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A Brief Biography of Alexander Main

Alexander was born on 21 February 1833 in Aberdeen, Scotland, son of Alexander Main and Isabella Brand. His father was a pilot in the Aberdeen port of Footdee, and his mother was from a family of fishermen and pilots in Footdee as well. Sailing was in his blood, and most of the residents of Footdee were fishermen and sailors - it was always likely that he would end up a sailor to.
His older brother David (b. 1829) went to sea in his teens, and was (according to family legend) killed falling from the rigging to the deck on his very first day - so Alexander was discouraged from going to sea. He was apprenticed as a sailmaker, but on finishing his apprenticeship, signed on as a sailmaker on the whaler "St Andrew" out of Aberdeen, and later gained experience on a brig sailing out of the Tyne for the Baltic.
He later went into the China tea trade, sailing on the American clipper "The Spirit of the Age" for several voyages. He then joined the Aberdeen White Star Line, sailing on the clipper "Jerusalem", trading on the wool route between the UK and Australia. His last major move was to the Hudson's Bay Company, on their Hudson's Bay and Vancouver routes. He was to stay with the HBC for nearly all of his subsequent sailing career.


He was obviously a talented sailor, and by the time he was 30 had obtained his Master Mariner's ticket. (Certificate of Competency, Foreign-Going Master : C20453, Aberdeen 1863) His son John Charles Main described him to my father David Rogers as a tough man, 6' tall and with "a span of 6'4" ". Later photographs bear out this impression - a large, sternly bearded man, every inch the Victorian sea-captain.
John Charles Main tells of one particular voyage home from Hudson's Bay, when his father Alexander Main was captain of the Walrus in 1874
. This story was recorded by David Rogers in 1951 :
"During a terrific blizzard in the Bay, the brig went aground on Mackenzie Island, tearing a hole in her bottom. Alexander ordered everybody out onto the ice, and started to discharge the cargo of furs in order to get at the leak. Shelters were constructed on the land out of these furs, but even so, everybody was soon suffering from frostbite. After a fortnight, he managed to patch the hole with cabin doors, made watertight with furs, and put into Fort B____ [possibly Port Burwell on the northern tip of the Labrador peninsula] where the hole was patched temporarily with sheets of lead. He managed to get around to St John's, Newfoundland, where after a bit of true Scottish haggling with the tug skipper, who could see there was something wrong with the ship, managed to get her into dry dock. "Captain," said the tug skipper when he saw the hole, "If I'd seen that hole before, I wouldn't have taken you in for $200, never mind $20!"
So proper repairs were made there, and as the ship couldn't wait for all the furs to dry properly, they were packed back into the hold with layers of brushwood in between. Halfway across the Atlantic, fire broke out in the hold due to spontaneous combustion of the brushwood, but led by Alexander, the fire was put out.
Then the ship was attacked by severe southerly gales, but Alexander, instead of heaving to and riding out the storm, drove up around Iceland, running before the gale, with the result that he arrived in London 14½ days out from St John's, beating the mail boat.
The other two Hudson's Bay ships carrying furs had both been lost without trace in the blizzard that grounded the "Walrus" so Alex's cargo, damaged though it was, fetched £200 000, a record price, making up for the other losses.
"For Courage, Skill and Seamanship" Lloyds presented him with a scroll and £200, and the owners gave him a gold watch and £200 "for services rendered.
Greater than all this was the fact that when Alexander arrived home, he was presented with a 3 month old son, John Charles Main, the only one of the family he ever christened."
While the above story is anecdotal, at least part of it is confirmed by the Lloyds Accident register of the year, and the Hudson's Bay Company records of the time. Similarly with his early sailing history - Lloyds Captain's Records have confirmed the vessels, so there is every reason to believe the rest of the history. The following details are all culled from official records and original sources.

 

 




While Alexander spent up to two years away from home on some of his longer journeys, he still found time to get married and have a family. On 11 January 1856, when he was nearly 23 and probably sailing as a junior officer, he married Christian Hardie Baxter, daughter of an Aberdeen fisherman Alexander Baxter, and his wife Jane Stephen. The Baxters had a long connection with the sea, coming from a long line of fishermen in Aberdeen (Footdee) and the Kincardineshire village of Nigg, just south of the river Dee. Being the daughter and granddaughter of fishermen and sailors, she would have been used to the idea of her man being absent for much of their marriage, and had the support of a close community of similar family and friends - but it must have been a worrying and lonely marriage at times. They had Alexander in 1861, Isabella in 1864, William in 1865, Christian in 1867, and John Charles in 1874.



Standing : Christian Main (nee Baxter), William Paterson Main
Seated : Alexander Main, John Charles Main, Christian Main, Isabella Main
Photo taken circa 1880

They were a devout Christian family, as evidenced by letters written by them to Alexander while he was at sea - the prospect of a disaster at sea meaning that he might not return was obviously very real to them, and prayer was their recourse while they waited. By the time Alexander was with the Hudson's Bay Company he was probably fairly well paid, and they lived a very respectable life - the children were well educated, and their letters convey this clearly, as well as their obvious love for their father.
According to the HBC records, Alexander Main sailed with them until 1882, when he retired from the Company. Lloyds records show that he sailed on one more vessel, the "Sam Owen" on the North America trade until 1884 when he retired to his family in Aberdeen. He was one of the last Masters to have a career entirely on sail - already by the time he retired, steam powered ships were proving faster and more efficient on long passages, and the manufacture of iron ships powered by steam was outnumbering the wooden sailing ships. There is a list of his commands following this brief biography, and I will attempt to find pictures of some of these vessels - while the conditions aboard these sailing ships, particularly on the cold-weather runs, could be extremely harsh, they were beautiful creations, and very few exist today.


Prince Rupert - Alexander Main, Master, 1874-5

Alexander retired in 1884, and died at home in Aberdeen on 20 October 1901, aged 68. Further records of the ships he sailed in can be found on the Maritime Record - Alexander Main pages.