Henry Johnson Revisited: A Good Life

Click here to listen to a part 3 of our three-part interview with a professor about researching Henry Johnson.

Interviewer: Was it a good life? Do you think Johnson made a good life for himself by going to sea?

Professor: Your question raises another, what might a good life actually mean? Does it refer to a good living, in the sense of a job that allowed him to be materially comfortable and perhaps to support a family as well? Or is a good life to be measured by the quality of the experiences it brings?

Int: I suppose both are involved and I think each will be of interest to people who have found an ancestor to be a seafarer and want to know about the kind of life that person led. So tell us something about the monetary and other rewards.

Prof: Family historians and academics are blessed with extensive wage data for seafarers. On foreign-going vessels men and women employed as seafarers signed up at a sum specified by the month. This figure, the monthly rate, is what most scholars use because it provides a standard measure that can be compared by port, by route, and over time.

Int: And what happened to seafarers’ wages over time?

Prof: For men and women signing on at British ports there were three occasions in the second half of the nineteenth century when significant advances were made. These were the early 1870s, between 1889 and 1891, and in 1911. In these years labour shortage gave seafarers muscle. By organizing they won increased pay. Otherwise wage rates remained pretty constant, and that is not quite what one would anticipate. Demand for shipping tonnage fluctuated a great deal and when owners laid up vessels, reducing the overall demand for labour, there was pressure on men to engage for less.

Int:So what does the wage mean in money terms, what sums per month might be involved? Looking at the Juno agreement I see that Johnson and the other ABs signing on at Liverpool were to be paid at £3 per month.

Prof. That’s not a bad guide to a seaman’s wages. By 1911 on a steamship the figure for a deck seamen would have been £3 15s to £4. A fireman would have earned perhaps 10 shillings or even 15 shillings more. But I should stress that I am referring to steam, for the picture in sail had become rather bleak. Sailors’ wages were on the decline from the 1880s. When those rates reached rock bottom in the early twentieth century they were lower than the rates at the end of the eighteenth century.

Int: Johnson never worked in anything other than a sailing vessel. But he belonged to a generation of sailing ship men that left the sea before the sad state you’ve just described was reached.

Prof: That’s so. Moreover he left from an officer’s position. He was earning at least double the wage rate he had been paid when an AB on the Juno. In mid-career he was earning £8 per month, and as Electa’s master between 1879 and 1880, he was no doubt earning more. Crew Agreements say nothing about master’s wages.


Int: Why not?

Prof: The workplace relationship of master and crew would have meant many preferred their men did not have knowledge of what the master, their “boss”, earned. More important, the Agreement was not the formal employment contract for a master. You might find the terms on which a master was engaged elsewhere, in company papers. If such records have survived you might see whether the master had rewards in addition to his wage, perks as it were, or a little cargo space to do some business of his own. The latter was rare by the second half of the nineteenth century, mostly because owners wanted masters to give their undivided attention to the company’s business. They were discouraged from pursuing opportunities of their own. But sometimes masters might be encouraged, and in some cases obliged, to become the owners of a few shares in the ship under their command. The terms of masters’ employment are not easy to find. If personnel records from the company of Jacob and Howard Troop of St. John were available we would undoubtedly know more about Johnson. He was a relatively long-term employee of the company, working for them between 1876 and 1884.

Int: So almost all of his voyages as mate or master were made on their ships?

Prof: That’s true. As St. Patrick’s mate he was a Troop employee, and his one and only command was a Troop vessel, the Electa. This was one of the smaller vessels in the company fleet and it is unlikely that he was ever one of their best remunerated employees. When a new vessel was brought into their fleet in 1883, the 1445 ton Herald, Johnson joined her, but not to be the commander. His wages as the Herald’s mate, were over nine pounds per month, and when he paid off in 1884 he took over £120 from the vessel. A white collar professional on shore might well have thought that a good sum, but if you look at the length of that voyage you’ll see it took him over a year to accumulate. I doubt, moreover, that his year on the Herald was the most congenial part of his working life. The voyage took him into the Pacific Ocean for the first time of which we know. What might have been an adventure for a young person was almost certainly a trial for a man in his 40s. It was over a decade since Johnson last set out for distant waters.

Henry Johnson Wages

Vessel & # of Voyages Capacity Date Weeks in Employment Wages (Amounts in £ s d)
Rate per month Advanced Discharge pay
Blair Athol AB 1866/67 31 18.00+   18.00+
Imperial AB 1867 16 3.10.0 2.0.0 n/k
Eastern Belle AB 1867/69 93 2.15.0 2.15.0 n/k
Venus1 AB 1869/70 12 3.0.0 - n/k
2 Bosun 1870 >1 3.15.0 - n/k
Kewadin AB 1870 12 3.1.0 - 7.9.6^
Juno AB 1870/71 25 3.0.0 - 18.8.0
Crown Jewel Mate 1876 n/k n/k
St. Patrick 1 Mate 1876 4 7.10.0 - 7.17.0
2 Mate 1876 14 7.10.0 - 23.16.7
3 Mate 1876/77 14 8.0.0 - 26.8.5
4 Mate 1877 18 7.10.0 - 28.13.0
5 Mate 1877 18 8.0.0 - 25.9.0
6 Mate 1877 14 8.0.0 - 23.17.0
7 Mate 1877/78 19 8.0.0 - 32.10.0
8 Mate 1878 22 8.0.0 - 22.14.7
Electa1 Master 1879/80 18 n/k*
2 Master 1880 26 nk n/k*  
3 Master 1880 n/k n/k
JV Troop Mate 1881/83 84#   n/k  
Herald Mate 1883/84 62 9.7.6 - 120.2.9
Keswick Mate 1886 6 n/k

n/k = Agreements unavailable or not of the type to include these data
* = No wage and payment details are provided in Agreements for Masters
# = 84 weeks on the JV Troop may represent more than one voyage
+ = Wages may be in Cuban Pesos ^ = Wages docked £2

I think the time at sea that provided Johnson with the most congenial conditions was when as mate of St. Patrick and master of the Electa he concentrated his voyaging in the North Atlantic. Returning home for a couple of weeks every three months, he was now clearing approximately £100 per year and was thus in a position to financially support a wife. We have not conclusively established that he was married then, but there are clearer indications that he had moved from Nova Scotia to St. John in New Brunswick where the Troops were based. He linked his personal fortunes to the company that was to provide his employment until it suffered a set-back in the shipping depression of the mid-1880s.
An obituary sent to us by one of the early users of the “More Than a List of Crew” site provided a date and place of death for Johnson. His end came in Moncton, New Brunswick: there in 1912 he left a rather young widow whom he had married in 1889. The same obituary revealed that since he left the sea the elderly Johnson had been a caretaker at the Masonic hall, and a doorman at the Royal Bank of Canada. There was a mention too of his joint proprietorship of a furniture store, but that had folded.

Int: Doorman and caretaker, those do not seem to be the pastimes of a leisurely retirement. They suggest that a life in shipping had not made Henry Johnson rich.

Prof: It’s true, and by all appearances Johnson had not been one to waste his money. Remember that in 1870 although his monthly wage was the same as all the ABs who engaged for the Juno at Liverpool, he took away the largest sum of any at the voyage’s end. He had maximized his cash income by not drawing money to spend en route and by consuming nothing from master’s stores. He was in good standing with his employers, the Currys, and there were no fines to be taken from his wages. He kept a clean record with the Registrar General as well by not joining the Cardiff men who jumped ship in New Orleans. Those men were gambling on a buoyant market for labour and they were hoping to take advantage of the disparity of wages in the ports of North America. Shipping eastbound would mean wages enhanced by as much as half again as the wage rate that was offered them in Cardiff. Johnson played safe, but this does not always appear to have been his inclination. Like many a seafarer he had made the early years of his life an opening to adventure.

Int: Blair Athol the first vessel you’ve been able to trace him on took him to Cuba. A year later he was on the Imperial, from Greenock in Scotland to Quebec City and back again. The next voyage is to me the most exotic. On the Eastern Belle he saw both Bombay and Calcutta.

Prof: Yes, Johnson’s eyes must have been opened during the 93 weeks he spent aboard that vessel between 1867 and 1869.