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Black Ball Line History and Ephemera

Black Ball Line - Illustrated Packet Ship

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

Passage Ticket, Black Ball Line, 16 March 1859 on the Packet Ship "Yorkshire" - Nicholas Fish, New York to Bremen.

1859-03-16 Steamship Ticket - Black Ball Line - Nicholas Fish

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.

Steerage Passengers

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.

Transatlantic Service

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.

The Fleet

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 Shipbuilders

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.

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.

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