A SHIPBUILDER’S LETTER FROM 1879 (April 9/04)

“I think it is fascinating,” Connie Millett said, “to hold in my hand a letter written by my great great-grandfather and have it in such good condition.”

The letter datelined Hantsport, July 4, was written by shipbuilder A. C. Ells in 1879 and is addressed to his son Cyrus Ells in Scots Bay. Ms. Millett contacted me to mention the spelling of Scots Bay, a topic that’s been in the news lately. As she stated, the letter is indeed fascinating and for various reasons besides it being a valuable family keepsake.

First of all, for anyone interested in the shipbuilding era, the Ells letter provides an intimate glimpse of this period. A. C. Ells apparently built a number of sailing ships. Ms. Millett tells me she has quite a bit of background on her ancestor. Millett says Ells was listed in the Scots Bay business directory of the 1864 Ambrose Church map as a master shipwright and way office keeper.

Ells, Millett writes, built three ships, “a barque, The Bluebird, a barque, The Bremen, and a schooner, The Avon.” Her reference source is the history of Scots Bay, written by Abram Jess in 1940. Millett says Ells refers to the Bremen and Avon in one of his 1879 letters. “We may be sure that he was in the process of refitting the Bluebird (when) he wrote (this letter),” Millett says, since there is a reference to it in a note sent to Ells from one of his sons. This note mentions “serious damage sustained by The Bluebird on a journey back from the West Coast.”

The letter A. C. Ells wrote to his son Cyrus describes in detail the repairs being done on the Bluebird, which is being worked on in an unidentified Hantsport shipyard. Sailing ship buffs will be interested in Ells’ description of the work and his reference to the ship as female; it is, to say the least, a fascinating glimpse of that bygone era of sails.

“I write to inform you that we have got the vessel stripped of her copper as far as we can from the beach,” Ells wrote, “and have taken out some plank(s) out of her topside and deck and find her as sound as when she was launched. Not a bit of dry rot in her. We have got the caulking to work now and will be ready to put her on the blocks next week to get at her bottom.

“She wants a new foreyard and some new sails, which we are getting made and a new top gallon yard.* We have to send down the main topmast and lift the main rigging, so it will take me some time to get through, perhaps a fortnight. We think it will spoil $2,000 by the time she gets away.”

Ms. Millett intimates that she treasures this and other letters in her possession written by her shipbuilding ancestors well over a century ago. She’s fortunate indeed to have these family treasures.

*Topgallant, which is a sail, according to Leon Barron. The foreyard referred to is cross spars. Re the reference to stripping the ship of copper, Leon tells me that sailing ships were sheathed in copper to protect the wood from a marine woodborer.

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