A Sea Captain Who Agreed to Build Ships

By Haydn Brown.

His name was Allison Davie and it was said that he was born on 4 May 1796; presumably at Great Yarmouth because, as one biography stated, he was “baptised privately the next day at Great Yarmouth, England”. Confusingly however, another source stated that he was born in Scotland! Solely on the basis that it would not have been possible for a barely one-day old baby to be carried from 18th century Scotland to Norfolk in one day, this blog will continue with the following:

Allison Davie (Portrait_Wikimedia Commons)
Former Captain Allison Davie. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Allison Davie was the son of a Captain Allison Davie who, by the way, was buried at Gorleston, near Great Yarmouth in 1818; his mother was Elizabeth Cock. Apparently, young Allison Davie came from an old English family line that can be traced back to 1603 when an ancestor, William Davie lived in Stanfield, in Norfolk. Allison was to be the eldest of eight children, four boys and four girls.

It was during the Napoleonic Wars (18 May 1803 to 20 November 1815 – some 12 years, 5 months and 4 weeks) and while still young, Davie entered the service of the East India Company and took part in transporting British troops in the Mediterranean before transferring to the Atlantic route; he had gradually risen in rank. It was whilst he was on a trip to Quebec as a Captain, in early 1825, when he met Elizabeth Johnson Taylor; she was the only daughter of George Taylor, a shipbuilder, and Elizabeth his wife.

Daughter Elizabeth had been born at North Shields, England in 1803 and had left her native land aboard the clipper, Three Brothers – “The largest sailing ship in the world” – with her parents on 27 May 1811, reaching Quebec on 9 August that year. There, her father had immediately opened a shipyard on the southwest shore of Île d’Orléans at a place known as St Patrick’s Hole. Just over twelve months later, in December 1812, the war with the United States caused George Taylor to suspend his activities at St Patrick’s Hole and go with other sailors and carpenters to build ships in Upper Canada. On returning to Île d’Orléans after hostilities had ended, he resumed his original business operations.

1200px-Clipper_shipAllison Davie (Three_Brothers_Wikipedia)

Taylor’s yard prospered, and was still doing so in 1825 when Allison Davie from Norfolk, England, by then a 300-pound “giant” of a man and with an excellent reputation as a sea captain, landed at Quebec. He immediately fell in love with young Elizabeth Taylor – how and when exactly we do not know but events with this relationship flowered at pace. Her father, George, very soon agreed to his daughter’s marriage with Davie – but on two conditions: (1) that he abandon sailing and settle down as heir to the Taylor business and, (2) that he would give his future children the Taylor name. Davie agreed, and the marriage was performed by the Reverend James Harkness on 16 April 1825; this is according to the records of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church at Quebec – which made the formalisation of the couple’s marriage swift indeed!

Allison Davie (Dalhousie_Library and Archives Canada)
The Governor of Quebec, Lord Dalhousie Ramsay. Image: Library & Archives Canada.

Two years later, on 14 May 1827, the Taylor enterprise, in which Davie was now an established partner, launched the King Fisher, a 221-ton, 16-gun, brigantine which was built for the Colonial Government. This launching turned out to be a major event with the Governor, Lord Dalhousie Ramsay and many other notable guests in attendance. It was Dalhousie himself who presented George Taylor with a silver cup, engraved with the Governor’s Coat of Arms surmounted by a unicorn, the ship’s figurehead which had been produced by the silversmith Laurent Amiot, a man conscious of his standing as a creative artist. As for the boatyard, it may appear strange that shortly after this even, it was shut down.

Allison Davie (Brigatine_Royal Museums Greenwich)
An example of an early 19th century Brigantine, similar to the ‘Kingfisher’ launched by the Taylor-Davie enterprise in 1827.

On 2 December 1829 Davie bought a waterfront property at the foot of the cliff at Pointe-Lévy on the south shore of the St Lawrence with a view to setting up his enterprise there. He purchased another site on 28 December the following year. On these lots he put up the facilities needed for repairing ships. But, as the Quebec Gazette reported on 5 March 1832, during the violent spring break-up “the large wharf” of his shipyard, “after being thrown over by the ice, was carried down the river.” At the same time, the shipbuilding market was weak but, undaunted by both the disaster and the market situation, Davie re- started from scratch, with such energy that by the autumn he had moved the family across the St Lawrence River to Pointe-Lévy where he had also bought a beach property and had set up his own ship repair yard, equipped with a “Patent Slip” or marine railway. Since there was only one other dry-docking facility in the port of Quebec at the time, the Canada Floating Dock at Cape Cove, Davie’s business prospered further.

Of all the qualities that contemporaries recognised in Davie, ingenuity was the one most stressed. For example, according to the Quebec Gazette of 29 Oct. 1832, he was the first person in the Canadas to employ a system invented in England that allowed ships to be repaired without being put into dry dock. For this purpose, he had an inclined marine railway built. The vessels, taken at high water, were hauled out of the river on a cradle which moved on iron rollers and drawn up by an iron chain. “We believe this is the first establishment of the kind formed in British America,” the newspaper added.

The ingenious Captain Davie was not destined, however, to live long after this achievement. Joseph-Edmond Roy, editor, notary, politician and historian, recounts:

“One evening in the month of June 1836, as he was moving in a rowboat past a ship anchored in mid-stream, the captain of the ship threw him a package, which fell into the sea instead of into the rowboat. In leaning overboard to catch the package, Davie fell in himself. He went under and did not come up.”

On 20 June the Le Canadien reported that Davie’s body, with:

“his gold watch, some money, and the keys he had on him, had been found at Saint-Pierre, Île d’Orléans, the preceding afternoon…. a few days after the accident in the roads.”

Twelve days after the accident, Allison Davie was buried at Quebec.

Allison Davie (Joseph Roy)
Joseph-Edmond Roy. Image: Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec

Elizabeth Davie, widowed at age 33 with seven children and pregnant with an eighth, took charge of the business in order to safeguard the family’s inheritance. The first woman to head a shipbuilding firm in Canada, she ran the yard and soon made a reputation for herself as a talented builder with a keen eye for which trees to cut down. On occasion she sought help from her father, who had retired but lived until 1861.

Around 1850 Elizabeth handed over the running of the company to her eldest son, George Taylor Davie, who had been apprenticed in John Munn’s shipyards in the faubourg Saint-Roch at Quebec. It was clear that training under Munn was a privilege, and several of his apprentices made their mark, George Taylor Davie was amongst them; his inherited business becoming the sole 19th century shipbuilder to survive to the present day.

Allison Davie’s son, George Taylor Davie, gradually bought up his sibling’s shares, with the result that on 28 May 1885 all of his father’s heirs declared him sole owner of the family business. His mother, Elizabeth Davie had died in 1860, at the age of 57 years. Thanks to George’s business sense and professional skill, the operation prospered and grew through the purchase of a site at Saint-Joseph (Lévis), where he founded the Davie Shipbuilding and Repairing Company Limited. Despite his short and modest career Allison Davie, a ship’s captain from Norfolk, England, had laid the foundation of an enterprise which, through his successors and name changes, won an enviable place in the shipbuilding and ship repairfield. It finally closed in 1989.

Allison Davie (Memorial Stone)
An existing plaque at 100 Quai Saint-André, Québec.
“During the Napoleonic Wars, rapidly growing British markets for Canadian timber created a demand for vessels to transport it, stimulating construction at Québec, the major timber port. At the peak of the trade about mid-century (1850) over 25 shipyards at the Port of Québec employed about 5,000 men and launched some 50 ocean-going wooden ships a year. After carrying a cargo of timber to Great Britain, most of these ships were sold to become a significant part of the British merchant navy on all the oceans of the world.”

THE END

Sources:
Biography – DAVIE, ALLISON – Volume VII (1836-1850) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography (biographi.ca)
Biography – DAVIE, GEORGE TAYLOR – Volume XIII (1901-1910) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography (biographi.ca)
Biography – ROY, JOSEPH-EDMOND – Volume XIV (1911-1920) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography (biographi.ca)

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