Thursday, September 5, 2013

Mariners: Caithness Ships and Family

Ships in Stormy Seas

James Ramsey Caithness emerges in these pages as an unlucky mariner: six of the ships he was associated with came to grief in dramatic style. In 1844 it was the schooner Mary in Algoa Bay, in 1848 the brig Lady Leith on Thunderbolt Reef, in 1851 the Diadem at Plettenberg Bay; in 1854 the Sea Gull in Table Bay and in April 1855 the tragic Flying Dragon, ‘consumed by fire’. 

There was one more disaster in 1856, not in South African waters but off Melbourne, when James was in command of the brigantine Prairie - further evidence that he undertook several voyages to Australia.

It was a hazardous business, going down to the sea in ships. The Cape’s deep waters and bays were particularly dangerous, the wind and weather unpredictable. James was fully aware of all the risks yet probably gave no thought to changing his occupation. He was a mariner born and bred.

A considerable family depended on him. He and his first wife, Elizabeth Watson Ridges, had five sons and a daughter. The last-born, Frederick James Ramsey, arrived in August 1850. This boy would never remember his mother who was dead and buried (in ‘Scorey’s Vault’ at St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town) by January 1851. James Ramsey Caithness is described in the burial register as Captain of the brig Diadem; in December of that year this ship was wrecked.  

Within months of Elizabeth’s death, James married again. This was a sensible option for a seafaring widower with a large family, the youngest just a year old. His second wife, Eliza Noyle, brought him a further three children – two sons and a daughter - between 1853 and 1858.

Port Elizabeth (Algoa Bay) in the 1850s was still in its early days though becoming an important town. An indication of the increase in its population – and consequently the amount of mail received – had been the establishment of a proper Post Office in a building for that purpose, with an official postmaster in charge. This structure deserves our attention, for ‘when the Post Office was moved across the Market Square, the [original] building became the abode of Mr Caithness and his sons.’* 

The [first] Post Office was a two-storeyed house which stood in a plot enclosed by a low fence at the foot of Castle Hill ... It was built in the early settler style with whitewashed walls and red-tiled roof flanked by two squat chimneys, whilst at the rear of the building were the usual out-houses and stables ... the rooms downstairs served as the Post Office. On the right hand side of the house was the old tumbled-down jail.

In the intriguing picture below, the main buildings of interest are identified by number:

1850 View of Castle Hill taken from the Market Square. No 2 in this pic is the first Post Office in Port Elizabeth, later the house of Mr Caithness. It is recognizable in the picture below dated 1864. Key: 1. Jail; 2. Post Office; 3. Richards and Impey; 4. Mrs Philips; 5. Mr Heugh; 6. Caesar Andrews; 7. Jailer Sterley's cottages; 8. Rev. F McClelland; 9. Mr Ashkettle; 10. The public well with people drawing up water.

1864 View of the Town Hall (with pillared portico and hatted gentlemen standing at foot of steps), the Obelisk at right; to right of Town Hall is the Market Bell and, beyond that, the 2-storeyed house of Mr Caithness, formerly the Post Office. It has three windows looking out over the Square. Note the absence of houses on the hill behind. The shape of the Caithness house with some minor alterations such as addition of a lean-to verandah (slanting roof with poles holding it up) remains much the same as the building was during its time as a Post Office.

* Port Elizabeth in Bygone Days, J J Redgrave (Wynberg: Rustica Press 1947)

Tom Sheldon for details of Elizabeth Caithness's burial, also on the shipwrecks of Diadem and Prairie.


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