The ‘Twa’ Marys
While dangerous and sometimes unpleasant life of fishermen and indeed sailors at this time is well documented, it must be recorded that women also played a huge part.
Mary Buick(1777 – 1851)
Mary Buick was just one of many strong women who supported their husbands and raised their children in great hardship.
At just 20 years old and newly married, Mary became a victim of the Press Gang when her husband Thomas Watson was captured and taken to serve in the Royal Navy.
During the Napoleonic wars few people had exemptions from the press gang. An exception to this was certain classes of men involved in the whaling industry, who could purchase protection from the Collector of Customs.
By 1801, the government belatedly recognised the impact the press gang was having on the fishing industry and excluded those involved. This came too late for Thomas Watson as his experience at sea made him a prime candidate.
Many families tried to protect their men from the press gang by hiding them away. Thomas indeed fled inland to the farming community in order to escape his pursuers. His family tried to warn him when it was unsafe to return home by hanging a red napkin in the window, but unfortunately he stumbled into the press gang on trying to return to his cousin’s house in darkness. The press gang also had informers who infiltrated a community and repaid any friendliness by chalking marks on the doors of likely candidates.
Mary was left on her own and penniless. Luckily, she did not as yet have children, but it must have taken great courage to travel alone to Yarmouth to be near him while aboard HMS Ardent. She was allowed onboard when the ship was in port along with other camp followers but she would have had to rent somewhere on shore, hence a portion of Thomas’ wage was assigned to her. It is thought that Mary was allowed on the Ardent as a nurse in 1801, when her husband’s wage was no longer allocated to her.
Their daughter Mary was born just before the Battle of Copenhagen, so her m would have assisted with the wounded while someone else tended the baby. It is believed Thomas was in charge of a gun crew during the battle having risen to the rank of junior petty officer. Thomas and his family spent four years aboard the man of war before he was discharged and by the time the family returned to Cellardyke there was another addition to the family. Mary had also given birth to a son, Christened John, while in Yarmouth but it is thought that he died at an early age as a later son was given the same name. Parish records suggest Thomas returned to the life of a fisherman.
The story told by daughter Mary in later life that the family were aboard the HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar and that her mother nursed the wounded Lord Nelson cannot be substantiated. It may be that she confused the two battles and all evidence points to them being at the Battle of Copenhagen on the Ardent and not on the Victory.
Mary went on to give Thomas more children but like many women in those days, lost a son to the sea.
On returning to Cellardyke, Thomas built a house at 7 Shore St, with the bounty and money from the Napoleonic Wars. He became a spirit dealer and after his death, 54 year old Mary took on the running of the business and diversified into property. She built a dwelling house for her family on the land behind her house, which became the beginning of Dove St. Mary died in 1854 aged 77.
Mary Galloway (1801 – 1854)
Another brave woman was the wife of William Watson. She plunged into the sea to save her husband when the fishing boat he crewed was overwhelmed by a ‘terrific wave’ just outside the harbour. Mary Galloway watched helplessly with the other women, as the boat swept towards Skellie Point. Rudderless and disabled, the boat was crushed on the reef and the men were left to struggle in the foaming sea. Seven of the men disappeared below the waves, but William, who had thrown off his big jacket before jumping into the water, was picked up by a wave and swept towards the shore.
“I felt as if I walked on the water,” he later told his friends.
His devoted wife Mary rushed into the sea to his rescue and “clasped him to her bosom,” with no thought but the overflowing joy of the moment.” ‘Water Willie’ as he was called after his extraordinary escape, went on to live to 77 years of age, surviving his faithful wife by only two years. It is probably the act of casting off his big jacket which helped save his life.
To waterproof their clothing, the wives and daughters of fisherman hand -oiled them with linseed oil. They were then left to dry for four or five weeks, before the process was repeated four or five times. This would make their garments particularly heavy when trying to survive in the sea. That and the fact that most fishermen couldn’t swim anyway put them in double jeopardy. Mary Galloway too, who scrambled into the surf to save her man, would have been hampered by heavy woollen petticoats over flannel and possibly a woollen shawl tucked in at the waist. She gave no heed to the danger as she desperately tried to save her man.
This was the second tragedy which played itself out just beyond the harbour. The first was in 1793, when again seven men perished and one was saved. The survivor, James Martin, again was swept towards ‘Craw Skellie’ where Water Willie was to land seven years later.
Fisher Life : Or the Memorials of Cellardyke and the Fife Coast (1879) by George Gourlay
The Life and Times of Thomas Watson and Mary Buick a paper by Alex Gowans
Fisherfolk’s Clothing by Jen Gordon ( Scottish Fisheries Museum)