A. T. Stewart’s residence, Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, Manhattan, New York, c. 1900 (Image credit: New York Public Library)
The cotton famine of 1861-3 was devastating for many Lisburn families, with the cotton weavers unable to source the material on which their livelihood depended. The Lisburn-born American millionaire, Alexander Turney Stewart (1803-76), felt compassion for their plight and chartered the Mary Edson ship to send provisions and provide free passage for those wishing to emigrate to the USA. The estimated cost of the charter, goods, and return voyage was £6,000, worth over £600,000 in today’s currency, all at Stewart’s expense.
A total of 125 adults, 8 children under twelve years old, and 4 infants made the journey to America, departing Belfast on 13 July 1863. All 137 passengers arrived safely in New York on 31 August where they were greeted by their sponsor, Stewart. As a mark of their respect and gratitude, the passengers presented Stewart with an illuminated address, which may have been prepared by the Lisburn Relief Committee. It was subsequently published in the New York Herald of 3 September and was as follows:
TO ALEX. T. STEWART, ESQ.
“HONOURED SIR – We, the passengers of the ship Mary Edson, take this pleasing opportunity of expressing to you our most profound gratitude and respect, and now beg to offer you our warmest and most heartfelt thanks for the munificent act of your bounteous and noble generosity. In freighting, at your sole expense, the aforesaid ship with a full cargo of provisions and breadstuffs for the distressed cotton operatives of Lisburn, and in gratuitously conveying the unemployed operatives of Lisburn and Belfast to the friendly shores of America, we behold in you, Sir, the author of this most unparalleled act of Christian benevolence, a gentleman worthy of the highest praise and commendation, whose name will ever be remembered by us with the liveliest feelings of gratitude and emotion. Society and nations, to express their gratitude, have raised monuments of stone to perpetuate the memory of their great men; but you, honoured and respected Sir, have graven upon the hearts of the inhabitants of your native town, and upon us, the recipients of your bounty, a monumental tablet of gratitude that time or distance can never efface. We feel, Sir, our complete inability to express to you in words the feelings of our hearts on this ever-memorable occasion. We are proud this day of the high privilege we have of calling you our countryman. When famine and distress visited your native land, you, honoured Sir, with the philanthropy of a Howard, came forward, and out of your rich abundance supplied the wants of the needy, and have given unto us free passages to the land of your adoption, where, by honest industry and exertion, we hope to better our condition, and, if Providence should bless our endeavours to build us a happy home in the country of our choice, we will ever acknowledge with unmingled feelings of grateful remembrance that we owe all to the bountiful benevolence of your truly noble generosity.
“Honoured Sir, we beg of you to accept, through the medium of this humble address (which is but a poor expression of our feelings), our most sincere and grateful thanks for this magnificent gift of your generous bounty. We take this opportunity of returning our sincere thanks to Captain Nickerson and his crew for their marked civility and kindness shown to us, nothing being wanting on their part to render our voyage pleasant and agreeable. ln conclusion, we will most devoutly pray that God will abundantly bless and reward you, and the honoured partner of your joys, with all spiritual and temporal blessings, both in this life and that which is to come.”
The address was signed by six of the passengers – James Duffy, John Doherty, Hugh Sloan, William Moate, John Crawford, and Robert Burke – on behalf of all that crossed on the Mary Edson.
Learn more about the story at our exhibition, The Mary Edson: from Lisburn to New York, 1863 (open until March 2024). Click here for more details.