Merchant Navy apprentices in the 1850s

Merchant Navy apprentices in the 1850s

Like an eagle cag’d I pine

On this dull unchanging shore

Oh give me the flashing brine..

(The full lyrics are here).

A life on the ocean wave may have been a release from the ‘cage’ of shore life, but the song was written by a poet, not a sailor! 

For whatever reason, though, it did tempt many boys to sign up as apprentices. And Port Carlisle ship owner Peter Irving signed up at least a dozen in the 1850s alone. 

Peter Irving’s ships

In my post on Solway ships, I touched on some of Peter Irving’s ships. 

And in this post, I covered the tragedy of the brig Robert Burns, which sank after hitting an iceberg in the Atlantic, in May 1861.

Merchant Navy apprentices

From 1824 onwards, ships over 80 tons were obliged to carry apprentices by law. (source: Discover Your Ancestors periodical, June 2021). However, Peter Irving’s schooner Mary is listed in one Merchant Navy apprentices list as being 61 tons. So apprentices were not only taken on because they had to be.

There doesn’t seem to have been a fixed term: the Merchant Navy apprentices list has some signing up for three years, others for seven years. 

The boys would have started very much at the bottom, but they’d have learned a lot and would be in a position at the end to progress their career.

Thomas Gill Halliburton

Thomas Gill Halliburton was 16 in 1851, when he signed a Merchant Navy apprenticeship with Peter Irving, to serve on the Robert Burns for four years.

Thomas was the son of Douglas Halliburton and his wife Margeret Gill and in 1851, the whole family were living in Port Carlisle. Douglas Halliburton is listed on the census as a surgeon and general practitioner. Peter Irving would have been a neighbour. 

Thomas Gill Halliburton looks to have learned well from his apprenticeship with Peter Irving, and got his 2nd mate’s certificate in 1865.

In 1873, he was serving on the ship City of Chester, as a bosun’s mate. The crew list says his conduct was ‘good,’ as was his seamanship. Mind you, every crew member was ‘good’ for both, with the senior officers ‘very good’ for both!

Thomas Gill Hamilton’s service in the Merchant Navy took him across the oceans, but he ended his career back on the Solway: In 1901, he was a lamp trimmer on the Solway lightship on the Solway Light Ship, with a master and two other trimmers. 

The Robert Burns

Thomas’ service on the Robert Burns ended in 1855, but other apprentices followed.

Apprentice name: John Irving, age 15

Master: Peter Irving.

Port enrolled: Carlisle

Date: 22 7 1856. Period: 4 years. 

Ship: Robert Burns.

Apprentice name: Joseph Irving, age 14

Master: Peter Irving.

Port enrolled: Carlisle

Date: 2 4 1857. Period: 5 years. 

Ship: Robert Burns.

Was they on the Robert Burns  on April 25, 1861, when she was lost?

There were only two survivors. One was a James Irving, boatswain of Annan. Four of those lost were named. ‘The rest of the crew are strangers’.

While there is a John Irving on the 1871 census returns who might match, the name is too common for any degree of certainty. He would have completed his apprenticeship in July 1860, though. There doesn’t seem to be a Joseph on 1871, and his apprenticeship was still running in May 1861. But either may have been away at sea somewhere.

James Newcome

Apprentice name: James Newcome, aged 17

Master: Peter Irving.

Port enrolled: Carlisle

Date: 19 1 1859. Period: 3.5 years. 

Ship: Robert Burns.

At first glance, it seems he might have been on the ship when she hit the iceberg… but his record has a note ‘died 25/6/1859 – looks like ‘Quebec’ which fits. And means young James Newcome’s Merchant Navy apprenticeship was cut tragically short after just five months. 

A home on the rolling deep

Like the ocean bird our home

We’ll find far out on the sea.

Not everyone took to a life on the ocean wave. 

Apprentice name: Samuel Craig, aged 18

Master: Peter Irving

Date: 21 4 1855. Period: 3 years. 

Ship: Mary, 61 tonnes burden.

In January 1857, Peter Irving charged Samuel Craig with running away from the ship. Craig had run away before. 

The defence said Craig was 21 and could therefore end his indenture if he wished. Which he did as Peter wouldn’t give him any money while he was working on the vessel. Peter wanted to bring some other charge, but the court discharged him.

Further reading

You can read more about Peter Irving in my book, Port Carlisle, a history built on hope. You can read more about it in this post. And you can buy in on Amazon here (search for it on Amazon if you are outside the UK).