All the Horrors Seem to Happen at Night


James Moody’s First Atlantic Crossing

Spectators agreed the fire that raged through the New Jersey shore on May 29, 1904 was second in ferocity only to the catastrophe of June 1900. That fire, four years before, had destroyed three vessels belonging to the North German Lloyd Steamship Company. This latest blaze – the fifth since 1900 - again threatened German liners.

It started in the freight yards of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad in Jersey City and would destroy six piers and at least two dozen barges, causing damage estimated at one million dollars.

A strong south wind made the work of the tugs and firemen extremely dangerous, as sheets of flame shot out every few minutes from the piers. Many of the firefighters were painfully burned, especially the bucket men who, despite the terrible heat and great volume of the flames, stuck to their posts as long as possible.

For a time, it seemed the firemen would not hold the flames south of the Jersey City line. The managers of the German steamship piers in Hoboken called out their fire departments and drenched both piers and ships to try to protect them from glowing ash and cinders. As they worked, the southern tower on the Lackawanna Passenger Station and the roof of the Hudson Press Building blazed. The fire was less than a block distant from the Hamburg-American piers, where the transatlantic liners Moltke, Prinz Oskar, Pretoria, and Grosser Kurfuerst were lying. Just south of them lay the new piers of North German Lloyd, rebuilt after the 1900 fire, where the palatial Kronprinz Wilhelm, the Trave, and the Bremen were docked.

Hoboken Fireboat

Thousands of people flocked to vantage points on the New York side of the river. Five thousand gathered at the Barrow Street Recreation Pier, the press of sightseers becoming so intense several people, including two children, were knocked into the water.

At 7.30 pm the Iron Steamboat Company’s Taurus, arriving from Coney Island with more than 1,000 passengers, attempted to dock at the West Twenty-Second Street Pier. In their eagerness to view the fire passengers crowded to one side, and the Taurus threatened to capsize. The captain yelled orders as the boat listed heavily and women and children screamed in terror. Cries from those watching on the pier exacerbated the panic in the air. For a moment it seemed the Taurus might sink, but the crew managed to make her fast. The captain, breathing a sigh of relief, commented ‘I have never seen anything like that in all my experience.’1

Watching this apocalyptic vision – eventually brought under control with no loss of life – was a 16 year old British brassbounder, a ship’s apprentice.

As he observed the sheets of flame lick skywards, comparatively safe in a launch from the Seamans’ Mission, James Paul Moody might have reflected on the ocean crossing that had brought him to New York. He had been witness to ferocious storms at sea, accidental death, conditions aboard ship that had driven a fellow apprentice to suicide and now an inferno that raged before him. ‘All the horrors seem to happen at night’, he wrote, little suspecting what lay in store eight years hence.

It was not an auspicious beginning to a career at sea.

Account of Apprentices on board
Extract from Agreement and Account of Crew, Boadicea 1904 – 05
(National Archives, Kew)

The voyage began just over three months earlier, as newly indentured apprentice James Moody joined the Boadicea. The 1,824 ton iron and steel vessel dated from 1887, the year Moody was born.

Acquired by the Liverpool-based William Thomas Line in 1902, she carried general cargo on the long hauls in which sail could still compete with steam. Morris Jones was the Boadicea’s master, a 40 year-old from Pwllheli, Wales. He had previously commanded another of the line’s vessels, the Cambrian Chieftain. The First Mate, John Daniels, was also Welsh, and Second Mate K. Lovold was a Liverpool native. At just over 20 he was not much older than the apprentices on board.

The vessel officially sailed with six apprentices, the oldest of these, Charles Humphreys, having nearly completed his sea time. While waiting to sit his examinations he functioned as Third Mate. Another apprentice, John Marshall, had joined the vessel a year and a half previously and held seniority among the apprentices. Thomas Legg, Frank Haywood, Bernard Doubleday and James Moody, all similar in age, joined in late February. Doubleday hailed from Grimsby, where Moody’s family lived, and the two signed on together on February 24.

Moody had completed his merchant service training on HMS Conway the previous December. His two years on board the training ship would count as a year towards the four years sea time he needed before sitting for his Second Mate’s Certification with the Board of Trade. Conway cadets were much in demand, and there had evidently been no difficulty in placing him with the well-regarded William Thomas line upon payment of his indenture bond.

Young Moody
James Paul Moody
(Private Collection)

After a Christmas spent with family members, he returned to Liverpool, where he and some of his colleagues stayed at the Sailors’ Home until the Boadicea – the ‘Boa’ to her crew – was ready to sail.

It was not a lonely departure when the Boa edged into the Mersey. An almost festive air prevailed, in defiance of hardships ahead. Moody had been to tea often with the local clergyman who visited the Conway boys, and a group from his household and friends from the Sailors’ Home came down to the docks to see them off. ‘We gave them 3 cheers as the last mooring rope was cast off, and then dipped the ensign 3 times’ wrote James in his first letter home. It would be more than a year before he saw England again.


The weather for the first few weeks was ‘splendid’, although the three of the five apprentices were seasick, James among them. Although suffering intensely he was able to take some pride in the thought that ‘I managed to keep on deck all my watches above, and was first of 3 to get better.’

Frank Haywood seems to have fared worst of all, and not just from mal de mer. Moody, who referred to him as a ‘poor ninny’, noted Frank had not had a single day without being seasick or homesick. ‘I’m sure we all and all hands give him a fairly warm time to cheer him up’ Moody wrote carelessly. Meanwhile Haywood’s depression was not helped by the fact that one of the mates had taken a dislike to him.

For James – or Jim, as his shipmates knew him – the way was easier. He was already tall for his age, and had a resilience both natural and honed by early hardships, including the prolonged illness and death of his beloved mother in 1898. This helped protect him from bullying, as did his engaging personality. He had a natural charm which enabled him to stay on the right side of shipmates such as the steward, ‘which I find pays!’

Being on good terms with the steward was important for a hungry teenager engaged in heavy physical work. Initially he found some aspects of life at sea were not as hard as he had feared. The dreaded ship’s fare did not quite live up to its reputation – ‘Have started salt pork and beef which are not half as bad as I expected.’

The fair weather in which they began the voyage was not to last. On Friday March 25, as the rain and wind picked up, Moody and John Marshall were sent aloft to the main royal yard and spent an hour and a half making ropes fast. His Conway training served him well; three of his colleagues were not yet allowed to leave the decks as they were still prone to bouts of dizziness.

In spite of the threatening weather, he wrote on March 27 that the wind was pretty favourable and they hoped to be in New York in less than 16 days. Early that morning they passed a broken down steamer making distress signals. Unable to assist with the necessary tow, the Boadicea pressed on. The same day, it signaled a passing White Star ship. These crack liners caught the imagination of all apprentices, and Moody must have wondered if he, too, would serve in one if he passed the Board of Trade examinations and got his Master’s ticket.

Related Biographies:

James Paul Moody


Inger Sheil