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In the 19th century, the crew of the ship threw six young men to die on ice in Canada. Their history became known only 150 years later

Families of free riders, many of whom did not turn 18 then, for many years did not know about the tragic fate of relatives.

Approximately this looked like the ship "Arran", bound for Canada
Approximately this looked like the ship “Arran”, bound for Canada

“When we complained about the winter cold, my father said:” Think of John Paul, he walked on ice without shoes, “recalls a resident of the Scottish town of Greenock, Morag Connelly. She is a distant relative of one of the six young men who were on the brink of death from the cold in 1868.

They sneaked into the ship, going to Canada, fleeing from domestic boredom and poverty. When they were discovered by the crew, he tortured and beaten, and then left to die on the ice. Not all have returned back. The history of the boys and their descendants was told in detail by the BBC.

Travel of “hares”

“Arran” (Arran) – so in honor of the island of the same name was a ship on which John Paul and six of his friends left from the Scottish wharf. The route of the vessel passed through the Atlantic Ocean to the Canadian province of Quebec: none of the crew knew that there were free riders on the schooner, although in those years it was not something unique.

The young men secretly made their way to the ships in the harbor, fleeing poverty or seeking adventure: if they were found before sailing, they were driven back to dry land. But when the crew found 12-year-old John Paul and other “rabbits” in the hold, whose age ranged from 11 to 22 years, the shore was already too far away.

The captain of the vessel Robert Watt (Robert Watt) reacted to the young men indulgently: they were fed, and then they were appointed to scrub the deck and help the sailors. But when the Arran entered the troubled waters of the Atlantic Ocean, all stowaways began to suffer from seasickness.

One of the officers of the ship, James Kerr (James Kerr) saw the tear of “rabbits”, and forbade them to give them a ration, although the ship had enough food.

After that, the boys received a day only a few ship biscuits – this, in addition to the potato peelings and the remains of turnips, barely enough to survive. Soon the young men began stealing stealth supplies, but it cost them a great price. Once the sailors discovered one of the barrels open with food, immediately suspecting that they had stolen free riders: they were handcuffed and were not given food during the day.

“Men are barely able to cope with it, what can we say about them. Two toddlers lack shoes, “said one of the sailors, who reached his family only two months after the arrival of the Arran in Quebec. Speech in the text was about the unbearable cold of the Atlantic: in an attempt to hide from him, the young men were hiding in the hold, but they were found, beaten and dragged back to the deck every time.

One day one of the “rabbits” was forcibly poured cold water when sailors and other stowaways complained that it was dirty. The 16-year-old boy was forced to take off all the outer clothing, except for a light waistcoat, beaten for about three minutes, and then forced to remove the rest of his clothes and lie naked on the deck. Then the crew members poured out a few buckets of cold water on the teenager and wiped the mop with force, under the threat of another beating. The procedure lasted about an hour on an open to the wind deck.

Another young man was beaten with a rope with a metal load at the end for trying to steal the currant, and then forced to wash the deck completely naked. As later told by the sailors, all stowaways were subjected to regular beatings, except the 12-year-old Peter Currie, whose father was friends with the ship officer.

About a month after the start of the trip, the “Arran” stumbled upon a cluster of ice near the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and by May 9 the ship was trapped. At the same time, the eldest of the stowaways, 22-year-old Bernard Reilly, dreaming of a successful life in Nova Scotia, convinced 16-year-old James Bryson to try to escape from the torment of the ice.

Young men were more shocked by the idea, but at the same time the captain of the Arran ordered all the stowaways to be thrown overboard, except for Peter Kerry. After that, three guys burst into tears, and John Paul and his friend were preparing to walk on the ice without shoes. As one of the sailors recalled, he did not believe that young men without shoes would be rescued.


At about nine in the morning, six boys were kicked out of the ship, issuing a small supply of dry biscuits. In some places, the ice reached the size of the football field, and at times was very small – each time the free riders had to jump to get from one to the other. Soon, 11-year-old Hugh McEwan (Hugh McEwan), who spitting blood from the very beginning of the journey, began to lag: at some point, he slipped into the water, but he was pulled out. When he fell a second time, he had enough strength to get out on his own. The third time was the last.

I saw when he fell last time. I was in the water, too. He kicked and tried to get out, and then he grabbed me. I kicked him and he let me go, after which I had enough strength to cling to the ice and get out. I saw his head covered by an ice floe. I did not hear the screams. The ice floe covered him, and I did not see him again.

John Paul
one of the surviving free riders of the Arran

Then surrendered 12-year-old Hugh McGinnes (Hugh McGinnes) – he swollen and hurt his legs, after which the young man sat on the ice and refused to move on. Despite the persuasions of his friends, he remained alone in his frozen clothes. As the sailor of the “Arran” recalled, between the ship and the shore there were from 16 to 24 kilometers of ice. By the end of this path, all the young men at least several times fell into the water, choking and shivering from the cold.

When the sun went down, the four survivors reached the last ice floe. They clearly saw the houses on the other side, but they were separated from the shore by several kilometers of water. Tired and exhausted, the young men began to call for help.

The rescue

In May 1868, when the stowaways were thrown out of the ship, the ice was already melting fast. The more surprising, how survivors managed to escape. Their screams were heard by a woman living in the vicinity, after which she called for help. The sun was almost gone, so a group of men on the boat barely saw the boys, focusing on their screams. If teenagers came an hour later, then most likely, no one would have seen them in the dark.

Because of the sunlight that reflected from the snow and blinded the survivors throughout the day, they suffered from vision problems the next week. John Paul, who had to endure in his arms, recovered after the frostbite of his feet only a month later: on a hike, he lost several fingers and toes. The bodies of Hugh McEwan and Hugh McGinnes were never found.

The only photo of John Paul between David Brand and James Bryson three days after their return. A picture from Paul's family archives
The only photo of John Paul between David Brand and James Bryson three days after their return. A picture from Paul’s family archives
When the “Arran” finally reached Québec, one of the sailors wrote a letter to his native Greenock, describing the cruel attitude towards free riders. The news quickly spread across Scotland, and soon a formal request came to Canada to ask for the status of the young men. At that time, three “rabbits” were still in Newfoundland and Labrador, but the fourth, 22-year-old Bernard Reilly, fulfilled his dream and left for New Scotland. The rest returned home just in time to witness the trial of the Arran crew.

November 25, 1868, the officer of the vessel James Kerr, from whose filing free riders were tortured, found guilty of the attack and sentenced to four months in prison. The captain of the ship was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to prison for 18 months. After serving their sentence, both men returned to their old job and worked on it for many more years.


Around 1993, Don MacInnis, a descendant of a woman who saw young men on ice, discovered a man from the province of British Columbia on the threshold of his house. He was a descendant of one of the Arran stowaways David Brand, who after his escape left for Australia and opened a successful engineering business. Later, Mackinnis told the story of the meeting with his friend, with whom they decided to perpetuate the memory of the victims: Don made a commemorative bronze plaque, which was placed on the grave of his great-great-grandmother. The installation came to watch about 100 people, including the great-grandson of Brenda.

The memory of the relative is also kept by the John Paul family. Madon Connelly and her cousin, Ann McVey Haldan, spent many years tracing the life of a traveler. At the age of 19 he married and settled as a riveter, like his father before him, rising to the rank of ship master at the shipyards in his native Greenock. When a 40-year-old Paul died his wife, he went to the English town of Southampton, where he lived until his death in 1913.

Anne Khaldan at the entrance to the cemetery, where John Paul's unnamed grave is located. Photo of the BBC
Anne Khaldan at the entrance to the cemetery, where John Paul’s unnamed grave is located. Photo of the BBC
For unknown reasons, the traveler was buried in an unmarked grave, which Anne Khaldan discovered only at the beginning of the 21st century. Shortly before the 150th anniversary of the rescue of Paul and his friends, in 2018, the British decided to establish a new tombstone with the name of a relative. According to the law, for any changes to the grave you need to get the permission of the owner – they were the wife of Paul, after which she had several husbands. Khaldan could not find information about the place of her death and relatives, so John Paul’s grave remains unnamed. If nothing changes, then it will remain forever.

But I’m not giving up. I have to make sure that I have exhausted all possibilities before I’m humble.

Ann Khaldan
cousin of John Paul

After the rescue from the “Arran” the ways of the survivors dispersed. Many of them never met each other again.

16-year-old James Bryson moved to the US and got a tram guide. His peer David Brand moved to Australia and was engaged in his business until his death in 1897. 12-year-old Peter Kerry, who remained on board the ship, died after two years from tuberculosis. 22-year-old Bernard Riley stayed in Canada, as he wished. Most likely, he never returned to his homeland.

The ship “Arran” was destroyed on the island of Sand in the Gulf of Mexico in 1886.

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