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.


The new James Caird at the Beale Park Thames Boat Show this weekend

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The new James Caird, photographed a few days ago

If you’re wondering what to do this weekend – perhaps now’s the time to decide, for Friday sees the first day of the three-day Beale Park Thames Boat Show at Pangbourne!

An important attraction of the show this year is a recreation of the small ship’s boat that Sir Ernest Shackleton and his small crew used to reach Elephant Island, the James Caird, which is currently being built by students of the International Boatbuilding Training College (IBTC) at Lowestoft. We saw it during a brief visit to the college last week, and were made very welcome – the college is always pleased to receive visitors.

I was particularly amazed by the scale and diversity of the traditional boatbuilding projects under way at the IBTC, and will be writing more about it shortly.

At the Beale Park show students are scheduled to work on the James Caird’s deck beams and caulking. If you don’t know the story, after Shackleton’s expedition ship Endurance became trapped in pack ice in the Weddell Sea he and 28 men crossed a chaotic maze of ice in three salvaged boats and finally a small group including Shackleton sailed across the Southern Ocean to South Georgia to safety and to organise the rescue of the rest of the crew. The successful journey stands as one of the most impressive small boat voyages ever made – there were gales almost all the way, and it took 17 days of constant constant pumping and chipping ice from the hull and rig to prevent capsize before the little boat landed at South Georgia.

Three of the crew then climbed a four thousand foot mountain climb before staggering into Stromness whaling station to raise the alarm.

Commissioned by The Honourable Alexandra Shackleton, the new James Caird is to be used by by an expedition to re-create the voyage and mountain climb led by environmentalist and explorer Tim Jarvis.

The original boat was constructed of Baltic pine on steamed elm frames; in the absence of these, the students are using European larch on steamed oak. She is copper fastened with keel stem and a stern of grown oak. The students have planked her to the same original sheer and then built up with a further three planks in the same way as the original James Caird, and she will be decked in and canvassed. Caulking will be with cotton and she will be paid up with white lead putty, and then the whole boat will be painted white.

For more posts on the James Caird voyage and project including stunning photos of South Georgia, click here.

For more posts relating to the Beale Park Thames Boat Show, click here.

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The grim grandeur of South Georgia

Stromness from the pass – the point where Shackleton, Crean
and Worsley first saw safety

Stromness Bay

Jeff Cole has kindly sent us some photos taken by ‘Bill‘, a friend of his father-in-law, showing scenes from South Georgia, the South Atlantic island where Sir Ernest Shackleton and his escaping polar explorer crew landed in the original James Caird, a small ship’s boat adapted to make the journey from Elephant Island.

Having landed, a big task still faced them, as they they then had to cross the mountainous island to reach safety at Stromness. If anyone has any doubt about the scale of the task, these stark photos should make it clear. This page describes the geography and history of the place.

Thanks Jeff – there’s something great about these photos. For more photos that Jeff has provided over the last 18 months or so, click here.

For more posts on the James Caird, the replica of the original boat being built by the IBTC for a new expedition to repeat the voyage led by Tim Jarvis, click here.

A whaler’s graveyard, a desolate beach,
and an abandoned whaler

Plaque in commemoration of the Shackleton expedition’s
arrival at the manager’s villa, Stromness

The Wikipedia has much more good stuff on Shackleton, but I think the quote from early in expedition member Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s wonderful book The Worst Journey in the World is perhaps the expedition leader’s best memorial: ‘For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.’