Family History

In the family — Shipwrecks and Cholera

I have been on the track of John Nicholl who was born in Kirkcaldy on the east coast of Scotland, in 1829, he was my great-great-grandfather. He started life as an apprentice rope-maker (my great granny, who I remember well, had told me he had been a sail maker — not a growth industry at that time — the first commercial steam ships coming into service as the ink on his indenture dried!).

When he was old enough he went to sea, initially on coastal vessels but by 1863 he had become a ship’s master and was sailing to the East Indies (China and Islands of the South China Sea), the US, Canada and South Africa –what a time to be travelling the world but not without its risks!

When I was a child I was told that he commanded a tea-clipper, a sister ship of the Cutty Sark and this may well have been the truth. He certainly commanded the Roslin Castle for 3 years, then the Wemyss Castle, a 700 ton, 183 foot vessel with a wooden hull on an iron frame with two masts. The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, until that time the valuable trade in tea from China was conducted with fierce competition taking the perilous route around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope through the dangerous waters of the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Navigating by the stars!



“Cutty Sark”
 by ballasttrust is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 



In 1875 he took command of the Aberlady and sailed to South Africa but on 11th November 1877 it was in the Java Sea (South East of Singapore) that disaster struck — the ship was lost in the Gaspar Straits after it struck the Alcest Reef which was named after another famous sailing ship that foundered there in 1816 while taking a diplomatic mission to China (the story of their shipwreck, the marooning of the crew, battles with pirates and eventual rescue is told in Voyage of His Majesty’s ship Alceste by John Mcleod MD, surgeon of the Alceste). The captain of the Alceste was court-martialled but exonerated and later knighted.

My great- great- grandfather was not so fortunate though he survived with at least part of his crew and somehow they got to Singapore where the shipwreck was reported. The loss of a valuable ship, cargo and possibly members of the crew was taken very seriously and he could not have been entirely exonerated by the enquiry which suspended his master’s certificate for 6 months from 11th February 1878 — from the records it seems that for several years he did not work as a master again though until his death in 1885 he continued to serve as a mate on ships bound for the Baltic, British North America, Greenland and Iceland, Spain, Portugal and the Azores and to the West Indies — less romantic destinations on ships which seem to have been larger, iron clad steam ships.

He died at sea in 1885 from cholera aboard a 176 ft steam dredger, the Espana, manufactured in Glasgow and bought by the Valencia Harbour Board. John Nichol was, in fact, registered as it’s master, whether he was delivering the vessel or working it for the Harbour Board is not clear. He was 57.

During all his voyages he was married to Catherine (nee Condie) who stayed in Kirkcaldy bringing up their ten children. The eldest girl Catherine died at the age of 17, possibly from tuberculosis.

Catherine Nicoll 1854-1871

Two of the sons lived into their eighties having obtained good educations (probably thanks to the tea boom) and moved to London. They went into partnership with each other as stock brokers — a safer way to make a living.

Mitchell Nicoll and George Macauley Nicoll

At least two other sons of John Nicoll went to sea. Wemyss Erskine Anderson Nicholl (what a name! I want to find out more about him.) He was drowned at the age of 47 when his ship, the Queen, was torpedoed by a German submarine in WW1, he is buried on Tower Hill in the City of London. Another brother, John Mitchell Nicoll is lost from the record after the age of 24 in 1882 when he had qualified as a first mate. Did he also die at sea or in some foreign port or maybe he left his ship in Canada or Australia or South America to start a new life in the New World — I shall have to start searching farther afield.

Great-great-grandfather’s sea box.
Souvenir from the Orient — John Nicoll’s tobacco jar.
Standard

4 thoughts on “In the family — Shipwrecks and Cholera

  1. Marilyn Fletcher says:

    I have a duplicate of the item you’ve identified as John Nicolls tobacco jar, (without the lid, unfortunately) Yours and the one I acquired are the only identical ones I was able to find anywhere online. Are you certain the jar belonged to your ancestor? That information will help to date it accurately. I really enjoyed your family history, and was astounded to find the photo of the jar. Thanks for the photos and all your information.

    • No documentary evidence but pretty sure it was his and it came from his son’s house — I took it along to the Antiques Road Show and they thought it fitted exactly with the story. They valued it at £200!

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