Two formidable women of Stromness

Mrs Humphrey’s House from, Eliza FraserHouse licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia

Margaret Humphrey in 1836 set up her home as a hospital for a group of whalermen who were left scurvied and frost bitten after a winter of being trapped in the ice of Davis Straits.

In the 18th and 19th centuries whaling ships from east coast ports like Hull and Dundee called at Stromness to take on water, provisions and also crewmen, and the trade made the port a busy place.

At an earlier stage of her life she was married to Stromness teacher George Humphrey, and was mother of 13 children between 1792 and 1815. However, a letter from John Baikie to Thomas Balfour MP, dated 24 Feb 1836, reveals that the whalers Lady Jane and Viewforth had been stuck in the ice in the Davis Straits over the winter, and that some of the crewmen were taken to Mrs Humphrey’s house, which was fitted up as a hospital and housed 26 or 28 of the patients.

The account is corroborated by another reference, this time to letters written by Mrs Humphrey to her son in 1837, in which she said that in order to support herself, she had leased the house for use as a hospital for 26 scurvy-ridden whalers.

Her letters added that they were the survivors of a disaster when not two but 20 ships were caught in the Arctic ice and became stuck for the winter.

Another reference has eight ships caught in the ice, of which at least two were crushed.

Why were the vessels caught in the ice? We’re told that falling numbers of right whales had forced whalers to travel further in search of their prey, and this meant whalers voyaging travelling to hazardous Arctic seas – interestingly, in the same era that explorers such as Parry, Ross and Franklin were struggling to find a North West passage.

The 1821 census lists Margaret Humphrey as a sick nurse, while the the 1851 census describes her as a widow and a midwife, aged 74.

My guess is that she was likely a little older – if she was 20 or so when she married (my guess) she would have been at least 80 by the 1851 census. That would have been a very good age at that era… Was she really still working, or was it that she self-identified as a midwife because that had been her last job?

Read about what is known of Mrs Humphrey here and here.

The story of Eliza Anne Fraser is a quite different and still controversial one – the Wikipedia has the story, though it is difficult to decode.

Fraser was a Scottish woman who had the misfortune of being shipwrecked with her husband Captain James Fraser off the coast of Queensland, Australia – again in 1836.

Some 18 people aboard the ship, which struck a reef. The ship’s company launched two boats, one of which landed at Waddy Point on what is now Fraser Island – which is named after Eliza.

Here she was captured by Aborigines, and stripped of her clothing – her husband died, though it is not clear whether this was from starvation or whether he was because he was unable to work.

What happened next is also somewhat unclear. Eliza is said to have been found and rescued by John Graham, an escaped convict who had lived with the Aborigines, and is said to have gone naked during that time.

However, another story was that she was rescued by another escaped convict, David Bracewell. Bracewell is said to have led Eliza overland to the outskirts of present-day Brisbane.

Official records are said to show that Graham walked with her from a corroboree ground on Lake Cootharaba north of present-day Noosa onto the ocean beach near present-day Teewah, where they met the Lieutenant Otter and his small band of soldiers and convict volunteers.

They then travelled north along the beach to meet a rescue party at Double Island Point, from where Eliza was taken by boat to Moreton Bay, site of a well known penal colony.

Eliza then remarried and travelled to England, and for a time became a celebrity for here sensational experiences, and got involved in another controversy, this time about money.