1.1. Captain John Stavers (1749-1831) and his family

    According to one of John’s descendants, the early Stavers were both farmers and sea-farers. John farmed the 500-acre North Moor farm in the parish of Woodhorn, near to the Northumbrian port of Blyth and the far more important port of Newcastle. The area was rich in coalmines and the life of the area revolved around agriculture, coalmining and the sea. It also seems that he chose the sea and became a master mariner. He commanded the Mellish between 1786 and 1790, fishing for whales off Greenland  – although there is one report in Lloyds List of July 1788 of the Mellish (Captain Stavers) arriving at Gravesend from the “southern whale fishery”, so he may have made a brief foray to the south, probably to the mid and southern Atlantic.

    John claimed a bounty from the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (now the Royal Society of Arts), for using a new  “gun-harpoon” with an explosive charge that killed whales more quickly. This device was being championed by the Society, who offered a small sum for its use. He wrote to the Society in November 1790 (from Woodhorn)  reporting that harpooners from the Mellish had shot three whales with the gun-harpoon in May, June and July that year.1

    The Mellish was owned by the Mellish family, big traders and shipowners, and this seems to have been the beginning of a long relationship between the Stavers and the Mellishes, with the latter frequently employing Stavers captains to command their ships.  By 1791 John was in command of the Aurora, another Mellish-owned whaling ship, fishing in the Davis Strait between Greenland and Baffin Island in Canada.  Between 1798 and 1803, John was back in charge of the Mellish. I have not found further mention of him in the marine records after that.  When he died, he was described in the parish records as a “farmer” of Northmoor, so he seems to have returned to full time farming. In the announcement of his death in the local press, he was described as “Mr John Stavers, aged 82, much respected, his naval exploits long past and forgotten after nearly 30 years. 2

  John Stavers married a local girl, Dorothy Charlton, and had three daughters and three sons. The sons were John (1783-1826); Peter (1784-1767); and George (1788-1832).  The first of these went to sea and probably had the most dramatic life of any of the Stavers captains.

Ships commanded by John Stavers (dates approximate)

Mellish (barque built 1775, owner Peter and Robert Mellish) 1785-86 and 1788-90

Mary Ann 1787

Aurora (ship, 350 tons, owner Mellish) 1791-93

Mellish 1798




The northern whale fishery

The British began to fish for whales in the Antarctic in Elizabethan times, but they were not that successful (especially compared to the Dutch) until the last part of the 18th century, when there was a big increase in demand for whale oil for lighting and various industrial purposes. By the beginning of the 19th century, however,  the southern hemisphere became the chief place to catch whales, so John Stavers caught the end of the heyday of British Antarctic whaling.


The target was the Right whale – so-called because of it was the right species to catch on account of its high blubber content. It also had a large “baleen” – a structure in its mouth for straining plankton and krill – which was valuable as a source of flexible “whalebone” for corsets and dresses.


Whales were caught where there was ice, first off Greenland and then in the

Davis Strait between Greenland and Baffin Island. Because of the ice the boats

had to be heavily reinforced; and because of the difficulties involved in taking whales they needed crews of 40-50 men. The trade was a highly skilled and deeply unpleasant one. Superb seamanship was required. The cruelty and time and effort that it took a whale are appalling to modern sensibilities. Once caught, there was the horrendous task of harvesting (or flensing) the blubber. There was no way that whales could be lifted aboard, so they were mostly towed alongside the ship , where


…the flensers danced precariously on the floating carcass in their spiked boots, or hacked away with blubber-knives and blubber-spades from the equally precarious flensing boat tied up alongside. 3


Voyages took 4-6 months, in freezing conditions in which frostbite was a constant threat – conditions which seem incredible in our days that anybody would choose to endure.



1. Papers in Mechanicks, Transactions of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, Vol. 9 (1791), courtesy of JSTOR. William Stavers also reported the use of the harpoon-gun by harpooners from the Leviathan the following year.

2. Durham Chronicle 19.3.1831.

3. Gordon Jackson, The British Whaling Trade 1978, p.33