Twenty two years before the 282 ton brigantine Mary Celeste was found intact but abandoned in the Atlantic Ocean, a similar mysterious occurrence befell a Poole ship, the two-masted schooner, Mountaineer.
The heyday of the transatlantic salt cod trade with Newfoundland was already in the past when the Mountaineer was built in Hamworthy in 1836 for the firm of John Slade and Company. In fact the Slades were one of the few Poole families who continued in the trade after the slump of the 1820s and 1830s. The Mountaineer belonged to the branch of the family based at Fogo and Twillingate in Newfoundland and Battle Harbour off the coast of Labrador. At around 87 tons, the ship was of average size for the Slade fleet, but by modern standards very small to be making the hazardous voyage across the Atlantic. She was 76.4 feet long, 19.8 feet in beam and 11.3 feet in depth with the full length figurehead of a man. Her name may have originated with the ‘Mountaineer’ or Montagnais’ Indians of Labrador.
For the next fourteen years, the Mountaineer made the Atlantic crossing many times, sailing from Poole to Newfoundland and back via Cadiz, Hamburg, Gibraltar and other European ports. On the outward journey she would carry salt and provisions for the fishermen. On the return journey, her cargo would be fish, oil, salmon, seal skins and other products to sell in Europe.
In 1848, the Bishop of Newfoundland, Edward Field, visited Labrador and described the remote settlement of Battle Harbour, ‘probably the oldest, as well as the largest, settlement on the Labrador coast’. At the time of the bishop’s visit, there were 92 fishing vessels in the harbour each with a crew of 7 or 8 men, swelling the winter population of 200 to over 800 in the summer. The visitors were engaged in fishing but the locals also caught seals. The bishop noted that Messrs. Slade of Poole had an establishment there and was introduced to the Slade’s agent, Mr Rush Bendle, ‘who appears a sensible modest young man, and anxious to promote the interests of the place and people’. The Slades employed around 10 men at their establishment, mainly Newfoundlanders. The previous winter, he was told, they had killed ‘upwards of 1,100 seals, which, being all full-grown, and of a large size, average £1 each in value.’ The fishery had also been very successful for the previous 3 years with catches for the whole harbour sometimes reaching 2,000 quintals a day (a quintal being about a hundredweight).
In June 1849, the Mountaineer sailed to Newfoundland with provisions, returning to Poole in December with fish and oil on board. In March 1850, she went out to Gibraltar with fish, returning from Figuera in April carrying salt and wine. From lists it appears that her crew for this voyage consisted of seven men, the captain, John Tilsed (33), the mate, John Mappingham (32), Robert Warburton, Jonathan Brown, William Hiscroft, James Sibley, (cook) and an apprentice, Charles John Cooper (16). Tilsed was a Poole man but Warburton was a Newfoundlander and Cooper came from Nova Scotia.
On 26th June 1850, probably with largely the same crew, she set sail again for Newfoundland with her cargo of salt. Weeks, then months passed but the ship did not arrive. Eventually she was given up for lost. Then on 19th October, 1850, she was discovered by a Jersey ship, Canopus, undamaged apart from torn sails, about 16 miles off the coast of northern Newfoundland. The cargo of salt and provisions was intact but her boats and anchors were gone and of the crew and their personal possessions there was no sign.
Captain Duheaume of the Canopus put a crew of six on board the Moutaineer under the command of Captain Le Mesurier and the two ships sailed back across the Atlantic, arriving at St Helier on 7th November as reported in the Poole and Dorset Herald. One explanation of what could have happened to the ship and its crew was suggested by the paper. ‘It was presumed that the Moutaineer must have run aground in a fog, that her crew took to the boats (with their personal effects) to ascertain their whereabouts, and that their ship then broke from her anchors and left them in the lurch’. In those coastal waters, prone to icebergs, dense fogs and violent storms, such a scenario was very feasible. No member of the crew was ever heard of again to explain what really happened on that fateful voyage.
After the tragedy, the Mountaineer continued to serve in the Newfoundland trade. The Slades paid salvage fees to the owners of the Canopus and in 1851 the Mountaineer was re-registered in the name of Robert Slade (John Slade & Co.). For the next 12 years she crossed and recrossed the Atlantic, from Poole to Newfoundland to Cadiz, Lisbon and Leghorn. In 1858, the Poole and Dorset Herald reported her arrival in Poole with loss of sails, leaky and low on provisions. She had been at sea for 82 days, bound for Cadiz (presumably from Newfoundland) and now limped back into her home port.
From 1863 the Mountaineer, now 30 years old, was employed on coastal voyages carrying potatoes, wheat, barley, clay and iron to the ports of Bristol, Southampton and Middlesborough. She met her end on the 26th January 1873 when she was wrecked off Ramsey, Isle of Man. The mystery of the Mountaineer was never solved, one a tragic incident in the history of a hard and dangerous trade.
Jenny – (with thanks to the Poole History Centre for use of the picture of the Mountaineer and other sources).