Captain Nelson's Log of Voyages

Extracted from Chapter Four of West Cumbria Shipping – Maryport section by Herbert & Mary Jackson.pdf pages 44 – 62

Captain Nelson

Ritson & Co., were not only shipbuilders and timber merchants, they were also ship owners, building for themselves, occasionally buying and from time to time acquiring  shares in vessels. Ships under the firm’s name sailed the seven seas and traded successfully, this was in no small measure due to the very fine captains, who commanded vessels of the Ritson fleet and none was greater, than Captain William A Nelson who built up a world-wide reputation as one of the great masters in sail.

Throughout his long life William Nelson saw the sailing ship and also the town of Maryport travel through the golden years of the 19th century, then pass on into the twilight years and decline of the 20th century.

The Nelson family originated in Galloway. William’s grandfather, Philip Nelson, built the Salterness Lighthouse, the oldest in Galloway and now known as Southerness. His son, Benjamin, was a bank manager and shipping merchant in Annan, who died there in 1845, at the age of 65 years. His widow, Mary, afterwards brought the family over to Maryport, it is not known exactly when. She died in 1888 and was buried in Maryport cemetery.

Christine Dixon, grand-daughter of Captain W.A. Nelson and also grand-daughter of Captain Robert Dixon of Maryport, both of whom captained the Ladas, talked with us about her grandfather Nelson and his father Benjamin. William was born in Annan on September 7th, 1839 at Waterfoot Farm. After they came to live in Maryport he spent much of his free time around the harbour. At the age of 14, William left school and served seven years’ apprenticeship at sail-making in Ritson’s sail-loft, going to sea in 1862.

During most of his seafaring career he served the same owners, Messrs Ritson & Co., of Maryport. Christine told us that Captain Nelson was a small man, with blue eyes and in his younger days fair hair. Although he lived to a great age, he never in his life wore an overcoat. She and her sister Kathleen loved to come to Maryport from their London home to spend holidays with grandfather, because he was extremely fond of children. Their grandmother had died in 1918.

She went on to give an example of her grandfather’s fondness for children, which had occurred when they were staying at Ivegill with Captain Tom Scott, who had been master of the Ladas in 1900 for a period. Her cousin Eric came out in a rash. which appeared to be measles and grandfather was delighted, because he thought that all his grandchildren would be put in quarantine and then they would have to stay on after the end of the holidays. Things did not turn out that way however, it so happened that the spots had been caused by Eric eating too many green apples.

When William Nelson completed his apprenticeship as a sail-maker, he went to Liverpool to stay with relatives, while he was looking for a ship. He made it a practice whenever it was possible, to be taken on a ship whose captain came from Maryport. Christine did not know with which relatives he stayed, but several members of the Nelson family resided in Liverpool at that time. They were Philip Nelson, a lawyer, whose father Philip was Land Steward at Netherhall, Maryport, another relative also named Philip Nelson, who was the son of Humphrey, a shipowner and founder of the Nelson Shipping Line and a brother of Philip the lawyer and John Nelson, another grandson of the Netherhall Steward.

Captain Nelson’s log written when in his 80’s

Captain Nelson when in his 80’s wrote his memoirs from his ship’s logs. Unfortunately due to lack of space it is not possible to reproduce them in full, we can only offer readers an edited version.

“As a boy it was always my ambition to go to sea and become the master of a sailing ship, but when I left school at 14 years of age I found my ambition was not to be easily realised owing to my parents resenting the idea of me taking up a sea· faring career. Finally a sort of compromise was arranged whereby I was apprenticed to serve seven years in the sail-loft of a Maryport shipyard to become a sail-maker.

I was only interested in sailmaking to the extent that one day the necessary’ time in afloat would enable me to sit for the B.O.T., examinations required b become a shipmaster, although learning to become a sail-maker had meant a great loss of time, I had the consolation of knowing that it would be of great value to me in the future.

My apprenticeship completed towards the end of 1861, I then went to Liverpool to stay with relatives until I could find a job on a ship.”

Auxiliary barque Emperatrice

“It was in January 1862 that I shipped as an A.B. and Sailmaker on the auxiliary barque Emperatrice, an iron vessel with wooden bulwarks, Captain George Sharp of Maryport in command and loading cargo at Liverpool for New York. The American Civil War was in progress at this time, and owing to a United States warship having taken two government agents of the Southern States from off a British Mail steamer, relations became strained between the British and U.S. governments and it was feared that war might break out … The affair between the U.S. and British governments was soon settled, our loading completed and we sailed for New York … At New York government agents used to come on board to persuade the crew to join the U.S. navy by offering big bounties … After a voyage of three months we arrived at Liverpool and all hands were paid off.”

Ship James Jardine

“In the spring of 1862 I joined the wooden ship James Jardine, built in Nova Scotia and carried 22 hands all told, laden with a cargo of coal and bound from Liverpool to Aden by way of the Cape of Good Hope.

We were not many days at sea when I realised what an ill found packet she was, and she proved to be the worst ship I ever sailed in during my 47 years at sea. The total stock of fresh water was contained in 13 wooden casks stowed on deck, not sufficient to last half the passage; during the heavy rain squalls in the Horse Latitudes we used to catch the rain water as it ran off the poop deck to replenish our meagre stock, this I may say had a most unpleasant taste.

The food was of poor quality and the rations small, the salt-beef was void of fat and about as tough as teakwood, the pork consisted of greasy junks of blubber, the hardtack (biscuits) was true to its name and well flavoured with maggots …

We rounded the Cape of Good Hope safely and when in the Indian Ocean one of the sailors took seriously ill, no-one knew what ailed him, but the unfortunate man got so bad that he went out of his mind. The captain ordered me to make a strait-jacket for him, after a week or so of this treatment the poor fellow died …

We eventually arrived in Aden during the month of September after a passage of 147 days from Liverpool with four of the crew down with scurvy … By the time we had arrived at Akyab most of the crew were down with scurvy owing to lack of fresh vegetables and good food and almost too weak to work … In port the captain took to drinking and neglected the ship’s business to such an extent that the agents reported him and later the owners dismissed him.

The mate was given command and things went from bad to worse. A court of enquiry was held who ordered the provisions to be condemned, and the crew if they wished to be paid off. I stayed at the Sailor’s Home for about three weeks when a Captain Kerr of the ship Seville called looking for a sailmaker and I was fortunate to get the job.”

Ship Seville

“A fine wooden ship built by Messrs Clarke of Jersey, of 598 tons. It was indeed a pleasant change to find myself on a well found vessel like the Seville and serving under a fine seaman and gentleman as Captain Kerr …

We left Calcutta with a few hundred coolies on board and had a pleasant and uneventful passage to Demarara, where we loaded a cargo of sugar and rum for London. By the time I arrived in England I had been away two and half years …

Captain Kerr asked me to make the next voyage with him, I believed it was early 1865 that we sailed from the Clyde with passengers and cargo for New Zealand … We arrived all well at Bluff Harbour after a passage of some 96 days … During our stay in port I was sorry that Captain Kerr left us to take command of another of the company’s ships.

We sailed from Bluff Harbour for Hong Kong in ballast … On arrival at Hong Kong orders were received to proceed up the Canton river to Whampoa … The ship had been chartered to load Chinese labour coolies for the West Indies … It was soon discovered that Chinese coolies were much more trouble than Indian coolies … The Chinese spent most of their time gambling … One morning we fond a Chinaman hanging from a spare spar which was stowed on the forward house and extended to the forecastle head.

This gentleman had been caught cheating and for punishment he had been forcibly taken on deck during the night where his wrists were lashed together behind his back, he was then lifted until his head was level with the boom, his pigtail was then passed over the boom and made fast to the lashing of his wrists, he was thus left hanging by his pigtail with his feet about four feet clear of the deck, until found by the sailors in the morning, he appeared more dead than alive …

The following voyage was a short one, we loaded general cargo on the Clyde for the West Indies and returned with another cargo of sugar and rum.

My next voyage was out to Rangoon and back to Liverpool. Here I passed by second mate’s certificate without difficulty, this would be about 1867.”

Ship Empress Eugene

“A wooden ship, sheathed with yellow metal and built at Sunderland in 1854, sold 1864 to Messrs Shute & Co when Captain Collins took command … My first officer’s Job was second mate of the ship Empress Eugene commanded by Captain Collins of Maryport, his father was a well-known solicitor in Maryport.

I joined the ship at Milford Haven … We sailed from Milford Haven for Karachi and were not long out when the ship developed a very bad leak … On arrival at Karachi .. , it was found that worms had eaten a hole through the hull planking, the carpenter made a good repair job and there was no more trouble from leaks. A cargo of cotton and grape seed was loaded at Karachi then we sailed for Liverpool … I paid off in Liverpool and went to school and obtained my first mate’s certificate before going to Maryport for a holiday.”

 Ship Tinto

I shipped as a second mate on the ship Tinto, she was also a wooden vessel and built by Russell of Quebec in 1861. We sailed from Liverpool in the year 1870 with a cargo of salt for Calcutta … At Calcutta we loaded a cargo of jute for Dundee. I was paid off at Dundee and took two weeks holiday before going to Liverpool to sit for my master’s certificate. I passed my examination on 2nd October, 1871.

Brig Bowes

Although I had a master’s certificate it was a different matter finding a command especially as so far, I had not sailed as a first mate, so I put nearly two years serving as first mate on old wooden ships in the North Atlantic trade carrying timber from the St. Laurence river to Maryport. I made two or three voyages across to Canada for timber and two voyages to Spain bringing iron ore for Cammells blast furnaces at Maryport and then got promoted to a larger vessel of which I was the largest shareholder.

Barque New Brunswick

The New Brunswick was a wooden barque of 611 tons built 1860 … It would be about 1880 when we bought the New Brunswick from Messrs Andrew & Fraser of London, she was registered in my brother’s name and I was one of the largest shareholders while it was arranged that I went in command. Being an old vessel she was scarcely suitable for any other trade but the carrying of timber, she was therefore employed trading between the St. Laurence river ports and U.K, returning mostly to Maryport or Ardrossan.

Mrs Nelson made an occasional summer voyage in the ship to Quebec. We fared very well as regards provisions, one or two of the shareholders were farmers in West Cumberland and they supplied us with an excellent abundance of potatoes, vegetables and prime Cumberland hams. After seven years under my command the old ship now 27 years old found the strain of the Atlantic gales too much … It was a tough life crossing the Atlantic on these old timber droghers, while pumping ship was a full-time job.

Mary Moore

My next command was the barque Mary Moore originally built for the China trade on the Clyde about 1868, but the opening of the Suez Canal killed the China trade for the sailing ship. The Mary Moore was owned by Major Norman of Maryport, she was a trim and handy vessel carrying about 1,000 tons deadweight …

I made regular passages to and from the West Coast of South America, the shortest time being 78 days and the longest 88 days. Mrs Nelson made a voyage to the West Coast with me … After I sailed from England on a foreign voyage Major Norman the owner never bothered to correspond with me, he evidently had faith in my integrity … I left the Mary Moore to take command in 1888 of another barque belonging to Messes Ritson who I believe were related to Major Norman.

William Ritson

The Barque William Ritson was owned by Messrs Ritson of Maryport. I took command in 1888 at Garston where she loaded a cargo of coal for Iquique and sailed on 13th June … In spite of strong westerly gales off the Horn we made the passage in 95 days … made the homeward passage to Queenstown, arriving in April 1889 after 89 days. I made only one voyage in this vessel when I was transferred to a larger one of the same company.

Rising Star

Was built at Dumbarton in 1877 … She was bought from H. Melmore by Messrs Ritson, both Maryport firms, I had shares in the ship.

This was my first experience in an iron built ship, all previous ones had been built of wood where pumping operations were found necessary almost daily …

On my first passage I made my best time to the West Coast of 66 days. We came home to Falmouth having made a round voyage in eight months, including three months spent on the West Coast. I made only one more voyage in this vessel then I was transferred to a very much larger and more modern ship.


The steel four-masted barque was one of the largest vessels built by Messrs Ritson of Maryport, who were shipbuilders, shipowners and timber merchants. The Auchencairn was launched broadside into the River Ellen which today must appear a remarkable achievement owing to the constricted size of the river. After the launch she was towed to the wet dock where she was masted and rigged by Mr G. Monkhouse a master rigger of great repute in West Cumberland ports; a small locomotive was hired for hoisting the masts and yards into position …

She was named after the Scottish village of the same name on the opposite side of the Solway Firth, where friends of the owners owned a large estate … Early in November 1891 we left Maryport for Cardiff in the tow of the Clydeside tug Flying Eagle … As we were passing outside the piers Captain Ben Nelson, my brother, informed me he had just received a telegram stating that a southerly gale might be expected …

On arrival at Cardiff we found the now famous ship Grace Harwar in dock, she was practically a new ship … Captain Sewell of Maryport a friend of mine was in command, we both had our wives on board and used to exchange visits –

The Auchencairn left Cardiff on November 24th, 1891 with a cargo of coal for San Francisco and made an average run to Cape Horn… The passage was made in 118 days, arriving on 21st March, 1892 … The ship was sent on the homeward run to Stockton-on-Tees to discharge and thus ended the maiden voyage …

From Port Pirie and taking our departure from Wilsons Promontory for San Francisco another good passage was made on 61 days … At San Francisco another cargo of grain was loaded for the U.K., we sailed on the 15th January, 1897 passed Cape Horn 49 days out, crossed the Equator on the Atlantic side 82 days out … The passage was made in 119 days from land to land, arriving Queenstown on the 15th  May, 1897, the ship was then ordered to Limerick to discharge.

This ended the last voyage of the Auchencairn under the Red ensign. I had been in command since November 1891 a period of five and a half years and I was sorry to leave her … I went home to Maryport to have a holiday and to take over another ship then completing at Messrs Ritson’s yard.


Pictures of Sailing Ships built in Maryport Names A – G – Maryport History (click here for home page)


The steel built three masted full rigged ship Acamas was built and owned by Messrs Ritson & Co, of Maryport and completed about 1897… Carried a big cargo for her size about 3,300 tons deadweight … Leaving Maryport in ballast for Newport, Mons, in tow, a cargo of railway iron was loaded and we left Newport on 3rd October, 1897 for Geraldton, Australia, arrived after a passage of 78 days ..

From Freemantle we proceeded to Newcastle NSW and loaded coal for San Francisco, thence to Steveston where a full cargo of canned salmon was loaded for Liverpool, arriving Liverpool on 28th February, 1899, which completed the maiden voyage of about 17 months duration.

On July 1906 the Acamas left Port Talbot for Pisagua, Chile, with a cargo of coal, this I fully intended to be my last voyage …

A sling of cargo severely injured a Lanchero and on this account the mate was arrested and thrown into jail with a lot of common prisoners, and kept there for two or three weeks existing on the prison fare of beans and water … A fine of 500 pescos had to be paid before they would release the mate …

It would be about July when we sailed from Antofogasta for Rotterdam with a deadweight cargo of salt petre … The ship drydocked at Rotterdam and then towed over the London to load general cargo for Australia. In November I left the ship at London and went home to Maryport to enjoy my well earned retirement, after 44 years continuous service in sailing ships.


I had been ashore nine months when the owner Mr T. Ritson prevailed on me to make another voyage as master of his barque Ladas which had been chartered by Messrs Walmsley for a lump sum and then loading a general cargo in Salthouse Dock, Liverpool for Callao. The Ladas was a steel three-masted barque built at Maryport in 1894 by Messrs Ritson and launched stern first into the River Ellen, I  believe she was named after Lord Roseberry’s horse of the same name which won the Derby … When I saw the ship nicely down to the load line I stopped any further loading, this caused a heated argument with the charterer as there was another 30 tons or so left in the shed, however I told him that if another ton of cargo went on board they could find another shipmaster and this settled the matter …

I had left my retirement against my better judgement but had not full; realised how rapidly the sailing ships and the crews had deteriorated during the last few years, owing to unremunerative freights their upkeep had been neglected and the poor wages and food offered no inducement to officers and seamen alike … We left Liverpool on August 1907 with a scratch crew of mainly aliens, the first mate, a man of no experience but old and eccentric, the young man acting second mate had no certificate at all … All went well for a few weeks until the first mate suddenly went out of his mind and had to be permanently locked up in his room, this was a very serious matter for all on board as I was the only navigator left, and should anything happen to me it was going to be hard lines on the remainder … We were held up at Monte Video for months and finally sailed with a new mate …

After a severe spell of heavy westerly gales off the Horn arrived all well at Calloa … And we duly arrived at Antwerp where the ship was laid up and was put up for sale, I stood by the ship and had Mrs Nelson and family over where we remained about nine months before the ship went over to the Norwegian flag Thus in 1909 came to an end my seafaring career of 47 years in sail and of these I had 36 in command.”

William Nelson married Jane Scott and they had five children, Mary, the eldest was born in 1883, the only son James in 1885, Margaret in 1887 and the twins Jane and Isabel in 1890.

He built two houses in High Street, number 139 was for his own occupation and 141 for his brother Jonathan. Early in the 1900’s the Nelson family moved to Eaglesfield House, on the south-western corner of High Street and Eaglesfield Street, the rear of which overlooks the Solway Firth. Mrs Nelson died in 1918 and William continued to live there with his unmarried daughter, Isabel, who was in charge of the Trustee Saving Bank, High Street, Maryport.

When he died in 1929 she received a most sensitive letter of condolence from the Managing Director of the Bank. Jonathan Nelson had willed his house in High Street to his brother William and it was sold to the Misses Black for £360. 139 High Street which had been tenanted, was left to Isabel. Eaglesfield House was valued at £300 for probate in 1929.

See Three Years in Ladas, click below for link

1895 Days of Sail in Ladas – Maryport History (click here for home page)

Ladas, the barque which owed safety to weatherliness when embayed in ice


There is a tall monument in St. Cuthbert’s Churchyard, Plumbland Aspatria in memory of William Ritson, Ship Builder, Ridge Mount, Maryport.  Born October 6th, 1818. Died March 29th, 1866.” This inscription is on one side and the other three bear the names of several members of the same family. Around this memorial are others to Marks, Yeoward, Thirlwall and Moorhouse families, all, .it appear connected to the Ritson.