Captain Thomas Aitkenhead had been at sea for more than 35 years when, on 30 July 1892, he was carried ashore for the final time and it was only with the assistance of his employers that Elizabeth, his wife, was able to get him back to their Heaton home. He died just eight days later. Captain Aitkenhead’s final voyage was remarkable and we know a great deal about it and about the life of the Victorian seaman and his family from newspaper accounts, online records and, especially, his own archive and that of his youngest daughter’s family, both held by Tyne and Wear Archives.
Thomas Aitkenhead’s father, William, had been born in Southwark near London but by the time Thomas was born on 3 August 1842, he and his wife, Maria, lived in North Shields, where William was employed as a master mariner, a sea captain. Thomas was their fourth child.
Thomas followed in his father’s footsteps by, on 28 April 1857 at the age of 14, signing up for a five year apprenticeship with David Alfred Hewson, a North Shields shipowner.
The agreement, signed by young Thomas and his new master, tells us how much he was to be paid, what the deductions were and much else. He was to earn £6 in his first year rising to £10 in his fifth. 16 shillings a year was deducted for laundry and 7 shillings for board and wages when not employed on a ship. He had to provide his own ‘sea-bedding, wearing apparel and necessities.’
According to a story handed down to his children, Thomas learned of his father’s death in a somewhat brutal fashion. It’s said that shortly after he had started his apprenticeship, he was rowing his captain out to the ship when his passenger suddenly blurted out ‘Boy, your father is dead!’
On 24 May 1862, six weeks or so before Thomas’s 20th birthday, Hewson signed off his apprenticeship with a reference which stated that he had ’completed his servitude in every respect to my entire satisfaction.’
In his early years, Thomas kept his certificates of discharge for every trip. They showed that he sailed all over the world including the Mediterranean, the Baltic and to New York.
Like his father before him, Thomas rose through the ranks to become a Master in the Merchant Service, a ship’s captain. His certificate of competency is dated 20 April 1868.
Aitkenhead kept mementos from his voyages, including a stowage plan of the SS Bedford ‘bound for Bristol’ showing that it was carrying canned meat, oil cake, clothes pins, bacon, pork, drugs, agricultural implements, lard, blacking, corn, flour and leather; letters to his employer, including one dated 29 May 1889 reporting that SS Bedford’s stay in Buenos Aires had been prolonged by a three day Independence Day holiday. You can sense Aitkenhead’s frustration that two days had been tagged on to the holiday because of a visit by ‘the president of a neighbouring republic.’ There are also accounts including records of expenses connected with a deceased fireman and for a ship’s chandler.
Thomas married Elizabeth Ann McClelland on 21 November 1876. Together they had seven children: Thomas Elliott, James William, Elizabeth Maud, Arthur Owen, Harold, Edith Irene and Harry Stanley.
We get some insights into Thomas, the family man, in, for example, a letter written before they were married which Elizabeth kept all her life.
‘My Darling Lizzie, I send you this as a slight attempt to express my sentiment upon your birthday. Accept my kindest love and best wishes. May you have many happy returns of the day, each year bringing you increased happiness and prosperity and before another birthday, my darling, may I have the right to look after and add to your happiness. Tom’
She also kept another handwritten note. We can work out from the date that this was written in 1888, when the older boys would have been around eight and six years old and there were two younger children at home.
It reads ‘Sunday 22nd April: a wet, cold day. Left home to rejoin ship by the eight past seven train.
My darling wife and our two eldest boys, Tom and Willie, accompanied me to the Central Station, where we arrived early and found my sister, who had come to wish me goodbye. The boys kept romping about the platform and they seemed to enjoy a monopoly of all the good spirit as my poor sweetheart and I felt the shadow of our approaching separation hanging over us, my holiday too quickly over.
But even waiting on a cold railway platform comes to an end. We take our seats, one last loving look, one last mute ‘Good speed’ and we are off and may God be with us and bring us safely together once more.’
Poems that Thomas had copied out, including ‘Gray’s Elegy’ and ‘A Wife’s Motto – a paraphrase of the 16th and 17th verses of the first chapter of the book of Ruth’ also survive and give further insight into Thomas Aitkenhead, the man.
Elizabeth accompanied her husband on a number of his voyages including to the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. This was a privilege afforded only to the captain’s wife. Nevertheless, the shipowner apparently objected, asking how the captain could keep his mind on the job with his wife alongside him. Thomas is said to have replied that, with such a precious passenger aboard, the captain would be even more attentive than before to the safety of his ship.
According to another story handed down the generations, on one of these occasions pirates boarded the ship. Thomas had a gun in his desk and was reaching for it when the pirate captain apparently made a Masonic sign. It is said that Elizabeth discovered only at that moment that her husband was also a Freemason. The pirates took provisions and left the ship, sparing Thomas. Elizabeth said the pirates were later captured and hanged.
The SS Cereda, built by John Readhead and Sons in South Shields, was launched on 24 December 1890 and owned by Cay, Hall and Co. Its first voyage was 12 February 1891 and records show that Aitkenhead captained the ship from the very beginning. There are newspaper notices of him taking it into Genoa, Odessa, Gibraltar, Rotterdam, Barcelona, Antwerp, Hamburg, Constantinople, Algiers, the Danube, Bombay, Port Said and Malta, among other places during that first year, some of them multiple times.
In August 1891, the year before his final eventful voyage, Aitkenhead wrote that the ship had arrived in Algiers and would carry 140 tons of coal to Antwerp. He had taken the opportunity to call a doctor for two sick men, ‘more easily done here than at Gibraltar where the quarantine regulations are more strictly enforced.’ There was then a delay at Antwerp due to severe weather.
But a voyage on the same ship beginning in April 1892 was to be Thomas’s last. It started badly and continued to be beset by immense difficulties.
On 8 April, just after SS Cereda had left Barry in Wales, Aitkenhead reported to the ship’s owners that they had been detained due to defects in the engine room. He’d ‘had to send ashore for engineers’. Then it was ‘suddenly discovered that the beef and pork was not on board. Will have to be sent for by tug. The voyage we are going on is impossible without them.’
The voyage seems to have gone relatively smoothly for the next few weeks. We know from notices in the ‘Shields Daily Gazette’ that the ship left Tenerife on 26 April. But then, on 14 May, with the ship ‘some 17 days out from Tenerife’ and about 300 miles from her destination, Pensacola in Florida, ‘her shaft broke just outside the stern tube and the propellor was lost’. What happened next was considered so remarkable at the time that, some months later, incredulous letters were published in the press querying whether the episode did in fact take place or was even possible. The consensus was that such a feat had never been accomplished before.
As a crew member put it ‘Wind and current was against her and unless salvage assistance could be obtained, the Cereda was in a position most nautical men would consider one of helplessness.’
Captain Aitkenhead’s detailed report to his employer (an extract from which is shown above) ‘not withstanding the weather was bad and the sea was swarming with sharks’ explains how, after 12 days work, with the ship ‘anchored in 35 fathoms of water, 85 miles from the nearest land’ he and the crew managed to get the broken tail end out, a spare tail end weighing two tons in its place and the spare propellor weighing five tons shipped and the nut screwed up. He referred to ‘a work of some difficulty on account of the restricted space…’. This sounds like an understatement; it was said to have been the first time a ship’s propellor had been successfully replaced while at sea.
After this lengthy and dangerous underwater repair, Cereda limped into Pensacola on 1 June. The ship was still badly damaged, however, and had to undergo extensive repairs before she could be reloaded and return home. Captain Aitkenhead grew increasingly frustrated. On 6 June, he drew the owners’ attention to the ‘serious delays, the third day on which no work has been done’. On 8th, he reported ‘little progress with our loading… The labourers are the masters here and their pay is as high as 16/8 to 33/- per day so a day or two off can make little difference to them.’ On 11th, ‘It’s a miserable tedious business. You cannot reckon on saving time under any circumstances, the work being all done by hand.’
We also know from weather records that there were tropical storms in the Gulf of Mexico between 10 and 16 June.
Then finally on 17 June with ‘Mr I Williams discharged from hospital…We sail in the morning for Fécamp’, a small port in Normandy. But Captain Aitkenhead’s personal nightmare was only just beginning.
Within three days he had fallen sick. Remarkably, we have an hour by hour account of his illness and the care and treatment he received in a diary written by the assiduous crew member who looked after him, at first under the captain’s own orders, with the help of the ‘Ship’s Captain’s Medical Guide’. This publication, now in its 23rd edition, then in its 2nd, is still used on vessels which don’t have a qualified doctor on board.
The first medical diary entry was on Monday 20 June when we learn that ‘the captain was properly off his food.’ He took 3 grams of quinine and a ‘slop diet’. The following day he took ‘fever mixture’ as per the ‘No 2 Medical Guide’, a little chicken broth and arrowroot, more quinine and a drop of port wine. By the Wednesday, the crew member had diagnosed ‘malaria fever’ and given the captain egg, toast, tapioca pudding, beef extract, tea, biscuit and barley water.
On Saturday 25 June, the ship docked at Newport News in Virginia and the Quarantine Officer, a Dr Jones, confirmed the diagnosis of malaria and prescribed a ‘box of pills and a bottle of sleeping draught’. The pills most likely contained quinine, known since the 17th century to have an effect against malaria, and the draught may well have been laudanum, a highly addictive opiate. The link between malaria and mosquitos was still unknown.
Although he rallied a little, we hear that, by the Monday, Captain Aitkenhead’s stools were black, his fluids had an offensive smell, his pulse rate was 82 beats per minute and he was ‘rambling in speech’. His carer wrote that there was no means of taking a temperature on board. The prescribed sleeping mixture had ‘done no good and had run out’.
The following morning, along with egg and soda biscuit, and against advice, the captain drank ‘half a glass of English beer’. This seemed to perk him up a little because the next day, he said he could eat ‘a bit of flying fish’. Sadly for him, there was none on board and so it was back to eggs and port. On Saturday 2 July, however, his luck was in, a flying fish had been caught and he ate about a quarter of an ounce for breakfast. After a couple of glasses of wine during the afternoon, he said he ‘fancies stewed onions’ which the cook was able to provide. The following day his condition seemed improved and he went for a walk on deck but that night he was cold and asked for more bed clothes. The following morning, he declined quinine but asked for stewed onions again and pea soup – he was given chicken broth instead.
And then, the carer reported a breakthrough: ‘Now I know it is really typhoid fever’. The captain ‘had spots on his chest as book (Medical Guide) says.’ He wrote that there had been ‘no chance of seeing his chest before but am satisfied now what it is.’ It had been understood for some 45 years, that typhoid fever was a water borne disease but the specific bacterium that caused it had only been identified within the previous decade. A vaccination wouldn’t be developed for another four years by Yorkshireman Alnoth Wright.
The treatment in 1892? ‘Gave him 2 table spoons full of whiskey in soda water. Says he has no pain to speak of so won’t put turpentine fomentation on belly.’
On Monday 11 July, Captain Aitkenhead asked how far the ship was from England. The answer was about 240 miles. He drank more whiskey. By that evening, the captain was ‘wandering in his speech’, ‘roaming in his berth’ and asking for his wife and son.
By Wednesday 13th, the final entries in the diary report that the captain’s spots were very dim, his tongue not so much coloured and his pulse 92. He took 6 grains of Dover’s Powder, port wine, eggs and chicken broth. The diary ends abruptly.
SS Cereda eventually docked in Fécamp, a small fishing port in Normandy, where it evidently caused quite a stir because on 27 July, the president of its Chamber of Commerce wrote to Captain Aitkenhead to tell him that the chamber had decided to offer him ‘a medal in remembrance of your arrival with your splendid steamer, Cereda, the largest ship of commerce entered in Fécamp until today.’ He went on to ‘hope that this medal bearing on one of its faces your name (and the ship’s name) will give you an agreeable reminder of the port of Fécamp.’
It was on 30 July that Captain Aitkenhead arrived at the family home at 82 Heaton Park Road. We don’t know whether he ever saw the letter or the medal.
We do know a little about the final leg of Captain Aitkenhead’s journey home though thanks to three letters published in ‘Fairplay’, an insurance industry publication, on 13 January 1893.
The first was dated 18 October 1892 from Cay, Hall and Co to the underwriters describing what had happened and mentioning that Mr William Cay had gone to meet the vessel and take Captain Aitkenhead home. ‘He had to be carried ashore in a very weak state.’ It quotes Elizabeth ‘who was also there’ as saying that ‘but for his [Mr Cay’s] great care and kindness her husband would never have got to his home’. It goes on to say ‘He was at home exactly a week before he died, leaving a widow with seven children, one of whom is a cripple’ and that ‘the doctor at Fécamp stated that his illness was greatly brought about by anxiety.’
The second letter was from Ralph Carr, secretary of the North of England Iron Steamship Insurance Association dated 21 October, supporting the claim, stating that his directors had paid up and hoping that other underwriters would too.
In the third letter, dated 7 January 1893 Cay, Hall and Co confirmed that the underwriters had paid in full the insured value of the ship and that £500 had been invested for the benefit of the captain’s widow and children.
Family legend, however, gives a different take on Cay and Hall’s conduct. It records that it was only when a whistle-blower, a clerk employed by the firm, tipped off Elizabeth that a substantial sum of insurance money due to her was being withheld, that they paid up.
Captain Thomas Aitkenhead died at home on 6 August 1892, three days after his 50th birthday. Elizabeth was just 35 years old and was left with seven children under 11. Harry was to die a year later, aged three. Irene was under a year old.
SS Cereda was bought by Rafael Ferrer of Bilbao in 1913 and renamed ‘Quince’ and in 1916 renamed again ‘Marques de Urquijo’. She was finally sunk by U-Boat U46, 55 miles north-east of Punta Galea on 23 December 1916 while heading from Bilbao to Middlesbrough with a cargo of iron ore.
In later years the family lived at other Heaton addresses including 38 Cheltenham Terrace and 10 Simonside Terrace. Elizabeth attended St Gabriel’s Church and is said to have raised her family with courage, determination and success.
The oldest boy, Thomas Elliott, who was 12 when his father died and, like his younger brother, Willie, had to leave his private school in Barnard Castle, went on to become an engineer and a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy. He became Fleet Engineer Officer of the China Squadron and, between 1931 and 1934, of the Mediterranean Fleet. During this period, he was Aide de Camp to the King. On a visit to Egypt to buy equipment, he apparently noticed the large scale manufacture of sea mines and reported it to the Admiralty. In WW2, he had responsibility for naval repairs on Tyneside and in 1944 was awarded a CBE. He was living in Virginia Water, Surrey when he died in 1955.
James William became a telegraphist. He later lived at 52 Whitefield Terrace. He died in 1947.
Maud became a tracer in an engineering works but by 1939 was living in the household of John Young, a farmer, and his wife, Ann in Beadnell. Elizabeth was also living with them. Elizabeth died in 1940 and Maud in 1946. They are both, along with Harry, who died in childhood, buried with Thomas in Jesmond Old Cemetery.
Arthur became an insurance clerk. He was living in Weybridge, Surrey when he died in 1961.
Harold went on to be a tea and rubber planter who spent a lot of his working life in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). However, when he died aged 67, he was living at 17 Denewell Avenue, High Heaton.
Edith Irene became a teacher with strong socialist sympathies. She became founding secretary of the Tyneside Anglo-Soviet Friendship Society. She married Frederick Handel Walker, a technical chemist, who was active in the Fabian Society. Both were keen members of the People’s Theatre. Both Irene and Frederick died in 1975.
It was their son, Eric Neilson Walker, also a well-known local Labour Party activist and a keen historian, who deposited both his own papers and the Aitkenhead family records in Tyne and Wear Archives. Together with the other sources of information which we have been lucky enough to access, they have afforded us a glimpse into the life of a Victorian merchant seaman who sailed the seven seas, all the while missing his wife and family in Heaton.
Researched and written by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group. Thank you to Tyne and Wear Archives for access to Thomas Aitkenhead and Eric Walker’s papers; to Gill and Pauline of Friends of Jesmond Old Cemetery for the photograph of the Aitkenhead family grave; to Janet Burn for the reimagining of Thomas’s portrait and SS Cereda leaving Pensacola.
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If you know any more about Thomas Aitkenhead and especially if you have any photographs you are willing to share – we haven’t managed to find any to date – we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the speech bubble immediately below the article title to the right or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
British Newspaper Archive
‘Captain Thomas Aitkenhead of Heaton: papers of…’ (DX909), Tyne and Wear Archives
‘Eric Walker, Labour Party activist, Newcastle‘ (DF.WKR), Tyne and Wear Archives
‘Eric Walker 1921-2003’ North East Labour History vol 38, 2007
Originally published 5 May 2023