Can anyone help Keith Johnston find out about his ancestor’s guano trade ships?

Chincha Guano Islands, Peru, engraving published by The Illustrated London News February, 21st, 1863, photographed by Manuel González Olaechea y Franco

This London Illustrated News illustration of 1863 shows ships in the guano trade anchored among the Chinca guano islands off Peru. Image from the Wikipedia and photographed by Manuel González Olaechea y Franco

Regular reader and contributor Keith Johnston has written in to ask whether anyone can help him learn more about one of his forebears, Liverpool shipping agent and ship owner William Cliffe, who specialised in guano.

It seems Cliffe had four sailing barques ranging from 200 to 600 tons gross, all of which are mentioned in the 1883 Lloyds Register of Shipping.

Their trade was mainly in the valuable commodity of guano, ancient nitrate and phosphate-laden deposits of the faeces and urine of bats, seabirds, and seals used as a fertiliser and as an ingredient in gunpowder. It was found on remote islands in low rainfall areas, where there is little rainwater to wash away the nitrate fraction.

In what seems to be a textbook example of how foreign policy is often decided by commercial interests rather than by any sense of right or wrong, during guano’s heyday in the mid-19th century, the United States of America passed a law permitting US citizens to claim any guano island they found for themselves, so long as the guano recovered was to be used by US citizens.

Keith says the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool has been very helpful in tracking down this information, but wonders whether any readers have come across the ships listed as belonging to Cliffe, as he would like to try and find more detail about the actual ships, crews, cargos, ports of call and definitely pictures or drawings of them so that he can make models, if at all possible.

The vessels are:

  • Boldonsailing barque, 656 tons net, 689 tons gross, 628 tons under deck; 168.1ft LOA 32.2ft beam 19ft depth, built at Sunderland by Crown in January, 1873
  • Guatemala Packetsailing barque, 201 tons net, 326 tons gross, 110ft LOA 25ft beam 16.5ft depth, built by Harrington in 1852
  • Nimroudsailing barque, 670 tons net, 693 tons gross, 135ft LOA, 30ft beam, 20ft depth, built at Scarborough by Tindalls in 1853
  • Quito, sailing ship, 503 tons net, 503 tons gross, 117.5ft LOA, 28ft beam, 18.7ft depth, built at Sunderland in 1850

If you have any information, please pass it on to me at, and I’ll forward it to Keith.

PSHugh Jenkins has written in with some snippets of information about the guano trade that might be of interest. They turned up during his research into a sailing ancestor who worked for a Liverpool guano shipper. Hugh comments that the company mentioned, WJ Myers, was quite a substantial business, and yet today finding any reference to it is now very difficult.

Thanks Hugh!