Captain William Adams, Junior


Professor Hugh M Begg, Honorary Patrick Geddes Fellow University of Dundee

Henderson D S (1972) Fishing for the Whale: a Guide Catalogue to the Collection of Whaling Relics in Dundee Museum, Dundee Museum In a recent paper Captain John Watson and I focused on Captain William Adams Senior-hailed in his day by the local press as “The Most Famous Whaling Captain in the World”. In this note we turn briefly to his son Captain William Adams junior.There is much less in the way of material on Captain William Adams junior than is available for his distinguished father. However, the relevant Dundee Directories have provided information on places of residence and the relevant Dundee Year Books provided general background on the whaling industry. Moreover, the growing literature on whalers, whaling and Arctic exploration referred to above provides some passing references to Adams, his career and voyages.

Captain William Adams Junior: Early Years
William Adams junior was born in 1869, a second son to Captain Adams senior and his first wife. At that time his parents were living at 8 James Place the mid-terraced property looking out on to the River Tay and across to North Fife. In 1878 the family moved to 12 Duntrune Terrace then close to the open countryside which later was to become Dawson Park. (Dundee Directories)

Adams served his sailing apprenticeship under Captain Barrie in the barque Helenslea, an iron vessel of 1,197 tons, launched in 1880 and named after the owner of the substantial mansion of William Stephens, by then owner of Messrs Alexander Stephen & Sons, on Fairfield Road, West Ferry. By 1887 William Adams junior had set up home at 5 Rugby Terrace, recently constructed, and looking out onto amenity ground close to The Esplanade and the Broughty Ferry pleasure beach. In 1889 he moved, once again to a newly built property, this time at 3 Kerrington Crescent in Barnhill which then looked out over undeveloped land towards the Tay estuary. (Dundee Directories)

On Captain Adams senior’s last voyage in 1890, William Adams junior, then 21 years old accompanied his father. William had joined the “Maud”, of which his father was sole owner, when he was a 15 years old, and on this voyage acted as Mate. On the return from the whaling grounds the “Maud” suffered a severe battering from hurricane force winds and mountainous seas. In the midst of all this William junior took her into Scrabster Roads on the 4th of August and landed his fatally ill father, taking him to a hotel in Thurso.

The Maud was sold, and in the following year Adams served as mate under Captain Walker in Novaya Zemyla (Archibald, 2013, pp171-2) In 1892 William was selected to serve, also as mate, under Alexander Fairweather as Master, on the Balaena. (Archibald, 2013, pp128-9) She was one of the four vessels which set out on the British Whaling Expedition (Dundee) on 6 September 1892 from Camperdown docks for the Antarctic in search of fresh whaling grounds. The fleet required a surgeon and naturalist to sail with them and the medical student William Speirs Bruce was appointed. His assistant was the artist William Gordon Burn-Murdoch (1862 - 1939) who recorded the voyage in pictures and with his book. From Edinburgh to the Antarctic (1894). However, apart from some small asides there is nothing about William Adams junior in the journal to match the character sketch of his father provided by Markham (1874)

Unfortunately, this trip was unsuccessful and did nothing to revive the dying industry. On his return from that mission

The Whaling Master
In 1895 and 1896, Adams had his first independent command in the Arctic in the whaler Esquimaux. (for details of that vessel see Archibald 2013 p 149-150). In the following year he commanded Blencathra on the private hunting expedition to the Kara Sea financed by Major Andrew Coats. Of interest, William Speirs Bruce joined Blencathra at Tromso, Norway in May 1898, and the cruise explored the Barents Sea, the dual islands of Novaya Zemlya, and the island of Kolguyev. Bruce reported: "This is a pure yachting cruise and life is luxurious".

Captain Adams returned to whaling in 1898, commanding the Diana until 1904 (for details of that vessel see Archibald 2013 p135). He received a medal from the Danish meteorological society in recognition of his services in compiling a log on behalf of the Society during his 1899 whaling voyage to the Davis Strait.  The daily entries and detailed observations he made that year won him a further award in the form of charts and books from its sister British society.

In 1901 the Diana was sold for £3000 and the Dundee Courier noted: To meet the purchase price, outfitting and alterations, it is proposed to divide the vessel into 64th shares at £80 each...“That was all completed successfully and in February 1902 advertisements appeared in the Shetland Times and Dundee Courier seeking “boatsteerers, line manager, able seamen and ordinary seamen” for the whalers Eclipse under Captain Milne and the Diana under Captain Adams.That was a successful season and the Dundee Courier of 14 February, 1903 noted that the dividend to shareholders was 125% and Captain Adams was presented with a “handsome cheque”.

In March 1903 Roald Amundsen’s brother made a visit to Dundee which led to the commissioning of William Adams (of the Diana) and William Milne (of the Eclipse) to convey stores to Dalrymple Rock on Smith Sound at 81degrees north as support for Amundsen’s attempt to find a North West Passage.He had argued, correctly, that the Peel Sound route was preferable to that by way of Prince Regent Inlet. Interestingly, Milne had been Master of the Maud when she was wrecked at Coutts' Inlet, in the Davis Strait, between Greenland and Baffin Island in 1892. (Archibald, 2013, p 166).The rendezvous did not take place as arranged because Amundsen was delayed in leaving Norway.

However, having forced a way through ice and dangerous waters in Melville Bay in an effort to keep the appointment the Dundee ships came across an expedition led by the Dane, Mylius Ericksen, who had set off into the wilds of Greenland in 1902.The group was in “a pitiful condition” and the whalers left life-saving medical and other supplies.For his assistance to Amundsen, Adams was honoured by King Hakon of Norway with the Distinguished Order of St Olaf.

From 1905 to 1911 Adams was Master of the Morning the vessel which, in 1904, had gone as relief ship to the rescue of Scott’s Discovery then ice bound in the Ross Sea. (for details of that vessel see Archibald 2013 p 168). In passing it is interesting to note that there was another Broughty Ferry man in the crew in 1908: William Anderson, aged 20 and then living at 278 Brook Street. Anderson was line- manager who had responsibility for coiling and arranging lines in the whale boats. (Archibald, 2013, p228).

The fishing was generally poor, but in the 1910 season the Morning came across a school of Right whales in Lancaster Sound apparently trapped in a bay by a gathering of predator sword fish and sharks. News of an unusually large catch spread back to Dundee and the Morning sailed up the Tay estuary past Broughty Ferry to be greeted by a welcoming crowd of thousands. On the deck of the Morning were the cavernous jaw bones of seven large whales-the best catch for many years. However, that was a false dawn and the returns for the following year were dismal: the Morning accounted for only 5 white whales yielding but one ton of oil together with 3 walrus and 15 seals (Dundee Year Book).

The End of an Era

In retrospect it is clear that by the 1890s the Arctic whaling fishery and its associated industries were in terminal decline.In short, Captain Adams junior was working in a very different economic context from his father.The last custom built whaler - The Terra Nova- had been was launched in 1884 and by the 1890's lost ships were not being replaced.Indeed, Dundee was the only port in Britain still operating whalers. As noted above, the Dundee Whaling Expedition of 1892/3 had not identified new fishing grounds in the Antarctic for Right whales to be exploited by the residual fleet; and the decline began in earnest. A comparison of the catches made in the three years 1896-1898 with those of 1906 -1908 reveals that the whales were found in more distant waters and they were also smaller. In both of these 3 year periods an average of 8 vessels per year went fishing. However, in the former the voyages yielded a total of 15 tons 15 cwt of bone and 559 tons of oil while the latter brought 13 tons15cwt of bone and 328 tons of oil.Part of the explanation lay in the fact that some of the whales were “suckers”, young fish whose parents had been taken in previous years but that only added to the growing appreciation that the continuing slaughter in Arctic waters had reduced stocks to perilously low levels. (Dundee Year Book 1898).

In the chapter on Industrial and Commercial Life included in the Hand Book and Guide to Dundee and District prepared for the members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science on the occasion of their visit to Dundee in 1912 little more than a page was given over to seal and whale fishing. It was noted that whales were scarce, and only 5 whaling ships remained - Active, Balaena, Diana, Morning, and the Scotia. All of these had proud histories in polar waters.However, in the current season “only two ships have gone forth to try their fortune”.The author of the piece then went on to a gloomy conclusion: “It is doubtful whether the industry, indeed, will ever recover its former prosperous condition.The grip which it took in the mind of the nation, because of its association with adventure and romance, was always greater than its relative commercial importance; the world’s confines are so steadily shrinking, because of modern scientific advance, that it cannot now secure the same hold on the mind of youth as was formerly the case.” (British Association for the Advancement of Science,1912, pages 328/9).

That prediction was accurate and, accordingly, it was time for Captain William Adams Junior to move on to a series of other ventures.Thus for instance, in the Evening Telegraph of 14 March 2012 it was noted that the ice breaker Sagona built by the Dundee Shipbuilding Company and with Captain Adams as Master had arrived at St Johns, Newfoundland.

Returning on one last voyage to the Arctic, Adams served as first mate on the Albert under Captain Milne (Archibald, 2013, p 117).The Albert was then owned by the Arctic Gold Exploration Syndicate and the voyage was led by the adventurer and entrepreneur Henry Toke Munn. His objective of establishing trading posts on Baffin Island in competition with the Hudson's Bay Company, which by then had a trading monopoly throughout the Canadian North, was unsuccessful.

During the Great War, William Adams served with the Admiralty. From 1918 until his retirement in 1939 he was employed as a North Sea pilot for the long established, Liverpool based, Thomas & John Brocklebank Line which was, by then, owned by Cunard. In retirement Captain Adams lived at Gordon House, Colinsburgh in Fife.The notes of a relative, the late Michael Elder, prepared for his play acted out in the Assembly Rooms at the Edinburgh Festival provide a brief glimpse of Adams at the close of his career.The Glasgow Herald, on 12 August 1986, hailed Elder’s performance as “a first-rate one-man show” which was “homely and dramatic, tottering only occasionally on the abyss of a geography lesson.” Elder has left an amusing word picture of Captain Adams in him in older age. To Elder, as a boy:…he seemed vastly old with white hair, a white moustache, a pipe with a metal cap and the most piercing light blue eyes I have ever seen in a man; he drank cider at lunch time, filling his tankard so that the froth rose exactly an inch above the rim."

Captain William Adams’ death at Crail aged 73 was reported in the Dundee Courier of 14 September 1942. He was survived by his wife and two daughters but not his eldest child, an only son also named William then a resident of St Andrews, who pre-deceased him at the age of 41. He was third engineer on the Brocklebank merchant ship-the S.S. Malabar - which was torpedoed some 50 miles south-west of the Scilly Isles on the 17 October in 1939, only a few weeks after the outbreak of war on her way from Philadelphia to London by way of Halifax, Nova Scotia.The Liverpool Daily Post of 31 October noted that the Malabar had been attacked without warning, that the Master and 66 of the crew were saved but William and 4 Lascar firemen were trapped in the engine room and it was impossible to reach them before the vessel sank.

A Post Script

Whaling in Dundee had ceased by the start of the Great War and with it the opportunity for William Adams Junior to continue as a whaling Master. However, by then his reputation was secure not only as a whaler but also an explorer. In an interview with the Dundee Courier in 1938 Captain Adams recalled: “When I first went whaling 40 and 50 years ago, much of the land in which we traded was unexplored. The result was that the crews had to collect as much information as possible to guide them through these dangerous waters.”

There are at least two sites in the Canadian Arctic which bear the name of Captain Adams junior. First, Adams Island (on NTS map 37H) was submitted by J.M. Wordie in 1938 for William Adams, who in 1903 apparently passed here in the "Diana". (71 27N - 73 05W, NE Baffin Island); and second, Cape Adams (on NTS map 67C) “named by Amundsen, 1905, after Capt. Adams, a Scotch whaler, who had deposited stores for him on Dalrymple rock” (68 48N - 100 08W, E. Side of Boothia Peninsula). (A personal communication from Helen Kerfoot, Chair of the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names)

On Captain Adams’ death an article appeared in the 'People's Journal' of 19th September 1942 (Dundee Museum number 1969-117-16) with a head and shoulders photograph.Entitled 'Noted Dundee Whaling Skipper Dead' it had a subtitle 'Link with Famous Norwegian Explorer' making reference to the link with Amundsen.  Wider afield, J. M. Wordie, then Chairman of Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge, who had been the geologist on Shackleton’s Endeavour and one of the party stranded on Elephant Island, noted in laudatory obituary that: “Captain Adams of Dundee belonged to a well-known whaling family and was an authority on North-East Baffin Island.” (Wordie ,1944, pp 119-122).

The link between father and son had been recognised not only as whaling Masters but also as distinguished participants in Arctic exploration.
HMB 27.9 2016

Primary Sources
Dundee Directories
Dundee Year Books
British Newspaper Archives

Short Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Archibald M (2004) Whalehunters: Dundee and the Arctic Waters, Mercat Press, Edinburgh
Archibald M (2013) The Dundee Whaling Fleet Dundee University Press Ltd
Archibald M (2013) Ancestors in the Arctic: A Photographic History of Dundee Whaling Black and White Publishing
British Association for the Advancement of Science (1912) Hand Book and Guide to Dundee and District prepared for the members on the occasion of their visit to Dundee in 1912.
Elder M (1986) Whalers: a One Man Play about Two Men (Theatre Notes for a production in the Assembly Rooms during the Edinburgh Festival)
Fairweather J (1928/9) Memoirs, Scots Magazine (issued in 5 articles monthly September1928 to January 1929)
Friends of Dundee City Archives (undated) The Dundee Whaling Industry 1756 to 1920.
Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History, (undated) A Shipbuilding History. 1750-1932 (Alexander Stephen and Sons)

Lenman B., Lythe C, and Gauldie E (1969) Dundee and its Textile Industry 1850-1914 Abertay Historical Publication No 14
Lindsay D M (1911) A Voyage to the Arctic in the Whaler Aurora (in 1884) A Voyage to the Arctic in the Whaler Aurora, Boston, Dana Estes &Co
Scott Polar Institute Picture Library Voyages of the Eclipse and the Maud
Rycroft N (2005) Captain James Fairweather: Whaler and Shipmaster-His Life and Career 1853-1933, Pennine Printing, 7
Smith R (1993) The Whale Hunters, John Donald Publishers Edinburgh
Watson N (2003) The Dundee Whalers: 1750-1914, Tuckwell Press Edinburgh
Wordie J M (1944) Polar Record, Vol4 (27) pp 119-122).