Captain James Francis Bisson (1812-1848)
James Francis Bisson
James Francis Bisson was a Jersey sea captain, who married a girl from Ireland, and captained ocean-going vessels taking emigrants from the famine in Ireland to the New World. He died at sea, reasons unknown, possibly in the Atlantic Ocean.
He was born in St Helier in August 1812, and baptised James Francois in the town church on 31 August. His parents were James Bisson and Elizabeth Le Cras, who were married in November 1811, also in St Helier’s Church. James was the eldest of their five children.
On 22 March 1832 James married Catherine Donovan of Cork, Ireland. Nothing is as yet known about Catherine’s family. He was just 19, so it is likely that he was at sea by this time, and in Cork long enough to meet and marry. By being absent during the cholera epidemic and other events, he may well have saved his life.
In 1838 he may have been master of the Equator, which sailed between Liverpool and New Orleans. More certain is his entry in Lloyds Shipping List for 1839 as the master of the Clifton, aged 27, on which he carried Irish emigrants from Cork to New York, and New Brunswick and Quebec ports.
James was probably trained as a seaman on the cod trade with Newfoundland, or on one of the many oyster boats which proliferated around Jersey in the 1830s, or perhaps at an early age in the Royal Navy. Jerseymen were useful for contacts with French-speaking colonists in Canada, from whom they bought cod to take to South American ports in 18th and 19th centuries. 
Captain of the Clifton
On 10 March 1840 the Cork Southern Reporter recorded him as being the Captain of the Clifton about to sail to New York, with the agents advertising for passengers. The ship “will be abundantly provided with water and food, and will be over seven feet high between decks”. He continued piloting the Clifton on the Cork to New Brunswick route, carrying 136 emigrants on one journey in May 1842
In September 1842 he is recorded as coming back to Cork with a cargo of timber from St Andrews, New Brunswick. In 1842 he took over the Pandora, also sailing from Cork to Quebec, and bringing back timber, usually to Cork; sometimes to London. The Pandora was a barque of 402 tons, built of black birch timber and sheathed in yellow metal.
Back in Jersey with Catherine, James began raising a family. Their first son was Fitz James Richard, who was baptised at St Helier on 3 February 1833 but died in June that year. On 13 April 1834 James and Catherine’s second child, Elizabeth Catherine, was baptised. Her fate is unknown, but she probably died young. Mary Jane Irene followed, born in December 1835 and baptised on 3 January 1846, also at St Helier. She was the only child to survive into adulthood and have a family of her own – she married Henry Grant Hornibrook.
The next-born was James William, baptised 22 October 1837, who must have died young, and then James Francis, born 30 September 1840. Finally Edward Leonard, born 9 January 1842, but his baptism does not appear in the parish records of Jersey. There may also have been another son, Thomas, born in Cork in 1840 or 1841, for a boy by that name and place of birth appears at Greenwich Hospital school later, along with his (probable) brothers James and Edward. He may have been a twin to James Francis, or he was born in 1841, but there was not a great deal of time for Catherine to have had another pregnancy between James and Edward.
It is likely, therefore, that James and Catherine left Jersey to live in Cork in 1840. The family does not appear in the 1841 census of Jersey, but there are a number of possible reasons for that. There is no census data available for Ireland in 1841. It is known that James Francis was born in September 1840, but this does not seem to have been in Jersey, as there is no baptism record for him. It’s likely that he was born in Cork, or nearby, and that Thomas and Edward were also born in Cork, or Queenstown (Cobh), Ireland. However, the 1851 census gives the place of birth for Edward as Jersey, so the family may have moved between Jersey and Cork.
Based in Cork
The shipping records lend weight to the theory that the family was based in Cork in the 1840s. If so, they were present for most of the Irish famine, which devastated rural Ireland, and altered the pattern of life in the towns. James was working – ironically in conveying thousands of the Irish peasantry away from Ireland, fleeing starvation and hopelessness – so had an income, and his family probably remained fed and housed in this time. Those who could, chose simply to leave. There seemed no prospect of relief from utter misery. The population of Ireland plunged from 8,175,000 in 1841 to 6,552,385 in 1851. One and a half million people emigrated in the years 1845-49. Captain James Bisson was among those who facilitated this mass exodus to the New World.
A number of private companies provided emigrant voyages from Irish ports in the 1840s. Emigrants had to pay their own way. Some were taken to Dublin, then Liverpool, before boarding a ship to North America. Sailings were only undertaken in the summer months, when ice was not present in the Atlantic. The usual triangular route was for ships to take emigrants to the North America Atlantic seaboard ports, then take fish (cod) from those ports to South American or Caribbean ports, and onload timber – notably mahogany from Honduras – to take back to Britain; in James’s case, to Liverpool and Cork. Thus their journeys were profitable, at least for the owners, but as James appears to have been very busy with his voyaging in the 1840s, he may have been able to make a decent living and provide for his family.
Death in 1848
James’ last ship was the Susan. Lloyds Shipping Register records that this ship was registered in Cork and that in 1848 she was making voyages from there to the West Indies. The Cork Reporter reported the arrival of the Susan in New York, with Bisson as its Master, on 19 November 1848. On 28 December, somewhere at sea, James died. He was probably buried overboard. It is not known precisely where or how he died. The ship was not wrecked – Lloyds reported a new master in 1849.
This disaster, the possibility of which must have been ever-present in Catherine’s mind as her husband set off to sea again, was to have a devastating effect on the Bisson family. Catherine must have felt she had no choice other than to send her two, possibly three sons, away to London to the Hospital School at Greenwich. This school was open to the orphaned sons of men who had served in the Royal Navy, and this may have been extended to sons of merchant navy men as well (the distinction was not so great in the 19th century – registers were kept from the 1840s of merchant navy men who might be called upon to serve in the Royal Navy).
Edward Leonard Bisson
On 27 December 1850, James, Edward, and Thomas (if he was theirs) were all admitted to the Greenwich Hospital School. James Francis, the youngest son of Catherine and James, died at school, aged just 11. He was buried in the cemetery in the school grounds on 12 January 1852. The boys were educated to be sailors, and learnt 'the ropes' on a ship provided at Greenwich for that purpose. What happened to Thomas is unknown, but Edward Leonard did survive, and entered the Royal Navy.
He first saw service on the Victory from 2 December 1860 to 5 January 1861, as Assistant Clerk (third class certificate). He was appointed Assistant Clerk on the Majestic in January 1861, based at Liverpool and in February transferred to the Narcissus.
The Victory was the same ship on which Nelson proclaimed “England expects” on 21 October 1805, but by 1860 it was a flag ship at Portsmouth. The Majestic was stationed at Sheerness in 1861.
From 23 October 1861 Edward served on the Sidon, stationed at the Cape of Good Hope, and then was transferred back to the Narcissus. The Narcissus was at the Cape of Good Hope in October 1861, and left for a cruise of the west coast of Africa shortly thereafter. He contracted malignant typhus fever. He was taken to the Naval Hospital at Haslar, in Portsmouth, where he died on 5 March 1862. He was buried at the Naval cemetery at Haslar, where some 10,000 young sailors lie buried.
A death notice appeared in the Cork Examiner on 10 March 1862: ”Mr Edward Leonard Bisson, having just arrived from Africa, a native of this city, and only son of the late Capt James Francis Bisson.”
This notice states that he was the 'only son' meaning the last surviving son, confirming that all the others had died, and that he was born in Cork, which may have been the case, although his place of birth is given as Jersey in the naval records. Death notices were not placed for other members of the family, and were too expensive for most people at this time, so it can be inferred that his mother and sister were in a position to afford the notice, that the death was an immense loss to them, and that they were established and known in Cork by 1862.
Only one child of James and Catherine Bisson remained alive in 1862 – Mary Jane Irene Bisson, now aged 27. She lived in Cork with her mother, and married in 1867, to Henry Grant Hornibrook. They married at St Ann’s, Shandon, Cork, on 26 February 1867. Henry was the son of Nathaniel Hornibrook and Mary Ann, nee Grant, who was a native of Hull (her parents were William and Mary Ann Grant) and five years older than Nathaniel. Nathaniel was himself a native of Cork, born in 1811 and baptised at the Princes Street Unitarian Church, but when his son Henry was born, the family were living in Bristol.
They moved around a great deal as Nathaniel was a commission agent, bookseller, painter, and music teacher, and probably not very settled or comfortable – but they did at least escape the Irish famine. So it was that in 1867, his son Henry, the only surviving child of his own family (five younger children all died in childhood) met and married Mary Bisson in Cork. Henry and Mary stayed on in Cork but their parents moved back to England, to Leeds, where they died in the 1870s in poor circumstances.
Henry, who was fluent in several European tongues, and Mary first lived in Henry Street, Cork, and by 1875 they were at 10 Wellington Place, Shanakiel, northwest Cork, and at 5 College View Terrace in 1893. Henry was an accountant. They produced four remarkable children, about whom a great deal is known: William Henry, who became a doctor and travelled to New Zealand in 1894 to practice medicine in South Canterbury, later returning to the UK to live in England; Edward Leonard, born 1871, who also came to New Zealand; Alice Gertrude, born 1872, and married Edward Burt, and finally Frederick Arthur, born 1880, who came to New Zealand with his parents in 1899, set up the Sandow school of physical development in Christchurch, wrote many books on health, and in 1920 married Ettie Rout in London.
Henry, Mary and Alice and Fred all left London together on the Wakool on 17 April 1899 and arrived in Sydney in May. The parents and Fred sailed on to Christchurch and arrived there on the Talune on 27 June 1899, but it is not known when Alice arrived in New Zealand.
Henry and Mary Hornibrook lived on in Christchurch, near Fred, and Mary died there in August 1914. Henry died in Wellington on 7 February 1916 on his way to visit his daughter and grandchildren in Eketahuna, and is buried alongside his wife in Linwood, Christchurch. Mary Hornibrook, nee Bisson, had come a long way from her beginnings in Jersey, famine in Ireland, the loss of her father and all her brothers, and finally all the way to New Zealand in her latter years. My grandmother Nonie Pringle remembered her – “Nana Bisson” they called her – as a very formidable person, a survivor of great difficulties and sadness, so perhaps that strength was understandable.
Notes and references
- ↑ James Francis Bisson was my great-great-great-grandfather, the father of Mary Jane Bisson, who married Henry Grant Hornibrook, whose daughter Alice Hornibrook married Edward Burt, and one of their children was my grandmother Norah (Nonie) Burt, later Pringle – my father’s mother
- ↑ By 1763 a third of the fish exported from Conception Bay in Newfoundland was carried in Jersey vessels. Jersey firms were set up in Newfoundland from 1780, and had, as Balleine notes, “a profound influence on island life; for not only were Jerseymen employed on their vessels and encouraged to emigrate as managers, clerks, farmers and beachmasters, but in Jersey the firms were the mainstay of a flourishing shipbuilding industry”.