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Looking back: Ann Harvey and the Despatch


Melissa Samms

The Southwest coast has seen more than its fair share of shipwrecks. Sunkers, shoals, and hidden hazards wreaked havoc on vessels passing through for centuries. One memorable wreck was the Despatch.

In Isle aux Morts in autumn 1832, a sudden gale swept through – an event that isn’t unusual for the area. The Despatch was caught in the storm while headed to Quebec from England and was driven ashore, striking about three miles from the home of George Harvey. In an effort to save themselves from the vessel that was breaking apart beneath them, the crew fired distress signals and hoped for someone ashore to see.

Luckily for the passengers and crew of the Despatch, Ann Harvey and her stepbrother, John, saw the distress signals and got to work. They launched a boat and brought their Newfoundland dog, Hairy Man, along with them to assist. The high waves made it impossible for the two teenagers to get their punt close enough, but Hairy Man was bred for this. He swam to the Despatch and retrieved a line, bringing it back to Ann and John who then brought it to shore.

This first line that made it to shore was too lightweight to bring in the passengers from the ship, but it was used to haul ashore a heavier line to which a breeches buoy was attached. A breeches buoy is a rope based rescue device that resembles a round person flotation device with a leg harness attached, much like a zip line. (If you haven’t seen a breeches buoy before, look them up. They’re pretty neat!)

Once the heavy line and breeches buoy were set up, the rescue work began in earnest. All 163 of the stranded passengers and crew made it to shore, although 10 did not survive the aftermath of their harsh ordeal.

Ann spearheaded the amazing rescue, and she and her family sacrificed much of their winter food stores to keep the passengers and crew comfortable while waiting to be picked up by another vessel. For their efforts and sacrifice, the family was awarded a special medal from the Royal Humane Society on the word of Governor Thomas Cochrane, and Lloyd’s of London insurance also paid the family £100, which was a lot of money at the time (equivalent to roughly $20,000 today).

Wrecks and rescues have been a part of mariners’ lives for millennia, and that holds true in the little Southwest corner of the island along the Gulf.

Ann rescued more people during another wreck, this time 25 passengers from the Rankin using the same method. The ship had been sailing from Glasgow, Scotland, to Quebec in 1838. This earned her the nickname as the “Grace Darling of Newfoundland”, after a young lass of the same name who also made a rescue in her home of Northumberland in 1838.

If you ask me, Grace Darling should have been nicknamed as the “Ann Harvey” of England!

Melissa Samms is a local history enthusiast with their fingers in several pies. They studied at MUNL and CNA before moving back home to Codroy Valley, where they help with community development and project coordination. They can be reached by email at: Melissa.samms@gmail.com.

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