You are here

The tragic story of Captain Gray

The story of Captain Gray reads like a classic Victorian mystery from the pen of Wilkie Collins.


The author of The Moonstone would have revelled in the dramatic tale of the long-serving and well-loved captain who disappeared from his ship in the dead of night, leaving a bereft crew, and an abandoned family waiting in vain for his return. But as we know the story isn’t fiction; it is a true and tragic tale with plenty of first-rate evidence to back it up.

John Gray’s story begins on the island of Unst in the Shetlands. Like many Shetlanders he went to sea, serving in the merchant navy for over 10 years before joining ss Great Britain as Second Mate, becoming Captain in 1854.
 
He remained a sailor to his marrow, as observed by an anonymous diarist:
“it is interesting to mark how the Captain’s spirits get up as the breeze freshens...a twelve knot breeze and stunsails aloft and alow is his delight”.
 
Gray also had great technical ability, which he needed in order to handle the fast and furious sailing pace of SS Great Britain and make the most of her powerful rig. Edward Towle gives a glimpse of Gray in action:-
 
“When I turned out at 6 this morning, I found the studding sails set and a good breeze blowing. On a sudden everything was thrown into confusion by an unforeseen accident which might have been worse, the ship suddenly came almost to a standstill, the sails on the main mast were taken aback while those on the foremast were shivering, the voice of the 2nd Officer (a very fine fellow) was heard above the noise of the wind to take in all sail, in an instant he seemed to possess the gift of ubiquity and his energy seemed to rouse the crew to their utmost exertion.”
 
 
Towle’s description of Gray makes him seem almost superhuman:
 
“Mr Gray is a very fine fellow with the most athletic proportions, a voice that can be heard above the storm and the most untiring energy”. 
 
Captain Gray’s athletic proportions were mentioned by other diarists. Olcher Fedden described him as “a great man with a stentorian voice”, while Mary Crompton records that he tipped the scales at 16 stone 10 pounds. Add this to his height of nearly 6 feet and combine it with his deep voice and distinctive Shetland accent, and it’s easy to imagine the imposing physical figure he must have cut.
 
In addition to his impressive physique, Gray possessed unquestionable authority. An anonymous diarist records that
 
“...on Saturday night the Captain coming on deck discovered the 2nd mate drunk on his watch and immediately ordered him down to his room where he was confined till today when he was restored again to his office, the Captain is very severe in cases of the kind and justly so for the discipline cannot be too strict where the lives of so many are at stake.”
 
Gray’s time as Second and then First Mate clearly gave him advance notice of the kind of firm hand he would need to take with both passengers and crew if he were to maintain discipline on board. Robert Saddington described an episode in 1853 (during Captain Matthew’s regime) where:
 
“...several of the Men were intoxicated and one of the Lower Cabin Passengers was found in the Forecastle with Brandy – he was hauled out and Mr Gray gave him a good pummelling and the Captain threatened him with 3 feet of Ropes End”. 
 
Even those passengers who did not feel the sharp edge of his authority were aware of the steel beneath the soft Shetland burr. Charles Albert Chomley for instance noted in 1861 that “the Captain is a great patron of all kinds of fun and is a great favourite, he always has a pleasant word for everybody”, but continues “the only fault I have to find with him is that he has such a strong hand with which he squeezes peoples fingers like a pair of pincers if that can be called a vice”.
 
As well as meting out discipline to wrong-doers, Gray also used his authority to improve the voyaging experience for law-abiding passengers. William Griffiths enjoyed an example of this in 1860, writing “I had a short time’s amusement following the Captain to see him rooting up all the passengers on deck for the good of their health”. Clara Aspinal’s memoir of her journey to Australia paints a charmingly affectionate portrait of Gray: 
 
“It was cheering even to see his bright, genial countenance, as he went from one to the other, perhaps challenging this passenger to a game at chess – or another to backgammon – or another to draughts.
 
 
There were also (including widows) eight or ten unmarried ladies, some with their parents, under the care of our Captain. This good Captain is generally looked upon as the patron saint of unprotected ladies, and always has an immense consignment of them – particularly in going out. Indeed, the number of engaged young ladies whom he has taken out to Melbourne is something fabulous; and he has no sooner cast anchor in Hobson’s Bay than he has to deck himself in bridal array, and hasten to church to perform the fatherly office of giving away a bevy of his fair charges.”. 
 
The esteem in which Gray was held by passengers and crew, his skill in handling his ship and the affection he felt for her makes the end of this story, his disappearance, all the more difficult to understand. On 26 Nov 1872 the Purser wrote in his diary, with palpable distress:
 
“A great fear has come to us all this morning. We can’t find the Captain all over the Ship. One of the Storm Ports in the Lower Saloon found down this morning, and the Bedroom Steward screwed it up last thing before going to bed. That he should take his life is the last of our thoughts, though he was unwell. All who saw him last night had little thought of this. God help us all to keep near to Thee. To all human appearance, a prosperous life, suddenly gone… my mind can hardly realise that him who has been to me (with all his faults) a good Master for over Twelve Years, is gone… listless and heartless we all are, and those of us who have sailed so long with the late Capt. Gray are aback.”
 
An almost unbearable poignancy was added to the tragedy when the ship docked in Liverpool on Christmas Day, to be met by Gray’s wife and daughters on the dockside. There had been no way to let them know the sad news in advance, so as the Purser described, they were waiting, “looking for him they would never see in this life.” 
 
Gray’s disappearance was front-page news at the time, and the mystery has never been solved. Perhaps one day we’ll know the truth, but until that time we can make the most of the passengers’ stories of “the most popular captain afloat”.