This article was written for the Rewriting Women into Maritime inititative by Ruth Carslaw.
Betsy Miller (1792-1864)
First female Sea Captain, Saltcoats, Scotland.
Betsy Miller should be celebrated and remembered as a remarkable woman who defied the gender stereotype of her time to become a respected sea captain.
Betsy is an important figure in regards to promoting the right for any gender to do what they want to do. Betsy believed she could do whatever she wanted to. Despite the sea captain role being a very male heavy led industry, Betsy believed she could do the job just as well and that her sex shouldn’t be an issue.
Betsy was born on 11th June 1792, the eldest of ten children. Her baptismal record states that her father, William Miller, was at that time a Merchant Taylor in Saltcoats. (It was also noted in accounts that he became a successful timber merchant and a sea captain.) Her mother was Mary Garret. They were married on the 12th December 1791. In all, although they had ten children, as was common in that time, some didn't survive far into adulthood.
Betsy may never have gone to sea had it not been for the tragedy that befell her family in 1833. Her brother John drowned in what should have been a day out for him and his friends.
With the passage of time, many of the details of Betsy's life have become shrouded in myth, however it is certain that she is perhaps the only woman the world has ever known who was a registered owner and master of a sailing ship. With twenty-two years of seamanship, she became a well known figure.
It was said of her that “She was a sonsy woman, weel favor’t, neither wee nor tall, an’ wi’ as much sense o’ humour as made life aboard gang pleasantly.”
Betsy's ship 'the Clytus' (or 'the Clitus' as it was often spelt) carried 200 tons of mostly coal to the Irish ports, then limestone back to Ardrossan. Every square inch was used to store cargo, so life onboard could be cramped. Despite this she was sensitive to the creature comforts of the men who had worked their way in often dangerous weather.
The first entry for the Clytus is in the supplement of new builds in the Lloyd's Register of Ships of 1812. It was built in Sunderland, from partly old material. This would make some sense of the later references to the Clytus being built partly from the wreckage of an old man-of-war.
The Clytus, Lloyd's Register of Ships of 1812
A report in the Glasgow Herald published on Friday 20th February 1852 headlined, "The Wind-Bound Fleet in the Firth, Lamlash", contains the following:
"Not the least, but perhaps the greatest wonder in the Loch at present is the good old brig Clytus of Saltcoats, which for more than 20 years has been commanded by a heroic and exceedingly clever young lady, Miss Betsy Miller, daughter of the late William Miller, Esq., shipowner and wood-merchant of that town.
Miss Betsy, before she went to sea, acted as "ship's-husband" to her father; and seeing how the captains in many cases behaved, her romantic and adventurous spirit impelled her to go to sea herself. Her father gratified her caprice, and gave her the command of the Clytus, which she holds to the present day, and has weathered the storms of the deep when many commanders of the other sex have been driven to pieces on the rocks. Her position and attitudes on quarter-deck in a gale of wind are often spoken of, and would do credit to an admiral.
We must not omit to state, that during the long period of this singular young lady's diversified voyagings, no seaman of her crew, or officer under her command, could speak otherwise of her than with greatest respect. The Clytus is well known in the ports of Belfast, Dublin, Cork. She has often been driven into this Loch, and is familiarly known by the rude Highland boatmen as "Inloig laish Caphtain borin", i.e., the ship with the she-captain”.
Betsy would have been 59 when this report was written. She was well respected, she knew the hazards of the sea and tides, and was familiar with the ways of money, men and boats. She needed no-one to guide her around the coast.
When Betsy died on the 12th May 1864 it was reported in newspapers both at home and abroad:
"A Glasgow paper notices the demise of Miss Betsy Miller, aged 71, whose life and labours have often been quoted as illustrative of what a right-minded, earnest, and indefatigable woman can do in order to discharge a debt and earn an honourable maintenance.”
All source material From : North Ayrshire Heritage Trails