Sailing the British Empire : The Voyages of The Clarence, 1858-73

Joseph Watson's Biography

     The captain of The Clarence, Joseph Watson III, had an extensive career at sea, marked by dramatic events, successful captaining of multiple ships, and in the literal sense, a log book now held by The University of Pennsylvania. However, much of Watson's life, despite his extensive military career, has been lost with the passage of time.  It is important to attempt to reconstruct this lost information; as the effects of larger trends in society may manifest themselves in ways unknown in an individual's life.  
     Joseph Watson III was born July 24, 1823 in Tendring, Essex County to Joseph Watson II and Mary Ann Watson.  Joseph Watson II was a farmer, with a personal estate of 224 acres in Bocking Hall, Essex County.  Watson first went to sea in 1838, at 15 years of age.  The decision to take up a life at sea might seem peculiar for the son of a farmer.  Perhaps Watson grew tired of the farming life, or maybe the prospect of overseas trade enthralled Watson.  The stories of voyages of adventure that were so present in the popular culture of the time may have sparked an interest in sailing.  Perhaps it was Watson's father who encouraged him, hearing of the expanding technologies and increased capital in the shipping industry.  Joseph Watson's III decision to become a sea captain make sense when one looks at the growing maritime industry of the nineteenth century.  The profession of a shipmaster was evolving into a career for the middle class.  It was becoming more formally structured and professionalized.
      On his first voyage, Watson most likely held the position of “boy."  For descriptions of the roles of the crew please see Crew on the Ship.  He then served as a midshipman on The Asia, The Thames, and The Buckinghamshire.  Watson moved up the hierarchy to serve as a fifth officer on The Inglis.  His career aboard The Inglis, however, would end prematurely, as the ship wrecked on January 10, 1845, just three years into Watson’s service on the ship.  The East Indiaman, The Inglis, wrecked in the Straits of Sunda, off the coast of Anjeer.  The ship caught shore, and despite the valiant efforts of the crew, and even some local Javanese, only a mere 120 of the 7,000 bales of cotton, the sails, and the guns were saved.  Salvaging the cargo was only made harder with the storm that ensued.  It wasn’t until seven days later that the tired captain and 160 crew members left the wreck and traveled to Anjeer. The masters of 19th century British shipping had two roles; one was to make decisions on the behalf of the owner of the vessel, and the other was to safely transport the cargo, crew, and ship to the proper destination. Unfortunately for Isaacson, the captain of The Inglis, the latter could not be realized.  Captain Isaacson died in the next few weeks as a result of “the fatigue and anxiety undergone by him.” At the young age of 22 could Watson have been impacted by such an experience? Did his views of the role of the captain of a shipping vessel change? Did the death of Isaacson soon after the wreck affect Watson's perceptions? In what ways did it affect him? Did the thought of Isaacson’s quick death after wrecking The Inglis ever cross Watson’s mind as he sailed The Clarence through the intense winds and rains of the cyclone in 1864?
     Despite the wreck, Watson continued on in the shipping industry, joining Green’s service in 1846.  Watson was appointed as second officer of the City of Poonah.  Watson continued on Green’s service for twenty-three years, serving in The Seringapatam and The Agincourt and captaining The Owen Glendower, The Princes of Wales, The Clarence, and The Shannon.  Below are a few ads for voyages commanded by Watson in The Prince of Wales.  

     For more information on these vessels please see 
Green's Vessels.  As the career of ship master became increasingly professionalized, regulations were put in place in order to guarantee the competency of the master.  In 1853, Watson passed the examination established by the Mercantile Marine Act of 1850 to receive his first certificate of competency.  
     With the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, Watson had to pass another examination to receive another certificate of competency in 1870.  In 1870, Watson was appointed to the position of the London Local Marine Board Superintendent of the Mercantile Marine Office.  Watson became one of the oldest officers in the Royal Naval Reserve, being commissioned into the Reserve in 1862 and retiring in 1886.  Watson died at age 70, in 1893 from illness, weakness, and inability to eat.  Watson passed away in the comfort of his residence, 11 Bancroft Road, London.  Watson never had a wife or children, but there is no doubt that Watson was highly dedicated to the art that was captaining a ship.


"Allen's Indian Mail and Register of Intelligence for British and Foreign India." Google Books. The Bavarian State Library, 12 June 2012. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

Burton, Valerie. "The Making of a Nineteenth Century Profession: Shipmasters and the British Shipping Industry." Journal of the Canadian Association 1.1 (1990): 97-118. Erudit. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Doe, Helen. "Power, Authority and Communications: The Role of the Master and the Managing Owner in Nineteenth-Century British Merchant Shipping." International Journal of Maritime History 26.1 (2013): 103-25. Historical Abstracts. Web. 20 Dec. 2015.

Obituary of Joseph Watson III. University of Pennsylvania Rare Books & Manuscripts.

-Ana Chisholm, Penn Class of 2019

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