Maryport Shipping by Herbert and Mary Jackson

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

John Peat opened his shipbuilding yard at Maryport on the western side of the River Ellen in what was known as the Old Glasshouse Yard in the 1780’s. The firm’s offices occupied premises called the Old Custom House Building, situated at he northern corner of Irish Street near the harbour-side and the first vessel to be launched from the stocks was of 173 tons register and named the Samuel. It was from this yard that Peat launched a ship broadside for the first time, she was named, Anthorn.

In 1818 the brig Congress was launched from this yard, her registered tonnage being 299. The first master and co-owner was James M’Neill. At a later date in her life she was sliced down the centre and a new section was inserted into her middle, this operation increased her tonnage to 396.

The Congress unloads timber to float upstream

Engaged in the timber trade, the Congress plied between Quebec and Maryport. When she arrived at her home port, the ship tied up on the South Quay near where the river enters the harbour and discharged her cargo of logs over the side as the tide was coming in, as shown in the photograph. The timber was then floated up river with the tide to a point situated conveniently near the railway line at Glasson. Then the logs were transferred by cranes to wagons. When the Elizabeth Dock was built in 1857, the southern end was constructed as a gradual slope to facilitate the unloading of timber.

Ritson & Co., of Maryport owned the Congress in 1864 and her commander was Captain Fawcett, when a new apprentice joined the ship. He was a Maryport lad, John Messenger, who had signed indentures for £40 over a period of five years. His initial voyage took him across the Atlantic to Quebec, where a cargo of timber was taken on board for Whitehaven. Afterwards they sailed for Liverpool to pick up a cargo of salt for Savannah, returning to Liverpool loaded with pitch pine.


Four years later, whilst still on apprentice, John Messenger was shanghaied at Quebec by a well-known, villainous boarding house master called Jim Ward. The lad found himself dumped aboard another vessel, which he discovered to be the Paragon of Bridgewater, bound for England with a cargo of timber, with only the clothes he stood up in. This was not his sole concern, for he risked losing his indentures if he was posted missing as a deserter from the Congress. The ale-houses and brothels on the waterfront of all ports were out of bounds to apprentices and these were the places where the boarding house crimps operated. Fortunately he eventually made his way back to the Congress and was able to provide the captain with a satisfactory explanation of his absence.

Then followed further voyages across the Atlantic, after one of which the Congress docked at Plymouth, where all the rest of the crew except three, the mate, John and a boy were paid off.

They found out that they were expected to perform the work of highly skilled riggers and rigg the ship with a double topsail rigg, a fashionable innovation. This went against the grain with John, he and the mate decided, that if they were considered capable of carrying out specialist work without pay, then they were entitled to look for employment elsewhere. So that was the end of his time with the Congress.

He joined his next ship at Glasson Dock at Lancaster. It was another Maryport vessel, the barque Sarah Mandle, on which John served as an A.B. She was commanded by Captain George Brown of Alba House, High Street, Maryport, who had been appointed master of the Highland Brigade some weeks before his 20th birthday and was, in later life to become marine superintendent of Hine Bros Holme Line, Maryport. John Messenger was to serve on many more ships before he retired to Maryport.

Another well-known Maryport sea captain, James Ritchie, of 132 High Street served his apprenticeship on the Congress. He went on to become master of the Hazel Holme and then the Myrtle Holme, both vessels belonging to the Hine Bras Holme Line, Maryport. Captain Ritchie had two sons, David and Robert, who both became sea captains. David and his wife May lived at 41 Curzon Street, where his daughters Gwen and Kathleen resided in the family home for many years, before moving to Lawson Street.  

Link to Peaceful Days and Good Voyages 1877 Hazel Holme Diary of Captain T W Millican

In May, 1877, I joined the barque Hazel Holme, as mate, at Swansea. where she was loading a cargo of rails for Rockhampton, Queensland. Of 105 tons register she belonged to Messrs. Hine Bros., of Maryport, who had built just a year or two before a lovely quartette of clipper vessels, which eventually became so well known in the Australian trade. I refer to the Brier HolmeCastle HolmeEden Holme, and Myrtle Holme. These, with the Robert HineAbbey Holme, and Hazel Holme, made up the crack vessels in the Holme Line fleet of sailers. 

Link to article in Sea Breezes magazine

Between the years 1783 and 1828 some 40 vessels were built at John Peat’s yard. He died on June 18th, 1840, having reached the tremendous age of 94. In an obituary the Cumberland Pacquet described him as being, ‘as old as the town itself, in so much as he recollected it when it consisted of two or three houses, yet lived to see it rise in importance and contain a population of several thousand.’

A former manager of Peat’s yard, John Ritson founded the shipbuilding firm of Ritson & Co., in 1828, in association with Joseph Hudleston, who probably invested capital and was not concerned in the day to day running of the yard. The firm took over Peat’s yard in Irish Street on the seaward bank of the River Ellen. Ritson’s yard was to become the foremost shipbuilding yard in the port and notable for its enterprise and expertise. Mr Hudleston left the firm shortly before 1840.

Throughout its long life, the firm built almost 100 vessels. In the early days they were wooden sailing ships and then moving with the times, Ritson’s yard progressed to making iron and steel sailing vessels and finally to building steamships. The yard had the capacity to build two ships simultaneously and was able to build larger vessels than Wood’s yard in Strand Street, which ceased operations in 1837. Both Wood’s and Ritson’s yards were well equipped to build new and repair old ships, having patent slipways for repairs. It was quite common practice for a ship to be lengthened by cutting it in two and joining a new centre portion to the two ends.

John Ritson’s sons, Robert and William both served their apprenticeships at the yard and William was noted for craftsmanship and his mastery of the tools used in the trade. The two brothers joined their father in the firm before he died in 1844. As the business prospered, so did the family, the two brothers each building new houses for themselves. Robert, who was a Justice of the Peace acquired several acres of land in Birkby Township and in these grounds built a substantial sandstone residence named Ellenbank on a prominent site above Ellengrove, overlooking Nether Hall which did not endear them to the Senhouse family, lords of the manor. William built Ridgemount, a mansion on land in Church Street, its grounds extending from Fleming Street to North Street. With the stables and outbuildings and a large, walled garden to the rear, the house was ready for occupation in 1863.

It was during the 1850’s that the yard was enlarged. Shipbuilding commenced on land between Irish Street and the present Elizabeth Dock, which did not come into existence until 1857. The Town and Harbour Trustees granted permission for a deep trench to be excavated from the yard across Irish Street to the river, so that ships could be launched into the Ellen from this section of the yard. Traffic along Irish Street passed over a plank bridge covering the trench and when a launch was about to take place, the planks were removed, and the channel across the road was dug out to make it sufficiently deep to take the new vessel into the river.

One ship built by Ritson’s is commemorated in the name of the house next door to our home. Captain Glaister Sharp was a native of Maryport and the barque, Chanaral, of 583 tons was built for him at Ritson’s yard. She was engaged in the South African and South American trade. The captain named the house at 29 Curzon Street, Chanaral House after his ship and brought back from the eponymous place in Chile a large greenish coloured slab of stone, which was built into the wall above the front door and engraved with the name, Chanaral House and the date, 1876. The stone has since been painted over, but the lettering remains legible.

William Ritson died in 1866 and Robert Ritson Jnr took his sons John and Thomas Smith Ritson into partnership. Robert died at Ellenbank in 1887 and the last member of the family to take an active part in the running of the firm was Thomas Smith Ritson, who died at Ridgemount in 1910. The residences remained in the occupation of their descendants for many years, the last surviving member of the family at Ellenbank being Miss Kathleen Ritson, her two cousins, the Misses Ritson of Ridgemount moved to Cockermouth in the 1930’s.

A number of ships built at the Ritson yard are worthy of comment, for example, the John Currey, a full-rigged ship of 1,000 tons was launched at midnight. broadside. on September 9th, 1854. Robert Adair, Senhouse Street, owner of the Maryport Advertiser wrote in the issue dated October 6th of this unique occasion:

“every workman of the establishment was at his post at 12 at night. The novelty of a night launch attracted large numbers who thronged the surrounding embankments. The two senior partners silently paced the deck of the ship, filled with hopes and fears of the issue, while the junior (William Ritson, hurried with torch in hand and encouraged this man and rallied the other, amid the incessant rattling of hundred hammers. When the rattling ceased at 1 o’clock a solemn silence reigned and, with the last dread stroke and fall of the spurs, the boldest held his breath for a time.”

‘The huge mass began to creep on her cradle, slowly, as if reluctant; the ways were creaking under the ponderous weight and the breathless silence pervaded the multitude in the grandeur of the quiet moonlight. On the ship’s first kissing her destined bridegroom Neptune, on this her nuptial night, one universal of applause rang from the heights to the ship and again re-echoed from the occupants of Mote Hill. As the vessel increased her speed down the ways, and the massive chain was dragged after her, the links in collision sparkled like a train of gunpowder, while the bursting wedges were flying in all directions … she adds another laurel to the chaplet of fame long since won by the justly celebrated firm which built her.’

The last wooden ship to be launched from the yard, and, up to that time, the largest was the Southerfield of 948 tons, on October 8th, 1881, She was barque rigged, copper bottomed and copper fastened and her building had been supervised by a Lloyd’s agent. Luxurious was the only word to describe the furnishments of the cabin and captain’s quarters, which were of polished woodwork with velvet upholstery.

The launch took place on a Saturday, so a crowd of several thousands, rather larger than usual, had gathered to witness the occasion. Miss Marion Ritson youngest daughter of Mr Robert Ritson of ElIenbank christened the ship and broke a bottle of port over her bows. These were anxious moments for those involved in the actual launching, which was carried out under the supervision of Ritson’s foreman, Richard Younghusband, who calmly awaited the peak of the tide, the slight south-westerly wind made it rise a little higher than expected, then Richard gave the signal.

The chocks were knocked out by sledgehammer, for a minute there was a breathless silence, nothing moved. Then the foreman signalled the screwman, who gave a few turns on the screws of the jacks, the ship shuddered and started to move, gathering momentum before plunging into the river, causing a huge wave to crash over the opposite bank of the Ellen and up the side of Mote Hill. Then the Southerfield settled and was taken in tow by the tug Florence into the Elizabeth Dock. Her commander was to be Captain Hugh MacKensie, who had been with Ritsons for many years, a master with a very good record, who looked forward with great pride to his new ship.

Ritson’s yard launched its first iron ship, the 1,426 tonner Ellenbank, named after Robert’s house in 1885. She left Maryport on October 31st commanded by Captain Huge MacKensie. After picking up a cargo of coal at Penarth in South Wales, she sailed from Cardiff for San Francisco, the passage taking 163 days. The master on her second passage was Captain John Briscoe, In 1888 she was sold in Liverpool.

A sailing ship, the Acamas was the last of nine such vessels to be launched at Maryport between 1890 and 1897. The owners by then had realised, that the days fast coming to a close and decided in future they would build small steamships for the coastal trade. First of these to come off the stocks was the Balmyle 374 tons in 1898 and later the same year the Jaboo, 165 tons was Five more steamers were built before the yard was sold to William Walker. They were named the Algores, 375 tons, Thomas Leigh, 771 tons, Points Clear, 509 tons, Tay Graig, 407 tons and the last ship to be built by Ritson’s was Lycidas, 576 tons, launched in 1902. The firm built almost 90 vessels after taking over the yard from John Peat.

William Walker launched 11 ships between 1902 and 1914. The final broadside launch to take place at Maryport was that of the Rhenais in April 1914, but the actual launch was the Silverburn which took place on August 8th, 1914, four after war had been declared on Germany.

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.