The Kitty

barque lost in iceIllustration of barque in distress in ice from Wikisource, public domain.

Some Details:

Wooden walled; barque rigged; official number 1,127; 420/ 384 tons; built at Sunderland, 1850; classed 8a (1850), A1.L1 (1859); owner John C. Brooks of Wallsend (probably connected with R. Brooks and Co. of Newcastle; afterwards [1870] known as John Brooks of Wallsend), and John and Edward Nelson of Carville.

Ports of call: Sunderland, Valparaiso, Newcastle, Clyde, Mediterranean, London.

Chartered by the HBC for return voyage from London (Gravesend) to York Factory 1859, insured.

Master of voyage Alexander Ellis of Shields (died).

1st mate W. Armstrong (survived). Oddly, after having been at sea in close quarters with the ship’s 14 member crew for over three months, he could recall only 4 of their names: Benjamin Groom (of Denmark; survived); Martin Monson (of Norway; survived); George Stewart (of Greenock, Scotland; survived); and Jacob Markham (of Hamburg, Germany; survived).

One reputed crew member: William Scott (died).[1]

Officially listed as lost (by Lloyds?) 27 August 1860.

Sources for information about the Kitty include:

  • HBCA, Search File, Ships; Ships Records Finding Aid.
  • Alan Cooke and Clive Holland, The Exploration of Northern Canada, 500 to 1920: A Chronology (Toronto: Arctic History Press, 1978), 215, mention the ship.

Narratives, from sources arranged in chronological order, becoming strangely sinister and layered with ethnocentric hostility as time passes:

  • References to the Kitty in Red River Settlement’s local newspaper, the Nor’-Wester in 1859 and 1860:

• Transcript, “Apprehended Loss of the Chartered Vessel,” Nor’-Wester (28 December 1859), 2.

Another mail from England having arrived without bringing tidings of the “merchants’ ship,” there is too much reason to fear that she has been lost on her dangerous voyage to Hudson’s Bay. The Kitty — for such was the name of the ill-fated vessel — was chartered by the Hudson’s Bay Company, chiefly for conveying the goods of the merchants and the private property of other inhabitants of the Settlement, ordered for the most part through Mr. Smith, their London agent. The boats went to York, as usual, for the expected cargo, but came home with the gloomy news of the non-arrival of the vessel. Since then, several despatches have been received from the same quarter, the last being as late as the 25th October. Ice was then forming, and there is therefore but little reason to hope that the ship has since put in an appearance in the Bay. The Company’s ship, Prince of Wales, Capt. Herd, encountered more ice than usual in the Straits, and experienced great difficulty in making her way through. This fact, coupled with the circumstance of the Prince of Wales having reached England without falling in with the Kitty, either on the outward or return voyage, goes far to confirm the previous ill news. Should the worst apprehensions be realised, this will have been the third chartered vessel which has been wrecked in three years in the ice-bound regions of Hudson’s Bay. In 1849 the Graham was lost while in the Straits, on her outward trip. The cargo shared the fate of the vessel, and the crew escaped with difficulty to the coasts of Labrador, where they were hospitably received by the Moravian missionaries. and the Baroness, which left York on the 6th of March, last year, has never since been heard of. These vessels, which have been put on from time to time to supply the increased demand made upon the Company for freight, are ill-adapted for the critical service required of them, being too slimly made to withstand the pressure of the ice; and we believe that the underwriters at first refused to take an insurance on the Kitty. Indeed, Capt. Herd, an experienced Arctic voyager, who has for more than twenty years safely navigated the Company’s ships over these frozen seas, has often expressed astonishment at the hardihood of attempting to reach the shores of Hudson’s Bay in vessels less strongly built.

The missing ship was freighter with the greater portion of a year’s supply for the Settlement, the absence of which has been severely felt in many different ways. Almost every settler who possesses the smallest amount of capital, is himself an importer, and the custom has been to send on the money in advance. The loss of the goods left many families destitute of all their simple luxuries and of many of the necessaries of life, and the result has been that they have been compelled to part with their produce at low rates to purchase the dear goods of such as their neighbors as had provided against the rainy day.

The value of the property belonging to the Settlement on board the Kitty, is estimated at £10,000 sterling. The merchants had for the most part effected insurances on their goods; but few, if any of those who had imported for private use, had taken that safe and necessary precaution.

• Exerpt, Donald Gunn‘s description of shipping voyages from London to York Factory, transcribed from “How We Commenced Business,” Nor’-Wester (28 February 1860), 4.

The navigation from London to York Factory is difficult and dangerous. After crossing the Atlantic, you meet with huge icebergs on the shores of Labrador, a collision with which, when the ship is running before the wind, would prove disastrous. And although the vessel should escape these icebergs without injury, she must encounter the pack-ice in the Straits, where some seasons she remains immovably fixed for weeks and is in the most imminent danger of being broken to pieces or sunk by the pressure of the huge floes. Nor is the danger over when the straits are passed. The ice in the Bay rushes from one quarter to another during the months of July and August, and when ships are so unfortunate as to become entangled in this drifting ice, they are so much retarded that their voyage from Britain becomes one of three or four months, seldom reaching York before the middle of August, and sometimes after the 24th of September. But notwithstanding all the danger here expressed and implied, we have no instances, during the last fifty years, of any ships having been lost on this voyaging, except one in the summer of 1819, and one (the Kitty) last summer. Almost all the property indented for, last year, by the settlers [at Red River], was on board the Kitty, amounting to nearly £10,000. Those who imported largely had their property insured, but few or none of the small importers had theirs.”

Exerpt, Donald Gunn, letter to the editors, “Tripping to York,” Nor’-Wester (14 March 1860), 4, with an observation on the effect of the Kitty‘s non-arrival on the tripmen and boat brigade outfitters of Red River:

I will now endeavor to give you some idea of the extent to which the non-arrival of the ship must affect the master-freighters. Last August they fitted out their boats at great expense; and these boats had little, if any, freight for the Bay. After arriving there, they had to remain for weeks anxiously looking to the broad sea for the ship from which they expected their cargos. But they were sadly dis appointed. Week after week passed, the season was getting late, the weather grew cold, but no ship appeared. And at length, knowing that all the time of open water before them would be short enough to enable them to return to the Settlement, they beat their course for Red River, where they arrived on the 10th or 15th of October, the winter pursuing them closely until they arrived at Lake Winnipeg. The freight of goods which they brought inland (for the Hudson’s Bay Company) would do little more than half pay the expense incurred in fitting out the boats. And as the Company’s outfit for the fur-trade has been lost with the Kitty, very little, if any, of their goods in store this winter at York Factory, will be taken to this place. The demand for the fur trade will absorb the greater part, and perhaps the whole of the [s]tock on hand there. … we may add, that the freighters are all merchants, some of them doing business on a large scale. The non-arrival of the ship has deprived them, for this year at least, of their stock-in-trade.

• Transcript, “The Kitty,” Nor’-Wester (15 October 1860), 2.

At last we have some light on what has been for the last twelvemonth a very mysterious affair. We have news of the Kitty. We present to-day minute details of her wreck among the icebergs of Hudson’s Straits. The information was given by the Chief Mate, Mr. Armstrong, who passed through the whole of the trials and perils incident to her loss, and consequent upon it. The story is saddening; but still there is, after all, a melancholy consolation in knowing what really became of her.

There was great loss of property — the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Red River Settlers being the sufferers. In most cases, the goods had been insured, and so the loss was only temporary; but what was uninsured — consisting chiefly of importations by private persons for their own use — is, of course, absolutely and for ever gone.

•  Transcript, “Loss Of The Kitty. Dreadful Sufferings of the Crew! Nor’-Wester (15 October 1860), 3. [NB: I have inserted paragraph breaks for readability.]

(From the Northern Daily Express.)

A good deal of excitement has been caused in North Shields by the arrival of Mr. W. Armstrong, late chief mate of the barque Kitty, of Newcastle, belonging to Mr. Brooks, of Wallsend, it having been supposed, for many months past, that the vessel and the whole of the crew had been lost.

The following is the report of Mr. Armstrong:–

The ship left London on the 25th June, 1859, with a general cargo belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company, and bound for York Factory, in Hudson’s Bay.

All went well until the 12th of August, when they entered the Hudson’s Straits. At eight p.m. they passed Cape Resolution, with strong breezes from the south-east and very hazy weather. At eleven p.m. got into ice, from which they were never extricated until they lost the ship.

On the 21st of August a little clear water was observed to windward, upon which they got the ship under way with set canvass. In endeavoring to stay the ship, she missed stays, and coming astern struck a heavy piece of ice, which broke the rudder and three gudgeons, and started the rudder-post. The ship, in consequence, became very leaky; they, therefore, tried to secure the lower part of the rudder with chains.

On the 3rd of September, at ten a.m., there were strong breezes from the north-west, with rain. The ice drifting in all directions, the ship being then fast to a piece of ice with two ice-anchors, a heavy piece of ice struck her on the stern-post, and broke the rudder short off. The ship then became so heavy that the pumps were resorted to, and kept constantly going until they were forced to abandon her.

On Sept. 4, they had light winds from the NNW., with fine weather. In the morning, on going into the hold, the water was heard rushing in the ship aft. They broke the cargo out of the after hold, and cut away several parts of the cieling [sic: ceiling] in endeavoring to discover the leak, but did not succeed in doing so.

On the 5th, at two a.m., the ship broke adrift from the ice. They set the main try-sail, still keeping the pumps constantly going. At eight a.m., while hauling the chain-cable on deck, to put the ship down by the head, with a view to get at the leak aft, she was going with her head in for the land, with all fore and aft canvass set, when she struck a piece of ice forward and knocked her forefoot off. She in consequence made a great deal more water, so much so that the pumps would not suck. The water gaining fast, they endeavored to stop the leak forwards, but it was too far below the water-mark. They then made preparations to abandon the ship; getting the boats ready with provisions, &c. At noon there were three feet of water in the hold, all hands still keeping the pumps constantly going. At six p.m., the water had increased to six feet. At half-past ten, the boats, with provisions, were put over the ship, the water having risen over the whole beams, and the ship lying on her broadside.

On the 7th, the crew landed on Saddle Back Island, and prepared their boats for sailing to York Factory.

On Saturday, the 10th, at four p.m., they left Saddle Back Island with two boats — Alex. Ellis, master, with ten men in the long boat, and Mr. Armstrong, with four others, in the skiff. During the fore part of the night, it became very thick, with the wind increasing to a strong breeze. Mr. Armstrong hailed the long boat at midnight, advising them not to sail too far off land, the long boat having a light with the compass. About an hour afterwards, during a snow squall, they lost sight of the long boat, and never saw her afterwards.

On Sunday, the 11th, the sea rose so high that they were obliged to unship the mast, which, with the sails and oars were put overboard to doque the boat.

On the 12th, at noon, the weather being more moderate, they steered in for the land on the north side of Hudson’s Straits, and on the 13th landed about 17 miles south of Saddle Back, on the north side of Hudson’s Straits. Mr. Armstrong then made up his mind to steer for the coast of Labrador.

They were picked up by the Esquimaux at Amitok, on the 5th of November, and on the 9th arrived at the settlement of the Moravian missionaries in a very weak and wretched condition, and more or less severely frost-bitten. They remained at different stations until the 16th of May.

All the provisions they had when they parted with the long-boat consisted of 10 [70?] lbs. of bread and five pieces of pork. This lasted for 53 days, and for the remaining eight days they had nothing to live on except sea-weed. They had a quadrant and epitome, but could make little use of them.

On the 15th of May, Mr. Armstrong arrived at the Hudson’s Bay settlement at Kibokok, where he stayed till the 1st of July. He then went to another station on the North-West River, where he remained till the 10th. Thence he went to Cartwright, in Sandwich Bay where he found the schooner Lottery, which conveyed him to Newfoundland, from which place he proceeded to North Shields, where he arrived safely — much to the surprise and joy of his wife and family, who did not expect to hear of him more.

The only person in the long-boat whose name he [Mr. Armstrong] knows, is Alex. Ellis, the master, who belongs to Shields. In the skiff with him were Benjamin Groom, a Dane; Martin Monson, a Norwegian, who were left at Okok, badly frost-bitten; the other two, viz.: Geog. Stewart, of Greenock, Scotland, and Jacob Markham, of Hamburgh, got employment as fishermen and stayed behind.

Mr. Armstrong desires us warmly and heartily to thank the Moravian missionaries for the exceedingly kind and hospitable treatment which he and his companions in misfortune received at their hands during their long stay in that inhospitable region. He also requests us to state that neither Abraham nor Okok are marked on the charts, and thinks it very desirable that this should be done immediately for the benefit of any one who may be placed in a similar position.

  • “Rewards and Testimonials,” Mercantile Marine 8, no. 85 (January 1861), 119, records an award “by Her Majesty’s Government and the Board of Trade”:

To a party of Okak, Christian Esquimaux, the sum of £20, in testimony of their humanity and services in rescuing the survivors (5 in number) of the crew of the barque Kitty, of Newcastle, lost in September 1859, near the entrance to Hudson’s Straits; the sum to be expended by the Brethern’s Society for the futherance of the Gospel, in such articles as may be most useful to the said party of Esquimaux.

Last autumn (says the monthy periodical of the London Moravian Society for December last) was characterized in our northern latitudes by frequent and violent storms. This was abundantly experienced by the crew of the Hudson’s Bay ship the “Kitty,” which sailed from London on the 25th of June, with merchandise for York Factory. The beginning of the voyage was prosperous, with fair winds; but on the 25th of July the ship lost her foremast in a storm. The damage was, however, soon repaired. In the night of August the 12th they entered Hudson’s Straits, and became entangled in the drift-ice. On the 21st the ice was rather thinner; and, though the wind was contrary, they strove to make their escape by tacking. At length the rudder was broken, and a leak was made in the stern by the ice, so that they had to keep the pumps constantly going. Their efforts to secure the rudder, by means of chains, only partially succeeded, and they found it impossible to void frequent shocks from the ice. On the 24th they were near the Middle Savage Islands, when six Esquimaux came off to the ship in kayaks. … They endeavoured to obtain some pieces of iron in exchange for articles of clothing, and, not satisfied with that, tried to appropriate everything that was not made fast. … The crew were, therefore, very glad when they left the ship. At the end of August the ship was driven backwards and forwards by the currents, and was in constant danger of being crushed by the ice. On the 3d and 5th of September new leaks were discovered; and so much water entered the ship, that the crew were obliged to labour constantly at the pumps, in order to keep her afloat. At length, finding all their efforts fruitless, they resolved to make their escape in the boats, which had been got ready for the purpose. Early on the 6th, Captain Ellis and ten men entered the long boat, while the first mate, Mr. Armstrong, with four sailors, took the smaller one. For some time they remained near the ship; but being apprehensive that they would be drawn down with her, they subsequently moved off. The spot where the “Kitty” went down is in longitude 68° 58′, and latitude 61° 48′. The feelings which agitated the minds of the crews of the two boats in the following stormy, and bitterly cold night, were probably very various. … It had been previously agreed on to take the long and perilous course to their original destination, and the two parties promised not to separate. But one night, when it was snowing heavily, and the sea was very rough, those in the smaller boat lost sight of their companions, and never saw them again. They could think no otherwise than their boat sank, and that they all perished.

They now came to the conclusion that they could not possibly perform the long voyage to York Factory in so small a boat, and resolved to run along the coast of Labrador. For a period of sixty-three days they were exposed to the most severe hardships and imminent danger. In the beginning of November they came near Amitok, one of our outlying islands, on which some of our people are in the habit of taking seals in nets. The poor sailors rejoiced to see human beings … as they felt certain that they would die of hunger in another day, they steered towards the land. … Our people soon saw that their visitors were shipwrecked mariners. They therefore hastened to assist them on shore, and took them to their little hut of sods, in which, and in a tent which tehy constructed of the boat’s sail, they showed them every attention, cut their boots off their frozen feet, and wrapped them in skins, and then supplied them with boiled fish, and such other provisions as they had. …

On the 9th of November, the wind being favourable, our people brought them to us. It was indeed distressing to see these five emaciated and half-frozen men. … four of the sufferers soon recovered. The other man had to have some toes amputated, but is now able to use his feet again. Mr. Armstrong and two of the men were sent to the south in the winter. The other two remained here, and intend to return to Europe on board the “Harmony.”

In January, 1860, Akpatok was the scene of a terrible crime. The barque “Kitty” had left London on the 21st June, 1859, for Hudson Bay, she was nipped and crushed in the ice on the 5th of September off the Middle Savages, the crew left the ship in two boats and made land on Saddle Back Island, both these boats attempted to cross the strait, and work their way down the Labrador; sixty-one days after one of them reached the northernmost of the Moravian Mission stations. The other boat with the captain and ten men landed on Akpatok Island, they were at first hospitably received by the Esquimaux, but as food grew scarce, and the natives began to realize their helpless condition, they were all murdered one night while sleeping in their tents. It is said that the Esquimaux who perpetrated this outrage all died on the islands shortly afterwards; be that as it may, the island was soon after deserted, it was supposed to be haunted, and until this present season the natives could never be persuaded to go near it.

See also:


[1] Iain Turner [List 3 (1790-1865), 2011/04/26, 2011/04/26], comments that William Scott was one of the sailors aboard the long-boat: “I know he was on this ship as it states it on his sons orphanage record”; “The actual record in the orphanage is ‘Father murdered by native Indians in the Davis Straits, from the wrecked Kitty of Newcastle in the fall of 1859’. We know little about him … He was born around 1815, possibly in the South Shields area of Northumberland, England. The sad thing was his only son (Walter) was born also in 1859 so he probably never saw his son.”

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