Sunday, 28 December 2014

How the Six Silver Spoons Forced the Allisons Out of Ireland to Crash off the Coast of Nova Scotia

Disclaimer:  As a result of some recent (2019) information that will soon be made available, aspects of this story will need to be changed.  The story has been romanticized over the centuries.  Facts that are confirmed:  The Allisons left Magilligan for the US but had to dock in Halifax due to storms.  They settled there.  They owned silver spoons....  the rest is to be confirmed.

Crossing the Atlantic in 1769 was a treacherous affair.  It meant months of rocky seas in cramped simple wooden ships with as many as 300 people.  The fumes were overwhelmingly revolting: a mixture of vomit and dysentery.  Passengers suffered malnutrition, stemming starvation with overly-salted food.  Gales would rock the wooden vessels such that all suffered for days, or even weeks, on end.  Children, in particular, were miserable, and when not enduring stormy seas had to deal with months of boredom.  Still, thousands chose these cramped and hazardous conditions over continuing their lives in Europe and elsewhere.

The Allisons were a family that chose this dangerous passage from Londonderry, setting out for Philadelphia in September of 1769:  an autumn on the ocean.  What would have them choose an unknown life in a new world over their lives as Scotch farmers in Northern Ireland? The answer comes in the form of a family story that has been handed down over eight generations:  the story of the silver spoons.

The Allisons of Londonderry lived and worked lands around Limavady.  William Allison (1680-1766) was the third generation of Allisons who lived in the area around Limavady on the Allison family homestead: Drumnaha.    He was the last of our branch of the family tree to live and die in Ireland.  In 1741 he leased “half and one eighth part of Drymanahea” for nine years.  His annual rent was just over 10 pounds (by today’s equivalent about $3,000 CDN), plus "half and one eight part of a fat mutton, 4 fat hens, and 5 days work of man and horse.” 

In Ulster in the early 1700s, the Allisons leased their land from the Conolly family.  The Conollys held quite a lot of land in Ulster, and leased it out to the residents, mostly Scots-Irish.  Thomas Conolly was a fixture in Londonderry, representing the region for 40 years in British Parliament.  He was also heavily in debt (in 1773 the debts amounted to 85,000 pounds – about $25 million CDN today).  Conolly ancestors had made an effort to manage the family debt by engaging in selling off property or issuing perpetuity-leases.  This inadvisable strategy had short-term benefits, but in the long-term made it increasingly difficult to reduce the family debt.  There must have been some pressure on McCausland, agent of the Connolys, to find ways to squeeze their tenant farmers for more funds as the debt load continued to be unmanageable.

Among William Allison’s progeny was a son, Joseph (1720-1795), who, like his father, rented and worked land in Londonderry County. The rent, such as that described for William’s lease, was collected annually.  Under normal circumstances, the rent would stay the same for the life of the lease.  However, it is pretty clear that the Conollys were in financial trouble, and their best way out in the long-term was increasing rents.

During the annual exercise of collecting rent, Joseph Allison welcomed Conolly’s agent (likely a fellow named McCausland) into his home and offered him tea.  The Allisons had been leasing property from the Conollys in Limavady since the 1600s, and it would have been rude not to offer the rent agent refreshments.  It was also de rigueur to offer the tea service with the best cutlery and china the family had to offer.  The Allisons brought out their only family heirloom worth anything:  six silver tea spoons.  The rent agent, looking for reasons to increase the rent on the lease, remarked on the tea service and said that if they could afford silverware, they could afford more rent.  This was another short-term strategy that failed the Conollys, for the Allisons, rather than paying more rent, picked up their household and left on a sailing ship out of Londonderry to meet with their relatives in Philadelphia.
This ship was about the size of the one that
carried the Allisons from Londonderry

The Allison family at this time numbered eight:  Joseph and his wife Alice, and their six children, the youngest of whom, Nancy, was less than a year old.  Father William Allison was left behind:  an old man not willing to make the journey (more on William’s latter years in a future blog).

The Allisons left their home and all of their possessions behind (excepting the silver spoons of course), joining more than 100 others in the autumn crossing of the Atlantic.  Their ship, the (Admiral) Hawke was helmed by Captain Caddon.  It was relatively small, but the passage no less treacherous. They were on the seas for 11 weeks. 

A ship on beam end -
a very frightening experience
for the Allison family!
As they approached Sable Island, they met with a gale that rocked the ship.  Passengers and crew were tossed. Everything, including the long boat, was swept away from the deck of the ship.  The vessel leaned on her beam end.  Passengers must have been terrified.  The ship full of Scots-Irish emigrants were hoping to make it to their new home in Philadelphia, and found their lives hanging in the balance so close to the end of their voyage.  The six Allison children were no doubt terrified.  It is difficult to imagine being in the hold of a ship with more than 100 others, being tossed violently, hearing the panicked voices of the crew, and listening as they cut the mizzen mast in order to right the ship.

Nova Scotia Chronicle
Nov. 21, 1769
The ship was not, in the end, wrecked in the storm, but limped to the nearest harbour, Halifax, Nova Scotia, with the assistance of another ship, the Hope.  The incident was recorded in the weekly paper, the Nova Scotia Chronicle.  The paper reported that the passengers were joined by Colonel McNutt.  The Colonel was famous in Nova Scotia for scheming with the British Board of Trade to populate the region with Scots-Irish after the expulsion of the Acadians.  Most of McNutt’s activities took place in the previous decade.  By 1769 he had retired to McNutt Island and there is no record, other than this mention in the Chronicle, of his leading additional emigration from Ireland.  

It is a curious reference in the paper and has two possible meanings.  First, that McNutt did, in fact, successfully bring a ship from Ireland full of settlers bound for Philadelphia, having failed to convince the authorities to continue to populate Nova Scotia with Scots-Irish.  The second, and more likely explanation in my view, is that McNutt met the ailing ship and passengers in port in Halifax.  He saw an opportunity to convince the 111 passengers to consider the whole experience serendipitous and make their lives in Nova Scotia, rather than continuing their voyage to Philadelphia.

Regardless, the Allison family, along with the other families who accompanied them on the ship, opted to stay and make a new life for themselves as landowners in Hants County Nova Scotia – a far better life than that offered by the Conollys back as leaseholders at their Drumnaha homestead in Northern Ireland.

That is how six silver spoons, hardly a representation of the family's wealth, encouraged the hard-working Allison family to leave their home in Ireland and start a prosperous new life in Nova Scotia.  The six silver spoons have been handed down through the generations and are now apparently on view at the library of Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. 
The silver spoons courtesy of David Mawhinney, the archivist at
Mount Allison University

The day after I posted this, I found a book online, which I purchased.  It has a number of primary records listed, among them the landlord's name.  Unfortunately, the owner's family name was Gage (not Conolly).  I will do a little more research before I correct the blog.... such are the fortunes of the armchair researcher...

There are a few aspects of this story that are subject to debate: the name of the ship (Hawke, Admiral Hawk, Eleanor are some possibilities), whether or not another ship helped with the rescue (and if so, it would have been the Hope), the Captain's name (McCaddon, Caddon, and other possibilities), the role of McNutt, and the names of the British landowner and rent agent (although these are most likely Conolly and McCausland based on their landholdings and the location of the Allison estate, as well as the lease record for William Allison).  There is enough corroboration among sources, however, that the fundamentals of the story are likely accurate, including the six silver spoons. 

Nova Scotia Chronicle Nov.21, 1769
History of the Alison or Allison Family, by Leonard Allison Morrison
PRONI (Public Record Office of Northern Ireland) database - various lease records, as well as records of McCausland and Conolly
Index of Merchant sailing ships, 1775-1815: sovereignty of sail, by David R. MacGregor
Ships from Ireland to Early America, 1623-1850, Volume 1, by David Dobson

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