Out in the Cold

Episode Summary

TRIGGER WARNING – This episode may be upsetting and does contain crimes targeting children so listener discretion is advised.

In 1868 a group of boys from Greenock in Scotland stowed away on a ship bound for Quebec in Canada, all thinking they were bound for adventure, but faced a harsher and more shocking reality they never could have expected that would leave most of them out in the cold.

Please Be Advised – This episode may contain content that some may find distressing. As always, we advise listener discretion. This episode it not suitable for anyone under the age of 13.

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Scottish Murders is a production of Cluarantonn

Hosted by Dawn and Cole

Researched and Written by Peter Bull

Produced and Edited by Dawn Young and Peter Bull

Production Company Name by Granny Robertson


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Trigger warning Wee Ones. This story may be upsetting and does contain crimes targeting children, so listener discretion is advised.

In 1868 a group of boys from Greenock in Scotland stowed away on a ship bound for Quebec in Canada, all thinking they were going to have a great adventure, but instead faced a harsher and more shocking reality they never could have expected, that would leave most of the boys out in the cold.

Hi Wee Ones it’s just me, Dawn, today, so let’s get started.


Greenock lies on the south bank of the mouth of the River Clyde on the west coast of Scotland, and is about 27 miles or about 44 kilometres west of Glasgow. It was the 7th of April 1868 and 11 year old John Paul lived in Dalrymple Street in Greenock. Times were hard back then and John Paul didn’t even have shoes, however, he did have a good friend called Hugh McEwan who was also aged 11, and just like many young boys today they loved adventure and thought their next adventure would take them away from the hardship they were experiencing. So the two friends, John Paul and Hugh McEwan, decided to make their way to Victoria Dock in Greenock, where wooden trading vessels would set sail carrying their cargo to far-flung destinations, and hopefully carrying the two friends away to a better life. They soon found a ship, the Arran, named for the island to the west of Greenock in the Firth of Clyde, and the two friends decided to stowaway onboard. It was common in those days for boys to sneak on board ships in the harbour seeking escape, so ships were routinely checked for stowaways and any found were sent back to the shore on tugs. It wouldn’t be long before two stowaways were indeed discovered during a routine search of the Arran while still in the Firth of Clyde, however, seemingly lucky for the two friends they were not the two discovered and they remained on the ship. The Arran then sailed onwards down the Firth of Clyde and downed the Irish Sea, leaving Greenock far behind to head across the Atlantic Ocean to deliver its cargo of coal and oakum, which is a fibre made of painstakingly untwisting old ropes, and heading to Quebec in Canada. John Paul and his friend Hugh McEwan were relieved to have not been found and they hoped this would remain the case. However, when the ship’s carpenter was preparing to batten down the hatches for the ship’s long journey across the Atlantic, he found the two friends and hastily took them to the captain. However, by this time it was too late for them to be sent back to Greenock. Captain Robert Watt, who was 28 years old and was from the island of Arran, the ship’s namesake, had a reputation for treating those under his command kindly. When the boys reached the captain he grabbed John Paul by his collar and demanded to know what he was doing there. John Paul explained that he and his friend wanted to be sailors, to which the captain laughed. He then asked them what they had had to eat since they had got on board. John Paul told the captain that they had just had four of the ships barn biscuits between them. The captain told them not to expect much more from him, but told the carpenter to take the two boys to the cook, William Saltoun, who was good-hearted and gave them a warm meal, and the two were allowed to sleep in a sail locker. However, it seemed that the Arran wasn’t just joined by the two friends, John Paul and Hugh McEwan, as it wasn’t long before five more stowaways made themselves known to the crew. They were 12 year old Hugh McGinnes, who like John Paul was without shoes, twelve-year-old Peter Currie, James Bryson and David Brand, who were both 16 years old, and finally 22 year old Bernard Reilly, all of whom were also given food and a place to sleep. Although there were now seven extra people on board, the captain initially allowed the boys an ample supply of rations and initially treated them quite reasonably, despite the unexpected nature of their presence on board. The stowaways were given tasks throughout the ship, which included washing down decks and other menial tasks often allotted to boys onboard a ship.

For the first few days of the voyage things didn’t seem so bad and there was fine weather, but as they continued they began to encounter rougher weather and a series of strong gale force winds, which made the stowaways feel very seasick. This was witnessed by the ship’s first mate who ordered the steward to withhold most of their rations, despite there being plenty of food on board. The first mate was 31 year old James Kerr, who was from Lochranza on the island of Arran, and was described as being a rough-looking man with a coarse, unfeeling and dominating nature. James Kerr and the captain were brothers-in-law. The first mate, when passing the boys, would kick them without provocation, although one of the boys, 12 year old Peter Currie, was spared most of this as his father was a friend of the first mate. From then on the boys were only given a few of the ship’s biscuits each day, however, the kindness of the cook continued and he slipped the boys a few scraps of food, along with any potato and turnip peelings, but the boys still had barely enough food to survive so they started to steal whatever they could get their hands on from the ship’s stores, which included currants, oatmeal and more of the ship’s biscuits in order to stave off their hunger, but they were severely punished when caught.  This included when a barrel of grain was found to have been opened and the boys were suspected immediately of being responsible, so they were handcuffed together and had no food at all for an entire day as punishment.

As the Arran continued its journey across the North Atlantic, the lack of food was not the only problem the stowaways had to endure as the harsh conditions also became a challenge, and a member of the ship’s crew later described the boys as being thinly clad and not being able to stand the severe cold that even the men struggled with, especially as John Paul and Hugh McGinnes had bare feet. John Paul and Hugh McGinnes did try to escape the bitter cold by going below deck to the relative warmth there, however, when the first mate discovered they were missing he would drag them back up onto the deck and beat them. James Bryson, who was 16 years old, was singled out for particularly brutal treatment, which started when others complained he was dirty. So, one day the first mate told James to take off his jacket, waistcoat and shirt, leaving only his semmit or vest on, before proceeding to flog James with a coil of rope about half an inch or 2.5 centimetres thick for about three minutes, inflicting many horrible and painful blows to his back, causing James to scream in agony. James was then made to remove the rest of his clothes and lie down on the deck naked, the first mate ordered one of the crew to draw water from the sea and several buckets of ice cold sea water were thrown over the boy as he lay shivering and cold on the deck. The captain, who was easily influenced by his brother-in-law the first mate, joined in by scrubbing poor James all over his body with a broom, all while the first mate stood over James holding a rope threatening to  strike James should he run away. The first mate then took the broom from the captain and scrubbed James even harder than the captain had. When he had finished he ordered one of the other stowaways, 16 year old David Brand, to scrub James for a third time, all while being held down by the first mate. James was scrubbed from his neck to his foot, on his back and front, until his blood flowed. Once finished, James was then ordered to the forecastle at the bow of the ship, while still naked, and he was made to wait around half an hour before his vest was finally returned, followed later by his jacket. He was made to remain at the forecastle until nightfall, before finally being allowed to return below deck. Also, all the boys, except for 12 year old Peter Currie whose father was the first mate’s friend, were beaten on a regular basis.

As the Arran ship began to approach land in early May 1868, it encountered large fields of ice floating in the sea off the North Atlantic, and the ship drifted into St George’s Bay on the coast of Newfoundland. The ship was moored to the ice, with Captain Robert Watt and the first mate, James Kerr, disembarking briefly. This brief respite gave the boys, who were all starving due to the lack of food, the chance to get what they could while the captain and first mate were off the ship. David Brand entered both the Captain’s and first mate’s cabin and made off with a pocketful of the ship’s biscuits. He mentioned this to James Bryson who also went to see what he could find, but all he could find was a barrel of currants, which he managed to grab a pocketful of. Unfortunately, just as he was making his way out of the cabin, he was caught red-handed by the captain and first mate, who had just returned from their foray onto the ice. David had managed to dispose of the biscuits from his pockets, but there was no escape for James, whose currants were ordered by the captain to be given to the rest of the boys. James Bryson was again brutally punished by being made to strip naked and being lashed by the first mate with the ship’s lead line, which is a rope with a lead weight on the end used to determine the depth of water. He was then made to sweep the decks, whilst still naked. Another member of the crew who witnessed the barbaric punishment James endured described the boy’s skin afterwards as resembling red and white tartan.

The Arran was now trapped in the ice in St George’s Bay on the coast of Newfoundland. The eldest of the stowaways, 22 year old Bernard Reilly, started to consider leaving the ship as he had dreams of making it to Halifax in Nova Scotia to work on the railways there. So he persuaded James Bryson that it might be worth attempting to cross the fields of ice towards the barely visible land to escape the misery on board the ship. At that point a trek across the ice would have seemed like the only way to escape the harsh punishment James had to endure on board, the other boys however were terrified of the idea of leaving the ship and crossing the ice. While the plan by the stowaways to leave the ship was still been discussed, somehow the captain learned of Bernard Reilly’s plan to leave the ship and offered him the use of his telescope to get a better view of the shore. While Bernard declined the use of the telescope, the captain assured Bernard that there were houses not so far away. Bernard passed this information along to James Bryson, who decided to join Bernard to make his way across the fields of ice towards the distant shore. However, there was soon no choice in the matter, as while the other stowaways were deciding what to do, the captain ordered that all of the stowaways would be put overboard, with the exception of 12 year old Peter Currie who was the son of the first mate’s friend. George Henry, who was another member of the crew, later said he heard the youngest boys crying when they were asked to go, and he was concerned as the ice was broken and very rough looking, and two of the boys had bare feet and their clothing was ragged when they left the ship. It was around ten to 15 miles or 16 to 24 kilometres from the ship to the land and George Henry thought it unlikely that those without shoes would ever reach land.

On the 9th of May 1868 at around 8 or 9 in the morning, the stowaways set off across the fields of white desolation, with the ship’s first mate only sparing the boys one biscuit each as they left. The ice flow was made up of slabs of various sizes, some as large as a football pitch but many others much smaller, so as the stowaways reached the end of one slab of ice they had to jump towards the next slab to make progress towards the land. John Paul’s friend, Hugh McEwan, who had been especially unwell during the journey across the Atlantic and had even been seen spitting blood occasionally, started to lag behind the others as they made their way across the ice. Hugh McEwan accidentally slipped into the freezing water but was pulled out by James Bryson. He continued onward, before falling yet again into the cold and icy water.  This time he managed to pull himself free, but was growing weaker with every step. John Paul witnessed his friend Hugh McEwan slip and fall into the water for a third time, where he tried to kick and get out of the icy grip of the water. John Paul was also in the water at this point and his friend tried to get hold of him, but he let go. John Paul managed to get out by scrambling onto the edge of the ice, and he was only able to watch as the ice closed over the head of his friend. He never saw him again. It would be a few hours later when Hugh McGinnes was overcome by exhaustion and sat down on the ice, his shoeless feet swollen and sore. He was urged to continue by the others or he would be frozen, but he said he couldn’t go any further. The others were left with no choice but to leave him there, with nothing to protect him but his ragged and frozen clothes. The remaining four stowaways continued their perilous journey towards land, but as they got nearer and nearer the large slabs of ice became rarer and rarer, but they continued to struggle with each of them slipping and falling into the water, somehow managing to get free. This only caused their clothing to freeze solid to their bodies. Somehow they managed to reach the end of the ice just as the sun was starting to set. However, although they could see a few houses and lights, they had not reached shore as there was a channel of water and drifting ice around a mile or 1.5 kilometres wide between them and the relative safety of dry land. 22 year old Bernard Reilly and 16 year old David Brand tried to paddle towards the shore on the pieces of ice and a batten board they had manage to get from the ship, but this stranded the other two boys, John Paul and James Bryson, who were frozen, famished and exhausted, but shouted for help in the thinly veiled hope that someone on shore would hear them.

On the southern shore of St George’s Bay in Newfoundland was Highlands, a busy agricultural and fishing community where fishermen lived in little cabins on the beach. Catherine Ann McInnes was one such resident whose family had emigrated to Newfoundland from Loch Morar in the Scottish Highlands. Catherine either saw the boys in the fading daylight or heard their cries, and she raised the alarm. It is believed that her husband would have been among the local men who set out to rescue the boys. It would have been difficult to see the boys from a mile or 1.5 kilometres away at that time of evening, if they’d arrived just half an hour later they may not have been seen at all, and were therefore very fortunate to have survived their ordeal.  The four cold and frostbitten stowaways were taken to the villagers homes to recover. The boys had been blinded by the glare of the ice and it took a week for them to be able to see properly again. John Paul’s feet were also badly lacerated from the long walk on the ice without shoes, which took over a month to heal. He also lost fingers to frostbite. Unfortunately the bodies of John Paul’s friend, Hugh McEwan, and the other boy, Hugh McGinnes, were never found.

When the ship, the Arran, finally arrived in Quebec, Canada, one of the crew sent a letter back home to Greenock in Scotland describing the cruelty and treatment that the stowaways had endured whilst on board. When the letter arrived news quickly spread around Greenock. A telegram was sent asking for information about what had happened, and in reply it was stated that four of the six boys who had been put down in the ice had survived and three of them were still in Newfoundland, but the fourth, Bernard Reilly, who was the eldest of them, had already set off to find work in Nova Scotia.

Almost six months after the Arran had set sail from Greenock with the stowaway boys on board, the remaining three boys who survived their journey across the ice to Newfoundland arrived back in Scotland. However, there was some confusion about the returnees, when one of the boys believed to be alive was named Hugh McGinnes, but his mother was devastated to learn instead of expecting to greet her son she found out instead he had perished on the ice due to exhaustion. Also one of the boys believed to have perished in the ice was John Paul, but in fact he had returned alive.

The story of what happened made news all around the world even back in the 1860s, as people were horrified of what had happened to these boys on the ice.

The three boys had returned home just in time to appear as witnesses at the trial at the High Court of Judiciary in Edinburgh of Captain Robert Watt and the first mate James Kerr of the Arran. On the final day of the trial on the 25th of November 1868 the Scotsman Newspaper reported that the courtroom was crowded, with many waiting outside for several hours in the hope of gaining admission. James Kerr, the first mate, was found guilty of assault and sentenced to four months in prison. Robert Watt, the captain, was charged and found guilty of culpable homicide, which is roughly the equivalent to manslaughter in English law, and he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. However, as the Scotsman Newspaper reported in their edition the following morning, the verdict was received by the audience with loud hisses.

After serving their sentences both men returned to their jobs and sailed for many years. Of the stowaways, James Bryson emigrated to the United States where he became a tram conductor. David Brand started a ship engineering firm in Queensland, Australia. Bernard Reilly, who went to Nova Scotia, probably never returned to Scotland.  And John Paul married and started a family and became a riveter and rose to the rank of foreman in Greenock’s shipyards, but when his wife died he left for Southampton. When John Paul himself died he was given a grand funeral with a polished elm coffin covered in beautiful flowers and wreaths, and a large number of people assembled at the cemetery to pay their respects, including 100 members of the Boilermaker’s Society in full regalia. Peter Currie, who had remained on board the Arran, died of tuberculosis two years later after returning home. The Arran herself was wrecked on Sand Island in the Gulf of Mexico in 1886 while sailing from Greenock to Mobile, Alabama.

Much of our story came from the BBC article “The boys on the ice” by Sarah McDermott.

Although it may be over 150 years since the tragedy of what became known as the Greenock Stowaways, their story will never be forgotten, of the boys left out in the cold.

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Scottish Murders is a production of Cluarantonn.