The tragic ‘Arran’ stowaways – cruelly abused, then abandoned barefoot on the ice fields of Newfoundland in 1868

The tragic ‘Arran’ stowaways – cruelly abused, then abandoned barefoot on the ice fields of Newfoundland in 1868


In July 1868 disturbing news reached the people of Greenock, Scotland, concerning the fate of a number of local boys who had stowed away in the ship ‘Arran’ bound for Quebec, 3 months before.



A letter from Quebec to a Greenock resident described how, on discovering the boys in the ship’s hold, the captain and first mate subjected them to the most brutal treatment during the voyage, then put them ashore on the ice fields of Newfoundland and left them to their fate.  It was not clear from the letter whether the boys had all perished, or whether some had escaped with their lives, leaving their parents in a state of deep anxiety and the rest of the Greenock community appalled.

The ‘Arran’ was a wooden trading vessel commanded by a Captain Robert Watt.  When it left Greenock on 7 April 1868, it was carrying a cargo of coal and oakum for Quebec.  Two stowaways had already been discovered and removed from the ship during a routine search while it was still in the Firth, but when it was out at sea and beyond recall, a further 7 stowaways emerged from various hiding places.

They were:

– John Paul, aged 11, of Dalrymple Street, Greenock;

– Hugh McEwan, aged 11, who lived with his widowed mother in High Street, Glasgow, but was native to Greenock;

– Hugh McGinnes, aged 12, who lived with his widowed mother in Nicolson Street, Greenock;

– Peter Currie, aged 12, of York Street, Glebe, Greenock;

– James Bryson, aged 16, of Rueend Street, Greenock;

– David Brand, aged 16, of Kirk Street, Glebe, Greenock;

– Bernard (Barney) Reilly, aged 22, who had been in lodgings in Greenock.

The two youngest boys, John Paul and Hugh McEwan, were friends.  They were the first to show themselves to the carpenter, who handed them over to the mate, who, in turn, led them to the captain.

Captain Watt, from the island of Arran, was 28 years old and had the reputation of dealing kindly with those under his command.  However, he was evidently much annoyed at the appearance of the stowaways.  He grabbed little Paul by the collar of his jacket and shook him roughly, demanding: “What are you doing here?

Please sir, we want to be sailors,” cried Paul.

The captain laughed contemptuously at the two children shivering before him.  McEwan was fairly well attired, but Paul was poorly clad and bare-footed.  Both were very hungry.

“What food have you had since you came on board?” asked the captain.

“Please, sir, we had four barm biscuits between us.”

“Well, you needn’t expect much from me,” said the captain; but he added, “take them along to the cook, and let them get something to eat.”

The cook, who seems to have been a good-hearted man, gave the boys a warm meal of tea and hash.  As it was now well into the evening, they were were allowed to sleep in a sail locker.

Meanwhile McGinnes (who, like Paul, was barefooted), Currie, Bryson, Brand and Reilly had also come forward and been similarly dealt with.  It was only on the following day that all the boys first came together.  Most of them were sea-sick, but all were set to work washing down decks and performing other menial tasks usually allotted to boys on board ship.

Captain Watt initially authorised the boys an ample supply of rations, and it appears his intention at the outset was to treat them reasonably well.  Unfortunately for the boys, the captain was easily influenced by his first mate, James Kerr.  Kerr was 31 years old and from Lochranza, in the island of Arran.  He was described as a rough-looking man, with a coarse, unfeeling, and dominating nature.  Kerr and Watt were brothers-in-law.

During the first 3 or 4 days of the voyage the weather was fine, but then a succsession of gales struck.  This, of course, worsened the stowaways’ nausea and the mate saw one of them vomiting some pieces of meat.  Despite the captain’s instructions, the mate ordered the steward to stop all beef supplies to the stowaways, declaring that he was “going to give them the ground of their stomachs before they get any more.”

This was the first act of a long course of persistent cruelty.  The mate vented an unwarranted spite against the stowaways, with one exception – the lad Currie, whose father was said to be a friend of the mate.  When passing the boys he kicked them without the slightest provocation, and when he found them at fault, their punishment was brutally excessive.

In a letter, dated 10 June 1868, written from Quebec to his family in Greenock, one of the crew stated:

“The boys were thinly clad, and were not able to stand the severe cold. The men could hardly stand it, let alone them.  Two of the little ones had their bare feet, and, as we were going so far to the northward amongst hail, frost, snow, and raining continually, none of them would keep on deck to work.  As soon as the mate missed them he went with a rope’s end in hand and ordered them out, and, as they came out, gave them a walloping, and pretty often very severely.  The captain never interfered with the mate and them till, one good day, the hatches were all opened and the crew, on going to shift some oakum and coils of rope where the stowaways slept, found them all besmeared with filth.  Then he did give them a thrashing, and made all hands clean it up.”

Having stopped their beef supply, the mate then stopped all other food with the exception of biscuits, and these were doled out to the boys in starvation quantities.  Some days they got one biscuit each, other days only half a biscuit, and sometimes even one biscuit among four boys.  But they had a friend in the cook, William Saltoun, who secretly supplied them with scraps of food.

The 16 year-old James Bryson bore the brunt of the mate’s beatings.  The ‘filth’ in the hold was caused chiefly, if not entirely, by him.  Although he pleaded that he had a bowel complaint, he suffered severely for the offence.  Kerr, the mate, ordered him to take off all his clothes, except his vest and trousers, and then flogged him heavily with the ‘lead line’ — a rope half-inch thick — for about 3 minutes.  The poor boy screamed in pain.  The captain then ordered him to remove his vest and trousers, leaving him stark naked.  It was freezing at this time, yet the lad was compelled to lie down on the deck, while a seaman named Robert Hunter was ordered to draw buckets of sea water and dash them over the shivering body.  The captain took a coarse brush used for washing down the decks and scrubbed all over the wretched boy’s body, as bucketfuls of sea water were dashed on him from time to time.  After the captain had finished, the mate took the brush and scrubbed the lad all over again, even harder.  The mate then ordered the victim’s fellow stowaway, 16 year-old David Brand, to scrub him a third time while the mate held him down.  Throughout this torture, Bryson had been turned over and scrubbed from neck to foot, both back and front, until his blood flowed.  But rather than allow the miserable lad to crawl away in agony to some corner and be clothed, the captain and mate were still not satisfied.  Bryson was ordered to wash his clothes, and then stand, still completely naked, on the forecastle head for an hour.  He was handed his vest, then 15 minutes later was allowed to put on his jacket; but he had to remain in his exposed position until nightfall.

Day after day, there was no let up of the boys’ misery.  The kicks and puches (the usual greeting of the mate) became more and more distressing as the cold and hunger intensified.  When the weather calmed, the stowaways and several of the crew were sent down to tidy up the hold.  It was discovered that one of the barrels of meal, which formed part of the cargo, had been broken open and a quantity of the contents taken.  The captain was furious, and demanded to know who had stolen the meal.  The frightened boys blamed the sailors, and the sailors accused the boys.  The stowaways paid the penalty and were put in irons for 24 hours without food; they were handcuffed to each other, so that only the end boys had one free hand each.

As the ship began to approach land in early May 1868, the encountered desolate fields of ice.  They drifted into St. George’s Bay, on the coast of Newfoundland, on 9 May.  The crew moored the ship fast on the ice, and the captain and mate briefly went off board.  This gave the starving boys an opportunity to forage for food.  Brand entered the captain and mate’s cabin and collected all the bits of biscuits he could lay his hands on, which amounted to a pocketful.  When he came out, he reported his success to Bryson, who immediately slipped into the cabin to see what he could get to satisfy his hunger.  All he could find was a keg of currants, and he helped himself to a pocketful.

The captain and the mate returned just as Bryson was leaving the forbidden precincts, and the mate spotted him.  They had not seen Brand’s earlier exit from their quarters, but they suspected him also, and ordered John McLean, the steward, to search his pockets.  This was done, but Brand had managed to dispose of the incriminating biscuits – he had probably eaten them.  It was different with poor Bryson; he had been caught red-handed.

The captain ordered that the stolen currants be distributed among the other boys, and Bryson was ordered to strip.  Naked, he was thrown down on the deck with his face pressing against the frozen planking.  The mate held up the victim’s feet, while the captain flogged the lad heavily with a rope’s end, inflicting from fifteen to twenty lashes.  One of the sailors, George Henry, who was well accustomed to the harsh discipline of life at sea, later stated that “when the captain flogged Bryson for stealing the currants, he did not give him too much –  just enough; but the mate followed, and he was too severe.”

After being flogged, Bryson, still stark naked in the bitter cold, was ordered to swab the decks for about 10 minutes.  The mate then handed him his vest and trousers, and ordered him to sit on the forecastle head for another quarter of an hour.

A couple of days later, with the ship was still moored on the ice, the cook threw some potato peelings over the side.  The captain and the mate were absent, and in an instant the famished boys were over the rails and scavenging the refuse like seagulls.  A couple of days after that, it was discovered that a quantity of flour was taken from a barrel by the stowaways.  As punishment, none of them received any food for 24 hours.

The following day the captain ordered the stowaways to go ashore onto the ice, possibly to frighten them.  After they were on the ice for a while, the captain ordered them up again.  It was about this time that the oldest stowaway, 22 year-old Barney Reilly, suggested to the persecuted Bryson the idea of leaving the ship.  Such was the expanse of ice, the distance between the vessel and dry land was anywhere up to 20 miles.  Barney Reilly was prepared to take the chance.  He was starving.  Although he was an adult, he received no more food than the other stowaways.  He also dreamed of making his way to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to work on the railway there.  Bryson, too, desperate with hunger and ill-treatment, thought it better to die attempting to cross the ice than die on the ship.

The land was barely visible; it was impossible with the naked eye to decide whether the grey outline on the distant horizon was land or cloud.  When Captain Watt got wind of Reilly’s plan to leave the ship, he took the lad forward and offered him use of his telescope to get a better view of the distant shore.  The fearful Reilly timidly declined the use of the telescope.  The captain assured him that there were houses and people dwelling in them not so far away.

When Reilly told Bryson of the captain’s assurances, he declared that if there were houses and people there he would leave the vessel along with Reilly and make his way across the ice to them.  The other boys shrank at the thought of such a dreadful ordeal.

While the stowaways were deliberating the matter, the captain (no doubt advised by the mate) decided to make up their minds for them.  He told the boys they would have to get off, as he had not sufficient provisions to take them all to Quebec.  He directed them to the ship ‘Myrtle’ which, he said, lay moored on the ice a mile or two away, and where they would be able to get more food.  The boys doubted what the captain was telling them, as no ship was visible, but they dared not say so.  When he bluntly told them that they would get no more meat on board his ship until they reached Quebec, the utter helplessness of their situation was driven home to them.  The mate was conspicous by his absence throughout this exchange.

The effect of Captain Watt’s ultimatum on the younger stowaways was terrifying.  While Barney Reilly and James Bryson were willing to risk their lives to improve their situation, the little ones, McGinnes, McEwan, and Paul, were almost hysterical with fright, and even Brand was moved to tears.  Only Currie was not asked to leave the ship.  Poor wee Paul (or ‘Pauley’, as he was called by his friends) ran into the forecastle and hid in a seaman’s chest.

The captain turned to Brand and asked: “Are you going ashore?”

“I’ll not go until I’m put,” replied Brand.

“I’ll put you,” returned the captain.  He caught Brand by the shoulder and ran him forward to the rail.

“Where is Paul?” he then demanded of Currie.

“He is in the forecastle, sir.”

While in the chest, Paul later recalled:

“I was terrified with fear, and earnestly prayed to Him that rules over all to save me from being cast adrift to die.  From time to time I peeped out.  Once I heard footsteps, and thought it was one of the sailors.  I lifted the lid, and was going to ask him for mercy’s sake to conceal me, as I was afraid of death on the ice. When I looked out I found it was the boy Currie, who was crying sore.”

Captain Watt entered the forecastle and dragged Paul out.  Crying bitterly, the boy ran to the mate and implored him to let him remain on board; but the mate said he had nothing to do with putting him on the ice.  McEwan, too, who had began spitting up blood during the passage out, tearfully appealed to the captain not to send him away.  “You may as well die on the ice as on the ship,” was the brutal reply.

The ship’s crew of 24 witnessed all of this, and all thought it was too dangerous to put the boys off, yet not one of them stepped in to prevent it.  They said it was not for them to interfere in the captain’s business.  The were later held in utter contempt by their fellow seamen (one old salt declaring: “They should have been hung!”)   Their only intervention on behalf of the condemned stowaways was to ask the mate whether he could not give them anything to eat.  They were given some coffee, a small piece of bread and a biscuit each.

Barney Reilly was the first to get over the bulwark and down on to the ice; Bryson and the other boys followed, Brand, McEwan, McGinnes and Paul “crying most dreadfully.”   Paul was the last to go, and, terrified to leave even the misery of life on that ship, the poor little fellow clung desperately to the rail until the captain struck him on the shoulder with a belaying pin, which loosened his grip and he fell on the ice.

All six boys were now on the ice, with a fearful journey ahead of them.  Bryson had a topcoat, a vest, a pair of canvas trousers, a cravat and shoes.  Reilly, Brand, and McEwan were relatively well clothed; but, while Paul had a coat, he was barefooted.  Poor little McGinnes was not only barefooted but literally in rags, his skin showing through the rips in his clothes.

And so the poor stowaways departed.  Except for the ship, there was nothing but ice all around them.  It was shortly after 8 o’clock in the morning when the boys set out, and they went in the direction of where the captain had told them the ship ‘Myrtle’ lay.  After travelling around 200 yards, they still could not see the ‘Myrtle’ or anything to suggest the presence of a ship.  Realising that they were getting further and further from the nearest point of land, they, altered their course and made direct for the shore.

For an hour or two they plodded on in single file over the rough, jagged ice.  It was hard going, and particularly painful for the two boys with bare feet.  Then, they came upon gaps in the ice.  They had to leap from one ice-block to another, or, if the distance was too great, use a piece of floating ice as a raft and paddle across.  All of the boys at one time or another fell into the water, and scrambled out again as best they could.

Meanwhile, back on board the ‘Arran’, there was great unease.  The captain not only placed a look-out to try to track the boys, but personally went to the mast-head to see for himself.  He suggested to the mate that it might be well to send some of the men after the boys to bring them back.  The mate replied, “Oh, they’ll be back here by dinner-time.”  No boys appeared, however, and, when the ice about the ship began to break up the following day, the ‘Arran’ continued on her voyage to Quebec.

As the captain fretted, the boys were fighting for their lives.  They were sometimes up to their  necks in freezing cold water and the strain was telling on the younger ones.  McEwan, lagging behind the others, fell into the water, but, fortunately Bryson was able to assist him in getting out; on another occasion he managed to get out himself.  But he was weakening.  About midday he stumbled in a third time and never came up.

Bryson later recalled, “The ice closed over him. I saw this.  It was hopeless to save him.  He was about three yards behind me.  I looked for a few seconds to see whether he would come up, and then went on without looking back, as the others were a good way ahead of me.”

McEwan’s widowed mother in Glasgow had sent him on an errand; he had run away to sea, and this was how it had ended.  Bryson’s grim recollection indicated his own state of mind at that moment; it was focussed on survival.  He hurried after his companions and told them that McEwan had drowned; but there was no time for grief.

They had been going for 4 hours and the land was still far distant.  Painfully the boys struggled on.  About 3 o’clock in the afternoon, McGinnes, whose bare feet were badly swollen, complained of fatigue.  Eventually, he staggered and fell on the ice, sobbing, “Mother, mother, oh, mother!”

“Whit’s the maitter?” asked his companions, as they raised him to a sitting posture.

“I canna go any faurer,” the poor child sobbed.

“Come on, try; ye’ll freeze and dee if ye stay there.”

“I canna, I canna.”

“Come on, if ye get up an’ walk it’ll make ye warm.  We canna wait on ye.”

“Oh, don’t leave me!” cried the worn-out wee soul; “don’t leave me here.”

But, there was nothing else to be done.  All the boys were exhausted, and to carry McGinnes was out of the question.  They had to leave the lad.

“His cries were the last we heard of him,” said a survivor.

Poor Hugh McGinnes: 12 years old, barefooted, in rags, and frozen; thousands of miles from home and the mother he vainly called for; utterly alone, in a desert of ice; a tiny speck in a great white desolation.  Nobody saw him again.

As the survivors approached land, the journey became more and more and dangerous due to broken ice.  The only way they could get along the breaks was by paddling across.  Eventually, about seven o’clock in the evening, they reached the edge of the ice field, only to find that a mile of water lay between them and safety.

They could see houses on a hillside; but how could they reach them?  Reilly offered to swim across, but Brand knew his friend could not survive that distance in the icy water and dissuaded him.  Instead, Brand himself volunteered to paddle himself ashore on a block of ice.  Reilly joined him in his attempt on another piece of ice.

In the meantime the remaining boys, Bryson and Paul, shouted as hard as they could in the hope of attracting attention; but without success.  In their weakened condition their cries were unlikely to be heard a mile away.  However, when Brand had got about halfway to the shore the figure of a woman appeared on the hillside.  Thankfully, she saw the lads and ran immediately for help.  Shortly afterwards, 5 men manned a boat and set out in the direction of the exhausted, but intensely relieved boys.  They reached Brand first, then Reilly, and then headed towards the edge of the ice where Bryson and Paul awaited their rescue.

By the time the gallant Newfoundland fishermen brought them all in, it was 8 o’clock in the evening.  Their clothes were frozen on them “as hard as boards, each of them having fallen off the ice into the water several times.”  Poor wee Pauley, who had been barefooted from the hour he left the Greenock quay, was in a state of collapse.  Brand had given him a spare pair of socks, which, being too large, Pauley had been forced to cast aside.  His feet were bleeding and so severely swollen that he could not walk another step.  One of his rescuers picked him up and carried him in his arms to the warmth and nourishment that awaited them in a house belonging to a farmer/fisherman called Mclnnes.  The survivors were all frost-bitten to varying degrees and were snow-blind for almost a week.  A search party was sent out to try to find McGinnes and McEwan, but no trace of either boy was ever discovered.

News of the stowaways’ brutal treatment at the hands of the captain and mate of the ‘Arran’ swept like wildfire around the Canadian fishing communities, and when the ship finally reached Quebec, the crew learned of the fate of the stowaways from the crew of the ‘Myrtle’.  They realised that, at the end of the return leg of their voyage back to Scotland, they would have to face the wrath of the townsfolk of Greenock.

Sure enough, a hostile crowd awaited them at the Albert Harbour on the evening of 30 July.  The crowd’s recognition of Captain Watt and the mate, James Kerr, brought an outburst of boos, yells and hisses.  As soon as the vessel was moored, several men jumped on board with the intention of attacking the captain and the mate, but the pair had sought refuge by locking themselves in their cabin.  The harbourmaster, sought police assistance and a posse of constables arrived to disperse the crowd and guard the two men.

The following day, Watt and Kerr were taken from the ship and escorted, under police guard,  to the Court House in Bank Street for questioning by the Sheriff.  All along the route the cab was followed by a large mob, hooting, yelling, and pelting the vehicle with stones.  After a preliminary examination, Watt and Kerr were committed to prison pending trial.

Back in Canada, the boys recovered under the kindly care of their new friends in St. George’s Bay.  As soon as he was able, Barney Reilly left for his long-planned destination, Halifax, N.S., where he gained employment on the railways and settled down.  Brand, Bryson, and Paul found temporary employment fishing and farming in Sandy Point.  Four months later they were given free passage home on the brigantine ‘Hannah and Bennie,’ owned by Provost James Johnston Grieve, MP for Greenock, who gave the captain strict instructions that they were to be treated royally.  The three boys arrived back in Greenock on 1 October to the welcome of a considerable crowd of well-wishers.

They appeared as principal witnesses at the trial of Watt and Kerr in Edinburgh on 23 November 1868; wee Paulie having to stand on a stool in the witness-box so that he could be seen.  The court also heard evidence from various members of the ship’s company: Robert Hunter, Alexander McDonald, George Henry, John Hendry, Angus Clark, and James Harley, seamen, and William Saltoun, cook, for the prosecution; and John McLean, steward, and Lawrence Thomson, boatswain, for the defence.

The counsel for the defence tried to prove that there was insufficient food on board the ‘Arran’ for all hands, including the stowaways, until the vessel reached Quebec; but one of the ship’s owners, stated that the ship was well-provisioned for 4 months; William Saltoun, the cook, also testified that there was ample food for all.

Captain Watt, while denying that he had been unnecessarily severe in his treatment of the boys, said: “I cannot say I forced the boys to leave the ship; but, of course, I told them to go.”

On why the sailors on board did not interfere to save the boys from the cruelty of the officers, the court heard seaman George Henry’s answers to the following questions:

“When you heard the boys crying, and knowing the journey to be dangerous, did you not think of interfering?”

“I had no right to interfere with my master and mate.”

“If the captain had been going to murder one of the boys, would you not have interfered then?”

“Oh, but this was not murder.”

“But it was very dangerous?”

“Yes; but there was a chance for them. Some of them got over it.”

“Did you expect any of them to come back to the ship?”

“I had no hope of them coming back.”

“Did you think they would have been drowned?”

“It was very uncertain to think anything.”

Robert Watt was found guilty of culpable homicide, with a recommendation for leniency on account of his previous good character.  James Kerr had already pleaded guilty to assault.  Watt was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, while Kerr received 4 months.  The sentences were received with groans and hisses by the indignant audience.

After serving their sentences, both Watt and Kerr returned to sea again as captain and mate respectively – in different vessels.  Watt is said to have died at Pensacola, a year or two after his release; Kerr sailed for many years as a captain himself, before retiring ashore.

As for the surviving stowaways: Barney Reilly, as we know, went to Halifax, N.S.; James Bryson emigrated to the United States, where he worked as a street car conductor; Peter Currie (the ‘well-treated’ stowaway) died of consumption about 2 years after he returned home to Greenock; and John Paul became a foreman riveter and moved to Southampton, England.  David Brand emigrated to North Queensland, Australia, where he founded the flourishing engineering firm of Brand, Dryborough & Burns.  When he died in 1897, the North Queensland Herald said of him: “North Queensland can ill afford to lose men of D. J. Brand’s type – men who seem to be specially fitted for the work of developing a newly-settled country.  Energetic, foresighted, and shrewd in business and public affairs, Mr. Brand was true as steel, large-hearted, and affable in private life.”

The 'Arran'
The ‘Arran’

Source: Abridged from The Stowaways and Other Sketches: True Tales of the Sea by John Donald, published in 1928.



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