The Jessie Thoms of Limekilns and the May Queen: A Seafaring Adventure

by Jean Barclay

The content of the Dunfermline Monthly Advertiser was generally fairly routine, but in September 1858, the editor published a communication he had received from Lerwick, Shetland, which was out of the ordinary, a tale of daring on the high seas. The ship involved in this adventure was the Jessie Thoms and the crew of nine consisted of Captain John Monro, the master, his father, Andrew, the owner, as `super-cargo – and six men and a boy. The Limekilns sailors were no strangers to long distances and on this voyage the Jessie Thoms was sailing from Archangel in Russia to Liverpool (1). 

Brig ‘Jessie Thoms’ of Limekilns (Captain John
Monro) Entering The Harbour of Malta, 1854
Brig ‘Jessie Thoms’ of Limekilns (Captain John
Monro) Entering The Harbour of Malta, 1854
from `Limekilns and Passagium Regimae’ Edinburgh1929

According to John Monro, at 4 am on Sunday September 5th, when the Jessie Thoms lay between the islands of Faroe and Foula, he was on deck when he spotted through a glass a ship about four miles away, with a signal of distress flying halfway down from the peak and apparently drifting. They immediately made sail and bore down on the ship, noticing as they came near another vessel coming from the west which passed round the stern of the stricken ship and went on its way, rendering no assistance. Receiving no reply when they hailed the drifting ship, John Monro with three men and the boy launched a boat and boarded her.  They found the ship deserted, her boats gone and everything in confusion. She was flying the American flag and from the log, they identified her as the May Queen of Bath in the State of Maine and the master as R. G. Stanwood.  She was carrying a cargo of iron and had had several passengers, whose luggage was lying in disarray above and below deck and whose dinner of `boiled tongue, beef and pork, a fine potato hash, two beautiful fruit tarts, and a few other items, with soft bread` was ready to sit down to`(2).

The May Queen had more than three feet of water in the well but John Monro decided that he could sail her with the three men and the boy, while his father agreed to accompany them in the Jessie Thoms with the mate, steward and one sailor.Having obtained charts, compasses and quadrants from the Jessie Thoms, John Monro and his crew hoisted their boat on board the May Queen, hauled down the American flag, filled the sails and turned the ship south east towards Orkney or Shetland, the nearest British land. The ship was leaky and rolled heavily in the swell but on Monday morning, September 6th they sighted Foula Island and at daybreak on Tuesday reached Shetland.  They were guided in by a boat from the island with a crew of six and at noon anchored in Cliff Sound, near Scalloway (3). Captain Monro and his crew displayed skilled seamanship. As he wrote to the Advertiser `Think so few of us managing to navigate a ship of that dimensions for a distance of 200 miles.  We had a very heavy sea to contend with, but the wind was in no way unfavourable, considering we did it all in two days` (4).

Why the May Queen had been abandoned was a mystery at first but the full story was revealed in the press in the next few days, after the Sir John Moore had arrived in Greenock with the crew and passengers of the May Queen. According to Captain Stanwood of the May Queen, they had set sail from Gothenburg for Boston on August 29th with a cargo of iron, a crew of 16 and 33 steerage and four cabin passengers (5).  All had gone well until September 2nd when, 75 miles north-west of Orkney, they hit a tremendous gale and were swamped by a fearsome sea. By 10pm there were two feet of water in the well and the pumps were put to work. Then at midnight came one of the heaviest squalls he had ever experienced and the leak increased despite the crew and some of the passengers working the pumps continuously. Although the weather moderated, the leak got worse and everyone was exhausted. On the morning of September the 4th a ship was observed not far away and the May Queen headed towards her. This was the Sir John Moore en route from Antwerp to Glasgow and the captain, Charles Robertson, agreed to accompany the stricken ship.  The Sir John Moore proceeded on her course with the May Queen following in her wake.  By noon the leak had increased further and Captain Stanwood, having consulted his crew, decided to abandon ship. He hoisted a signal of distress and the Sir John Moore hove to for their relief. At 2pm boats were launched and the passengers, with the most valuable of their possessions, were gradually transported to the rescue ship. At 6pm Master Stanwood and the mate were the last to leave, by which time the leak had gained five feet in five hours. Stanwood finished his account by observing that `I shall always remember Captain Robertson with the warmest gratitude for saving us from a watery grave. Through the instrumentality of God he came to our relief, and his attention to our wants while on board of his ship deserves the greatest credit`.

When the Sir John Moore reached Greenock about six days after the rescue, the crew of the May Queen were taken to the Sailors` Home, the American consul took care of the cabin passengers while the steerage passengers were taken to the Govan Poorhouse. Through an interpreter they expressed their desire of continuing to America where several had friends waiting rather than returning home.  As they had lost so many of their possession, the Morning Herald suggested launching an appeal for them (6).

Meanwhile in Lerwick, the Receiver of Wrecks, in his return to the Board of Trade, took four statements from the crew of the Jessie Thoms.  John Monro`s account was much as outlined above but he added that from the time of their taking over the May Queen they did not have to pump the well beyond one or one and a half hours and on checking it at Cliff Sound he found four feet of water. On examining the ship more closely he found the bow port unlashed and the bows thrown aside and maul marks on the side of the porthole as if a strenuous effort had been made to drive it out.  His father, Andrew Munro, reported similarly, observing that when he went below with a light to examine the cargo he found the fastenings of the port bow hanging down while a maul and a crowbar lay nearby as if an effort had been made to punch out the port.  Malcolm McLeod, a seaman, reported much the same, while James Cant, the mate, confirmed this and added that there were no more than two feet of water in the May Queen and in his opinion there had been no reasonable cause to abandon her.  In fact `He would have no hesitation in navigating her in the state they found her in to any part of the world` (7).

Buoyed up by the knowledge that considerable salvage money would be coming their way, the crew on the Jessie Thoms pressed on with their original voyage. On October 1st they reached Stornoway, and on October 12th finally arrived in Liverpool. After off-loading the long journey home began and on December 2nd the Inverness Courier reported that the Jessie Thoms of Limekilns had passed through the Caledonian Canal last week on her way to the Firth of Forth and, in connection with the May Queen, added that `We believe that the brig`s claim of salvage has been compromised for the sum of £3150 – a lucky sum for the shipmaster and crew, and capital remuneration for some forty hours` work` (8).  

In Limekilns, everyone eagerly awaited the return of the Jessie Thoms and there would be `jolly scenes` when the prize money was spent in the village and `we should not be surprised to see Limekilns lighted with gas and supplied with water at the expense of the May Queen` (9). On reaching Limekilns the Jessie was moored for some weeks at Capernaum Pier and given a complete overhaul.  Her fame had spread abroad and in the spring visitors flocked from Dunfermline to see the little brig which had been involved in such a big adventure.

By June 1859 the Jessie Thoms was ready to set off again, this time to Genoa, and in her honour a Limekilns girl wrote a poem `Outward bound`,  which begins:

`God speed the gallant ship – the Jessie Thoms;

Manned with true hearts and honest, down she floats,

Majestical, on to the waves of ocean,

And all her waving pennants sweep the sky.

Oh! `tis a goodly sight! (10).

Sadly, young Captain John Monro did not live long after this, dying at Hamburg on December the 5th 1859, aged only 29.  At the Annual Soiree of the Limekilns Psalmodic Association in March 1860, the vice-president paid tribute to the late Captain John Monro `who had been at the last meeting and added much to their enjoyment but whose tuneful voice they would hear no more` (11).

The Jessie Thoms herself had not much time to run as she and two other ships were wrecked off Agrigento, Sicily, on February 22nd 1860, though fortunately her crew of eight survived (12). After all her distant travels and her service to her masters and to the trade of her country, it was a sad end for a gallant little ship.

Notes and sources:

1) The Jessie Thoms was a brigantine (or brig) – a two-masted square-rigged vessel – of 192 tons, 85 feet in length and 20 in breadth, built in Perth and launched in 1847, Perthshire Advertiser, May 6 1847. Her first owner was J. Thoms of Dundee, and the Jessie was probably named after one of his family. By 1850 the owner and master was Andrew Monro of Limekilns. In the summer of 1858 the Jessie Thoms had been to Turkey and the journey to Archangel began from London on June 10th. The reports do not state what cargo the Jessie was carrying but on a previous voyage she carried flax from Archangel to Dundee.  John Monro was born in 1830 to Andrew Monro and Helen Reid; he obtained his mate`s certificate in 1851 and his master`s in March 1852, having voyaged to the Baltic, France and Russia. 

2) Dunfermline Monthly Advertiser, October 15 1858.  The May Queen was a `full-rigged` ship and much larger that the Jessie Thoms, weighing 750 tons. The Sir John Moore, which had been travelling from Antwerp to Glasgow, her home city, was a ship of 608 tons.

3) Caledonian Mercury, September 21 1858.

4) Dunfermline Monthly Advertiser, October 15 1858.

5)  The Morning Herald, September 14 1858, names the Swedish passengers as Johan, Jobans and Charlote Pattersson; Andrs Johanson; Marie Svenskdotter; Carl and Emelie Gustafson; Peter Svon; Johan Pattersson, wife and two children; Peterr Svensson and three children; Carl Carlson; Joham Alm, wife and two children; Eric Monnson, wife and four children; Elaeus Holln; Carl Grofman; Johan Pattersson; Matilda Pattersdotter and Whilhelm Eansson.    

6) Ibid. The Swedish Consul claimed to have no authority to assist the steerage passengers but Mr. McCulloch, Governor of the Poorhouse `exerted himself in a praiseworthy manner on behalf of the suffering emigrants`. The interpreter was Mr. George Wilson who had travelled in Sweden.

7) Caledonian Mercury, September 21 1858.

8) Inverness Courier, December 2 1858. The salvage money of £3150 would be worth about £47,000 today.

9) Dunfermline Monthly Advertiser, Jun 10 1859.

10) Ibid, June 10 1859.

11) The cause of John Monro`s death is unknown at present, but tuberculosis was present in the family and killed his younger brother Andrew, also a seaman, aged 20, in October 1857.

12) Greenock Telegraph, February 28 1860. The Monthly Advertiser was an early Dunfermline newspaper and is part of the local history collection at the Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries. I am grateful to Sue Mowat for sharing her extensive knowledge of Limekilns ships and seamen.