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WRIGHT, WILLIAM, shipbuilder and shipowner; b. post 1800, probably in Scotland; d. a bachelor 17 Feb. 1878, probably in Liverpool, Eng.

William Wright and his younger brother Richard (b. before 1816, probably in Scotland; m. 4 May 1837 to Jane Nevins by whom he had two daughters; d. 12 Aug. 1872 in London, Eng.) made a modest beginning in the shipping industry. They apprenticed to the Saint John, New Brunswick, shipbuilder, George Thomson, for whom they may have worked after putting in their time. By the summer of 1839 they had set up their own shipbuilding yard at Courtenay Bay, Saint John. That autumn they launched three vessels, a whaling ship, a paddle steamer, and a timber ship. This was an ambitious start which placed them in the company of the best Saint John builders. During their initial eight years of operation the Wrights built 15 vessels averaging 567 tons. The first eight were either constructed for, or sold before registration to, local merchants, but five of the subsequent ships were registered; owned, and managed by the Wrights for very short periods, no doubt to take timber cargoes to Liverpool. There was considerable inducement for a shipbuilder to extend his operations to include shipowning because in delivering his vessel to be sold at Liverpool the revenue from the timber cargo could amount to a third of the cost of building the ship. In 1844 Richard started sailing as master or captain on the maiden voyages to Liverpool – at least 16 uneventful crossings of the Atlantic were a tribute to his seamanship. Not only were the masters’ wages saved, but agency fees for selling the vessels or arranging freights could be eliminated.

In 1847 the Wrights moved permanently into shipowning with two of the three ships they built that year, the two ships being their first to exceed 1,000 tons. That year marked the beginning of the period in which William and Richard Wright were unrivalled in British North America as builders of the biggest class of wooden ships. Their second 15 ships averaged 1,352 tons each with not less than 3,000 tons of shipping launched yearly from their yard from 1849 until 1855. The climax in the Wrights’ shipbuilding career came with their last two ships – the 2,339 ton White Star in 1854 and her slightly larger twin in 1855, the 2,379 ton Morning Light. Easily the largest British North American sailing ships, they were built to excel on the highly competitive emigrant run to Australia. The Wrights retained 21 of the 64 shares of the White Star for two and a half years and full ownership of the Morning Light. Perhaps the principal evidence of the quality of these ships was that they far exceeded the normal life-span of North American vessels, lasting 30 and 35 years respectively.

By the end of 1857 the Wrights had increased their fleet to ten ships. William remained at Saint John for a decade, but Richard, despite toying with an invitation he apparently received from Samuel Leonard Tilley* to enter New Brunswick politics, was mainly in Liverpool after 1857. Like the majority of the large New Brunswick and Nova Scotian vessels, the Wright ships were operated not from their port of registration but from Liverpool. Their smaller ships of about 1,000 tons were generally kept on the North Atlantic. Outbound cargoes, particularly for ports in the Maritime provinces, were often difficult to obtain, but there were ready supplies of timber, oil, and cotton for the return voyages. Their larger ships were in the Far East bulk trades.

In 1857 and 1858 the Wrights ran into a cash shortage which apparently stopped their expansion temporarily. They mortgaged six ships for £51,930. This sum represented 51 per cent of the Wright tonnage and therefore the Wright fleet can be reasonably estimated to have been valued at that time at £100,000 or $400,000. During the 1860s they slowly expanded their fleet and continued the shipbroking of Saint John ships.

Perhaps in recognition that the market for wooden ships was drying up, William joined his brother at Liverpool in the spring of 1867, and their ships registered at Saint John were reregistered at Liverpool. In the two previous years they had participated in the trend into iron ships, buying three, and in 1869 they purchased their only large screw steamer.

When Richard died in 1872, the Wright fleet was at its largest, 17 ships totalling more than 23,000 tons. William thereafter reduced the number of ships to 11. At his death in 1878 the firm was inherited by his nephew George Wright Gass who had been working in the Liverpool office. Under Gass the dilution of ownership and reduction in the number of ships were accelerated to such a point that W. and R. Wright and Company ceased at his death in 1887.

Richard Rice

N.B. Museum, Marriage register B (1828–39), 420; Tilley family papers, Richard Wright to S. L. Tilley, 1 Jan. 1858; Wright family deeds, 1859–1912, numerous documents including typescript of the will of Richard Wright, 5 Oct. 1871, typescript of probate of will of William Wright, 24 March 1885. Registry of British Ships, HM Customs and Excise, Custom House (Liverpool, Eng.), Liverpool Registers, 1835–90. Commercial News and General Advertiser (Saint John, N.B.), 16 Sept. 1839. Liberal Review (Liverpool), 2 Feb., 16 Aug., 4 Oct. 1879. Liverpool Mercury, 14 Aug. 1872. Liverpool Telegraph and Shipping Gazette, 28 Aug. 1863. New Brunswick Courier (Saint John, N.B.), 16 Jan. 1841. Saint John Daily News, 13 Aug. 1872. Sea Breezes; the Ship LoversDigest (Liverpool), XXIII (April 1938), 34; (May 1938), 75; (November 1938), 300–2; (December 1938), 340–41, 354; XXIV (March 1939), 466. Times (London), 14 Aug. 1872. F. W. Wallace, Record of Canadian shipping: a list of square-rigged vessels, mainly 500 tons and over, built in the eastern provinces of British North America from the year 1786 to 1920 (Toronto, 1929). E. A. Woods, “Liverpool fleet lists,” I, 35–38 (typescript compiled c. 1939, copy in Liverpool City Libraries, Liverpool, Eng.). R. S. Craig, “British shipping and British North American shipbuilding in the early nineteenth century with special reference to Prince Edward Island,” in The south-west and the sea, ed. H. E. S. Fisher (Exeter Papers in Economic History, 1, Exeter, Eng., 1968), 21–43. Wallace, Wooden ships and iron men. D. M. Williams, “The function of the merchant in specific Liverpool import trades, 1820–50,” unpublished ma thesis, University of Liverpool, 1963. P. R. Lindo, “The whale fishing industry of Saint John,” N.B. Museum, Hist. Bull., XIV, no.3 (1967). Donald Ross, “History of the shipbuilding industry in New Brunswick,” essay awarded the James Simonds prize in history by University of New Brunswick, 1933 (copy in N.B. Museum). A. C. Wardle, “The ship ‘Thomas’ of Liverpool,” Liverpool Nautical Research Society, Trans., I (1944), 14–22. D. M. Williams, “Merchanting in the first half of the nineteenth century: the Liverpool timber trade,” Business History (Liverpool), VIII (1966), 103–21.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Richard Rice, “WRIGHT, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 17, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wright_william_10E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/wright_william_10E.html
Author of Article: Richard Rice
Title of Article: WRIGHT, WILLIAM
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1972
Year of revision: 1972
Access Date: September 17, 2014