WARD, JAMES, sailor, tavern and boarding-house keeper, and crimp; b. c. 1833 in County Tyrone (Northern Ireland); m. twice and had at least one daughter; d. 22 Oct. 1891 in Savannah, Ga.
James Ward appears to have arrived at Quebec during the Irish famine immigration of 1846–47. He subsequently followed a number of the closely related occupations of sailortowns: sailor, tavern-keeper, and keeper of a sailors’ boarding-house. He came to public attention in 1856 as a crimp’s runner, the man hired to perform the dirty work of stealing or enticing sailors away from their ships on behalf of brokers or agents known as crimps.
The trade in sailors on vessels crossing the North Atlantic from Britain was produced both by articles of agreement, requiring the men to engage for a round trip, and by the seasonal nature of Quebec shipping. Demand for sailors was high at the beginning of each season as a result of shipbuilding, so that when vessels arrived at Quebec the seamen were easily persuaded to desert and to sign on with departing vessels at a considerably enhanced wage rate. An establishment of crimps, based on Rue Champlain near the port, emerged to facilitate, for a fee, the change of employment. In 1848 the government of the Province of Canada had attempted to curb desertion by appointing a shipping-master for the port, but he had been unable to break the hold of the crimps, who virtually ruled the labour market, allowing neither sailors nor captains any choice in the exchanges and treating the government shipping office with contempt. Quebec’s reputation as a port was badly damaged internationally, particularly after Henry Fry, an agent there for Lloyd’s of London, published articles in the Times (London) and the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette (London) in 1856 condemning the domination of the crimps and implying connivance in their lucrative activities on the part of local merchants and port officials. The charges moved Governor Sir Edmund Walker Head* to order an investigation, in the wake of which Jim Ward’s case was reviewed in the press.
Known to the sailors as “the biggest rogue in Quebec,” Ward was the most infamous of the Rue Champlain crimps. His notoriety attained legendary proportions with stories of his shipping dead sailors and removing seamen from vessels at gunpoint. Clearly he did crimp men for service in the Union army during the American Civil War, and he did intimidate shipmasters into giving up incoming crews and hiring new ones at wages he set in defiance of the official rate. He used weapons to impose his discipline on sailors in his boarding-house, and he shanghaied seamen, leaving many to face the cold North Atlantic and unappreciative captains with inadequate sea kits and insufficient experience. Like other unofficial shipping-masters at Quebec, Ward suffered a reverse of fortune after 1873 when an act was passed to reinforce legislation against the desertion of seamen. None the less he appears to have remained in business for one or two years, until shipbuilding began to decline, and he may even have become a deputy at the government shipping office.
In common with many ship labourers and port businessmen during the height of Quebec’s shipping and shipbuilding era, Ward was a summer resident only. When the river froze, he migrated to the cotton and timber ports of Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana; in the mid 1850s New Orleans was apparently his destination. By 1869 he had taken up winter residence in Savannah, where, after his connection with Quebec ceased, he remained for the rest of his life. Here, he was entirely respectable as a stevedore and was noted for “noble and charitable impulses” towards his employees and fellow citizens. He died in October 1891 of laryngitis after a long period of throat troubles. On the day of his funeral, in the Catholic cathedral, work ceased on the riverfront and visiting vessels flew their flags at half-mast.
Ward’s removal from Quebec to Savannah had been accompanied by a transformation in status from rough to respectable, but even during his years at Quebec he had been much more acceptable to his fellow townsmen for his role in crewing locally built vessels than his confrontations with visiting shipmasters and the upholders of law and order would indicate. His tactics had been too brutal to endear him to the men before the mast; yet he had secured for them high wages which some had had the sense to save for their arrival at home rather than squander on drink and related services in Ward’s tavern or boarding-house.
This biography is based on the primary and secondary sources cited in Judith Fingard’s Jack in port: sailortowns of eastern Canada (Toronto, 1982), 199–218, as well as on the Quebec directory, 1852–75, and the Morning News (Savannah, Ga.), 23–24 Oct. 1891. Also useful are F. W. Wallace, Wooden ships and iron men: the story of the square-rigged merchant marine of British North America, the ships, their builders and owners, and the men who sailed them (New York, ) and In the wake of the wind-ships: notes, records and biographies pertaining to the square-rigged merchant marine of British North America (Toronto, 1927), and Judith Fingard, “‘Those crimps of hell and goblins damned’: the image and reality of Quebec’s sailortown bosses,” Working men who got wet, ed. Rosemary Ommer and Gerald Panting (St John’s, 1980), 323–33.