build swift vessels, and Manx builders, especially those of Peel, were remarkably successful in doing so. This was the great era of Manx ship-building, when vessels built in Peel, Douglas, and Ramsey, not only for this trade, but for the American cotton trade and the Chinese tea trade, were ordered in large numbers by English ship-owners. It is curious, how-ever, that though the Manx ships had a well deserved reputation for swiftness, they did best when commanded by Manxmen. Many tales are told of swift runs back from the Azores, Madeira, and Spain. One of the most famous vessels launched in Peel at this period was the " Vixen." We will quote the Rev. John Quines account of her:
Gold was discovered in Australia about the year 1850, and of course a good many Manxmen went abroad to try and get some of the gold. The " Vixen " was a schooner of about 120 tons burden and was a very beautiful vessel. She was a sort of joint-stock or cooperative concern. About 34 men, all in search of the Golden Fleece left Peel in the year 1853. She had a very interesting voyage to Australia. One little incident had been related to him by one of the crew. It appeared that whenever they sighted another vessel and came close to, it was absolutely necessary for the crew of the " Vixen " to lie down on the deck, for the schooner had such a rakish appearance, and had such a large crew as 34 on board, that she was taken for a pirate. On one occasion the crew wanted to send letters home, and they sighted a large American brig oft the coast of South America The fast sailing of the " Vixen" and the number of men that were on her deck, aroused the suspicions of the Yankees, and they made all sail to get away. But the "Vixen" overhauled the brig, and the Yankees were obliged to stop. Then a boat with the letters was rowed from the " Vixen " alongside the brig, and when the boat's crew reached the Yankee they found her crew armed with guns, and ready to blow out the brains of the desperate Manx pirates ii they attempted to come on deck. The fate of the " Vixen " was a very interesting one. Arrived at Australia, they found large ships carrying cargo could not come to within ten miles of Melbourne, and that there was a pot of money to be made by any men who had a small vessel that could be used as a lighter. So the " Vixen ' went into that trade. Afterwards her speed caused her to be taken into the mail service for the carriage of mails between Melbourne and Sydney, and while in that service she invariably (?) beat the steamboats. Then the Manx. man who had charm of the "Vixen" suddenly saw his way to make a fortune. There was not such a thing as a potato in the colony, so the " Vixen', was taken to New Zealand to get a cargo of potatoes. In the skipper's haste he must have made some sort of a mistake as to the quality or stowage of his cargo, when he got back to Australia his potatoes were in such a condition that they were not worth anything. Years after the "Vixen " came home, and this was her fate: One Saturday afternoon she was lying in Peel at the quay. It was blowing a gale, and the crew were all in the public-house waiting for high water to get out of the harbour. When they came on boars! they were certainly not in a fit condition to go to sea, and experienced men on the quay expostulated with them that in the state of the weather they should not go out of the harbour. The skipper of the ' Vixen" was reported to have said that if the first port he arrived at should be in the other world he was going to sail. And so they went out of Peel in the height of the gale. The Peel men went across to the hill, and from the hill watched the 'Vixen " until she was lost in the thickness that accompanied a squall, and she was never seen again. And so she went around the world to come back and go down almost in sight her own port.*
(add note fpc - many of these details would appear to be incorrect - a much more detailed account is given by F.S. Graves "The Story of the Vixen" in Proc IoMNHASoc vol vii #2 pp201-231 March 1968. )
At the present day, when sails have had so largely to give way to steam, the number of Manx-owned vessels, apart from herring smacks, is not large, hut numerous Manxmen are found in both the English Royal Navy and Merchant Service, where many of them have distinguished themselves. Amongst these Mr. Quine especially mentions Captain KERRUISH and Captain BELL, of Sydney, the bitter of whom on two occasions, when the vessels he was connected with were wrecked, succeeded in saving every man of both crews from drowning. It may be mentioned that CAPTAIN OATES, of Mullin-y-cleiy, near Ballacraine (St. John's), who died in 1873, was in command of the "Northfleet" just before she sailed on her last fatal voyage.
We conclude this short and imperfect sketch of Manx merchant captains with a brief mention of two typical men of this class who have recently died:
was born at Baldromma in Maughold, which belongs to his family. When a boy he was apprenticed as a ship's carpenter in Taggart's yard at Ramsey. He utilised the experience obtained in this way in repairing a schooner that had been damaged by having been run down by another vessel, and then ran ashore near the Point of Ayre, which he bought. This vessel he sailed as master for some years. He was afterwards master of numerous other vessels which were, for the most part, engaged in the North American timber trade. He was generally considered to be a most expert navigator. About 1876, he retired from the sea and conducted a ship-broking business. But Captain CHRISTIAN was remarkable in other ways than for skill in his profession. He had read and thought a good deal, and was an earnest student of his native language, having translated many of the old Manx songs and carols. Some of these translations of the latter appeared in the book of Manx Carols which was published in 1891. He was a tall active man, and his physical strength was very great.
* "Old Manx Sea Captains."
was born in Patrick, and brought up in Peel. On leaving school he went to sea, and was for some time in the East India Company's service. About 1855, he became a mate on one of the vessels belonging to Messrs. Thomas and James Harrison, of Liverpool and he served that firm for the greater part of the rest of his life, being one of their most trusted captains and, finally, their marine superintendent for many years. He had great skill and boldness as a navigator and had also some mechanical ability, having patented no fewer than five inventions for the preservation of life.