A Mind at Sea: Henry Fry and the Glorious Era of Quebec's Sailing Ships
The trials and tribulations of a Canadian business titan during a fascinating period in 19th-century Quebec.
A Mind at Sea is an intimate window into a vanished time when Canada was among the world’s great maritime countries. Between 1856 and 1877, Henry Fry was the Lloyd’s agent for the St. Lawrence River, east of Montreal. The harbour coves below his home in Quebec were crammed with immense rafts of cut wood, the river’s shoreline sprawled with yards where giant square-rigged ships – many owned by Fry – were built.
As the president of Canada’s Dominion Board of Trade, Fry was at the epicentre of wealth and influence. His home city of Quebec served as the capital of the province of Canada, while its port was often the scene of raw criminality. He fought vigorously against the kidnapping of sailors and the dangerous practice of deck loading. He also battled against and overcame his personal demon – mental depression – going on to write many ship histories and essays on U.S.-Canada relations.
Fry was a colourful figure and a reformer who interacted with the famous figures of the day, including Lord and Lady Dufferin, Sir John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier, and Sir Narcisse-Fortunat Belleau, Quebec’s lieutenant-governor.
willing to help him. One of them was William Yeo, of Appledore, to the southwest of Bristol on the Atlantic coast of north Devon. Yeo was appalled by the “petty” way Whitwill had treated Henry. He was so disgusted that one day in 1849 he wrote to his young Bristol friend, “Come down and spend a week with me.” Henry was impressed, if not awestruck, by the visit. Yeo was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Devonshire and the mightiest man in Appledore, dominating the village’s economy.
the register of shipping were saved by Mr. Henry Fry, Lloyd’s agent of this port,” reported the Morning Chronicle and Shipping Gazette two days later. In the same account, the newspaper fiercely criticized the city’s inadequate firefighting. The Custom House could have been saved, declared the paper, if there had been proper hose and decent equipment and if the firefighting companies had not fought among themselves. Despite the terrible fires, the year 1864 marked a pinnacle, both
certain is whether the ranking clerics appreciated the close proximity of a fervent Baptist. But it was a delight for Henry. Laymen like Henry with an appetite for knowledge gravitated in their friendships toward clerics who were typically nineteenth-century society’s better educated people … and the higher up the ecclesiastical scale, the better. The four identical 2,800-square-foot Cliff Cottages, designed by Quebec architect Edward Stavely, with walls built of squared timbers and floors of
Saguenay River, with a view of spectacular sunsets. Notman Collection, McCord Museum, MP-1984.107.38. (top), photo by the author (middle and bottom) Cacouna was known in the late nineteenth century as “the Newport of Canada,” suggesting that it ranked with the Rhode Island summer home of America’s upper class. Henry’s brother-in-law Sam Dawson, Mary’s brother, described it as “famous for the dancing and flirting, and a dangerous place for an unengaged bachelor, or even for an engaged one, if his
Deed Rewarded In November of 1866, Mary gave birth to the couple’s fourth child, Arthur Dawson. With the infant, six-year-old Mame, four-year-old Henry, and two-year-old William Marsh, the family spent the winter of 1867–68 in Quebec. The town was still recovering from the devastating October fire of 1866. “Times were bad,” Henry wrote later. “There was much distress among the ship carpenters of St. Roch … so much so that a meeting was called to promote soup kitchens. I attended the meeting and