Thomas Lowe and his London Ship journey

Early 1900's sailing ship in a bottle

A Sailing ship in a bottle, from early 1900’s

As I have already said at the beginning of this series, Thomas Lowe joined the fur trade of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1841. In this post, and in a few of the posts that will follow, I am covering Thomas Lowe’s London Ship voyage to the Sandwich Islands and the northwest coast, via the Barques Vancouver, and Cowlitz.

His journal is found in the British Columbia Archives under file number A/B/20.5/V271, Book. This is, of course, taken from the transcript, the original journal being almost 160 years old. Let us begin:

1841. 7 September. Tuesday. This forenoon I joined the Vancouver at Gravesend, but in consequence of some unavoidable detention, we were obliged to remain stationary all night. The Vancouver is a Barque of 336 Tons Register, belonging to the Honourable Hudson’s Bay Company. It was built in 1838, and returned about 3 months ago from its first voyage to the Columbia, under the command of Captain [Alexander] Duncan…

Captain Alexander Duncan, unlike other sea-captains who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, was praised for his seamanship and rose quickly through the ranks. He started off as seaman on the William & Ann in 1824, and in 1828 was 2nd mate on the Prince of Wales. After serving as captain of the Dryad, he became captain of the schooner Vancouver in 1834. This ship that Thomas Lowe travelled in was the second ship called Vancouver, and had just returned from the headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver [Vancouver, WA]. 

Just so you understand the London Ship journey to Fort Vancouver, I will lead you to this older blogpost, which explains how long this ship journey took: 

Thomas Lowe’s journal continues here:

In all there are 29 individuals on board. Mr. Alexander Simpson and I are the only cabin passengers, and have separate berths, but there are another 5 in the Half Deck. Mr. Simpson has been 13 years in the Company’s Service, and is now going to transact their business at the Sandwich Islands. 

Alexander Simpson was a cousin by marriage to the HBC Governor George Simpson, and he was a half-brother to Aemilius Simpson, who came into the territory in the incoming York Factory Express of 1826. He was neither a good, nor a successful trader. At this time he was on his way to the Sandwich Islands, having just been made Chief Trader. When he arrived there, he discovered that his cousin, the Governor, had already appointed George Traill Allan to the position that he expected to have. Simpson wouldn’t take a position anywhere else and so he took a leave of absence for a year, before returning to England to retire. But that is in the future and his story is no part of this story. So, we will continue with Lowe’s journal.

The Half Deck Passengers are as follows: A Millwright, from Aberdeen, sent out to erect a Flour Mill at Puget Sound [Fort Nisqually]; the Dairy Man at Fort Vancouver and his new married wife, both Natives of the Orkneys; the Stewards wife; and a Sandwich Islander in the Service of Mr. Simpson. — I slept on board.

8 Wednesday. Still anchored but expect to sail tomorrow. The ship has been thronged all day with leave-taking friends and individuals retailing Sundries to the crew, who have today been paid two months wages in advance. I remained on board all day with the exception of an hour or so, which I spent ashore at Gravesend where I provided myself with several things which I had neglected to get in London.

Gravesend was, and still is, an ancient town on the south bank of the Thames River, 21 miles east of central London. It stands almost directly across the river from the Tilbury Docks, and Tilbury itself. Tilbury was an ancient military fort first built on this spot by Henry VIII, In spite of the fact that this military fort protected the mouth of the Thames from invaders, it seems to have been a peaceful place: its bloodiest year was in 1776, with two deaths that followed a cricket match. If you want to learn more about these places and others along the Thames, there is an impressive website with loads of maps, stories, and images, at 

Thomas Lowe’s journal continues:

9 Thursday. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the Despatches arrived when the Anchor was immediately weighed, and having dropped down the Thames with the tide, assisted by a gentle breeze from the N.W. for about 14 miles, we came to for the night. 

10 Friday. Got under weigh again at 5 am, in two hours afterward we passed the Nore and Sheerness, and after proceeding slowly all day, moored for the night in North Foreland Bay, waiting the return of the Tide and daylight.

The Nore Light Vessel lay on the eastern extremity of the Nore Sand, 41 nautical miles from London Bridge. In 1792 the anchorage at the Nore was from 6 to 9 fathoms, and the anchorage of the Little Nore, to the east I presume, was nearly a mile from Sheerness Point. Lowe would have seen the Nore Light Vessel as it operated in the years between 1730 and 1845. This was the first sea-light to be passed on leaving the port of London. Sheerness was a city at the mouth of the River Medway, a river which flowed into the Thames from the South. As their ship sailed past these places they were still in the estuary of the Thames — but in the outer estuary, not the inner. When they reached what Lowe called North Foreland Bay, they were just outside the mouth of the Thames River, just south of the river-mouth. They were in a place that was still affected by the tides, but that would be true of any place along the English Channel. Lowe’s journal continues: 

11 Saturday. The wind proving favourable, at 6 o’clock in the morning we set all necessary sail and arrived opposite Dea . . . [where the page is cut off] Downs[?] at noon. Here the pilot left us, having navigated the vessel from Gravesend. He was loaded with letters from almost every person on board, this being perhaps the last opportunity we may have for a long time of writing to our friends at Home, unless we have the good fortune to fall in with some homeward bound vessel. . . 

How interesting — I would have thought that the downs were inland (as they usually are), but the Goodwin Sands that lie off the port of Deal “made its coastal waters a source of both shelter and danger through the history of sea travel in British Waters.” The Downs were actually the strip of water between the Goodwin Sand-banks and the town of Deal to the east, and these sand-banks provided a naturally sheltered anchorage for hundreds of ships, large and small. In 1784 William Pitt set all the boats in the Deal anchorage ablaze because he suspected that some of the English luggers were involved in smuggling (they almost certainly were, being only twenty five miles from France!) 

But Thomas Lowe got no time ashore at Deal, so he never saw any of its history. His journal continues:

Driven onwards by a breeze from the North West, we entered the English Channel and left astern of us in quick succession the chalky Cliffs of Dover, Dungeness, and Beachy Head, cleaving the water at the rate of 8 knots an hour. Tonight the Crew were divided into Watches.

Dungeness was a hamlet, but it was also a headland with a wide, pebbled beach, and so dangerous to ships. Interestingly, it is also Britain’s only desert — see here:  Not that Thomas Lowe would have known that! Beachy Head was, and still is, the highest chalk headland in Great Britain — 162 meters tall — and is near Eastbourne, England. All of these places were hazards to ships, of course. Thomas Lowe’s journal continues, as the ship continues its journey toward the west:

12 Sunday. At 7 this morning found ourselves abreast of the Isle of Wight, the wind having kept both strong and favourable all night. On Sunday the Crew do nothing but what is absolutely necessary and generally spend the day in reading, mending their clothes, spinning yarns or otherwise amusing themselves. With them it is literally a day of rest, for if the weather at all permits it, they are generally seen lying on the Forecastle, basking in the sun, or very likely napping. We are going rapidly through the water. 

13 Monday. The Sea being rather in a roughish mood this morning, I did not trouble the Breakfast table with my presence, as I felt myself in no state to relish any sort of food. I need scarcely say that I was Sea Sick, as likewise were all the other passengers. All yesterday I felt myself squeamish and uncomfortable, although not absolutely sick; but for about two hours this morning I was in a miserable state. During the day, however, it wore off, and I hope this may be the last time I shall be plagued with it, as I didn’t find it all agreeable. Passed Plymouth at 2 in the afternoon. Wind easterly, and we keep our course.

14 Tuesday. The Sea is still rather rough this morning, the wind having veered considerably to the South during the night, and consequently proves not so favourable. However we are making 6 knots an hour and keeping our course. My Sickness has not returned to day, although the Sea is even rougher than it was yesterday, and I congratulate myself that I have escaped so easily . . . In the course of the day we passed Lizard Point, which is the last of Old England any of us will probably see for many years to come. At 8 p.m. a squall came on attended with rain, causing the Vessel to pitch uncomfortably. 

Lizard Point was in Cornwall, at the southern tip of the Lizard Peninsula and one of two peninsulas sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean: the other was Land’s End, of course. This point was the beginning of the sea voyage for anyone sailing out of the English Channel into the Atlantic Ocean. It was also a notorious shipping hazard. Land’s End might be the westernmost point of mainland England, but Lizard Point is the southernmost point of Great Britain. 

I should mention to you that Thomas Lowe is only eighteen or nineteen years old when he wrote this journal. He seems very grown up to me — very adult. And he was a very responsible young man during the years he worked for the HBC. As we know, he led out the York Factory Express twice, in 1847 and in 1848, when he was only about 22 years of age.

This story will continue in future blogposts, and the next one, when published, will be found here:

To return to the beginning of this thread, go here: 

Copyright Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2020. All rights reserved.





2 thoughts on “Thomas Lowe and his London Ship journey

  1. Chalk Courchane

    Hi Nancy!
    Have you ever come across anything on Captain Joseph Thing of Nathaniel J. Wyeth’s fur company..he built Fort Hall. I am interested in his journey to California in 1849.
    Thanks in advance

    1. Nancy Marguerite Anderson Post author

      Not likely I will find it. I think the B.C. Archives is open again and I can whip down there sometime, perhaps. So he sailed from Fort Vancouver to California in 1849?
      He could possibly turn up in Thomas Lowe’s correspondence, but I think that’s a little early.