Black Ball Line History and Ephemera
The Black Ball Line operated one of the first Sail / Steam powered packet ships that offered regular passenger service between the ports of Liverpool, England and New York beginning in 1818.
The service later expanded to include Boston and Philadelphia twice each month. Their reputation was for fast ships, excellent seamanship and often brutal treatment of low ranking seaman.
By the 1880s, all of the packet ships were removed from regular passenger service, and Black Ball Line faded into history.
Black Ball Line History and Ephemera
Nicholas Fish used this well-preserved 1859 Ticket for Passage on the Black Ball Line Packet Ship Yorkshire. he was a famous American (1846-1902) from a distinguished American family.
The Black Ball Line
The packet ships treated their passengers well, judged, of course, by the standard of the time. The famous Black Ball Line and similar lines of ships must not be confused with the cargo tramps hired by emigration agent swindlers.
The Black Ball liner, James Baines, before leaving Portsmouth with troops for India, for wich service she had been chartered by the Government, was visited by Queen Victoria, who is said to have declared that she had no idea such a spleandid merchant ship was owned in her dominions.
The James Baines was 243 feet long and of 2093 tons register; her owners, Messrs Baines of Liverpool, also owned many other vessels famous in the annals of the sea. Two of these, the Lightning and the Chapmpion of the Seas, were among the smartest clippers ever built. When the James Baines had all her sails set, the whole numbered thirty-six, and she carried three skysails and a moonscraper; the last tiny kite has long become only a tradition in ships.
This was the kind of vessel that only forty years ago occupied the pride of place in our merchant service, now filled by the Cunarder or White Star steamer of 12,000 tons and twenty-knot speed. Many of the famous Black Ballers remained afloat until quite recently, ending their days under a foreign flag or as colliers, but the James Baines was spared this ignoble ending -- she was burned while in dock at Liverpool in 1858. The traditions of the line have been perpetuated in sea song and story, and even now occasionally can be heard a capstan shanty singer rolling out as the anchor is being weighed :-
"In the Black Ball Line I served by time,
Oh rise and shine in the Black Ball Line."
Walter Jeffery, "The Black Ball Line." In A Century of Our Sea Story, London, John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1900, P. 129.
The Story and History of the Black Ball Line
The famous New York–Liverpool packets came out in 1816. The pioneer, Black Ball Line, established by Isaac Wright, Francis and Jeremiah Thompson, Benjamin Marshall, and others, led the van for years. The original ships belonging to this line were the Amity, Courier, Pacific, and James Monroe, of about 400 tons; they were followed by the New York, Eagle, Orbit, Nestor, James Cropper, William Thompson, Albion, Canada, Britannia, and Columbia, vessels of from 300 to 500 tons register.
For the first ten years, the passages of the fleet averaged 23 days outward and 40 days to the westward. The fastest outward voyage was made by the SS Canada in 15 days, 18 hours, and her total averages —19 days outward and 36 days homeward—were the best of that period.
The Typical Packet Ship
These ships were all flush deck, with a caboose or galley and the housed-over long-boat between the fore- and main-masts. The long-boat, which was, of course, securely lashed, carried the livestock, pens for sheep and pigs in the bottom, ducks and geese on a deck laid across the gunwales, and on top of all, hens and chickens.
The cow-house was lashed over the main hatch, and there were also other small hatch-houses and a companion aft leading to the comfortable, well-appointed cabins, which were lighted by deck skylights, candles, and whale-oil lamps.
The steerage passengers lived in the between-decks amidships, and the crew's forecastle was in the fore-peak. The stores, spare sails, gear, etc., were kept in the lazaretto abaft the cabins, with a small hatch leading to the main deck. The hulls were painted black from the water-line up, with bright scraped bends, which were varnished, and the inner side of the bulwarks, rails, hatch-houses, and boats were painted green.
The Captains of the Black Ball Line
It was said that some of the early Black Ball captains had commanded privateers during the War of 1812. At all events, these little ships, with their full-bodied, able hulls, and their stout spars, sails, and rigging, were driven outward and homeward across the Atlantic, through the fogs and ice of summer and the snow, sleet, and gales of winter, for all the speed that was in them.
They were in their day the only regular means of communication between the United States and Europe. Their captains were the finest men whose services money could secure, and to their care were entrusted the lives of eminent men and women, government dispatches, the mails, and species.
Rain or shine, blow high, blow low, one of the Black Ball liners sailed from New York for Liverpool on the first and sixteenth of each month, and for many years these were the European mail days throughout the United States.
After the Black Ball Line passed into the hands of Captain Charles H. Marshall in 1836, the Columbus, Oxford. Cambridge, New York, England, Yorkshire, Fidelia, Isaac Wright, Isaac Webb, the third Manhattan, Montezuma, Alexander Marshall, Great Western, and Harvest Queen were gradually added to the fleet.
The Black Ball ships carried a large painted black ball below the close-reef band in their foretop-sails. All packet ships carried a white light at the bowsprit cap from sunset to sunrise, but side-lights did not come into use until some years later. These ships also carried a flare-up which was kept in the companion ready for immediate use.
Throughout the various changes of management, the Black Ball liners carried a crimson swallowtail flag with a black ball in the center; the It required an unusual combination of qualities to command these Western Ocean packet ships successfully.
Above all things the captains needed to be thorough seamen and navigators; also that they should be men of robust health and excellent physical endurance, as their duties often kept them on deck for days and nights together in a storm, cold, and fog.
Characters Among the Crew and Passengers
Then there were frequently desperate characters among the crew and steerage passengers, who required to be handled with moral courage and physical force, while the cabin passengers were usually gentlemen and gentlewomen of good breeding, accustomed to courtesy and politeness, which they expected to find in the captains with whom they sailed. These requirements evolved a remarkable type of men, hearty, bluff, and jovial, without coarseness, who would never be mistaken for anything but gentlemen.
The packet mates, having no social duties on shipboard to distract their attention, were able to devote their time and energies to improving the morals and manners of the crew, and it was on board the Black Ball liners that " belaying pin soup" and " handspike hash," so stimulating to honest toil, were first introduced for the benefit of mutinous or slothful mariners.
Racing Fast and Furious
The racing was fast and furious. In 1837 a match was made between the Black Ball liner Columbus, 597 tons, Captain De Peyster, and the Sheridan, Captain Russell, of the Dramatic Line, then on her first voyage, for a stake of $10,000 a side, from New York to Liverpool, play or pay.
The Sheridan, though only 895 tons, carried a crew of forty picked men before the mast, with regular pay of $25 a month, and the promise of a bonus of $50 each, provided their ship won the race. The vessels sailed together from New York on Thursday, February 2, 1837, and the Columbus won the race in sixteen days, followed two days later by the Sheridan. This is the first ocean match across the Atlantic of which any record has been preserved, though, of course, there had been many informal races long before.
Captains of Note
CAPTAIN ROBERT H. WATERMAN, the first commander of the Sea Witch, had been known for some years among the shipping community of New York as an exceptionally skillful seaman and navigator, but he first began to attract public attention about 1844 by some remarkably fast voyages in the ship Natchez. Captain Waterman was born in the city of New York, March 4, 1808, and at the age of twelve shipped on board of a vessel bound for China.
After working through the grades of ordinary and able seaman, and third, second, and chief mate on board of various vessels, he sailed for many voyages as mate with Captain Charles H. Marshall in the Black Ball packet ship Britannia between New York and Liverpool.
At that time he was counted one of the smartest mates sailing out of New York and was noted for keeping the Britannia in fine shape, as well as for his ability in maintaining proper order and discipline among the steerage passengers and crew, who were always a source of anxiety and trouble to packet-ship captains.
When his vessel was bound to the westward in 1831, one of the sailors fell overboard from aloft during a heavy gale, and Mr. Waterman saved the man's life at the risk of his own. The cabin passengers of the Britannia presented him with a substantial testimonial in appreciation of his humane and gallant conduct. At this time he was twenty-three years old. Two years later he was promoted to captain, and in this capacity, he made five voyages round the globe.
The leading shipbuilder at Newburyport was John Currier, Jr., who from 1831 to 1843 built the ships Brenda, Republic, Oberlin, St. Clair, Leonore, and Columbus for the Black Ball Line, and in 1836 the Talbot, Fla yin, Navigator, Huntress, Strabo,, and Virginia, ranging from 339 to 365 tons, as well as several barques, brigs, and schooners. The firms of George W. Jackman and Currier & Townsend had not been formed at this date.
The Black Ball Line - 1900
Of all the exciting phases of shipping, the era of the clippers appeals to me the most strongly. Early China and American clippers have already been dealt with in Chapter XV. Still, as a regular line to Australia, the famous Black Ball Line stood pre-eminent in the " fifties "and "sixties" for fast clippers and "record" passages.
The names of some of their vessels are still bye words among the shipping world and will, I trust, remain so for many years to come; such names as the " Marco Polo," "James Baines," "Champion of the Seas," "Donald Mackay," "Whirlwind," " Fiery Star" and others equally famous.
The discovery in 1851 of gold in Australia gave an enormous incentive to prospective settlers; the reports of the gold finds, in most cases, greatly magnified, appealed to the venturesome as nothing else could have done.
Australia and its goldfields were pictured as an El Dorado, and people from all parts of the world flocked to the Colonies as fast as the ships could carry them.
" Canvastown " is probably yet in the memory of many of the old "Colonials"; the people arriving in such shoals, and the adventurers on landing immediately making a beeline for the diggings, encampments rapidly became townships.
To my mind, there is something not only romantic, but pathetic in these beautiful clippers arriving crowded with hopeful emigrants for the golden land, and this feeling will, I think, be shared by everyone who has been engaged in carrying out emigrants to Australia.
At this time it was no uncommon thing for the whole of a ship's crew, on arrival in Melbourne, to desert and make their way to the goldfields, in fact, it was almost physically impossible to restrain them, for so keen indeed was the feeling, that often leaving their entire kit behind them, they would escape ashore from the ships on planks or in tubs and have even been known to swim ashore during the night. However, the harbor, then as now, swarmed with sharks.
Not only sailors, but mates and even captains often left their ships, which thus frequently lay for weeks wholly denuded of their crews. Then it was when a vessel was loaded and about to proceed to sea that the " fancy " prices came to be paid to sailors for the run home. £10 and £15 a month were often scoffed at, and cases are known when as much as £80 and £100 have been paid to each able seaman shipped for the run home.
Those were the halcyon days for poor Jack, though it was doubtless as quickly spent as ever in the " saloons "of Ratcliff Highway and the neighborhood.
But to return to the Black Ball Line. In 1854 Messrs. Baines also secured another significant contract, that for the conveyance of the entire emigration from England to Tasmania or Van Dieman's Land, as it was then termed, and accordingly arrangements were made for the dispatch of a ship every month to Hobart direct.
In May 1855, a contract was entered into for the conveyance of the whole of the Australian mails twice every month, sailing from Liverpool. A reference to the chapter on the European and Australian Royal Mail Company gives the reader a fair idea of the circumstances under which the mail service reverted to sailing ships.
Between 1854 and 1856, many ships were chartered to go out to the Crimea with troops and stores, and at this time other trades were so depleted of large ships, that the following notice was posted up in the Underwriter's room at Liverpool, 12th November 1855:—"The Government emigration to Australia will, it is feared, have to be given up from Liverpool from shipowners not tendering their vessels for the service."
Many traditions are still current of the old " Black Bailers " and are, and will be, passed on from one generation to another; of the ships driving along in stormy weather, the skippers " hanging on " to the last moment; the watch ready for a call, standing grouped together under the lee of the house on deck, and speculating which sail or spar would "go" first; of standing by the halyards throughout the whole watch; of the captain's padlocking the main tack, which in most merchant sailing vessels is of chain, a mute defiance which was well understood.
But their captains were well selected, and among the best seamen of their day, having due regard to the safety of the ship and passengers, their business was to " make a passage," they did so and with such success that the Black Ball clippers have become proverbial.
Homeward these ships brought the successful digger and the successful storekeeper, more of the latter, however than of the former; for usually, it was not the digger who made money. Instead, it was the individual who purveyed to him, who supplied him with his provisions, his " bacca," his mining implements and his liquor, and also those enterprising persons who provided him with the means of transport across the country to and from the goldfields.
In addition to this, as previously stated, the Black Ball ships frequently carried the mails and a considerable quantity of gold.
Among the most famous were four ships built by Donald Mackay of East Boston: the " Champion of the Seas," "Lightning," "James Baines " and "Donald Mackay." The "Lightning" came over in March 1854 m a little over 13 days and the " James Baines " in September of the same year in 12 days 17 hours. This vessel measured 2,275 tons and was, in every way, a magnificent ship. In May 1855, she arrived in the Mersey from Australia, having made the voyage out and home in 5 months 10 days. She carried what is never seen nowadays, a moonsail—a small sail set above the skysail; was very heavily sparred and was 243 feet long by 44 feet beam. At the time of the Mutiny, she was taken up by Government with many other crack ships to go out with troops and was then commanded by Captain MacDonald.
Her Majesty, the Queen, honored this ship with a visit on the occasion of her departure in 1857. The following year, most regrettably, this elegant ship was burnt in Huskisson Dock, Liverpool, on her return from Calcutta. Her fame had been so bruited throughout the land, that her loss was regarded, and with reason, as a national disaster. At the time of her loss, ship and cargo were valued at £170,000.
The "Champion of the Seas," another equally well-known ship, was taken up to convey troops to India about the same time as the " James Baines." She also was a big ship for those days, being 1,947 tons. After a successful career under the Black Ball flag she was sold, and passing through many difficulties, eventually foundered in the North Atlantic, guano laden, in 1870, when owned by Mr. A. Cassels.
Another was the celebrated " Marco Polo," built in St. John's in 1851, she was a three-decked ship, of 1,512 tons, and though but what is known as a six-years ship, was very solidly built. How her massive beams and knees would have dismayed the present-day stevedore. In 1853 she made the passage, Liverpool to Melbourne, in 76 days. She took out besides a valuable cargo, 648 passengers and, £90,000 in specie; she beat the steamship "Antelope" this year to Melbourne.
Voyage after voyage, this ship made between the mother country and the Colonies. In 1861, owned by Messrs. Bell and Lawes, she made the passage, Liverpool to Melbourne, in 61 days. Captain Labbet of Brisbane once told me that in January 1867, he took passage home in the steamship " Great Britain."
The " Marco Polo " left at the same time and was soon lost sight of. A week later, the look-out man of the " Great Britain " reported a sail right ahead, and shortly afterward expressed his belief that it was the " Marco Polo," in which ship he had previously sailed; his opinion was, however, scoffed at.
On being neared, he proved to have been right. She was again distanced, and the " Great Britain " made what was esteemed a good passage. On taking the pilot off Cork, the first question asked was: " Have you seen the " Marco Polo?" The reply came, " Yes, she passed up 8 days ago. " She had made the passage in 76 days. She was 188 ft. Long by 40 ft. Beam.
What paying cargoes, they bore too; on one occasion the " Montmorency" arrived, her passenger accommodation full up and she also holds, besides, £100,000 in specie, and a little later the "Red Jacket" arrived at Liverpool with 126 passengers, nearly 100,000 ounces of gold and a full cargo. On a former occasion, the Black Ball clipper " Lightning " had arrived from Melbourne with; £ 560,000 on freight, succeeded the following day by the "James Baines " with no less than £700,000.
The majority of the vessels of this firm were, however, soft-wood ships, and did not endure as the British oak-built ships did. Many of them had previously been American clippers running between New York and San Francisco during the great California gold rush, and their reputations were made before the English acquired them. Others were built in the United States and St. Johns, etc., especially for this line.
But the deadly blow launched at the carrying trade of the Northern States by the depredations of the "Alabama," "Florida," and other commerce destroyers produced a panic there, so much so, that ships were transferred wholesale to British registration. In most cases, their names were changed.
The " Tornado," of 1,721 tons; the " Golden Age," the " Neptune's Car," the " Royal Dane," late " Sierra Nevada"; the " Light Brigade," late " Ocean Telegraph"; the " Rockhampton," late "Morning Star"; the "Fiery Star," late "Comet" and many others were transferred to our Mercantile Marine. When we remember that the " Alabama " alone destroyed nearly sixty beautiful vessels, the claims on which we had to pay upwards of fifteen million dollars, we can well appreciate Brother Jonathan's haste.
Some of the old advertisements well indicate the class of vessels which appealed to the traveling public.
Black Ball Line Advertisement for the Clipper Ship "Young Australia." ud circa 1870. The Black Ball Line, 1900. GGA Image ID # 14d4aa74fb
Black Ball Line Advertisement from 1867 Provided Rates for Saloon, Deck Saloon (Second Cabin), and Steerage on the Clipper Ship "Young Australia." The Black Ball Line, 1900. GGA Image ID #
Another advertisement for their large auxiliary steamer, the " Great Victoria," is interesting. I culled it from the Moreton Bay Courier (now the Brisbane Courier) of that date.
1866 Northbound Passage Advertisment from the Black Ball Line: Steam from Sydney to London. To families and passengers for England. The magnificent Black Ball auxiliary screw steamship "Great Victoria," 4,000 tons burden, R. Richards, Esq., Commander, will sail positively 10th April from Sydney to London. The superb deck saloons are for elegance, comfort and general arrangements, unequalled by any other ship in the Australian trade, and superior accommodation in the second saloon, intermediate and steerage. An experienced surgeon accompanies the vessel. Rate of passage money from Sydney— Saloon £60 and £65. Beds, bedding, linen and every requisite, except wines and spirits, supplied for £5 extra. Second cabin £35. Steerage £ 18. Third cabin £25. Apply to Bright Bros. & Co. or to T. & G. Harris, Brisbane. The Black Ball Line, 1900. GGA Image ID # 14d4cdb420
Mr. James Baines, the best-known partner of the firm of Baines, Grieve, Mackay, and Taylor, died, I am told, comparatively poor, but the recollection of his name is still green in Liverpool, and several of his commanders are yet alive. Let me express the hope that some of the old gentlemen will come across this book. Some years ago, I shewed my notebooks to Captain Sargeant (of Messrs. Potts, Paul, and Sargeant of Sydney and elsewhere.) In his younger days, he had been the chief mate of the Black Ball clipper "Fiery Star." This ship left Moreton Bay homeward bound, 1st April 1865, and the Nautical Magazine in the September number of that year gives the following graphic narrative: —
"The "Fiery Star," Black Ball Line of packet ships, Captain Yule, left Moreton Bay for London, 1st April st. The fire was discovered on the 19th when one of the crew, named Adams, came aft and reported a strong smell of smoke in the forecastle. The Captain and Chief Officer (Mr. Sargeant) went forward and found the smoke coming up in clouds from the lower hold. Every hatchway in the ship was immediately battened down, and the ventilation stopped as far as possible. They were at this time running free and were about 400 miles from Chatham Island. On the next day, a steam pump * * was set to work on the hatchway, and several sails were cut down from aloft to secure the hatches. * * At 6 p.m. the fire broke out through the port bow and through the waterways on deck. The boats were immediately got out, and the captain, officers, and passengers (with one exception) and most of the crew got into the four ships. We should here mention that two of the boats belonging to the ship had been destroyed a few days previously by a heavy sea which had struck them.
Those in the boats took chronometer, sextants, charts, and compasses with them. The chief officer, Mr. Sargeant, seeing that the boats could not possibly hold all on board, gallantly volunteered to stand by the ship, and four A. B. 'sand thirteen boys followed his noble example."
Seventy-eight men left in the boats and Mr. Sargeant endeavored by all means in his power to subdue the fire. They succeeded—despite the noxious gases—in getting up a chart and compass from the cabin. He set a course to get into the track of ships and encountered much bad weather. On the nth of May has been on the fire twenty-one days, they spoke the " Dauntless," which ship took them all off.
When they left, the foremast was almost burnt through. The merchants of Auckland subscribed to £ 160 as a testimonial and presented £80 to Mr. Sargeant and £9 to the crew.
The fate of the old "Black Bailers " when other firms held the reins of the trade will, I am sure, be followed with interest. The " Duke of Newcastle," 992 tons, built at Quebec in 1862, was sold and was eventually wrecked at Valencia in 1876. The " Southern Empire," late the " Jacob A. Westervelt," 1,418 tons, one of the old three-decked clipper packets, built in New York in 1849 after being sold, foundered in the North Atlantic, 1874, when guano was laden. The " Young Australia," 1,020 tons, built at Portsmouth, U.S., in 1853, was wrecked on Moreton Island in 1872, wool laden. The "Conway," 1,195 tons, built in St. John's in 1851, was sold and, at last, foundered in the North Atlantic in 1875 when owned in Bristol.
The famous clipper " Royal Dane," 1,615 tons late the American ship " Sierra Nevada," a three-decked ship, built at Portsmouth, U. S., in 1854, was sold.
She was eventually wrecked while on a voyage, Huanillos to Falmouth, guano laden, on the Coast of
The " Wansfell," 777 tons, built in St. John's in 1853, was wrecked about 1869. The "Utopia," 948 tons, - built in New Brunswick the same year, was sold in 1866 and abandoned at sea the following year.
The renowned clipper "Donald Mackay," 2,150 tons, built by Donald Mackay of East Boston, was one of the famous "quartette. " She was 257 ft. long by 46 ft. beam, and 29 ft. 5 inches depth, her poop was 112 ft. long. She was sold to Mr. Barlling of Bremerhaven eventually.
The " Light Brigade," late "Ocean Telegraph," 1,495 tons, was built at Medford, U. S., in 1854. After being sold and re-sold, she eventually was converted into a coal hulk in Gibraltar, where she now lies. I saw her and went on board not long since, about the latter end of 1896. The " Fiery Star " we have already alluded to. The " Everton " ended her days in the South Pacific. The " Landesboro," 1,006 tons, built in Medford, U. S., in 1852, was sold. Her name, when under American ownership, had been the " Morning Star." She eventually foundered on a voyage from Samarang to Falmouth in 1879.
The " David McIver," 862 tons, a New Brunswick built ship, being sold, was eventually posted as " missing " on a voyage, Quebec, to Greenock in 1872.
The " Morning Light," a considerable clipper of 2,377 tons, built in New Brunswick in 1855, after a succession of ownerships, passed into the hands of the Germans who re-named her " J.M. Wendtland so into oblivion.
The " Shalimar " was disposed of to a Swiss firm.
The " Schomberg," a magnificent ship of 2,400 tons, built in Aberdeen in 1855, was wrecked on Cape Otway. Her passengers, numbering 430, were all saved. Many yarns are even now current of her commander, Forbes, and his daring efforts to make a passage. He was tried for the loss of his ship and acquitted.
The "Blue Jacket" was eventually burnt. The " Ocean Chief" was abandoned at sea in 1868. The " Queen of the Colonies," 1,346 tons, built in Boston in 1853, was one of the fastest ships of a fast fleet. On two consecutive voyages, she made the passage out to Brisbane in 76 days. After being sold, she was eventually wrecked on a voyage from Java to Falmouth, on the dangerous rocks of Ushant in 1874. The " Bayswater," another of the old American three-decked clipper packets, built in New York in 1847, after being sold, eventually foundered in the North Atlantic about 1876 when guano was laden. Space does not permit of my detailing all their fates. Most of them, after the Black Ball line gave up, wandered into the guano or coal trades, open fields for open vessels. The " Legion of Honour " was wrecked on the Tripoli Coast in 1876 under other owners, while the famous " Marco Polo," 1,512 tons, built in St. John's in 1851, was afterward sold to the Norwegians. Frapped in with chains, this once celebrated ship struggled to and fro across the Atlantic until in an evil hour she was wrecked on the bleak shores of Cape Cavendish, Prince Edward's Island.
Her end is a fitting finale, I think, to this chapter.
Arthur H. Clark, The Clipper Ship Era: An Epitome of Famous American and British Clipper Ships: Their Owners, Builders, Commanders, and Crews 1843-1869, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1912.
W. H. Cates, Lt. R.N.R., "Chapter XIII. The Black Ball Line," in The Good Old Days of Shipping, Bombay: The "Times of India" Press, 1900, pp. 78-88.