In the winter of 1822, storms and heavy gales out at sea took their toll of shipping and many losses were reported in the press. The brig Lester of Poole had set sail for Newfoundland on 11th October and had reached longitude 38.00 (well over half way in her voyage) when she encountered heavy gales and tremendous seas. For several days she continued beating to windward until 17th November when she sprung her bowsprit and split the sails. The master John Lander decided that there was no alternative but to turn back to Poole.
Another ship embarking on a north Atlantic voyage was the brig Mary Ann of Aberdeen which set sail from Quebec on 4th November bound for London. On Saturday 23rd November, the vessel met a severe gale and struggled on under reefed sails. Around 5 o’clock in the evening, the wildly veering ship was hit by a tremendous wave which carried away the main mast and swept her decks of ‘boats, bulwarks and every thing standing’. Captain Moore who had been at the helm was also swept overboard and drowned. Desperately clearing away the wreckage of the mast, the crew discovered that the decks were damaged and the ship was half full of water. Pumping made no impression and within an hour the vessel was totally water-logged.
The following day the situation worsened as the decks broke up and the cargo, which was mainly staves, began to wash out of the hold. By now the decks were below the surface and the mate, eleven seamen and a boy called Davidson made for the foretop, their only possible refuge. In the process, the boy was swept away and lost but the others succeeded in reaching temporary safety. Their situation however was dire. They had no water and only a few biscuits, enough for half a biscuit each for a couple of days. By Wednesday 27th November, after three days and nights, they had run out of food and just about any hope of rescue. It was then that they were spotted by the Lester on its homeward course.
The hull of the Mary Ann was totally submerged and it was something of a miracle that the crew of the Lester chanced to see her remaining mast sticking out of the water. As they sailed closer they could see the survivors still clinging on. Captain Lander resolved to save them if he could, and set about what must have been a most perilous rescue mission, given the hazardous motion of the water-logged vessel in the heavy seas and the damage already suffered by the Lester. Somehow, all twelve men were helped from the mast and transferred to the Poole ship where ‘every assistance and comfort was given them’.
The Lester reached Poole on 1st December bringing the news of the wreck and recovery. Their arrival happened to coincide with the launch in Poole of the Sailors’ Union Bethel Society, an organisation founded by the Rev. George Charles Smith, known as Bo’sun Smith. Its aim was to provide religious services and spiritual support for seamen in port. Locally the Society had the support of the Independent and Baptist churches and it was in the Baptist Chapel that the first service was held on Wednesday 4th December before a gratifyingly large congregation which included the surviving crew of the Mary Ann. During the service the Aberdeen men send a written paper to the minister asking for a public thanksgiving for their deliverance ‘in a period of the most desperate peril’.
Later, the Poole Bethel Society gave an award of humanity to Captain Lander and his crew and the owners of the Mary Ann, John Catto, Son and Co. of Aberdeen, sent 20 guineas to be divided amongst them for their exertions ‘to snatch these poor fellows from the billows which threatened every moment to overwhelm them’. A silver cup was also sent to Captain Lander from the owners, engraved with the following inscription: ‘A Tribute from the OWNERS of the BRIG MARY ANN of Aberdeen TO CAPTN JOHN LANDER of the LESTER of POOLE as a testimony of their regard for his Humane & Meritorious exertions in saving from the foretop of the wreck of the Mary Ann in the Atlantic TWELVE OF HER UNFORTUNATE CREW on the 27th November 1822’.
John Lander continued sailing from Poole as a master mariner and eventually became Harbour Master. His death in 1854 at the age of 68 was reported in the Poole and Dorset Herald for 15th June of that year. The same issue also contained an account of the wreck of the Aldebaran of Poole on a voyage to Quebec with the loss of seven men, another reminder of the perilous lives of seamen in the age of sailing ships.
Jenny Main sources – Salisbury and Winchester Journal 9th Dec 1822, 27th Jan 1823, Bell’s Weekly Messenger 8th Dec 1822, Sunday Times 15th Dec 1822, Poole and Dorset Herald 15th June 1854.