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The Lisburn cotton famine and Moby-Dick

What connects a gold watch from our collection and the classic novel, Moby-Dick?

During the devastating ‘cotton famine’ of 1861-5, when American Civil War disturbances blocked cotton shipments to Ireland, Lisburn’s cotton weavers faced destitution. A relief fund established to aid those workers attracted many significant donations, including from one of America’s wealthiest men, Lisburn-born A.T. Stewart (1803-76).

Stewart, who made his fortune in retail and real estate, chartered a ship called the Mary Edson in May 1863 to deliver goods to Lisburn’s needy. The ship’s return leg in July carried 137 distressed emigrants from Lisburn to a new life in America at Stewart’s expense.


The ship’s captain, Moses Nickerson (1812-71) was presented with a gold watch, purchased by the museum in 2017, for his assistance in providing relief to the weavers of Lisburn. From a notable Massachusetts sailing family, Nickerson’s cousin Thomas (1805-83) survived a whale attack on the famous American whaling ship the
Essex in 1820. That story was the inspiration for Herman Melville’s renowned book, Moby-Dick! 

Come and see the watch for yourself at our exhibition, The Mary Edson: from Lisburn to New York, 1863 (open until March 2024). Click here for more details.

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