A Captain Courageous
Simon Wills describes how an intriguing museum exhibit has revealed the inspiring story of a Dorset mariner
Published in December ’09
An elegant and brightly decorated tobacco jar in Poole Museum has long captured the curiosity of visitors. It pictures an early Victorian merchant ship from Poole – the Russell – with a name and date ‘Captain Wills 1838’. Yet this man’s identity has not been established until now. The Wills family is extensive and has a long association with maritime Poole so the tobacco-jar-captain has proved difficult to pin down from amongst several potential candidates.
However, recent research has unearthed new evidence which not only identifies the captain but provides a fascinating insight into the life of a Dorset mariner two centuries ago.
In 1842, 37-year-old James Wills applied to Trinity House in London for a pension as a result of an horrific injury sustained at sea. He describes his whole seagoing career, including seven years as master of the Russell, and this account together with other nautical records, confirms that he is the captain named on the tobacco jar.
Like many young boys whose families lived off the sea, James started his seafaring life by helping his father, who was a harbour pilot and later a fisherman. There was plenty of opportunity – and probably compulsion – for James and his brothers to acquire their ‘sea sense’: basic knowledge of how to behave on the water. In 1817, his career began in earnest when, aged only twelve, he left home to serve aboard the Good Intent, a small coasting vessel based in Poole. As ship’s boy, he performed menial activities such as cleaning and repairing, and since he showed ability he was also taught seamanship. Yet not all boys had the aptitude for it, as one ship’s master noted: ‘it is impossible that every little ragamuffin that is sent to sea can become a master of a ship.’
After six years he became a fully-fledged seaman aboard first the Nymph, and then the Brothers. In early Victorian times, mariners were not given permanent contracts of employment – they were only recruited for one voyage at a time because employers did not want to pay men to stand idle while a ship was being refitted or awaiting its next cargo. This uncertainty meant that seamen had to work hard to maintain a regular income: re-employment on the same ship for successive voyages always depended on demonstrating your worth to the captain. So it is to James’s credit that he managed to find almost continuous service aboard Brothers for five years under Captain John Gilbert. During this time he plied a number of regular routes including voyages to Newfoundland, Bristol, and Liverpool.
By 1829, with twelve year’s experience under his belt but still only 24 years old, James became ship’s mate aboard the 165-ton brig Hero under Captain Davies. The ship ran regularly from Bridport to Hull and familiarity with this route to north-east England was to be very important to James’s future career. After only two more years, James was ready for his first post as captain. In the days before exams and registration for ships’ masters, owners simply decided for themselves who had enough experience to be in charge of their ships. In 1831, aged just 26, James became captain of the Ranger, a coasting vessel, yet within a year he had taken charge of a ship which was over twice the size at nearly 200 tons. This was the Russell, the ship on the tobacco jar, and a brig he was to captain for seven years.
These were the days before photography, so the tobacco jar depicts a typical brig, rather than the Russell herself. She sports the characteristic two masts with square-rigged sails, and to improve manoeuvrability carries a large triangular rearmost sail running fore-and-aft (a ‘gaff’ sail). Brigs were very commonly employed for British coastal trading in the nineteenth century because they were fast and could be manned by a small crew. The Russell took a regular route from Poole to Sunderland and Hull, with crews ranging from ten to thirteen men.
Also on the tobacco jar is a sentimental verse adapted from Byron’s The Tear, but both it and the brig were stock images from the pottery’s collection, applied as transfers before later painting. However, the personalised references (‘Capt Wills 1838’ and ‘Russel, Pool’ [sic]) were applied by hand.
But why was Captain Wills presented with the tobacco jar? No records survive to explain, but the text on the jar offers clues. Firstly, the name of the ship and her home port are both spelled incorrectly (‘Russel’ and ‘Pool’), suggesting a non-Dorset origin. Secondly, the pottery name is given as ‘Moor & Co.’, which was based in Sunderland next to the harbour where the Russell would have moored. The most likely explanation is that the jar was presented to James by a grateful customer in Sunderland – perhaps even the pottery itself if the Russell transported her goods.
In 1839, James left the Russell and again moved to a bigger ship – the Vere of 460 tons. In the 1830s there were few brigs larger than this and, for the first time, he was master of a ship that crossed the Atlantic: the Vere’s regular destination was Quebec.
Three years later, a tragedy occurred on the Vere which was to shape James Wills’s whole life. On 25 January 1842 he fatefully elected to fire a salute to mark the christening of Queen Victoria’s first son, Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII). The guns of a merchant ship were rarely fired, and were not made to the same exacting standards as Royal Navy armament. Firing a ship’s cannon was also a specialist task and the Navy employed gunners who were skilled in it. James, on the other hand, probably had little experience. A letter from his employer, Thomas Silby, describes what happened next:
‘…on [James] loading one of the guns, it immediately and unexpectedly exploded, thereby dreadfully fracturing both his hands, broke the right arm above the elbow, and also fractured the lower jaw with several other severe contusions. Both hands were immediately amputated above the wrist.’
These amputations took place without anaesthesia or sterile surgical equipment since neither were available in 1838, and the ship would certainly not have carried a surgeon or any analgesia. The only antiseptics on board would have been vinegar or rum. Most men would have succumbed to shock or infection, yet James’s rapid career progression suggests he was a very determined man, and perhaps this stood him in good stead because miraculously James survived.
It is unclear what caused this shocking accident. On rare occasions the sudden stress imposed by firing a cold ageing cannon could trigger its own destruction because the metal fatigued over time. However, a more likely explanation is that James did not follow the safest loading and firing procedure. In the navy, a gun was always swabbed with a sponge after firing, to extinguish any burning embers which remained. If this was not done, the cartridge of gunpowder inserted for the next firing could catch alight and explode prematurely. The account of the explosion (it happened ‘on loading’), suggests that the gun exploded unexpectedly before it was fired – perhaps when James rammed home the next gunpowder cartridge – and so a failure to sponge out was probably the cause.
Who can imagine the shock for James’s wife and family when he returned to Poole? Yet, from the age of twelve James had shown a drive to succeed. Somehow this zeal kept him going and enabled him to cope with such a traumatic disability at a time when there was no welfare state, no prosthetics, and certainly no ‘trauma counselling’.
James’s family was struck by another tragedy at this time too. His younger brother, Thomas, died at sea, having recently lost his wife in childbirth. They left four young orphaned children. James and his wife had no children of their own, yet despite James’s own needs they kindly adopted Thomas’s infant daughter, Isabella.
Other reminders of the perils of the sea came quickly – James’s older brother, Henry, lost the first of three sons he was to lose at sea, and James’s last ship, the Vere, sank off the coast of Canada. James must have speculated that he could have gone down with the ship himself, had his accident not occurred. Maybe this realisation spurred him to begin to build a new life for himself, for he soon established a ship’s chandlery near Poole Quay where he employed his nephews to help him. The success of this business enabled him to become landlord of the King’s Arms as well, and to run a ‘grocery and sundries’ shop. His business acumen on land shows that James had lost none of the ambition which marked his rapid rise to success at sea. His tenacity is illustrated by his prosecution of a customer in 1851 for stealing ‘one fishing line, one ball of twine, one pocket book, and four blacklead pencils’.
Having had such a successful early career as a merchant mariner, and given his obvious determination not to be restricted by his disability, it is perhaps unsurprising that James eventually managed to return to sea. He bought a schooner in 1853, repaired her, and named her the Isabella after his niece. Remarkably, he registered as the ship’s captain and took the Isabella to sea himself, sailing to the Mediterranean and the Baltic. It is incredible to imagine the spirit of a man who could take responsibility for a ship and her crew on these long voyages and negotiate the plunging decks – all with no hands.
Unhappily, James had only two years to enjoy his reunion with the sea: in August 1855 he died suddenly on board the Isabella, just after she had departed for Hull from Gda?sk in Poland. There was a cholera outbreak on continental Europe and Captain Wills sadly succumbed. It seems fitting, perhaps, that he died at sea – even more fitting that his ship’s destination was once again north-east England. Yet his character and achievements justly impressed his contemporaries, for his obituary notes with pride that ‘he was a man much respected in this town.’
1, 2, 4. Photograph by the author with permission of the Borough of Poole Museum Service.