Saturday, June 29, 2013

Coastal Ships, Mariners and Visitors: Cape 19th c 4

Reference to Conch & William Bell
April 1837; note J Smith & Co, Agents
Although several local newspaper references to William Bell and the Conch came to light from January 1837 onwards, the date of his arrival at the Cape remained obscure. It has now emerged that he was on board the Thorne at the time of her wreck in Table Bay in 1831.

The source of the information describes Bell as ‘2nd Officer’ of the Thorne, but this is uncomfortable terminology for a merchant ship of Thorne’s type and size (251 tons) in the 1830s. Usually such a vessel would have the following crew structure: Master, Mate, 2nd Mate, Carpenter, 6 seamen, 2 Apprentices.

In 1831, the date the Thorne was lost, Bell would have been 24, the right age for either Mate or 2nd Mate. It is a known fact that he had been apprenticed to John Ritson, founder of a large Cumbrian shipbuilding and ship-owning company. During his indentures Bell would learn everything required to build ships as well as handle them and he may have gone to sea as an apprentice for a year or two. After this he would be eligible to be contracted as a fully-fledged seaman, and thus gain further practical experience.

The Thorne sailed to India in 1828 and this was unlikely to have been her only visit there.  Bell would have had the opportunity to observe the use of masulah surf-boats at Indian ports, an idea which he later successfully implemented at Port Natal. That he was well-informed about these boats is explained by Bell’s travels on Thorne.

Masulah Surf-boat, Madras

Also, since the Thorne was a regular visitor at Cape ports, Bell would have gathered experience of the coast and the vagaries of its wind and weather. He was to become closely acquainted with every safe anchorage between Table Bay and Delagoa Bay, including the Bay of Natal, knowledge which would stand him in good stead in the years to follow.

Returning to the reference to Bell’s having been ‘2nd Officer’, it seems that when Thorne’s Captain Johnson died, and command passed to the then Mate, W Poole (aged thirty), someone would take a step up the ladder to fill the vacant place of Mate. This was either Bell, or another unnamed man. In the latter case, Bell may have moved up a rung to 2nd Mate and therefore would have been in that role when the Thorne met her fate on the rocks of Robben Island. He was qualified to perform the duties of either Mate or 2nd Mate at the time.

When a ship was wrecked far from its home port, efforts were usually made to repatriate the surviving crew members. So far it hasn’t been possible to establish whether Bell did go back to England in 1831, returning to the Cape later. An alternative is that he stayed in the Cape after the Thorne wreck and in due course became acquainted with the agent J O Smith who presumably liked the cut of his jib and took him on as a mariner on coastal vessels. Bell proved reliable and by at least 1837, possibly before, acquired command of the schooner Conch. Until he made captain he would have remained invisible in local records.


Information on John Owen Smith wasn’t easy to find, though his name appears often enough as ship’s agent in the Cape papers. Browsing through one of Lawrence Green’s volumes I found an intriguing reference:

Thunderbolt Reef from Cape Recife

In 1847, the man-o’-war H.M.S. Thunderbolt was wrecked on the reef which later bore her name. She was a thousand ton paddle-wheeler and mysteriously ran on to the reef in calm, clear weather. Her captain, Commander Alexander Boyle, R.N., refloated her and beached her on the shores of Algoa Bay, but she broke up.

‘Mr J O Smith, a settler, bought her for 102 pounds and sold the ship’s timbers to people building houses. Smith’s Folly became a profitable business. In the end Smith was ordered to remove the wreck. He did so with a huge charge of gunpowder that shook early Port Elizabeth to its foundations.’

If this story is true, and it is the same J O Smith, he seems to me to have been the type of man who would have appreciated the rugged and eccentric Captain William Bell.

Grateful thanks to Derek Ellwood, friend and maritime historian.

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