Saturday August 19, 1899 was more than an ordinary day for the people of Gloucester, England. It was a date that marked an historic event for the city’s close links with the sea. For sports fans, the Austra1ians, in the last day of their game against Gloucestershire at the Cheltenham Cricket Festiva1, forced a draw after the county XI looked certain to win at lunch.
Further afield, the crisis in the Transvaal was on most people’s minds, while an afternoon cruise enjoyed by Queen Victoria on the royal yacht ‘Alberta’ in the English Channel that Saturday afternoon gave light reading among the war reports. But what was to be the major story of that day for Gloucester was the fact that Captain Howard Blackburn arrived at Kingroad, a part of the Severn estuary off Portishead. Blackburn was to arrive in Gloucester Docks to a spectacular welcome later that evening to end an epic single-handed voyage across the Atlantic from Gloucester in Massachusetts.
Sixty one days after leaving the New England fishing port where a certain Clarence Birdseye invented frozen food, Blackburn arrived in Kingroad. And after spending the Friday night at anchor he took on board a pilot Frank Price before the short journey to Sharpness, arriving with the afternoon tide. Being part of the Port of Gloucester, under the Queen Elizabeth I charter, the Sharpness Dock Master, hoisted signal flags at the pier, head that read ‘Welcome to Gloucester’
There was no official reception from the city, but local Sharpness officials were on hand to welcome Blackburn. The SS Sabrina happened to be in the ‘country port’ and the New England sailor was offered a tow along the canal to Gloucester, where a spectacular reception awaited.
(An account of the journey from Sharpness to Gloucester. taken from newspaper reports, is included in “Sharpness – A Country Dock” by the late Wilf Rowles.)It was on Sunday June 18, 1899 that Blackburn set sail in his 30-foot vessel ‘Great Western’. He was well aware that others had already crossed the Atlantic single-handed – the first recorded west to east crossing being made by Alfred ‘Centennial’ Johnson in 1876 when, for a dare, he crossed from Gloucester, Massachusetts to Liverpool. But what made Blackburn’s crossing so different was that he was disabled.Born in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1859, Blackburn ventured south to Massachusetts at the age of 18 to join the fishing community. He soon established himself as a fisherman and by the age of 24 he had become a legend after an incident on the Burgeo Bank, some 30 miles off Newfoundland, that left him disabled. Blackburn was sailing with the Gloucester schooner ‘Grace L. Fears’ on a fishing trip in early 1883 searching the fishing banks near Newfoundland for, halibut.
In bitterly cold weather, Blackburn and the other crew had taken to their ‘dories’ (a flat-bottomed rowing boat) to haul their trawls. According to contemporary press reports, Blackburn and Thomas Welch “were in one of the boats. and while occupied in taking in their trawls a heavy snowstorm came on, the wind changed and when they came to look for the vessel (Grace L. Fears) she was nowhere to be seen.