Families at Sea

The master of a ship had many privileges that made him distinct from ordinary seafarers and even officers. One of these privileges was the ability to bring his family with him to sea (though cooks and stewards also occasionally shared this benefit). Since a ship was essentially a mobile workplace, arrangements that meant a wife and even children were on board could have interesting results. Many studies have been made of American women and children at sea but it was less common for British masters to take their wives with them. So, while US academics have claimed shipmasters' wives had a beneficial effect on the cohesiveness of the seafaring workplace, British maritime historians have fewer opportunities to test this. If British shipowners were not dissuaded outright by the costs of a wife's upkeep, they opined that women at sea presented a potential distraction from the ship's work. Amongst the crew women at sea were considered tokens of bad luck. Owners would not indulge this superstition, however, if it meant foregoing fares from female emigrant passengers.

Women sometimes met hostility when they went to sea. Captain Crutchley remembered one "old sailor full of lore and tradition" who declared that shipwives were "bad cattle to sail with" (1912, 40). Margaret Creighton, in her study of American whaling ships, considered reactions to wives aboard. She suggested that hostility went beyond simple superstition, but rather embodied class and gender issues inherent in ship's labour; having his wife on board gave a profile to the respectability of the master, making him the patriarch in a visible way, and perhaps making it more evident that he alone in the crew was the person who did not have to do work that on shore would be called "women's work" (1995, 163).

So why did some masters bring their wives if they invited hostility? Companionship and a middle-class domestic presence are likely reasons, but there were others. It is clear that wives may have been very useful when visiting foreign ports. Mary Hay recollected "in Newcastle my father was meeting men connected with the ship's business. When they heard he had his wife and children on board, their hospitality was unbounded" (Hay 1981, 9). Having a family opened up more connections than if a master travelled alone.

Ship owners, however, did not always share this opinion. Frank Gullison and his brother Eugene were both very distressed when their boss Nathan Lewis denied their applications to take their wives to sea with them. It is clear from his letters that Lewis's softwood ships, hovering precariously between making and losing money, and the expense and complications of sending a wife from Nova Scotia to board a foreign-going vessel may not have seemed justified if only the master's comfort was served. When Gullison's wife did join him, she had to travel from Yarmouth, NS, to New York and then by steamer to the United Kingdom, where she met her husband in Cardiff.

Evidence of the wives and children of shipmasters in the Crew Agreements is sometimes perplexing. In the case of the Raphael (ON 91858, 1893), the shipmaster, N R Bennet, signed on his wife, children and a young lady under his care as members of the crew. All five received one shilling a month as wages according to the discharge certificates still pinned to the Agreement; all, including Luther Bennett, age 4, received "very good" for both ability and conduct. Indeed, Luther was a veteran of the sea, for according to this Agreement he had made a previous voyage in the Raphael. Children might well be a nuisance aboard the floating workplace. Young children easily got underfoot and had to be watched at all times, not just to keep them from getting in the way, but also to guard them from falling overboard. Like any shore bound children, those at sea needed some form of entertainment but had nowhere to go. Mary Hay and the young apprentices on board the Ladye Doris (ON 114736) made life particularly hard on the steward, who, "with his frosty white hair glinting in the sun" humoured them by responding to the nickname "Snowball", but, he said, "THOSE boys and THAT girl were the bane of his life" (1981, 20).

Taking family on board was the particular privilege of the master. Without the perquisite of a wife allowed on the voyage, their relationship would be a distant one. There were risks for the wives who went to sea: Mrs Cassady (pictured) died in childbirth aboard the Greta on its return voyage from Port Pirrie in 1886 (ON 69335). Moreover the families of masters aboard ships might trigger superstitions, exacerbate tensions of gender and class, and disturb the workplace. Women did, on occasion, sign on with their husbands, and worked on board as stewardesses.