ELLIS, WILLIAM, shipwright and shipbuilder; b. 1774 (baptized 23 August), probably in Monkleigh, England, second son of Robert Ellis and Mary Handford; m. 1796, and had at least nine children; d. 25 Dec. 1855 in Port Hill, P.E.I.
William Ellis came of a north Devon family which had migrated inland to Monkleigh from the maritime parish of Northam in 1725. Ellis returned to tide-water to work as a shipwright in yards on the Bideford River, and also in the royal dockyard at Devonport (Plymouth), before settling down in 1813 to become master shipwright, and possibly also some kind of business partner, of Richard Chapman, a famous north Devon shipbuilder of the time. In 1818 Chapman fell ill and the yard was taken over by John Evans of Bideford. Ellis then became interested in an expedition mounted and financed by Thomas Burnard, Bideford’s leading merchant and shipowner. Burnard’s plan was to establish a colonizing and shipbuilding venture on the Goodwood (Bideford) River at the eastern end of Lot 12 in Prince County, P.E.I. Ellis agreed to be the project’s master shipwright, and in the summer of 1818 he set sail for the Island in the polacca brigantine Peter & Sarah of Bideford.
The first vessel built, the Mars, was launched in 1819 and sailed to Bideford with a load of lumber. For the next eight years one or two ships were launched each year at the settlement, New Bideford (later Bideford), culminating with the Superb of 1826, a very large merchant vessel for her time, with a cargo capacity of about 900 tons. She was Ellis’s greatest single shipbuilding achievement. In the same year the shipbuilding enterprise and the leases on the settlements which had been established at New Bideford and at Port Hill on Lot 13 were transferred by the Burnard family to Thomas Burnard Chanter*, a son of Thomas Burnard’s sister. Chanter in turn disposed of the property and all rights, including the considerable uncollected debts due to the enterprise from local settlers, to Ellis on condition, inter alia, that he complete two further vessels for Chanter.
Unfortunately for Ellis, James Yeo*, also a former employee of Thomas Burnard, was settled at Port Hill and over some years he appears vigorously to have collected the debts owed to Ellis and to have kept the proceeds. Yeo thereby built up capital with which he gradually established himself, among other endeavours, as the colony’s principal shipbuilder. In due course he bought out Ellis’s land holdings and business interests, and the latter was reduced to working for Yeo as master shipwright on the building of vessels financed by his former colleague, though he retained, and farmed, a small landholding on Lot 13 for the rest of his life.
Because of the way builders’ names were recorded in contemporary documents it is not possible to say with certainty how many ships Ellis was responsible for building in Prince Edward Island, but it certainly ran into scores. He was a great traditional craftsman who played an important pioneering role in the establishment of an industry which was to prove vitally important in the development of the Island between 1818 and the early 1870s. The shipbuilding traditions he established and the skills he taught were his memorial: these, and the small tragedy of the loss of his inheritance to the more dynamic but less principled James Yeo. The story of the slow reversal in fortunes of these two contrasted men became an enduring myth on the Island.
[Beginning in 1750 the parish registers of St George’s Church (Church of England) in Monkleigh, Eng., contain records of the baptisms, marriages, and burials of the Ellis family. William Ellis’s career as a shipbuilder in Britain is traceable through the Bideford Custom House registration of shipping docs. in the Devon Record Office (Exeter, Eng.), 3319 S/1, and to a smaller extent through the Reports of Lloyd’s surveyors of the port of Bideford in the National Maritime Museum (London), LYY (mfm. at PAC). His years as a shipbuilder and landholder on Prince Edward Island can be followed in PAPEI, Port Hill papers, Acc. 2685; RG 16, Land registry records, conveyance reg.; in PAC, RG 42, ser.I, 150–59; and in the files of the P.E.I. Museum. There are also a number of references to him in the Charlottetown press, including issues of the Islander for 1844–56; the Prince Edward Island Register, 1823–29; and the Royal Gazette, 1830–44. His obituary appears in the Islander of 4 Jan. 1856. Basil Greenhill and Ann Giffard, Westcountrymen in Prince Edward’s Isle: a fragment of the great migration (Newton Abbot, Eng., and [Toronto], 1967; repr. Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1975), gives details of his career on the Island. b.g.]