Discovering details from the past that bring events to life is one of my favorite parts of genealogical research. Finding a passenger arrival record is great, but it doesn’t give you any idea of what the journey was like. I always want to know more. Recently, my quest for additional information turned up more than I could ever have hoped for. It all started with a Boston Pilot newspaper notice for the ship Thalia, which arrived in Boston from Cork, Ireland, on 14 April 1848.
This was at the height of the Potato Famine, and I was amazed at the 136-day journey the poor Irish immigrants had suffered through. To top off their long voyage, they also had to be quarantined and checked for signs of typhus, cholera, and “ship fever.” Boston officials, worried about the spread of such communicable diseases, had set up a quarantine station on Deer Island in Boston Harbor. Immigrant ships were required to spend a number of days there while passengers were checked for signs of disease. The Thalia spent five days in quarantine, from Sunday 9 April, until the healthy passengers were finally able to disembark in Boston the following Friday.
The Thalia endured an incredible journey; the dramatic details of her voyage are worthy of a novel.
A typical voyage in the 1840s was six to eight weeks; the Thalia took nineteen weeks to cross the Atlantic. It is hard to imagine what the passengers went through on such a journey. I assumed the Thalia’s long time at sea was due to bad weather. I also assumed the passenger deaths were from disease. I was wrong on both counts! The Thalia endured an incredible journey; the dramatic details of her voyage are worthy of a novel:
The Thalia, of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Watson Sanders, Master arrived here on the 10th instant, bound from Cork, with emigrants, out 131 days, hav[ing] experienced a succession of heavy gales and contrary winds; provisions being nearly exhausted she was compelled to put off for Antiqua for a supply which when obtained she proceeded on her destined voyage here. Prior to her reaching the West indies, the Thalia was run into, purposely, by the ship Gilmore of London, homeward bound. We are indebted to the politeness of Mrs. Eliza Cleary of Kilmallock, (Ireland,) one of the passengers, for the following account; of the disaster, extracted from her own Journal: –
“On the evening of the 8th January, being in lat. 39 20 and lon. 31 50. the Thalia met with a most unprecedented and unwarrantable attack from the ship Gilmore, bound to London from Bombay, William McMaw, commander. At 3 P.M. she was seen four points on the Thalia’s weather bow; at 5 P.M. she being under their lee, Capt. Sanders continued his course West by North, as he thought, in safety. The Gilmore showed a light, the Thalia answered, the Gilmore then closed the Thalia so quickly, being two points under her lee, that she had no chance of escape by going under her opponents lee, who then put her helm down and luffed into the Thalia with an intention of sinking her (which Captain McMaw afterwards acknowledged to Capt. Sanders, in the presence of some of the passengers, and added the pretext as an excuse for he having done so that he took her to be a pirate,) splitting her foretopsail, foresail, mainsail, and trysail, carrying away the trysail gaff, breaking the rail and stanchion, and cutting her down two streaks, below the covering board; at the same time carrying away two of the chain plates, and main truss bands with braces, running rigging, and doing considerable damage to her standing rigging, also springing the mainmast head, with many other injuries too numerous to state.
“[She] had no chance of escape by going under her opponents lee, who then put her helm down and luffed into the Thalia with an intention of sinking her…”
“Words are inadequate to describe the terror, roaring and scene of distraction amongst the passengers at this crisis, who with part of the crew, seeing the danger and expecting the Thalia would go down at once, made for the Gilmore and succeeding in getting on board, with the exception of one passenger, Matthew Corbett, who was drowned. Capt. Sanders then gave the order to his remaining crew to cut away the tangled rigging, and by this means succeeded in getting clear; after the head and jib-booms of the Gilmore fell with a dreadful crash on the deck of the Thalia, who lay by till day light, at which hour Capt. McMaw sent his boat with the part of the Thalia’s crew who boarded the Gilmore the night before, desiring that Capt. Sanders would at once get his passengers on board his brig or he would make sail and proceed on his voyage.
“Capt. Sanders at once put out his life boat and went on board the Gilmore and demanded assistance, which was refused; he then got his passengers on board the Thalia, and the Gilmore immediate made sail, leaving the Thalia in a most deplorable condition, who then set all her hands to work repairing the sails and other damages as well as circumstances would admit, and at the expiration of ten days succeed so far as to able to proceed on her voyage, being then 50 days out. Having continued gales from the westward she got as far as lat. 42, lon. 62, when, getting short of provisions, Capt. Sanders judged it expedient to bear up for Bermuda; but from the continuance of the westerly gales he could not succeed in getting there; having then no other resource he made for Antiqua; when, on the 11th of February, we met the barque Robert from Honduras, from which he purchased a small supply of provisions and again on the 14th Feb. fell in with the Wesson of New York, from which he purchased a further quantity, but not sufficient to reach Antiqua, in consequence of which he had again to put all on board on short allowance, which scarcely lasted until the 25th of February, when we reached the friendly and hospitable Island of Antiqua and anchored within four miles of St. Johns, when, the moment the Thalia hoisted the English flag, a boat was sent out by the authorities to enquire our state and wants, and without delay on mercantile house (that of Eldridge & Co.) sent some provision on board, and towards night the Governor sent another supply. When the passengers were allowed to go on shore in boats nothing could exceed the sympathy and kindness of the inhabitants of St. Johns towards the distressed and half-starved passengers, by giving them every relief, both in food, clothing, and money; and a large subscription was at once got up the house of Eldridge & Co., to purchase provisions and other necessaries to enable them to proceed to Boston, when at the expiration of ten days, all arrangements having been completed, the Thalia again set sail on the 5th February, and again, had to encounter the long voyage of 31 days from Antiqua to Boston, with head winds, and again, ran short of passenger’s provisions and arrived here in great distress.”
 Boston Pilot, 22 April 1848, p. 7, col. 1.
13 thoughts on “‘A short allowance’”
Did the captain of the ship “Gilmore” ever face any charges or at least an inquiry into his actions?
I haven’t followed up on that but it might be interesting.
Terrific find! What a great narrative!
I wonder how Mrs Cleary happened to know all the names of the ship parts & navigation words so that she could leave us a very informative & complete report of the trip. Thank heaven she did of course. What an incredible sail for those folks.
What an amazing voyage! As you say, you hardly expect to find details of one particular ship with your ancestors on it.
So much always leave more questions in research, I must admit I want to know more about the “Gilmore.” as I am Mary Brooks Gilmore. How wonderful though learning this:)
What was the reason for McMaw’s action, since he surely did not believe the Thalia was a pirate ship?
May I add a tip? My ancestors all came to NY during and after the Famine. When I have been able to identify their ship record, I then go to the major NYC newspapers and search the ‘Shipping News’. Captains were required to swear or affirm the number of passengers, weight of the ship, and other info. They often reported the weather on the crossing, icebergs, other ships in trouble, storms, gales and much interesting and valuable information that illustrates my ancestors’ hazardous voyage. I assume this might be the same for other ports of entry.
Is there a passenger list for this ship? I have looked around a bit and cannot find one.
My name is Lou McMaw and I believe that it is likely that I am a descendant of Captain William McMaw. I am fascinated by this article and just wondered if you know anymore about him. Kind regards, from Northern Ireland
I’m afraid I don’t know anything about Captain William McMaw. I just came across the newspaper article and was fascinated by the story and details. Good luck with your research.
Many thanks Pam. All the best with your research too.