First Arrival -- "Aurora" and "Walrus" Full
DESCRIPTION: "The first arrival from the ice Has just come in today; The good old ship Aurora And her colors waving gay." The ship arrives full of seals on Saint Patrick's Day. Captain Kean is celebrated. The Walrus is the next to arrive
EARLIEST DATE: 1904 (Old Home Week Songster)
KEYWORDS: hunting ship
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Ryan/Small-HaulinRopeAndGaff, p. 72, "First Arrival -- 'Aurora' and 'Walrus" Full" (1 text)
cf. "Arrival of the 'Grand Banks' and 'Virginia Lake' With Bumper Trips" (theme, ships)
cf. "Arrival of 'Aurora,' Diana,' 'Virginia Lake' and 'Vanguard,' Loaded" (theme, ships)
cf. "The Sealer's Song (II)" (ships)
NOTES [1886 words]: The Walrus was a very old steamer, going back to the 1860s, which had begun her service running between St. John's and the outports (O'Neill, p. 508). She belonged to the small firm of Stewart's, which closed down in 1893 (Feltham, p. 77 n. 47. It appears she was rebuild in that year -- Evans, p. 45 -- presumably because of the transfer of ownership). She went to the ice a total of 38 times (Chafe, p. 105); the only year she missed between 1870 and her loss in 1908 was 1892 (Ryan/Drake, p. 14). Badly damaged in 1880, she had to sail home early in that season, but strange weather brought the ice so close to Newfoundland that, barely patched up, she was able to go out and secure a big crop (Greene, p. 12). She came even closer to destruction in 1897, and the crew wanted to abandon her, but Captain Alpheus Barbour refused; she took no seals, but was saved and repaired. There is a photo of her on p. 14 of Ryan/Drake.
For the family of her "Captain Winsor" see "First Arrival from the Sea Fishery S. S. Fogota, 1912." It's not immediately evident which "Captain Winsor" is meant here; William Winsor Sr. commanded the Walrus in 1898, and S. R. Winsor 1904-1906; Jacob Winsor took charge in 1907, and lost her the next year (Chafe, p. 96).
The sealer Aurora had a long and complex history. She was built in Dundee in 1874, and was a sealer (and whaler) from the start (Ryan/Drake, p. 27) -- but, until 1894, she was based in Britain (Feltham, p. 22). According to Lubbock, p. 406, "In 1876, Messrs. Alexander Stephen & Sons [of Dundee] launched another fine auxiliary, the Aurora, of 580 tons gross, 376 tons net, with 98 h.p. engines, for their own use. Her dimensions were: Length 165 feet 2 inches, breadth 30 feet 6 inches, depth 18 feet 9 inches. She had a raised quarter-deck of 32 inches." Lubbock notes that this made her much shorter than her near-contemporary the Arctic.
Rycroft, p. 53, quotes a Dundee newspaper from December 30, 1876: "On Saturday an addition was made to the Dundee seal and whale fishing fleet by the launch of a fine vessel from the shipbuilding yard of Messrs Alexander Stephen & Son. The builders are the owners, and the new whaler has been built as a sister ship to the Arctic, which was launched by the same firm on 8th March 1875.... The ship which was named the Aurora, is barque-rigged, and is 530 tons gross register. Her dimensions are:- Length 195 feet; breadth of beam, 30 feet; and depth of hold 18 feet 9 inches.... Her propeller, brackets, &c., have been made of malleable cast iron, and can be taken on deck when there is the slightest danger to be apprehended from coming in contact with the ice. The engines are to be surface condensing, on the compound principle, and can be wrought at a high rate of speed with small consumption of coal. They are 98-horse power nominal, or 500 indicated. The Aurora is to be commanded by Captain Bannerman."
Watson, pp. 7-8, gives an amazing catalog of her adventures: her "action-packed calling saw her icebound in 1882, rescue American explorers in 1884, be twice given up for lost in 1886, feature in a 'scurvy' court case, lose seven whaleboats in a storm and search for lost Swedish explorers, all in 1893, spend a month in pack ice in 1895, collide with another Dundee whaler in 1908 and be reported sunk with the loss of 187 men after hitting an iceberg in 1910. Yet the Aurora turned up again and again. In 1911 she steamed 30,000 miles in southern oceans on Douglas Mawson's expedition and was then battered in a long imprisonment by ice during Shackleton's heroic Antarctic adventure in 1914-1916. She was last seen in 1917 somewhere between Australia and Chile...."
She would briefly gain fame in the 1880s when she was one of the ships involved in rescuing the Greely expedition to Ellesmere Island (Guttridge, p. 270), for which see the notes to "Hurrah for Baffin's Bay."
Rycroft, p. 75, summarizes the events of 1886 (while adding that Captain Fairweather recalled them as happening in 1885): "They left Dundee in February in the face of a south-east wind.... [T]he helmsman got thrown over the wheel and was laid up for the rest of the passage with a broken rib. Shortly after, three men were hurt when a heavy sea was shipped, one sustaining a broken leg. Water got down below resulting in the stoke-hole plates being washed up and the loose coal choked the pumps....
"They had to fight ever mile of the passage to St. John's against westerly winds.... They had to work hard to be ready to sail with the sealing fleet the following day [March 10]; that same night the engine broke down and the ship was helpless amongst the pack ice.... In a crippled state they managed to secure just over 3000 seals [a pitiful number] but were then beset. They then struck an iceberg and all hands were ordered on the ice. When the Captain realised that the berg was aground... and therefore stationary, the ship was safe for the moment but the pack ice had broken most of the starboard bulwark. he crew was ordered on board again." Many, however, could not get back to the ship, which was floating away fasted than they could move on the ice. Sixty men were missing when the roll was called, although all but one apparently survived. The ship's propeller was also bent; she had to give up for the year (Rycroft, p. 76).
She had rather mixed results during her years sailing from Britain. She had a few good years, but wasn't noteworthy for her successes when sailing from the British Isles (Feltham, p. 24). In 1894, she was taken over by Bowring's, the Newfoundland shipping company, and started using local crews -- which much improved her results. Her first commander after that was Arthur Jackman (not to be confused with another famous captain, William Jackman; for Arthur Jackman, see also "Sealer's Song (I)," and for his work in the Aurora, see also "The Old Polina"). After she was hit by a severe illness in 1897 (four killed and more than a hundred sick; Winsor, p. 31), the famous Abram Kean (for whom see "Captain Abram Kean") commanded from 1898 to 1904 (Feltham, p. 24), and averaged about twice as many seals per year as during her Dundee period. In 1904, he brought in an amazing 34,000 seals.
Which is not to say that she always had good luck sailing from Newfoundland. In 1886, a run-in with an iceberg caused her crew to abandon her for a few hours, and some never came back (they reported her missing, and a rescue mission was being mounted when she showed up, leaking and barely seaworthy; Archibald, p. 126). In 1893, Captain Harry McKay was fined for not issuing the proper lemon juice ration, resulting in one of his sailors suffering from scurvy (Archibald, p. 127). On November 15, 1895, when she was carrying a load of gunpowder and ammunition, she caught fire, and only prompt action by the firemen of St. John's prevented an explosion (O'Neill, p. 637). She also suffered ice damage in 1905 and 1908 (Archibald, p. 127).
From 1906 to 1911, Aurora was commanded by Captain D. Green, and although she didn't succeed as well as under Kean, she did average about 11,000 seals per year (Feltham, p. 28).
1908 (after this piece was written) was a bad year for the Aurora, which was damaged during the seal hunt, but (as we saw above) a worse one for the Walrus, which was sunk when her bow was stove in (Ryan, p. 191), although with light casualties (O'Neill, p. 972). Most of her crew was taken off by the Neptune, although many later transferred to other ships (Winsor, p. 69).
After 1911, the Aurora was converted to an Antarctic exploring vessel (apparently because she was considered one of the inferior ships in the fleet; Ryan, p. 195; according to Watson, p. 178, they looked at the Terra Nova, for which see "The Terra Nova," but she was too expensive), at first under Sir Douglas Mawson (Keir, p. 204); Mawson took her because she was available for a mere £6000 (Fitzsimons, p. 295). He had her re-rigged as a barkentine (FitzSimons, p. 203), which probably improved her sailing but perhaps lessened her speed. She spent almost a year stuck in the ice starting in 1915 (Feltham, p. 29), suffering much damage but surviving the weather that doomed Shackleton's Endurance (Watson, pp. 177-178). This trip is reportedly described in Richard McElrea and David Harrowfield's book Polar Castaways, which I have not seen. After that, Shackleton bought her from Mawson for just £3200 (Rycroft, p. 89); after working with Mawson, she was sold to an American company.
On June 26, 1917, she left Newcastle, Australia, for a commercial voyage carrying coal -- and vanished (Tarver, p. 15; Archibald, p. 127, says the only trace of her was a buoy with her name on it that washed ashore in Australia; Feltham, p. 29, says it was another trip to Antarctica; Rycroft, p. 89, says she was bound for Chile and had about 22 sailors aboard). At least some thought the Germans responsible (Tarver, p. 16), but she wasn't big enough to be a noteworthy target and she was in the South Pacific anyway; there weren't any Germans there after 1914!
Douglas Mawson named a rise in Antarctica "Aurora Peak" after the ship (FitzSimons, p. 532), although it's small enough that my National Geographic Atlas doesn't show it, and while you can look it up on Google Maps, the actual map display shows a blank there.
In addition to this piece, the Aurora is mentioned in "Arrival of 'Aurora,' 'Diana,' 'Virginia Lake,' and 'Vanguard,' Loaded," "The Old Polina," and "The Sealer's Song (II)." The Walrus is also mentioned in the latter. The Aurora is also the subject of "The Spring of '97" although she is not named in the song.
Another book about her is David Moore Lindsay's A Voyage to the Arctic in the Whaler 'Aurora' (1911); I haven't seen that, but it is now available in cheap reprints. It's about her whaling work, though, not her sealing work, so it's only marginally relevant to this song.
There is a picture of the Aurora unloading in St. John's on p. 172 of Feltham and a different photo on p. 27 of Ryan/Drake; there is also one facing p. 1 of Kean. WInsor, p. 31, has a very poor photo which appears to show her in the ice. Fitzsimons has one of her in Antarctica in his photos section. Rycroft, p. 54, has a painting of her from 1884 and a photo on p. 55.
To date this song, we must seek a year in which Abram Kean commanded Aurora and a Captain Winsor commanded Walrus. That gives only two possibilities: 1898 and 1904, with William Winsor Sr. commanding Walrus in 1898 and S. R. Winsor in 1904. Both years were good; Aurora took 25633 seals in 1898, and 34849 in 1904 (Chafe, p. 92); Walrus had 14702 in 1898 and 16720 in 1904. But the Aurora's 1904 total matches the "four and thirty thousand seals" mentioned in the song, and the Walrus's matches the "sixteen thousand prime young harps." Checking first returns, Aurora and Walrus were first in 1904 (Chafe, p. 71); they were relatively late in 1898. Thus 1904 appears to be the year. There is one minor complication: In 1904, the Aurora sailed from Wesleyville, but the Walrus from St. John's (Chafe, p. 71), reversing what is implied in the song, but this is likely just a minor reversal. Every other indication fits the year 1904, which was also the year the song was published. - RBW
Last updated in version 5.2
- Archibald: Malcolm Archibald, The Dundee Whaling Fleet: Ships, Masters and Men, Dundee University Press, 2013
- Chafe: Levi George Chafe, Chafe's Sealing Book: A History of the Newfoundland Sealfishery from the Earliest Available Records Down To and Including the Voyage of 1923, third edition, Trade Printers and Publishers, Ltd., 1923 (PDF scan available from Memorial University of Newfoundland)
- Evans: Calvin D. Evans, Master Shipbuilders of Newfoundland and Labrador, Volume One: Cape Spear to Boyd's Cove, Breakwater Books, 2013
- Feltham: John Feltham, Sealing Steamers, Harry Cuff Publications, 1995
- FitzSimons: Peter FitzSimons, Mawson and the Ice Men of the Heroic Age: Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen, William Heinemann, 2011
- Greene: William Howe Greene, The Wooden Walls among the Ice Floes: Telling the Romance of the Newfoundland Seal Fishery, Hutchinson & Co, London (PDF available on the Memorial University of Newfoundland web site)
- Guttridge: Leonard F. Guttridge, Ghosts of Cape Sabine: The Harrowing True Story of the Greely Expedition, Berkley, 2000
- Kean: Abram Kean, with a foreword by Sir Wilfred Grenfell, Old and Young Ahead, 1935; I use the 2000 Flanker Press edition edited and with a new Introduction (and new photographs) by Shannon Ryan
- Keir: David Keir, The Bowring Story, The Bodley Head, 1962
- Lubbock: Basil Lubbock, The Arctic Whalers, Brown, Son, & Ferguson, 1937 (I use the 1955 reprint)
- O'Neill: Paul O'Neill, A Seaport Legacy: The Story of St. John's, Newfoundland, Press Procepic, 1976
- Ryan: Shannon Ryan, The Ice Hunters: A History of Newfoundland Sealing to 1914, Breakwater Books, 1994
- Ryan/Drake: Shannon Ryan, assisted by Martha Drake, Seals and Sealers: A Pictorial History of the Newfoundland Seal Fishery, Breakwater Books, 1987
- Rycroft: Nancy Rycroft (granddaughter of James Fairweather), Captain James Fairweather: Whaler and Shipmaster: His Life and Carer 1853-1933, Fairweather Books, 2005
- Tarver: Michael C. Tarver, The S. S. Terra Nova (1884-1943), Pendragon Maritime Publications, 2006
- Watson: Norman Watson, The Dundee Whalers, Tuckwell Press, 2003
- Winsor: Naboth Winsor, Stalwart Men and Sturdy Ships: A History of the Prosecution of the Seal Fishery by the Sealers of Bonavista Bay North, Newfoundland, Economy Printing Limited, 1985
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