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 No Storm Could Stop Betsy The Captain In Crinoline

 By Ayrshire Writer Joan Biggar

 

We’re apt to think of Victorian women as being birds in gilded cages at best and overworked, exploited drudges at worst. 

But some of those crinolined ladies were very liberated indeed, even by today’s standards - and none more so than Betsy Miller.  

She competed successfully in what was, and still is, the man’s world of coastal shipping, conveying cargoes of coal and limestone between Scotland and Ireland. 

Born in 1793, Betsy achieved the distinction of being the only woman before or since entered as captain of a merchant vessel in the Lloyd’s British Registry of Tonnage. 

Her home town of Saltcoats on the Ayrshire coast was a thriving port in the year of her birth, its harbour crammed with sailing ships of all kinds. 

Captain Miller’s ship was the ‘Clytus’, a coaling brig made from the wreck of a French man-o’-war, bearing the same name; and it was young Betsy’s delight, as an angelic-looking child clad in white muslin, to sail with her father whenever she could, When she grew up, he employed her as his shipping agent and clerk, but her dreams of commanding the ‘Clytus’ seemed like idle fancies until her father became a helpless invalid and more tragedy struck the Miller family when Betsy’s only brother was drowned at sea. 

Although she was urged to engage a captain, Betsy insisted that nobody could possibly do the job better than she could herself; and, and how right she turned out to be. 

She quickly earned herself the reputation of being the most skilled skipper ever to sail the Irish sea; and, far from being the but of jokes because they worked for a woman, her crew were treated with the utmost respect. And for good reason! 

In those days it was the custom to place lighted candles on the window sills of houses overlooking the sea but this was not for the romantic notion of guiding wandering boys home. Its purpose was the more practical one of finding the direction of ‘the carrying wind’ and its strength. If the wind from the sea was strong enough to blow out the candle flame, the ‘carry’ was obviously in the wrong direction for any sailing ship heading for the Irish coast and most captains engaged in the coastal trade would retire to their favourite taverns until the weather suited them better. But not Betsy!  

“I don’t wait for the ‘carry’ !” was her boast. Time and tide might wait for no man but she could handle them both and be across to Belfast, Dublin or Cork and back again whilst the more cautious ship masters lingered in Saltcoats, waiting for the wind to change and losing trade to the sturdy, second-hand ‘Clytus’ made from scrap and with a woman at the helm. 

But, despite her love of challenge  and adventure and her ability handle her ship  and its crew in weathers, Betsy was no grog-swilling, tobacco-chewing battle-axe. She is described in contemporary records as being of medium height, ‘sonsy’ and well-favoured in appearance whilst in character and personality she was ‘a hardy one and a regular brick with a grand sense of humour’, according to her admiring deckhands. 

“How’s she doing now, lads?’ Betsy was wont to ask, popping her head, crowned with a frilly, white cambric cap, out of the cabin window like any housewife leaning over her window sill. And when weather and work were dirty, she was never slow to order an extra noggin of grog all round. 

Keeping up appearances on a coaling brig couldn’t have been easy, but Betsy’s caps were always as crisp and snowy white as new sprung daisies. And when she went ashore at Irvine, the rival port to Ardrossan and Saltcoats, she did it in style in her best gown, cashmere shawl and bonnet dripping with flowers and fruit. 

It was part of Betsy’s magic that she always looked as though she had stepped straight out of a bandbox and she prided herself on being correctly dressed for every occasion, changing into her best petticoats, when storms blew up in case the ship was wrecked. She also never sailed without her shroud. 

The ‘Clytus’ differed from other vessels in the coal trade by having a poop deck with a cabin on it and this was used by Betsy as a retiring and dressing room. The only other person allowed into this sanctum was her first mate who was single, handsome and came from the same seafaring background. Captain and mate slept there together, which didn’t raise an eyebrow either at sea or on laud, because Betsy’s mate (and chaperon) was her sister Hannah. 

Betsy began her career as captain when she was 46 and followed the sea for 22 years. When she first got her capable hands on the wheel of the ‘Clytus’ the Miller family had been deeply in debt; but when she retired in 1861 she was the wealthiest woman on the Ayrshire coast

Betsy's Kirn

The following contributed by Lindsay Young - rsqyoung@blueyonder.co.uk

It is by the well known Ian Mackintosh (deceased) in “Old Troon and District” 

“Before the Bathing Pool was built, most of  the youth of Troon went sea bathing at Betsy's Kirn, which is a little inlet in the rocks opposite  the top end of Welbeck Crescent. A changing  shelter and a spring board were fastened to the  rocks. When bathing in a storm, many a boy was  washed out of the sea on to the rocks, with dire  results to their skins. The Kirn has got silted  up since I last used it. I don't know where the  name is derived from, but the "Troon & Prestwick Times", on 15th May, 1964, printed an  article on the centenary of the death on 12th May, 1864, of Miss Betsy Miller, at the age of 71 years.  She was better known in her day as  Captain Betsy Miller, of the brig "Clytus", in  which she carried cargo up and down the Ayrshire coast, and across to Ireland. She belonged  to Saltcoats, which was her home port. Anyhow,  she must have known Troon well, and it is quite within the bounds of possibility that in an east  wind, the "Clytus" would use Betsy's Kirn for  loading or unloading her cargo — at least, I would like to think that Troon had a share in  Captain Betsy, who was very famous in her day.”

 

Betsy Miller, History and Myth

Researched by Cathleen Duff   cathleenduff@yahoo.co.uk

 

There are a number of online articles about Betsy Miller1,2,3,4,5 but they do not all agree about details and most do not refer to any sources of information.  In my own researches into the Miller family I found records which did not match things generally repeated as facts.  I have been looking for primary sources and have found very few.  I am a distant relative of Betsy and had no wish to undermine her myth, but unfortunately I have found that some of the things generally repeated are untrue. 

Elizabeth Miller was born on 11/6/1792, the eldest daughter of William Miller and his wife Mary Garret, followed by Hugh, Mary, Hannah, William, Margaret, Mary Garret, John Mackie, Robert and Hannah Thomson6.  William, originally from West Kilbride, moved to Saltcoats where he became a cloth merchant and later a wood merchant.  Mary’s father Magnus was a shipmaster and her first husband John Mackay (or Mackie) was also a sailor.  The Miller family lived in Quay St and appear in the 1819 Stevenston population list compiled by Dr Landsborough4.  William was a wood merchant, his wife Mary Garrett was listed together with Elizabeth, William, Mary, John, Robert and Hannah.  The eldest son Hugh does not appear. It is generally said that he was intended to take over his father’s business, including sailing the Clitus, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, but I have been unable to find any contemporary record other than of his birth.  In 1819 Hugh would be 26 so had very likely left home.

I have found two references to Betsy in family documents.  Hugh Miller of Ayr who died in 1858 left £100 to ‘Eliza Miller my cousin’ and added ‘acquit and discharge the said Eliza Miller and her sisters Mary and Hannah Miller of all claim against them’7.  I take this to mean that the sisters owed him money.  The inventory of the estate of another relative, James Smith, dated 28/2/1843, among unrecoverable debts lists a promissory note for £64-6-1/2d dated March 1839 ‘due by the late William Miller, Merchant, Saltcoats and Eliza Miller his daughter’.  The money was owed to James Smith and his brother-in-law Thomas Miller7.  This suggests that Betsy did not just work in her father’s office but was more of a partner.  William was alive at the time of the 18416 census but must have died before March 1843.  Betsy is absent from the 1841, 1851 and 1861 censuses which fits with her having been at sea, but means that we do not know what she would have given as her occupation  I have found nothing more until her death on 12 May 1864.  This was registered by her sister Hannah and gives her occupation as ‘shipowner’. 

In a book about Saltcoats published in 19098 the author writes about Betsy, having got his information from ‘one who sailed’ in the Clitus (this is the correct spelling).  He refers to her as “Captain” Betsy Miller, says she ‘needing no pilot’, was ‘the purser in more ways than one’ and that after her retirement her sister Hannah ‘guided the responsibilities of the ship’.  No mention of Betsy being registered at Lloyds, at least in this section.

The Clitus was registered at Lloyds between 1834 and 18469, though not after that.  According to a librarian at the National Library of Scotland, registration was not compulsory for small companies.  The Clitus was a brig of 191 tons, built in 1812 in Sunderland, inspection port Irvine, trading between the Clyde and Dublin and owned by Millar (sic) & C.  In 1834 and 1835 her master was T Fleck, during 1836 R(misprint?) Fleck was replaced by J Barclay who was listed as master for the remaining entries.  Later, in 1855, William Seamans appears in the Ardrossan Old Parish Register6 as ‘master of the Brig Clitus’.  It seems that the Millers had sailing masters.  This does make sense.  Ship’s Captains had usually been at sea since they were boys and had learned the business over a good many years.  William was a merchant, Betsy had worked in the counting house and Hannah was a seamstress.  Surely none would have been able to take full charge of a two-masted ship. 

There is something of a mystery about Betsy’s brothers Hugh and William.  It is generally said that at the time of his death Hugh, who was to have taken over the business, was the only surviving son.  In 1869 William Miller, whose parents were named as William Miller and Mary Garrett, died in Australia.  His occupation was Master Mariner, his wife’s name was Mary Crawford and he had been in Australia for 10 years.  His descendants understand that the family were from Ardrossan10.  William Miller and Mary Crauford were married in Stevenston on 12 March 1830 and their first child, Matthew, was baptised in Nov 1830, father Captain William Miller.  In 1851 the family was living in Glasgow, William was not at home and Mary was listed together with her children Hugh, Elizabeth, Mary, John and Robert..  Apart from Mary the children had been born in Saltcoats, the youngest around 18436.  I cannot find them in the 1841 census.

Hugh is said to have died in an accident in Ardrossan harbour in either 1827 or 1839.  The earlier date seems more likely because if Hugh was alive in the 1830s surely he would have been listed as the Master of the Clitus.  This leaves the question of why William did not take his brother’s place.  Perhaps he did not fancy being second in command to his father, perhaps he did not want to inherit the debts or perhaps he had wider ambitions than plying between Ayrshire and Ireland in a cramped little brig carrying coal or limestone.  We can only speculate.   

The North Ayrshire Archives have a copy of an article which appeared in the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald on the centenary of Betsy’s death, which quotes ‘the words of our reporter 100 years ago’.  The archivists are unable to find anything in the 1864 Herald and a source at the paper says that he thinks his colleague was quoting from the North British Daily Mail.  I have searched this paper (on microfilm in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow) from the date of Betsy’s death to the end of May 1864 and found no more than a brief death notice.  Time and my eyesight (tiny faded print) ran out before I could search in June.  The extract quoted in 1964 suggests that the article may be stronger on flowery prose than on facts.

 

If anybody can correct or add to this information I would like to hear from them

cathleenduff@yahoo.co.uk

 

1 www.visitsaltcoats.com/betsy_miller.html

2 www.electricscotland.com/history/women/wh55.htm

3 www.undiscoveredscotland.com/usbiography/m/betsymiller.html

4 www.ayrshireroots.com

5 www.threetowners.com/Saltcoats/lady marinerss.htm

6 www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk

7 National Archives of Scotland, Ayr Sheriff Court Wills and Inventories

8 ‘Saltcoats, Scotland’s Quaintest Burgh’, P Charles Carragher, 1909, can be read at the ayrshireroots website.  -  http://www.ayrshireroots.co.uk/Towns/Saltcoats/History/History.htm

9 Lloyds Register of British and Foreign Shipping, available online at Google Books

10 Information from his g g g granddaughter

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

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