TALES OF THE STAVERS CAPTAINS

PART 1: THE NORTHUMBERLAND STAVERS

 

1.4. George Stavers (1788-1832) and his sons Captain John (1822-1902) and Captain George Stavers (1825-1891).

 

    George Stavers the elder appears in the crew list of the whaler Perseverance (of which his uncle William was earlier master) as an apprentice in 18041, but I have found no further record of him as a seaman and he presumably did not take to life at sea.  Instead he seems to have taken over the family farm of North Moor in Woodhorn. A letter from one of his grandsons states that on his death the farm was sold and the proceeds were distributed to his children. However, it is clear from the records that he was a tenant farmer, although no doubt on some sort of long term lease as the farm was in the possession of two generations of the Stavers family (according to Land Tax records, the freeholder was the Reverend Robert Darley). George’s widow stayed on at the farm for a couple of years after his death, after which the farm was put up for rent and no doubt at that point the livestock and farm machinery were sold. He was 44 when he died and is buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s, East Hartford, Northumberland and his gravestone survives.

 

    George married a local girl, Mary Watson, and they had two sons, both of whom became notable merchant navy captains and eventually owners of their own ships, employing other captains to command them. They were based on Tyneside and, unlike other members of the family, they never went in for whaling. The export of coal from Newcastle and other Tyneside ports was a major part of their business. English coal, which was mainly exported from Newcastle, was sought far and wide and was exported as far as the Antipodes.  As a Melbourne newspaper put it in 1855: “for coals that can be used either for a small or a large fire; that possess heat and strength enough for smith’s work, and yet will give a sparkling liveliness to a drawing-room, nothing can surpass those from England”.2 On the return journey they would ship a huge variety of different goods, from sugar to wheat or guano.

 

 

Captain John Stavers (1822-1902)

 

    John Stavers began his maritime career in traditional style as an apprentice (probably as a cabin boy) in 1837 at the age of 15.3  A cabin boy was the lowest of the low and was given all the most menial tasks. Captain T.R. Stavers (who had been to school before being sent to sea by his father) recalled that when he became a cabin boy “little did I think I should have to wash Plates end clean Knives. I thought my Father, being Master of a Ship, and myself, brought up at Boarding school, that I should be exempt from such menial service”.  John quickly worked his way up and obtained his master’s certificate in 1851, “having served 14 years as apprentice mate master in coasting and foreign trades”.4  

 

    Enterprising captains had opportunities to make money other than what they were paid by the owners of their ships. Often they negotiated a share of the cargo for themselves, and also took opportunities while at sea to buy and sell cargoes. It was not uncommon for successful captains to take shares in ships and if they were clever to end up as shipowners. In his memoir, Walter Runciman (also from Tyneside), later lord Runciman,  describes how he worked his way up from being a 14-year-old cabin boy to becoming one of the largest shipowners in the country. So it was with John and George Stavers, albeit in a much smaller way. Like Runciman, the brothers probably started by taking shares in vessels.  John was captain of the Northumberland, owned by Marshall & Co from 1863 from 1867. By 1867 he had obviously taken a share in the ship as the owners were listed as Marshall and Stavers; and thereafter the Stavers appear as the sole owners, employing someone else (Captain Peter Heslop) as captain. The brothers founded a company called Stavers & Co and between them, the brothers commissioned a number of ships either jointly or separately. They became one of the best-known owners on Tyneside, where the family were already well-known because of the earlier exploits of their cousins in the whaling industry.6

 

    Walter Runciman was a very young able seaman on the Northumberland on a journey carrying coal to Alexandria. In his memoir, he wrote that 

 

she was spoken of by the sailor community as the large brig, and indeed the expression was correct. She was a regular West Indian trader, and so was Captain Heslop, who agreed to take command of her on condition that he was never employed in these trades during the sickly season. So the owners … rather than risk losing so excellent a commander, decided that they would charter their vessel to the Black Sea. The brothers Stavers and Burn [John Burns, who also had a share in the ship] were very proud of their large brig and her new captain. Moreover, they were amongst the best of the owners on the North-East coast.”7

 

    In 1866 the Stavers brothers took delivery of a new collier vessel, the Durham from Seaham shipyard. They were obviously very proud of her, as they had her portrait painted in Genoa in 18678, a painting that remains in the hands of George Stavers’ descendants. John Stavers took command of her on what was probably her maiden voyage, thereafter handing her over to Captain John Darling, a captain much employed by the Stavers. In seafaring, hazards abound and one is the spontaneous combustion of certain cargoes.  Only two years after her launch, when she was carrying a cargo of coal to the Mediterranean, her cargo spontaneously combusted. Walter Runciman was in one of the vessels (the Isabella) that went to her aid and graphically describes it:

 

[The] wind carried us to the entrance of the Grecian archipelago, when it gradually died away to a calm, into which quite a fleet of sailing vessels had run. Amongst them was another Isabella and the Durham. The latter signalled to us that she was on fire, and asked for assistance. The captains and part of the crews of the two Isabellas worked without ceasing all day to extinguish the fire, bit without success. A fresh westerly wind sprung up, and a course was shaped for Syra [Syros], but in the middle of the night we were hailed to take the Durham’s crew off, as the fire had got beyond control. After the rescue she was in flames from the water’s edge to the royal trucks. The confused crackling of the timbers, masts and yards, the hiss of the sea as it engulfed each flying piece of burning wreckage, held us spellbound; and the blaze of the sais flying here and there lit up the whole ocean with a lurid magnificence. Then came a terrific noise, her stern went up, and she plunged head foremost to her doom. 9

 

    Walter Runciman managed to save the ship’s chronometer (an essential tool for navigation in those days). He returned to the Stavers and it remains in the possession of the author.

 

    John seems only to have commanded sailing vessels, even though steam-powered ships were becoming common during his career. The Durham seems to be the last ship which John commanded and his name largely disappears from the records after that, except as an owner. He owned the Ann Mills, a sailing vessel trading with the eastern Mediterranean which came to grief in 1875 in gales in the Bay of Biscay while taking a cargo of grain from Acre to Plymouth; and also the Norham, a steamship trading with South America, which he seems to have disposed of only around 1880.

 

    John lived all his long life at Cowpen near Blyth. He married Elizabeth Hogg but does not appear to have had any children. There is a tale in the family of George Stavers that John’s wife Elizabeth was a master mariner in her own right and would wear a brimless top hat (captains when on shore would dress up in smart three-piece suits and hats to match). I have not found any independent record of this. John lived to the age of 80 and his grave and that of his wife is in Horton, the parish of the family farm of North Moor where he was brought up. His life is well summed up in an article in this article in the Shields Daily News of 13 June 1902:

 

Death of an Old Blyth Captain.—The death is announced of Captain John Stavers, at his residence in Marine Terrace, Blyth. The deceased gentleman was the oldest of the old Blyth captains, and was a link between the flourishing days of wood and the era of steam shipping. Captain Stavers was a native of Blyth and was able to trace his ancestry back several generations. He served his apprenticeship on wooden sailors out of the port, and after working his way up to the command, eventually acquired ownership rights in several vessels. The deceased was 80 years of age, and 30 years have elapsed since he retired into private life. Mrs Stavers, who is approaching her 80th year, survives her husband.

 

Ships commanded by John Stavers

Henderson (snow, built Sunderland 1843), 1846-49 (trading mainly with the Baltic).

Ann (snow, port Newcastle, 164 tons, built 1845, trading Blyth-Baltic) 1850-53

Savanna 1854-6 (snow, trading between Shields and Hamburg)

Robert and Sarah 1857-61 (snow, built 1854 in Sunderland, trading between Blyth and the Mediterranean).  There is also a Captain Stavers for this vessel sailing from Blyth to Cronstadt in 1868, so he may have been tempted  out of retirement for this last yoyage.10

Northumberland  (brig built 1862 for trading between Blyth and the Mediterranean) 1863-1866.

Durham (snow, built 1866 for trade between Shields and the Mediteranean) 1866.

 

 

 

 

 

Captain George Stavers (1825-1891)

 

    George Stavers seems to have been the more dynamic and entrepreneurial of the brothers. He made the transition from sail to steam and he is usually the brother mentioned in connection with ships commissioned by Stavers and Co.

 

    George followed his brother to sea at an early age. He is listed as a merchant seaman in 1841, at the age of 20, and passed the examination to become a captain in 1850 when only 25.11 The first ship he commanded was the Darien, a sailing ship trading between Blyth and Rio de Janiero. The South American coast was notoriously unhealthy. In 1853, George wrote to the owner of the Darien from Rio that seven crew had fallen victim to a fever that was raging on that coast, and that he had been ill as well but was now convalescent.12 The Darien on that occasion was picking up a load of sugar to take to the Mediterranean, and that was probably her usual cargo on the return voyage, with coal being the outward cargo.

 

    From 1855-56 and again in 1858-59 he was in command of the Black Prince, with which, in the words of Walter Runciman, he “distinguished himself in many ways during the Russian [Crimean] war of 1854”.13 The ship was chartered to the Government. In 1855, she is recorded as arriving at Malta from Balaklava with 81 Spanish muleteers; and in 1856 she is recorded at Woolwich loading forage wagons and other goods for the troops in Crimea and later, fter the war had ended, arriving at Spithead from Malta and the Black Sea bringing back ordnance and stores.14

 

    In 1857 he was captain of the Jarrow, a steamship which traded between London and various ports in Italy. The Genoese ship artist painted a picture of the Jarrow as she was leaving Genoa in 1857, a painting that is still in the possession of George’s descendants.

The Jarrow, Captain George Stavers, leaving Genoa in 1857

 

    He seems subsequently to have commanded a variety of vessels, including the Scotia taking coal to Malta in 186015; and two Greek-owned ships, between 1859 and 1861, the Marco Bozzaris and the Palikari, trading between London and the eastern Mediterranean. In early 1862, he was recorded as captain of the Rangoon, a vessel built specifically to transport portions of the Rangoon to Singapore telegraph cable.16  In 1862, he took command of the Cairo, a brand new fast Italian-owned vessel to take mails from the Italian coast to Alexandria. This was a period when there was an increasing demand for passenger travel, and instead of passengers being incidental to cargo, they began to have ships specifically designed to cater for their needs. The port of Alexandria was particularly important as  before the Suez Canal was built the quickest way for passengers to get to India and beyond  was to go from Europe to Alexandria by boat, and then to travel by rail to Suez (via Cairo) and take another boat to India. The Cairo was accordingly designed to attract passengers.  A press report described her accommodation:

 

She is fitted up for passengers in the most magnificent manner, the first cabin being a large lofty saloon 65 feet long, adorned with mirrors and paintings, and surrounded by 54 sleeping berths, which are also very finely finished. The descent to the saloon is by an unusually broad and easy staircase. The second cabin is a reproduction of the first, upon a somewhat smaller scale; but having more sleeping berths. Every attention has been paid to the comfort of the passengers, but the cabin is devoid of ornament. The accommodation provided is of the most complete description, comprising everything that can possibly be required. The captain (Mr Stavers) has a raised house on deck, from which he easily command a view of what goes on, and the quarters of tile crew are, as usual, placed in the forecastle. Everything has been done to make time vessel complete in every respect, and she is undoubtedly is very dangerous rival to the vessels of the Pensinsular and Oriental Company, which will run over nearly the same route.17

 

    George seems to have made a bit of a speciality of taking on new passenger vessels, as in 1864 he is reported as being the commander of a just launched new steamer called the Thames, taking passengers to Quebec and Montreal.18 He does not seem however, that he did more than take these vessels on their maiden voyages, as he is not shown as their captain on any available Lloyds List. There are several mentions of ships with a captain named Stavers in the 1860s, but none can be definitively linked to George.19 It seems that he probably stopped going to sea in the mid-1860s, perhaps because he was now rich enough to concentrate on commissioning new ships for Stavers & Co; and perhaps because in 1866, at the age of 41, he married a young wife, the 20-year old Sophia Jane Curson Mackey.20 They lived in Morpeth, and increasingly during the 1870s he is mentioned in the local press in connection with civic activities in Morpeth, apparently having become a pillar of Morpeth Society. He also joined the local Freemasons’ lodge.

 

    Two years after his marriage, he took delivery of a new sailing ship, which he named the Sophia Jane after his wife and which she launched.21 The vessel had a number of different captains over the years. She travelled regularly between Tyneside and ports in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea during her first four years, probably carrying out coal and returning with other cargoes – wheat, maize and linseed are mentioned in the records. She then switched to roaming more widely, making a couple of trips to the West Indies as well as regular journeys to the Baltic and to Lison and Madeira. In 1870 she sailed to Bahia in Brazil, returning with a cargo of tobacco destined for Hamburg. In the English Channel, however, she caught fire and was destroyed (all her crew were rescued). There was an official Inquiry into the cause, which was that the tobacco had spontaneously combusted – making this the second Stavers vessel to be lost through spontaneous combustion of her cargo.

 

    The longest lasting and probably most successful vessel belonging to the Stavers was the Stavers, a large and handsome sailing ship of which the family have a painting. She was commissioned by George Stavers for the China trade, and was launched in 1869, tasking her first cargo of coal to China shortly after, returning with rice. She remained in the ownership of George Stavers until 1880, when she was sold and renamed. She regularly made long distance journeys, mainly to the Far East, but also to India, South America and Australia (in 1878 she put in to St Helena when she sprang a leak while carrying guano from the Lacapedes Islands off Australia).

 

    George Stavers had an interest in the construction and operation of vessels and seems to have qualified as a marine surveyor, as he so described himself at the baptism of his son John in 1882 and appeared in that capacity in a court case in 1880.22 He also developed a sideline as an inventor, patenting a fish fin rudder for steering vessels whose main rudder was disabled, for which he won  medals at marine exhibitions, although it is not clear whether he had any commercial success with it.23

 

Ships commanded by George Stavers

 

Darien (snow built 1845 – trade between Blyth and Rio): 1850-1854

Excelsior (barque, 415 tons, built 1854, for Geelong, Australia): 1854

Black Prince (screw, built Liverpool 1854, port London) 1855-57 and 1858-59

Jarrow (iron screw steamer, built Newcastle 1853): 1857

Marco Bozzaris, (iron screw steamer, built 1858): 1859-60.

Palikari (iron screw built 1860): 1861.

Rangoon (screw steamer built 1860): 1862

Cairo (screw steamer, built at Jarrow 1862): 1862-67

 

 

Ships belonging to the Stavers brothers. It is noteworthy that although George commanded several steamships, all the ships they owned were sailing vessels.

 

Northumberland, brig, 287 tons, built 1862. J Stavers.

Durham, barque built 1866, 366 tons. Destroyed by fire 1868. Stavers & Co.

Norham barque 310 tons, built 1864. Disposed of c.1880. J Stavers.

Sophia Jane, brig, built 1868. Destroyed by fire 1875. G Stavers.

Stavers, built 1869, barque. Sold 1879 and renamed Dussan.  G. Stavers

Ann Mills, barque, built 1872. J.Stavers. She sank in the Bay of Biscay 1875, but there is some indication that John Stavers had sold her by then.

Kenton, iron barque 668 tons, built 1877; sold c.1880. G. Stavers.

 

 

 

    According to tales told by his descendants, George (like his uncle Japan Jack) was immensely strong and could write with a weight attached to his wrist.  Both George and John sold their remaining ships in about 1880 and George and his family moved from Morpeth to Enfield, and from that time on they were London-based. According to family stories George met his wife in London and seems to have stayed here quite often, as many of his ships, while based on  Tyneside, spent time in London (at the time of the 1861 census was lodging in Stepney), so it was a familiar place. He died there aged 66, leaving a mere £59, but when his wife died in 1900, her estate was worth £17,000, so he had presumably transferred his assets from his shipowning business to her.

 

    George Stavers and his wife Sophia Jane had seven children, three girls and four sons. It seems that by the time of the move to London George regarded himself more as a gentleman and ship-owner than a master mariner (the probate record after his death describes him as “gentleman”) and saw the future for his children as being in a higher social sphere than the merchant marine. The exception was the eldest son, George Stavers  (1876-1891). As a boy he had inherited his father’s strength and was known as a champion wrestler who used to beat all the pit boys from the mines near Morpeth.24 When still a teenager he contracted a throat infection and was sent to sea for his health, as a 16-year-old apprentice on the Maiden City.  He perished on his first voyage when he was swept overboard near Capetown by a giant wave.   The other sons and daughters all became assimilated with or married into the London professional classes.

 

 

NOTES

(1) https://whalinghistory.org

(2) The Age (Melbourne), 4.6.1855.

(3) List of apprentices

(4) National Archives  BT 112/67 and Mercantile Navy List 1850.

(5) The records refer sometimes to Stavers & Co and sometimes to John or George Stavers as the owner; it seems likely, however, that most of their ships were owned by the company, even though one or other brother had the main interest..

(6) Letter of 8.9.1943 from George’s son  John Stavers to his sister Barbara Lambert

(7) Walter Runciman Before the Mast and After, 1924, p. 138. The book gives a good description of the journey and life aboard. The Northumberland under Heslop appears to have been a happy ship, and 50 years later the Runciman company launched a steamer of 7,500 tons with the same name from the same spot (the Northumberland was 550 tons).

(8) Domenico Gavarrone (1821-1874). There is a museum outside Genoa dedicated to his work.

(9) Runciman 1924, op.cit.

(10) Newcastle Journal 28.5.68.

(11) National Archives  BT 112/67  Mercantile Navy List 1850.

(12) Shipping and Mercantile Gazette 16.6.1853

(13) Walter Runciman: Collier Brigs and their Sailors, 1926. Runciman refers to John Stavers, but it is clear that this is a mistake for George. There are certificates in the possession of George’s descendants recording that the Black Prince, master George Stavers, was “in Her Majesty’s service employed upon, and complete, according to Charter, in men and stores”

(14) The Times 15.2.1856

(15) Ibid 27.11.1860

(16) Survey reports, Lloyds Heritage Foundation; www.searlecanada.org. George’s son John, in a letter of 8.9.1943 to his sister Barbara Lambert, claims that he was also involved in laying cables to Greece and Turkey. (17) Newcastle Courant, 3.10.1862.

(18) Cambridge Independent Press, 11.6.1864.

(19) Possible ships include the Mary Ann (1854-55); Albatross (1859); Rival (1861-2); and May Queen (1864).

(20) She was the daughter of a Devon farmer, but her mother had links with Morpeth and Northumberland. Sophia Jane ran away to London as a teenager to escape the strict discipline of her stern Methodist father and found work in a milliner’s shop. An unlikely match, they may have been introduced through her Northumbrian connections.

(21) Morpeth Herald, 21.11.1868

(22)The Times 22.9.1880. He is also described in the Times of 23.7.1886 as “surveyor to the Registre Maritime)

(23) No. 1488, London Gazette of  12.5.1776. Ses also Newcastle Courant 8.9.1872. His family have three large and enormously ornate certificates for the medals he won.

(24) Family story.

 

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