Two Fearless Lady Mariners
Reproduced with the kind permission of the author Joan Biggar of Ardrossan.
Originally published in 'Ireland's Own' magazine.
During the early years of Queen Victoria's reign, a Scotswoman named Betsy Miller was a frequent and welcome visitor to Ireland. There was nobody quite like Betsy in the entire world, as she had the distinction of being the only woman whose name has ever appeared in the British Registry of Tonnage as captain of a vessel. Her ship, the 'Clytus' was built of material salvaged from a French man of war of the same name which was wrecked off the east coast of Scotland prior to 1793 which was the year of Betsy's birth; and with her lady captain at the helm the secondhand but sturdy 'Clytus' sailed regularly from her home port of Saltcoats to the Irish ports of Belfast, Dublin and Cork.
Betsy was the eldest of eight children born to Captain William Miller and his wife Mary, and had worked as her father's clerk, and sailed with him at every opportunity. But she was forty-six when her real sea-going career began. That year, 1839, was a bad one for the Miller family. The captain's health failed, his only son, Hugh, who had been destined to take over the ship, was drowned in an accident at Ardrossan harbour, and the family were in debt to the tune of £700 - a fortune in those days. It was then that Betsy seized her chance to shine in what was considered to be exclusively a man's world. She took command of the 'Clytus' and a fourteen-man crew and made an astounding success of the bold venture.
Throughout the many years during which Captain Betsy Miller sailed the Irish sea, it was the custom to place lighted candles in the windows of houses which overlooked the waterfront. If the wind coming from the sea was strong enough to blow a candle out, a ship sailing for the Irish ports would make little progress. At least so all the other ships' masters in Saltcoats averred as they settled down comfortably by their firesides or in the tavern waiting for the carrying wind to turn in their favour. But not Betsy!
"I don't wait for the carry," was her boast, and she could be over to Ireland with a cargo of coal and back with one of limestone whilst more cautious skippers were still wasting time in Saltcoats and losing trade to the Clytus.
Coal and limestone are amongst the dirtiest, heaviest cargoes ever stowed in a hold, but Betsy retained her gentility. She was quietly but stylishly dressed, and has been described as 'sonsy, of medium height and well favoured'. She always sported a white, frilly cambric cap when on board. In fact she sailed with suitable clothes for every occasion including her shroud just in case!
At the age of seventy, Betsy retired to the Miller family home, a stone built house with a painting of the Clytus on the gable wall. She died on 12 May, 1864. By this time Hannah, Betsy's youngest sister had taken over the command of the Clytus and the ship's trade with Irish ports. Betsy's was a hard act to follow, and the life she had loved proved to be a nightmare existence for Hannah. Nobody reading extracts from a letter the hapless woman wrote to another sister, Mary, can fail to be heart-sorry for her!
"Carlingford Lough, 26 October, 1871. Thursday, eleven o'clock at night.
My Dear Mary, I wrote you last Monday as the Boat was going for Potatoes, which we hope you received ... Well, as the wind came round that evening we got under weigh on Tuesday morning about two o'clock and had got as far as Portaferry when the wind came right ahead. Still, we hung at sea, thinking to make a passage, but today the glass began to fall and the sun looked so bad we were obliged to run for this place, and with much anxiety of mind got in about an hour ago; and I write this in case the Harbour Boat that comes in the morning should be here before I am out of Bed for I h a ve to give 7/6 for anchorage and it is the last penny I have, and I am here a Perfect Stranger with no money nor a bit of Beef in the Barrel for the last was put in soak to Day ... I am indeed thankful that I am again in a place of safety, for no one but God knows what I suffer from anxiety at sea in a long stormy night, and this night I am afraid of taking that pain that comes so severe on me. However, I hope I may be disappointed. I can give you no news of the rest of the vessels that left with us, as it is dark, and a severe night it is. 1 trust if it is God's will we may soon get to Dublin, for we have been much put about since we left. Trusting this will find you in your usual, I am, my dear Mary, your poor tossed sister. Hannah Miller. "
It's good to report that despite all Hannah's fears she lived for almost a score more years, dying in her bed on dry land in 1890, the last survivor of' the Miller family not counting the invincible Clytus which was sold and continued to trade between Scotland and Ireland until 1900.