William Leask

William Leask
  • Born:

    Coldomo, Stenness 1851

  • Died:

    Coldomo, Stenness 1902

  • Father:

    Robert Leask

  • Mother:

    Jane Smith

  • Married:

    Barbara Mowat

  • Children:

    Robert, William, Harold, Florence

My great-grand-uncle William Leask grew up on the family farm but went to sea and eventually became master of the City of Florence. David Bone's book The Brassbounder, (now available as an ebook from Project Gutenberg, follow this link for more details) describes life as an apprentice under his command and his description of his captain sounds very typical of the family, "Of medium height, though broad to the point of ungainliness, Old Jock Leask (in his ill-fitting shore clothes) might have passed for a prosperous farmer". However, he goes on to say, "but it needed only a glance at the keen grey eyes peering from beneath bushy eyebrows, the determined set of a square lower jaw, to note a man of action, accustomed to command. A quick, alert turn of the head, the lift of shoulders as he walked - arms swinging in seamanlike balance - and the trick of pausing at a windward turn to glance at the weather sky, marked the sailing shipmaster - the man to whom thought and action must be one."

There is an interesting, though unsubstantiated, family story of his early career. He and a fellow crew-mate had lost confidence in the captain of their ship and were convinced he was going to drive the ship under. They therefore jumped ship in Valpariso in Chile, where they were approached by someone recruiting for one of the sides in the American Civil War. If this part of the story is correct, Leask must have been very young, as the war ended when he was fifteen. When they refused to sign up, they were turned in as deserters and thrown into jail. However, a short time later there was a minor earthquake and, in the panic, the prisoners were set free. The pair of them set off and crossed South America, which, understandably, took some time. When they eventually reached Buenos Aires they decided that the only way to get home was to hand themselves in to the authorities. When they did and said which ship they were off, they were told that was impossible, as the ship had gone down with all hands. After an absence of several years Leask arrived back in Stenness. The story goes that the family were out singling neeps (hoeing swedes) when they saw a figure walking along the shore of the Bay of Ireland. "My, that looks like William… It is William"… and he was handed the hoe while his brother went in to tell their mother to put another tattie in the pot.

Another story, for which possible corroboration has recently been found, links William Leask with one of the great mysteries of the sea. He was First Mate on the City of Florence when they came across the Mary Celeste somewhere between Portugal and the Azores and was sent across in the ship's boat to investigate. He led the way onto the deserted ship and, finding no sign of life, wanted to salvage it. However, their own ship was already undermanned and the captain decreed that the Mary Celeste had to be abandoned once more. Before he left, Leask took the ship's sextant and, possibly, the chronometer.

My grandfather, Hargrave Leask, could remember being shown this sextant when he was a small boy. When the Strand magazine published the story of the Mary Celeste in 1913, a member of the family wrote to the magazine with our version. When the story was dismissed, the family, almost unbelievably, posted the sextant to the magazine and it was never seen again. It is intriguing to wonder where it sits now, unrecognised.

You can find all sorts of information on the internet now. A copy of an Australian newspaper reported the arrival of the City of Florence in Melbourne in mid February and noted she had passed the Lizard in Cornwall on 2 December 1872, three days before the Dei Gratia found the Mary Celeste, so we can now tell that the ship was in the right area.

Captain Leask is said to have rounded Cape Horn forty-two times and one of his worst trips was recorded by the San Francisco Call on 29 July. Unfortunately, we don't know which year.

"Something closely akin to a wreck was towed in through the Golden Gate after dark last night, and anchored at Meigg's wharf. She had what looked like board fences for bulwarks in half a dozen places, much of her rigging was worn and spliced and even in the inky darkness that prevailed, the few people who boarded her could read the story of havoc by gale and sea.

In the wreck of the forecastle were six unfortunate sailors suffering from all manner of wounds, bruises and fractures received in a battle with the elements off the Horn two months ago.

The wreck was the British ship City of Florence, so long overdue that the underwriters had bade her farewell and were paying big premiums for reinsurance.

"It was an unlucky voyage throughout," said Captain Leask as soon as the Florence had dropped anchor, and so his log of the cruise proved.

The Florence sailed from Antwerp on the 30th January, 181 days ago with 9590 barrels of cement, consigned to Mever, Wilson & Co. It was foggy all the way down the channel, and then such light airs were experienced that it was March 1st before the north-east trades were picked up.

Fine weather lasted till April 25th when 50° south in the Atlantic was crossed, and a day or two after that the City of Florence's real trials began. Leaving Statten Island the ship encountered twenty eight days of the most persistent succession of gales and hurricanes that any vessel lived through, and had she been deeply loaded her arrival would have been extremely problematical.

It was during these days of storm that the ship was reduced to a complete state of wreck.

No canvas could withstand the fury of the blasts and sail after sail went flying away in shreds. The mountainous seas knocked her down, time after time, and before she could recover, their fellow waves pounded away as though determined to send her to the bottom. Not a movable thing escaped. First went two boats, falls, davits and all, being washed away as if they were feathers. Two others were smashed to matchwood. The cabin doors were stove in, and the cabin so filled with water that anyone in it at the time must have been drowned. The unfortunate sailors caught it next.

Their forecastle was completely gutted, and an idea of the force of the rush of waters can be had when it is stated that the stove was torn from its anchoring bolts and washed out on deck.

Captain Leask only saved his chronometers when the cabin was flooded by wrapping them in tarpaulin and sending them to more protected parts of the vessel. After the cabin and forecastle had been pillaged by the waves they tried their power on the iron bulwarks. In places these proved of no more value than paper against the force of the water, and great sheets were shattered and torn away, leaving yawning, unprotected holes, through which many of the crew narrowly escaped being washed at times. Over twenty feet of the starboard main rail went on one occasion. The breaks in the bulwarks had the good effect of shedding the water freely, and this proved of great advantage in lightening the ship, which, up to that time was rolling with decks full. A great source of danger was encountered in the spare spars breaking loose from their deck fastenings by pulling the ring bolts out. The heavy timbers washed about alarmingly, tearing fresh holes in the bulwarks and threatening the lives of any luckless sailors who chanced to be in their path.

Six of the crew had broken bones during the terrible trial, and not a soul on the ship escaped bruises, sprains, cuts and half drowning on deck. How the captain escaped losing anybody overboard is more than Captain Leask can tell, but the hair-breadth escapes are numerous, and thrilling enough to fill a page.

Most of the men are around all right now, but some of the six with broken arms, ribs, etc are suffering severely through their hurts being aggravated by exposure and salt water.

It was impossible to cook anything for days at a time and during one stretch of a week, starvation threatened as well as drowning.

The topmost back stay chain plates were carried away and the main topmast so badly sprung that it was not possible to put on canvas to any extent. The Florence was 37 days from 50° south in the Atlantic to 50o south in the Pacific and from thence to port she fortunately had pleasant weather.

The City of Florence is commanded by Captain William Leask of Leigh, Ireland and Stromness and among other members of the crew are Mr Robert Gillies, carpenter and Mr George Berston, Carpenter's mate both belonging to Stromness."

David Bone's book, The Brassbounder, is a well-written book, packed with incident, and he was asked to read an excerpt from it on the BBC Home Service. The chapter he read was set in the Southern Ocean, when the City of Florence was sailing in thick fog, sounding its fog-horn. The crew began to hear another fog-horn, dead ahead, and as this other ship showed no sign of changing course, they decided they should call Captain Leask on deck. As soon as he heard the other fog-horn, the captain realised it was an echo coming from an iceberg straight ahead.

"Down Hellum! DOWN," he yelled, running aft to the wheel! "Haul yards forrard! Le'go port braces! Let 'm rip! Le'go an' haul! … Quick, Mist'r! Christ! What ye standin' at? … Ice! Ice, ye bluidy eedi't! Ice! Th' echo! Let go! LE'GO AN' HAUL! LE'GO!"

His reading caused a tremendous fuss, as the BBC was not accustomed to the salty language of the sea. In fact, the story goes that this was the first time such words were heard on the Home Service.

Towards the end of his book, David Bone gives one of the best descriptions of the relationship between a master and his ship. Trying to make landfall in Ireland in bad weather, the pilot makes a mistake and they realise they are being driven onto the Stags of Broadhaven, a fearsome group of rocks. The pilot says they'll have to run before the wind and trust him to find the safe passage but Captain Leask decides he would rather trust his ship to fight her way back against the wind.

""We'll keep th' sea, if she can weather thae rocks … an' if she canna!!" A mute gesture - then, passionately, "T' hell wi' you an' yer b-y Stags: I back ma ship against a worthless pilot! All hands, there, Mister - mains'l an' to'galn's'l oan her! Up, ye hounds; up, if ye look fur dry berryin'!"

All hands! No need for a call! "Breakers ahead" - the words that sent us racing to the yards, to out knife and whip at the gaskets that held our saving power in leash. Quickly done, the great mainsail blew out, thrashing furiously till steadied by tack and sheet. Then topgal'n' sail, the spars buckling to overstrain; staysail, spanker - never was canvas crowded on a ship at such a pace; a mighty fear at our hearts that only frenzied action could allay.

Shuddering she lay down to it, the lee rail entirely awash, the decks canted at a fearsome angle; then righted - a swift, vicious lurch, and her head sweeping wildly to windward till checked by the heaving helmsman. The wind that we had thought moderate when running before it now held at half a gale. To that she might have stood weatherly, but the great western swell - spawn of uncounted gales - was matched against her, rolling up to check the windward snatches and sending her reeling to leeward in a smother of foam and broken water.

A gallant fight! At the weather gangway stood Old Jock, legs apart and sturdy, talking to his ship.

"Stand, good spars," he would say, casting longing eyes aloft. Or, patting the taffrail with his great sailor hands, "Up tae it, ye bitch! Up!! Up!!!" as, raising her head, streaming in cascade from a sail-pressed plunge, she turned to meet the next great wall of water that set against her. "Sh'll stand it, Mister," to the Mate at his side. "Sh'll stand it, an' the head gear holds. If she starts that! - he turned his palms out - "If she starts th' head gear, Mister!"

"They'll hold, Sir! … good gear," answered the Mate, hugging himself at thought of the new lanyards, the stout European gammon lashings, he had rove off when the boom was rigged. Now was the time when Sanny Armstrong's spars would be put to the test. The relic of the ill-fated Glenisla, now a shapely to'gallant mast, was bending like a whip! "Good iron," he shouted as the backstays twanged a high note of utmost stress…

Staggering, taking the shock and onset of the relentless sea, but ever turning the haughty face of her anew to seek the wind, she struggled on, nearing the cruel rocks and their curtain of hurtling breakers…

"How does 't bear noo, McKellar? Is she makin' oan't? shouted the Old Man.

The Second Mate, at the binnacle, sighted across the wildly swinging compass card. "No' sure, Sir … Th' caird swingin' … think there's hauf a p'int … Hauf a p'int, onyway!"…

Grasping the binnacle to steady himself against the wild lurches of the staggering hull, the Old Man stared steadily aloft, unheeding the roar and crash of the breakers, now loud over all - eyes only for the straining canvas and standing spars above him.

"She's drawin' ahead, Sir," shouted McKellar, tense, excited. "East, b' nor' an' fast!"

The Old Man raised a warning hand to the steersman. "Nae higher! Nae higher! Goad, man! Danna let 'r gripe!"

Dread suspense! Would she clear? A narrow lane of open water lay clear of the bow - broadening as we sped on.

Nae higher! Nae higher! Aff! Aff! Up hellum, up!" His voice a frantic scream, the Old Man turned to bear a frantic heave on the spokes.

Obedient to the helm and the Mate's ready hand at the driver sheets, she flew off, free of the wind and sea - tearing past the towering rocks, a cable's length to leeward. Shock upon shock, the great Atlantic sea broke and shattered and fell back from the scarred granite face of the outmost Stag; a seething maelstrom of tortured waters, roaring, crashing, shrilling into the deep, jagged fissures - a shriek of Furies bereft. And, high above the tumult of the waters and the loud, glad cries of us, the hoarse, choking voice of the man who had backed his ship.

"Done it, ye bitch!" - a now trembling hand at his old grey head. "Done it! Weathered - by Goad!""

The men of the Leask family usually aren't very big, but they're strong. My grand-uncle Albert, William's nephew, had a party-trick of crushing a saucer in his hand, which must have gone down well with his wife. The ship's carpenter told a story that illustrated Captain Leask's strength. He, his wife and the carpenter returned from church in Hamburg to find that the crew had mutinied. Leask ran up the gangway and confronted the ring-leader, a six-foot tall Scandinavian. One punch sent up over the poop-rail to land on the deck with a broken leg.

Captain Leask was hit over the head with a marlin spike by a steward whom he'd caught stealing spirits. His health failed and he had to leave the sea. He had been regarded as a lucky captain and the company tried to persuade him to continue to sail on the City of Florence, although he could no longer command her. He, of course, refused. How could he sail as a passenger on the ship he used to command? As he left the ship he is quoted as saying, "Poor old Florence, it won't be long now." Two voyages later, in 1900, she was wrecked in Half Moon Bay in California and just two years later her captain died of a brain tumour, on 8 February 1902.

He said in later life that he wouldn't send a dog to sea and his three sons stayed on dry land but they might have been better at sea. Harold was a sniper who died at Hill 60 in WWI and William and Robert died in Africa.