Our Heritage: Great age of sea travel

Brockbank's shipyard on Cable Street, c 1798 by Julius Caesar Ibbetson (Lancaster Maritime Museum/LancCC)
Brockbank's shipyard on Cable Street, c 1798 by Julius Caesar Ibbetson (Lancaster Maritime Museum/LancCC)

Last week, Lancaster Maritime Museum hosted the launch of The West Indies and the Arctic in the Age of Sail: Voyages of Abram 1806-62.

The book, by retired Lancaster University historians Mike Winstanley and Rob David, with Margaret Bainbridge, tells the story of a ship, the men who owned her and those who sailed on her, and explores Lancaster’s once-thriving connection with the West Indies and its impact on the town.

Abram was built at John Brockbank’s shipyard on Cable Street, now the site of Sainsbury’s.

In 1806 she was bought by three men, Thomas Burrow and Thomas Mason of Lancaster and Abram Chalwill Hill, after whom she was named, a merchant and planter in the Virgin Islands.

Like most Lancaster merchants, these men were never involved in the African slave trade but traded directly between England the West Indies.

Over the next 13 years Abram made more than 20 voyages from Lancaster and Liverpool to Tortola, the largest of the Virgin Islands, and to the neighbouring Danish Virgin Islands (now owned by the United States) which were under British control for part of the Napoleonic Wars.

A later partnership, Burrow and Nottage, went on to build up a small fleet of vessels, all of which sailed to the Virgin Islands, and were to become the last West Indian merchants trading regularly from Lancaster.

The Lancaster area had longstanding personal and trading links with these little islands.

There were Quaker settlements there. The President of Virgin Islands Council had his family home in the Lune Valley.

The architect of the Capitol in Washington DC was born in the islands but lived with his aunts in Lancaster and was educated in Lancaster.

Burrows’ involvement here lasted until the 1840s, long after Lancaster had ceased to be an important West Indian port, and was to drag them deeper and deeper into the islands’ declining economy with disastrous results.

Burrow and Mason were also very important in the development of Lancaster. They opened the first cotton mill at White Cross on the canal in 1802, the Burrows were partners in mills on Moor Lane and in cotton and silk mills at Halton, and Thomas Mason’s son founded the silk mill on Ridge Lane.

George Burrow promoted railway development, was a director of Lancaster Bank and mayor of the town three times.

The second half of the book tells the equally dramatic history of the ship after she had been sold in 1818.

For more than 40 years she sailed from Hull and Kirkcaldy as an Arctic whaler.

She survived overwintering in the ice, was hired to search for Sir John Franklin – who had been lost searching for the North West Passage – and was only finally crushed in the ice in 1862.

Rarely can a wooden sailing ship have survived so long in two of the most dangerous regions of the world.

The new book, which is beautifully illustrated with many colour images, can be obtained from the publisher, the Centre for North West Regional Studies at Fylde College, Lancaster University.

Visit http://www.lancs.ac.uk/users/cnwrs/minibook/Abram.htm, or call 01524 593770. The book is also available from Lancaster Maritime Museum shop and through all good book stores, priced £14.95.

Two current exhibitions, ‘Money, Money, Money’ at the Lancaster Maritime Museum, and ‘Hey, Big Spender’ at the Judges’ Lodgings tell the story of other Lancaster families involved in the West Indies at the time.