Three families, one from the UK, one from the United States, and one from the former community of Deer Harbour, Random Island, will come together this month in Newfoundland to commemorate a seafaring tragedy from the 19th century.
130 years ago, a British warship patrolling off Catalina discovered a merchant sailing ship from Wales, abandoned in fair weather, seaworthy but with no sign of captain or crew. No trace of them was ever found, and the story became known as the Welsh ‘Marie Celeste’ like the famous ghost ship.
UK-based writer Will Wain is the great-grandson of the captain of the ship, Resolven, who has been trying to solve the mystery for many years. He was recently contacted by a lady in Alberta who told him of an amazing discovery.
Will says. ‘This lady told me that her grandfather and his brother were from Deer Harbour, Random Island, and they had found a body in a merchant navy officer’s uniform on a remote island in the same month and year as my ancestor disappeared. For three generations they had wondered who this man could be. Then they saw my research on the internet and got in touch.’ Now Wain has brought together the great-grandaughter of the first Mate and the grandson of the two fishermen from Random Island and all three will travel by boat to see the spot where the man was found.
‘It is so exciting to think that after all these years that the mystery may finally be solved,’ Wain said before the trip. ‘My great-grandmother, the Captain’s widow, never gave up trying to find out what happened to her husband and the rest of the crew. Without her husband, she died young and in poverty, leaving my grandfather an orphan at the age of 10. For her sake, it would be great to get some closure’.
Andrea Sutcliffe is the great-great-granddaughter of the Resolven’s first mate, James Mathias. Andrea, who is visiting here with her husband Ed Sutcliffe, lives in Virginia, USA. Andrea’s Welsh mother, Nesta (who married an American GI after WWII) often told her the strange story of the Resolven and how the disappearance of her great-grandfather affected the Mathias family in Wales in the late 1800s. ‘They had been fairly well-to-do, because of James’s good income as a sailor. But after his disappearance, his young wife was left to support six children – including a baby born shortly after James left on his final voyage,’ Andrea recalls.
By chance in 2015, Andrea came across an article in an online Welsh newspaper about Will Wain’s research on theResolven. She immediately contacted him to learn more. Last year, she met up with him in Wales, and they agreed to meet this June in Newfoundland to visit the place where her relative and his were last known to be alive.
Eldon Bailey of Corner Brook NL, is the grandson of the younger brother who found the body. He says his family, who moved from the outport of Deer Harbour during resettlement, had always wondered who this man could have been.
Wain says, ‘We are hoping to find the grave where the mystery man was buried. There was only one clue to the man’s identity, an unusual gold watch. The fishermen kept this in the family for many years, but it was given to a man named Cooper who was one of the family that looked after the East Random Head lighthouse for many years. While I am in Newfoundland I am hoping to meet any of the Cooper family – there may be even more to this story!’
The Resolven mystery was never solved – but has not been forgotten in the UK nor in Newfoundland. Wain says, ‘A writer named Fred Cram, of Old Perlican, wrote an account of the tragedy with some theories as to what happened. In Wales, the historical society of Resolven – the mining town after which the ship was named – have also been pursuing the story.
Deer Harbour is not the only Newfoundland community with a link to the tragedy. One of the things Wain found out is that the Resolven, which set out from Harbour Grace for the Labrador fishing grounds on her ill-fated last voyage, was carrying four men from the Carbonear area. They too were never seen again. There is a memorial to one of the men, Douglas Taylor, in a cemetery in the town.
Wain, who is completing a book about the mystery, says that the Resolven was found, like the Marie Celeste, with a galley stove lit and a meal prepared, with no sign of disturbance, and with all sails spread. Only the ship’s boat was missing. It seems to have been launched in a great hurry, for what reason remaining a mystery.
‘I’m hoping to make more discoveries,’ he says. ‘But if nothing else, I feel that after all these years, the stories of three families will come together and finally be closed.’
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