A noble ships master – Captain John W Williams

Many will be aware of the reputation of the famine era ship the Dunbrody of New Ross for kindness and consideration shown to her passengers fleeing starvation and poverty.  The ship came to mind recently when I read a post on the New Ross Street Focus Facebook page which described a doctor on the Canadian side of the Atlantic who expressed relief that so many of the sick had already died on the crossing meaning a light workload in his capacity as medical superintendent at Quebec.  To be kind to the man, maybe it just highlights how overworked he was.

The current replica ship which was built in New Ross is based on the original Dunbrody (1845) built in Quebec under the watchful eye of her first master Captain John Baldwin, who captained her from 1845 to 1847.  Due to a lack of regulation famine era cargo boats were quickly converted to carrying passengers, and unscrupulous ship owners could squeeze hundreds onto vessels that could only comfortably hold a fraction of it.  A common expression used to describe these vessels was coffin ships. The Dunbrody however had a good reputation, and this appears to have had as much to do with her owners as the masters of the ship, initially Baldwin and latterly John W Williams.

The replica Dunbrody. Author collection

Williams was born in Wales and went to sea at an early age.  He settled down and married the daughter of a seaman, Captain Tide of New Ross and lived at Quay St., in the town.  A sense of the qualities of the man are typified in an account of him a few years before he took the helm of the ship.

On the 18th September 1845 Williams was master of another Graves ship the Lady Bagot[1].  When under sail in the Atlantic his ship spotted a distress signal from another sailing ship the Brig Atlas of Quebec sailing under Captain Thomas Hobson.  Arriving on scene Williams and his crew discovered the Atlas on her side and her ten man crew clinging to the hull for their lives.

The Atlas had had a torrid month of sailing.  On the 20th August she had sailed with a cargo of timber for Sunderland, England.  On the 28th she ran into a storm and she started to ship water.  By the 30th her crew were full time at the pumps, trying to keep the vessel afloat.  On the 17th of September she was again in trouble with the weather in the Atlantic, lost part of her bulwark and again started to take water.  By 6pm that evening the topsails carried away, but as all hands were needed on the pumps, these were left to flap away from the masts.  By 4am on the 18th the ship was so deep in the water, that she was losing her helm.   At 10am the pumps were left and the crew made ready to abandon ship.  It was then that the Lady Bagot was sited.

Dates for your diary this coming week in Waterford

By the time she arrived alongside the Atlas was on her beam and the crew were clinging on for dear life.  The ships boat was launched from the Lady Bagot and with the second mate in charge came as close as they dared in the breaking seas.  A line of rope was cast and missed but eventually it reached the shipwrecked sailors grasp and was tied onto the wreck.  Eventually four of the crew, one at a time managed to drag themselves across and into the boat.  As four was the limit, they returned to the Lady Bagot, but the conditions being so bad, some of the crew refused to go back.  Williams called for volunteers to replace them, and he joined them too.  Eventually the remaining six shipwrecked sailors were rescued.

Captain Hobson went on to say that Williams treated the crew more like brothers than shipwrecked sailors and for the next seven days of voyage he acted as a real Samaritan to those that were sick or injured. 

Cramped and crowded steerage conditions via Mayo Co Libraries

Williams leadership and seafaring capabilities were obviously rewarded and he received command of the Dunbrody from Captain Baldwin in the spring or early summer of 1847.[2]  He went on to serve aboard her with distinction and from what I have read it would appear that he made at least two trips per year to Quebec mostly and return[3] and when he finally retired[4] he set up a coal importation business Quay Street, New Ross.

In 1872 Mr Graves proposed Williams as a replacement for the then sick Harbour Master of the town.  This offer was accepted and he earned the title of Deputy Harbour Master.[5]

He died on Thursday 8th October 1899 in New Ross aged 88.[6]  His obituary which appeared in the New Ross Standard had this to say “…In those dark ages of travelling on the high seas, long periods elapsed in the passage across the Atlantic, and very often the captains of the old timber ships of those days, acted very tyrannically and cruelly towards their passengers. But there were exceptions, and in the case of every such exception, the passengers as a rule made up a subscription at the end of the voyage, and presented their kind-hearted skipper with some suitable article as a token of their affection and regard…and the writer of this notice was shown some of the numerous souvenirs he received from his passengers in affection for the kindness he ever displayed in making their trying voyages in the old wooden ship as endurable as possible. Long ago Captain Williams retired from the sea, and started business in Quay-street. Old age had been severely telling on him for the past two years, and on Thursday night he breathed his last, having received the last rites of the church from Father Prandy. On Saturday his remains were interred in St Stephen’s cemetery, a large and respectable funeral having attended…”[7]

I would like to thank Myles Courtney for his assistance with this piece.  I’m sorry to say that I could neither find an image of Captain Williams or of the ship Lady Bagot.  If anyone could help me in locating same I’d really appreciate it as it would certainly add to the blog.  I will have a follow up on the trials and tribulations of the Lady Bagot in a few weeks time. I’m also hoping to put some more focus on emigration and the Newfoundland fishery in coming months.


[1] This extract is taken from a letter of thanks published the Cork Constitution Saturday 18th December 1845.  You can view the letter here: Schools folklore link

[2] The Lady Bagot was lost the following year in the Atlantic en route from Savanah under Captain Anderson under the very same conditions as the Atlas.  All crew were rescued. I plan a blog on this in coming weeks

[3] For more on emigration from Waterford and New Ross in this era see a Tommy Deegan article published in Decies #51; 1995; page 54

[4] The last sailing he commanded that I have found was Dunbrody, arrival at Quebec on Sept 10th 1869 (she departed New Ross in July).  Lloyds List Wed 29th Sept 1869; page 8

[5] Weford People; 24th February 1872; page 7

[6] New Ross Standard; 14th October 1899; page 4

[7] Ibid

5 Replies to “A noble ships master – Captain John W Williams”

    1. Thanks Michael, I’m sure there were many from the Barony took these ships to a take a chance at a better life

  1. Excellent article, Andrew. Thanks for the fascinating information. Small point: That’s Noble, not Nobel.

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