MYSTERY ENTRIES IN AN 1880s LEDGER (June 11/04)

In the summer of 1880 Ebenezar Bigelow was putting the finishing touches on the barque E. J. Spicer at his shipyard in Canning. Bigelow purchased supplies for the barque from several merchants in the area, one of them the prominent Canning firm of Sheffield & Wickwire.

In her Canning and Habitant history (Old Times, 1981) A. Marie Bickerton has various entries from the ledgers of Sheffield & Wickwire’s. One of those entries list some of the supplies purchased by Bigelow for the barque; they included two tanks for water closets, two water tanks of 120 gallons each, 12 deck buckets, three meat barrels, one molasses barrel and a mystery item called a “kyd.”.

What’s interesting about these purchases is what that they seem to tell us about life as a sailor during the era of sailing ships. I always pictured seamen of those days leading a rough and crude life with few of the comforts of home; answering nature’s call, for example, with a quick trip to the stern of the ship. But no, in 1880 Ebenezar Bigelow was purchasing tanks for water closets on the barque he was working on; which appears to indicate there was inside plumbing of some sort.

However, the dean of sailing ship historians tells me this entry is misleading and a bit of a mystery. As far as he knows, Leon Barron says, barques were never equipped with water closets – flush toilets – and the entry must refer to something else. The 12 deck buckets Ebenezar Bigelow purchased to equip the E. J. Spicer most likely would have been the nearest thing to a water closet for the crew of the barque. “The buckets were the toilets in those days,” Barron said.

Barron said that smaller barques would have a crew of about 12, the larger ones about 20. Thus the purchase of a dozen buckets for the E. J. Spicer gives us a clue to the ship’s size.

The mysterious entry of tanks for water closets may have a simple explanation. Bigelow may have been purchasing the tanks for his residence, not for the E. J. Spicer, and the bookkeeper for Sheffield & Wickwire could have lumped the purchases together. Sheffield & Wickwire were ship suppliers – “they had a chandlery in Canning and were also ship owners,” Barron said – so it’s possible that the entry was copied from another ledger. Ms. Atkinson said that the ledger entries she reproduced in her book were also from a firm called Melville’s Mill.

Now for the other mystery entry in the ledger – “three kyds.” This had Barron stumped for a moment but he came up with a possible explanation for the item. “It’s probably kegs,” Barron said, suggesting that the handwriting in the old ledger was misread by Atkinson or misspelled by a bookkeeper.

Ms. Atkinson also had an error in the name of the barque, which she gave as the C. J. Spicer. Barron says there is no record of a barque by this name and Atkinson had to be referring to the E. J. Spicer. This barque was named for Emily J. Morris from Advocate who married Capt. George Spicer. Capt. Spicer was the grandfather of noted contemporary sailing ship historian Stanley Spicer.

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