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Paul Sparkes: Sailing autopilot in 1919?

The schooner Marion G. Douglas is shown here at the Scilly Isles in late 1919. It is said that her crew abandoned her off Newfoundland and that she sailed herself eastwards across the Atlantic. 
Photo by Alf Jenkins, St. Mary's, Scilly Isles, reproduced from the book "The Wooden Ships and the Iron Men", published 1980.
The schooner Marion G. Douglas is shown here at the Scilly Isles in late 1919. It is said that her crew abandoned her off Newfoundland and that she sailed herself eastwards across the Atlantic. Photo by Alf Jenkins, St. Mary's, Scilly Isles, reproduced from the book

Thirty-seven years ago I received from Cornwall a small 88-page book written by George Bainbridge. Entitled “The Wooden Ships and The Iron Men”, the book followed the shipping business which delivered to markets that special Cornish clay used in the manufacturing of china. Quarried in Cornwall, dried, sometimes blocked, sometimes loaded loose aboard vessels, the clay was carried to  teacup manufacturing centres in the Midlands. The book covers the period from the late 18th century into the middle of the 19 at  at which point they started to ship clay by rail.

It was a hard business demanding back-breaking labour and ships to match. In the course of his story, Bainbridge would occasionally leave the Cornish coast and come over this way (so to speak). Several or many of the vessels used in the business were from here, (also Nova Scotia and New England) so it was logical that Newfoundland make cameo appearances every so often.

A stray anecdote of interest concerned the schooner Marion G. Douglas and her surprising voyage of late 1919 which involved Newfoundland. True to Bainbridge’s story-telling style, she wasn’t a clay-carrier. He wrote:

“One of the most remarkable instances of a long drift involved the American schooner Marion G. Douglas which was abandoned by her crew off the Newfoundland coast in 1919. The crew got ashore and reported that their vessel had sunk. However, she did not sink but sailed herself across the Atlantic and was approaching the Isles of Scilly when she was spotted by men on the island of Bryher. They rowed out and boarded her, found that she had very little water in her hold, hoisted sail and brought her into St. Mary’s!”

Searching for details

Having read that brief account by Bainbridge I visited the local newspaper archive at The Rooms looking for corroboration. I started my search in October 1919 and scanned every little shipping notice for some weeks’ worth of issues. Anyone who has gone searching for something in these archives will know what it is to seek the proverbial needle in the haystack. For me on this occasion, it was amazing that when I was getting tired, back aching from sitting and standing to peer closer at the half-focused pages and thinking I’d been at the microfilm for quite long enough for one scanty story, I gave myself “just one more issue” before I’d give up. At that very moment I flicked a page of The Evening Telegram Friday, December 5, 1919. And there it was: “N.S. Schooner Safe” -

MONTREAL, NOVEMBER 29: A weird story of the sea, recalling the Marie Celeste ... soon after daybreak yesterday a three-masted fore and aft-rigged schooner was seen to the north of the islands near Shipmen Head, Brighter (sic) Island. By her behaviour it was it was apparent that she was in diffculties and probably a derelict. On being approached, the latter was found to be the case, and on boarding, the Brighter men were astonished to find that though every member of the crew had left, everything was in no way damaged. All the sails were furled and all the boats were aboard, including a smart motor launch. What can have happened to the crew or what caused them to leave the ship is unknown. As she was laden with wood there could never have been any danger of her sinking. The derelict, which has been brought into port is the Marion G. Douglas. She was 445 tons, built in 1917 on the Fox River, Nova Scotia and is owned by W.N. Reinhardt, La Havre. She is a valuable boat and there will be a considerable amount of salvage money to be divided among the Brighter crew.”

Quite a few differences and “unknowns” between the two accounts. Was the “Douglas” off Newfoundland or off Ireland? Shipmen Head, as you may have gathered, is in the Scilly Isles. But did the schooner drift across the Atlantic? How did her crew leave if all her boats were aboard? Was a rescue party from another ship content to leave her adrift? She was not “derelict” as the Montreal report had it. Somewhere in the record, no doubt, there are the answers yet to be uncovered. At least one website says the schooner was lost at sea.

Crew not the brightest

It subsequently transpired that an insurance fraud was being attempted by her crew who could not have been the brightest, expecting a ship loaded with wood to sink. And what might their story have been if she was wrecked on the Irish coast and discovered with no evidence of any catastrophe sufficient for her crew to abandon her?

Bainbridge adds, “ It is pleasing to be able to record that the Bryher men received 3,000 pounds for their enterprise, the largest sum ever paid for local salvage work.” That was to be expected for the ship was practically brand new.

Under the news item from Montreal, the newspaper added, “A dispatch to Dale & Company who had insurance on the vessel received on Tuesday last said that the vessel, while on a voyage from Quebec to the United Kingdom had been abandoned off the Irish coast, the crew picked up and landed at Botwood, Newfoundland.” By a west-bound vessel, no doubt.

Perhaps once in Botwood the shipless crew took passage to England on an Anglo-Newfoundland Development Co. paper boat. I wonder if the police were waiting for them when they arrived back in England.

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:

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