North Ayrshire Heritage Trails

North Ayrshire Heritage Trails

North Ayrshire Heritage Trails

View of Bathing Ponds and Pavilion

North Ayrshire Heritage Trails

North Ayrshire Heritage Trails

Saltcoats, Saltpans

North Ayrshire Heritage Trails

North Ayrshire Heritage Trails

Saltcoats Mission Coast Home

Saltcoats - Home of saltpans and sea queens

Betsy Miller, 1792-1864; first female sea captain

Gales in the Firth of Clyde in the middle of February 1852 forced ships to run for shelter. There were many ships from both home and abroad anchored off Lamlash where their crews took on fresh water and provisions while waiting for conditions to change. Part of a report in the Glasgow Herald published on Friday 20th February 1852 headlined, "The Wind-Bound Fleet in the Firth, Lamlash Monday Morning", contains the following.

"Not the least, but perhaps the greatest wonder in the Loch at present is the good old brig Cloetus of Saltcoats, which for more than 20 years has been commanded by a heroic and exceedingly clever young lady, Miss Betsy Miller, daughter of the late William Miller, Esq., shipowner and wood-merchant of that town. He was concerned with several vessels, both in the American and coasting trade. Miss Betsy, before she went to sea, acted as "ship's-husband" to her father; and seeing how the captains in many cases behaved, her romantic and adventurous spirit impelled her to go to sea herself. Her father gratified her caprice, and gave her the command of the Cloetus, which she holds to the present day, and has weathered the storms of the deep when many commanders of the other sex have been driven to pieces on the rocks. Her position and attitudes on quarter-deck in a gale of wind are often spoken of, and would do credit to an admiral.

We must not omit to state, that during the long period of this singular young lady's diversified voyagings, no seaman of her crew, or officer under her command, could speak otherwise of her than with greatest respect. The Cloetus is well known in the ports of Belfast, Dublin, Cork, &c., &c. She has often been driven into this Loch, and is familiarly known by the rude Highland boatmen as "Inloig laish Caphtain borin", i.e., the ship with the she-captain".

Betsy would have been 59 when this report was written and was obviously well known during her lifetime. She was in charge of the brig, its crew and cargo. Her work involved taking on cargo from suppliers and delivering it to buyers in ports in Ireland and further afield. She may have bought cargo, dealt with the duties and taxes, sold the cargo at the destination where she took on another cargo to bring back to her home port. She would have hired the crew including a Master Mariner. Her choice of ships Masters would have been dependent on their experience of the voyages the brig was due to make. To make sure that her business ran as well as possible Betsy would have sailed, and over the years gained considerable experience in the way the brig reacted in all sea conditions. She was the owner and her livelihood depended on the Clitus.

Betsy Miller

A piece in the Ayr Advertiser of Thursday 14th March 1844 headlined, "Violent Storm - Shipwrecks", reported that one of the many ships that were in trouble in Ayr, Troon, Irvine and Ardrossan on Saturday 9th March 1844 was the Clitus. The Troon correspondent reported that during the worst of the weather the brig Clitus of Saltcoats arrived in harbour, let go one anchor but was driven on shore. Betsy would have been responsible for paying for and overseeing any repairs and maintenance required.

Betsy may never have gone to sea had it not been for the tragedy that befell her family in 1833. Her brother John drowned in what should have been a day out for him and his friend. The Glasgow Herald, 27th September 1833, reported,

"Calamitous Occurrence. - We have this week the melancholy duty of recording a distressing accident which occurred on Tuesday last in the Firth of Clyde, by which no fewer than four men are supposed to have met an untimely death, and which has plunged several families into the deepest distress. On the afternoon of Tuesday last, Mr. John Miller, master of the brig Clytus of Saltcoats, and Mr. Alexander Gilchrist, a commercial traveller, connected with the firm of Stevenson & Co., muslin manufacturers, Glasgow, accompanied by two of the crew of the Clytus, named Jenkin Jones, a native of Wales, and - Brown, a young lad belonging to Ardrossan, left Saltcoats in an open boat for the purpose of enjoying a pleasure sail to the Horse Isle, lying off Ardrossan, and after remaining on the isle a short time they re-embarked and stood for Saltcoats; but the weather being very boisterous, with the wind increasing in fury, they could not make the harbour, and after tacking about for some time, they found their efforts to reach the pier unavailing, when they put about, and it is supposed attempted to get into Millport in the Meikle Cumbrae island, for which place the wind was favourable. The course of the devoted boat was traced by Mr. Affleck, the mate of the Clytus, from the mast head, by the aid of his glass, as far as Portincross, where they were overtaken by a tremendous squall, accompanied by so thick a fall of rain as completely to hide the boat from his view, and when the shower had passed, no trace of either the boat or her unfortunate crew could be obtained; but still a hope was entertained that she had weathered the storm and reached Millport.

The whole of that night and next day was spent amidst the greatest anxiety by Mr. Miller's relations and friends, in painful conjectures as to the fate of those on board the boat - nor was any intelligence of them received till eight o'clock in the evening, when the Albion steamer arrived from Millport, bringing a letter from a gentleman of that place, which stated that Captain Miller's boat had been found on the beach upset, at a short distance from Millport, but that nothing was know of those who had been on board - and we fear it is but too probable that they have all met a grave in the depths of the ocean. Mr. Miller was in the very bloom of manhood - was generous and warm-hearted, and possessed all those distinguishing traits which mark the British sailor; his loss is therefore deeply deplored by all who knew his manly disposition. He was a son of Mr. William Miller, merchant, Saltcoats, the owner of the Clytus, and has several relations living in this town. His friend Mr. Gilchrist had visited Saltcoats with the view of spending a few days in relaxation from the toils of business, and was a young man of the most sprightly and agreeable disposition.

The death of these individuals will be long and seriously deplored by their sorrowing and affectionate relations and associates. The Welsh seaman, Jones, entered on board the Clytus with Captain Miller, at Cork, last spring, sailed with him to North America, and had been with the brig ever since. - It is a singular and melancholy fact that Captain Miller is the third of the family who has met a similar fate - the whole of them were shipmasters. - Ayr Observer".

John Miller was 29 when he died. The article does not report that the other shipmasters in the family who had died were his brothers. They may have been cousins or uncles. Before 1833 John Millar was Master of the sloop Industry in the coastal trade before 1833. The Lloyds Register of that year has it listed as being owned by Millar & Co.

Elisabeth Miller, Betsy, was born on 11th June 1792, the eldest of ten children. Her baptismal record states that her father, William Miller, was at that time a Merchant Taylor in Saltcoats, and her mother was Mary Garret. They were married on the 12th December 1791. The record of their marriage notes that Mary was a widow. She had married John Mackey on the 23rd September 1782 and subsequently had two children by him, John in 1783 and Margaret in 1785. Mary Garret was born in Ardrossan in 1764 to Magnus Garret and Margaret Crauford. William Miller was born in West Kilbride in 1764 to Hugh Miller and Hannah Thomson. Betsy's brothers and sisters were; Hugh born 1st November 1793, Mary born 28th February 1795 and died before 1801, Hannah born 29th January 1796 and died before 1808, William born 15th December 1797, Margaret Crawford born 7th November 1799, Mary Garret born 3rd December 1801, John born 5th April 1804 and died in September 1833, Robert born 20th September 1806, Hannah Thomson born 29th August 1808.

A Masters Certificate was issued for William Miller in 1853. He had gone to sea in 1812 as an Apprenctice and by 1818 was a ships Master. A note at the bottom states that he requested the certificate by the end of April 1853 as he expected to take command of a vessel sailing for Australia. According to a piece by Catherine Duff on he died in Australia in 1869.

There is also a Masters Certificate issued in 1853 and renewed in 1856 for Robert Miller who had gone to sea in 1823 as an Apprentice in the coastal trade and had since then sailed to destinations in North America, India and China. When Betsy died on the 12th May 1864 it was reported in newspapers and periodicals both at home and abroad. Amongst these was the Leeds Times of the 21st May 1864.

"A Glasgow paper notices the demise of Miss Betsy Miller, aged 71, whose life and labours have often been quoted as illustrative of what a right-minded, earnest, and indefatigable woman can do in order to discharge a debt and earn an honourable maintenance. Miss Miller was a daughter of the late Mr. W. Miller, for a long time a shipowner and wood merchant in Saltcoats. In her younger years she act as clerk and "ship's husband" to her father, and when business affairs took an unfavourable turn, with a resolution which truly might be called heroic, she took the command of an old brig, the Clitus, and became "sailing-master". So successful was her career that she enabled to pay off a debt of £700, which her father's estate owed, maintain herself in comfort, and bring up two sisters left dependent upon her. The Clitus traded between Ardrossan and the coast of Ireland for more than 30 years; she transacted all the business connected with freight, cargo, and ship's course through all weathers".

Her youngest sister Hannah, who by then had taken on responsibility for the business, registered Betsy at the time of her death as Eliza Miller, Ship Owner. Hannah and her sister Mary lived in Saltcoats. At the time of the 1841 Census they were living with their father William, a wood merchant, in Quay Street. By 1851 Hannah and Mary were working as seamstresses. The crew of the Clytus was recorded in the 1871 Census at Ardrossan. They were all born in Saltcoats. The Captain was James Anderson, age 56. Archibald Robertson, age 32, the Mate and Seamen John Stewart, age 55, Thomas Redmond, age 48, Neil Robertson, age 19, Duncan Campbell, age 18, and Gilbert McKenzie, age 17, the cook. Hannah Miller, age 64, was the Stewardess.

The Glasgow Herald, Wednesday 29th March 1876, reports on the end of the relationship between the Miller family and the Clitus.

"The Last of a Famous Brig - Mr Plimsoll's destructive broom has swept away no more remarkable vessel than the old brig Clitus, which was recently condemned and which was sold this week for £122 by Mr Symington, auctioneer, Saltcoats. The Clitus was rebuilt more than a century ago from materials saved from the wreck of a man-of-was bearing the same name, which came to grief on the East coast. She became the property of Mr William Miller, merchant, Saltcoats; and during the great storm of February, 1839, when 33 vessels were driven ashore on the Ayrshire coast, the Clitus was included amongst the number. She required extensive repairs, and at the instance of a Kilmarnock gentleman, the late Mr Finnie, coalmaster, the eldest daughter of Mr Millar, the owner, was deputed to superintend the repairs. So efficiently did Miss Millar discharge this duty that Mr Finnie persuaded her to take command of the brig for one voyage, so that she might have a knowledge of her earnings.

The voyage yielded an excellent return, and the upshot was that Captain "Betsy" Millar took permanent command. For the lengthened period of 22 years, at all seasons, Betsy continued in charge of the Clitus, relinquishing her duties only when failing health compelled her to do so. She died at Saltcoats in 1864, and the Clitus was left as the breadwinner of the surviving sisters, who, however, are now deprived of this source of income. The name of Betsy was a most familiar one both afloat and ashore, and it was honourably mentioned by the late Earl of Eglinton in the House of Lords during the discussion of the Shipping Bill in 1854, and also in the House of Commons about the same time".

Mary died in July 1880 at Quay Street in Saltcoats. When Hannah died in February 1890 the newspapers reported on her work and that of her more famous sister Betsy. Neither Betsy, Mary or Hannah had ever married.

The Glasgow Herald of 20th February 1890 reported on Hannah's death and used much of what had been written previously. This report was picked up by many papers both at home and as far away as New Zealand in the Ashburton Guardian of the 2nd May 1890.

"Death of a Remarkable Saltcoats Woman - On Monday, Miss Hannah Millar, formerly of the brig Clitus, died in Quay Street, Saltcoats, at the advanced age of 82 years, The history of herself and her family is remarkable. Her father, the late Mr Wm. Millar, was a merchant in Saltcoats, in the days when it possessed a harbour, with a flourishing shipping trade and when shipbuilding was also carried on. In advanced years Mr Millar was unfortunate in his affairs, which at his death were embarrassed.

The principal asset of his business was the brig Clitus, which had been built out of material belonging to a man-of-war of the same name, which was wrecked on the east coast over 100 years ago. Mr Millar's eldest daughter, Miss Betsy Millar, at this crisis in the affairs of her family, with a resolution which might truly be called heroic, took the command of the brig and became "sailing master". So successful was her career as a "shipmaster" that she was enabled to pay off a debt of £700 which her father's estate owed to creditors, maintain herself in comfort, and bring up two sisters left dependent upon her.

The Clitus traded between Ardrossan and Irish ports, and for more than thirty years Miss Millar transacted all the business connected with freight, cargo, and ship's stores, engaged her crew, and directed the ship's course through all weathers. She received honourable mention by the late Earl of Eglinton in the House of Lords, when the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 was under discussion, and about the same time she was also mentioned praiseworthily in the House of Commons. At Miss Betsy Millar's death in 1864 Miss Hannah Millar assumed charge of the vessel, and continued successfully to command her for many years".

The Clitus

The first entry for the Clitus is in the supplement of new builds in the Lloyds Register of 1812. It was built in Sunderland, a Snow, for Lang or Laing from partly old material. This would make some sense of the later references to the Clitus being built partly from the wreckage of an old man-of-war. There is a small difference between a snow and a brig in the way the spanker is rigged. The spanker is the fore and aft sail behind the lower part of the mainmast. The inspection port was London and the destination was Gibraltar under the command of R. Sharp.

According to information given on the Clitus was built by John and Philip Laing at Bridge Dock, Monkwearmouth for Laing & Co Sunderland. The tonnage was given a 197 and it was launched on March 28th 1812.

A report in the Quebec Gazette, 18th June 1812, announces the arrival of the brig Clitus from Sunderland in 49 days, R. Sharp, master.

Shipping registered by Lloyds was not inspected every year but would be listed in their annual publications. In the entry published in 1818 the brig Clitus was listed as belonging to Wade & Co. The inspection port was Liverpool and the destination of the up coming voyage was Brazil under the command of W. Hanton.

An entry accessed at The Ships' List website from the Quebec Mercury of 1820 announced that the Brig Clitus arrived at Quebec on July 6th 1820 after 19 days from St Johns Newfoundland. The ship carried cargo to Bell and Stewart. The ships master Hanton. Bell & Stewart were noted merchants in Quebec at that time.

The Lloyds Register of 1833 has the Clitus belonging to Robinson & Co., master W. Hanton, inspection port Liverpool and the destination voyage was given as C. de V., possibly Cape de Verde. The ship had not been inspected in 1833. It was at that time owned by Miller & Co. and its master was the unfortunate John Miller.

The entries in Lloyds Register from 1834 to 1836 give the owner of the Clitus as Millar & Co. The ships master is T. Fleck. The brig is noted to be sailing from a port in the Firth of Clyde to Naples. Thomas Fleck was born in Ayr on the 5th April 1808. He went to sea as an apprentice in 1821. Between September 1831 and September 1833, (September 1835 on his Masters Certificate issued in 1851), he was the mate on the Clitus. It is likely that he was the mate reported to be watching from the mast of the Clitus when John Miller disappeared in 1833. The newspapers printed his name as Affleck not Fleck. He then became master of the Clitus until September 1837. His time on the Clitus was spent in the North American trade. The Novascotian reported that on August 3rd 1837 the brig Clitus arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia carrying 106 passengers at the end of a voyage from Cork which lasted for 42 days. View The Ships' List website for more information.

Between 1836 and 1845 the master of the Clitus is given as J. Barclay. The Clitus was noted as trading between ports on the Firth of Clyde and Dublin. James Barclay was born in Saltcoats on the 17th January 1807. He first went to sea as an apprentice in 1820 and sailed to Montreal. According to his Masters Certificate issued in 1851 he was the mate on the Clitus for a short time between 1834 and 1835 in the Irish trade and its master between July 1836 and February 1837 sailing to Charles Bay, Newfoundland.

After 1851 Lloyds were more interested in gathering information about foreign trade so information about shipping involved in the coastal trade is less likely to appear.


Periodicals accessed at google books

1852 Bizarre: For Fireside and Wayside, Volume 1, page 13, Joseph M Church published by Church & Co.

1852 Hunt's Merchants' Magazine and Commercial Review, Volume 26, page 650, edited by Freeman Hunt, Thomas Prentice Kettell

1863 The Employments of Women: A Cyclopædia of Woman's Work, page 480, Virginia Penny, published by Walker, Wise & Co.

1864 Illustrated London News, Volume 44, page 559, column 3

The Clytus. Betsy's ship in a painting by Captain William Robertson of Saltcoats in 1911.
This image of Betsy is courtesy of the Visit Saltcoats website.

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