NHA Home | Historic Nantucket Articles | Bookmark and Share

Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 56, No. 1 (Winter 2007) p. 4-7

Nantucket Whalers in Milford Haven, Wales
by Jane Clayton

The small town of Milford in southwest Wales played a significant role in the Southern Whale Fishery from Britain around the turn of the nineteenth century. Political and financial incentives offered by the British government and the business expertise of the colony of New England whaling families who settled there all contributed to the beginnings of the town, despite opposition to the success of the venture from a group of London whaling merchants. The development of a “flourishing whale fishery” in the southern oceans of the world was deemed to be of great importance by the British government. It was seen as a source of support for Britain’s navy, a venture that would lead to the acquisition of new territories, and, most important, a profitable commercial enterprise that would open up new trade routes. Information about the beginnings of Milford as a whaling town is limited. In Whales and Destiny, Edouard Stackpole points out that “only meagre accounts remain of the American colony in Wales and these are tantalizing in what they could present as a fascinating story.” However, from new sources, and a further analysis of existing evidence, it has been possible to reconstruct a more detailed picture of the beginnings of the town as a port actively engaged in the Southern Whale Fishery when that business was gaining in prosperity in Britain. That activity must be attributed to the determination of the town’s patron, Sir Charles Greville, and the industry of the Nantucketers who settled there.

At the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783, Nantucket whalemen began searching for ways to restore their business. Many of their ships had been captured or destroyed; there was a glut of oil in the American markets as whales had become plentiful offshore during the hostilities; and whale oil was now subject to a foreign import duty in Britain, their main market, which almost equaled its selling price.

Three leading Nantucket whaling merchants—William Rotch, Samuel Starbuck Sr., and Timothy Folger— decided to relocate. It was as the result of discussions with these men that Greville made his proposals to the British government to build a town at Milford. The government’s response was extremely slow, and, by 1785, Benjamin Rotch was managing his father’s business out of Dunkirk, France, and the Starbuck–Folger group had transferred its whaling activities to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Nevertheless, Greville persisted, and by 1791 had secured promises of relocation to Milford from the leaders of the Dartmouth colony, though it would be eight more years before Ben Rotch followed suit.

The Building of the Town

The Dartmouth settlers presented an outline of the conditions they would require which included the building of docks and quays, a site for a Quaker meeting house and burial ground, and assurance that they would not need to “embarrass themselves with agricultural activity” as they intended to focus their energies in the whale fishery. However, when they arrived, the building of the town had not been started. Milford was a “proprietary” town built with permission granted by an Act of Parliament and monies provided by the landowner, Sir William Hamilton. It developed into a hub of the international whaling trade. With ships arriving from and departing to whaling grounds around the world, Milford provided an early example of a globalized industry. The design of some of Milford’s buildings reflects it strong links with New England, and Nantucket in particular. The houses built for the settlers reflected the “substantial, if somewhat austere, houses staring boldly out to sea, in keeping with the style and location of their [original] homes.” These grey, shingle-clad houses, often with tall ridgeend chimneys, while lacking the “roofwalk” evident in many Nantucket houses, often had ornate balconies at first- or second-floor level from which to view the harbor. Similarly, the stone surrounds of the front doors of many of the original dwellings, from the grand mansion at Priory Lodge to the artisans’ houses on Back Street, are reminiscent of buildings on Nantucket Island. Many of the original houses, along with the Quaker Meeting House, survive today with these features still intact. The Customs Bondage Store, now a museum, was in use by 1797. Some of the street names reflect Nantucket connections: Daniel and Samuel Starbuck Jr. built houses on Front Street on either side of what is now known as Dartmouth Street; the family name was acknowledged in Starbuck Road near the Quaker Meeting House; and the large house built by Uriel Bunker near Steynton is now known as Bunkers Hill Hotel. Other shingle-clad houses were built along Front Street, where it is thought Timothy and Abiel Folger lived at number 30. Number 25, a house originally designed for Ben Rotch and his family, eventually became a bank run by Ben’s son Francis, Samuel Starbuck Jr., and a Mr. Phillips. According to Abiel Folger’s diary for 25th August 1810 “the bank opened in Samlls front room,” so this was not a new venture for him. The carved stone balustrade along the roof of number 25 is reminiscent of the wooden structures gracing the Three Bricks on Main Street in Nantucket.

The First Settlers

It seems certain that at least fifteen Nantucket whalemen and their families came to Milford in 1792, led by the Starbucks and the Folgers. Samuel Starbuck Sr. came with his wife, Abigail, and their two sons, Samuel Jr. and Daniel, along with their families. Timothy Folger brought his wife, Abiel; one daughter, Peggy, with her husband David Grieve; and their son, Timothy Jr., along with his family. Others who came to settle included several ship captains: Zacchary Bunker and his wife, Judith, with some of their children; Elisha Clarke and his wife, Elizabeth, with their children; Barnabus Swain; James Gwinn; Peter Macy; Benjamin Folger; David Coleman; Jonathan Paddock; Nathaniel Macy; Uriel Bunker; and Frederick Coffin—with or without their families. Several returned to New England, while others remained in Britain for the rest of their lives.

In 1795, an Act of Parliament was passed under which Ben Rotch was encouraged to bring his ships to Milford from London (where he had relocated from France in 1794 after the outbreak of the Revolution). He did not, however, take advantage of this until 1800, in the meantime carrying on “an extensive trade in tobacco and salt as a London merchant.” When he eventually moved to Milford, he took along a number of whaling ships, and remained there until 1814, when his business suffered a financial setback, and he returned to London with his older children. In 1813, three of his ships were lost; two, the Montezuma and the New Zealander, ironically were captured by the American frigate USS Essex during the war between Britain and America, and, the following year, his London business venture also suffered a serious blow. Three valuable cargoes of oil that he had stored in London were devalued when the Napoleonic Wars ended and the market was flooded with oil. Ben Rotch appears to have traveled back and forth to Milford for some time, because the minutes of a Milford Meeting held in 1817 refer to his transfer to the Westminster Meeting in London despite his having resigned from the Society of Friends in 1813. His wife and younger children followed him there in 1819, their home at Castle Hall being sold to pay Ben’s bankruptcy debts.

The Whaling Business

Several whaleships initially transferred from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, to Milford. Samuel Starbuck Jr. wrote in his journal that his brother Daniel “Outfitted six valuable ships from 200 tons upwards of 350 tons to the South Atlantic, North and South Pacific and Southern Oceans on whale voyages. Some of his ships were worth about £12,000 at sea.” It has been possible to identify five of these vessels (Sierra Leone, Aurora, Maitland, Adonis, and Duke of Kent) and trace their involvement in the fishery from Milford. The sixth was either Jefferson, originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and later referred to as a Rotch ship, or one of six other vessels (Nancy, Harriet, Hibernia, Resource, Romulus, and Prince William) that went to Milford from Nova Scotia and made only token whaling voyages from there before being transferred to owners in London or returned to New England. The number of vessels increased with the arrival of the Rotch whaling business in 1800, which meant that at least five and up to eight more ships sailed to the Southern Fishery from Milford. (Ann, Hannah and Eliza, Wareham, Grand Sachem, Charles, Volunteer,New Zealander, and Montezuma). There is some question of transfer of ownership of certain vessels from members of the original settlers to Ben Rotch; as the Starbucks and Rotches were cousins, it would not be surprising. There is clear evidence that ships owned by the original settlers and led by the Starbuck and Folger families sailed regularly on whaling voyages from Milford to the Southern Fishery from 1792 until at least 1809 and that the ships belonging to Ben Rotch were whaling out of Milford from 1800 until at least 1813.

Two Welsh authors have written about the beginnings of Milford, one being a descendant of the Starbuck family. Both suggest that the whaling industry was short lived. However, the twenty ships mentioned were not only directly engaged in voyages to and from the Southern Fishery out of Milford, but part of a considerable threeway trade that involved the transhipment of whale products—particularly oil, bone, and candles—from New England to London via Milford. There is no conclusive evidence that the first settlers were transhipping whale products from New England, but this was clearly an important aspect of the Rotch business from Milford. Ben’s daughter, Eliza Farrar Rotch, wrote:

My father began immediately to build a stores, and ships began arriving from America full freighted with sperm oil. The business now attracted artisans necessary for carrying it on [and] my father now received larger vessels loaded with sperm oil from his father and brothers settled lately at New Bedford and these he refitted at Milford and dispatched to the South Seas.His vessels were far more successful than those employed in the same fishery from London, the merchants there were very jealous of him.

This success, along with Rotch’s personal difficulties, was to lead to loss of support for the venture by the British government, which favored its own whaling merchants in London. It would seem that most aspects of the whaling business in Milford declined once Rotch returned to London in 1814. However, the church register for June 14, 1824, records the baptism of Samuel Starbuck Phillips, describing his father as “master of a vessel in the South Sea Whale Fishery.”

The business of provisioning and fitting out whaleships with supplies sent from Nantucket and New Bedford was also an important part of Milford’s whaling activity because, as Stackpole suggests,“supplies could be obtained more cheaply and readily in America.” Timothy Folger supervised a large storehouse for maize, rye, barley, and wheat, chiefly imported from America. In some early paintings and photographs it may be possible to identify this building, which is easily confused with the customs house. Samuel Starbuck Jr. and his father set up and ran the bakery, producing ships biscuits and bread for the whalers as well as for the people living in and around Milford. It is described as“probably the first building erected—the white house with the tremendous chimney at the end of the houses below Hamilton Terrace (originally known as Front Street)—reputedly the oldest building.” But it is also said that “the house with the large Flemish chimney below Hamilton Terrace was one of the original four buildings on the site before the town was begun.” Samuel Jr.’s journal has been traced to a private collection, but it has not been possible to date to establish whether he made comment on this role. In 1793, having visited London where he met several New England captains considering returning to America, he wrote of Milford,“The advantage there is in provisions which I have contrasted with this town.” In February 1800, Greville wrote to Samuel, saying, “If by chance any Indian meal is in the Ann, or maize, you might send me a loaf by the mail.” Evidence of those activities is readily available in the diary of Abiel Coleman Folger (a transcription of which is in the collection of the NHA Research Library) and in the manifests of some of the ships involved. In 1800, Hannah and Eliza, Captain Micajah Gardner, arrived in Milford from New Bedford carrying not only 325 casks of oil worth $29,650 (£7,400) but also white oak staves for making barrels, eight tubs of tar, and ten whale lines—all for direct use in the whaling trade—as well as coffee, sugar, pork, beef, flour, molasses, apples, beer, rum, and tobacco as provisions.

One of the difficulties in reconstructing a complete and accurate picture of the shipping activity connected with all three aspects of the settlers’ enterprise is the absence of records. Some of the voyages are recorded in Lloyds Register and the Society of Merchants in London, and also in the “Returns” of the London whaling merchants to the Board of Trade, but it has not been possible to locate any Customs Returns for Milford before 1827. Clearly, several vessels were registered in New England or had dual registry, and Lloyds Lists have only been searched for voyages to the Southern Seas or Fisheries. A more detailed picture of the transhipping of oil from America and round the coast from Milford to London would need a further trawl of these records—a mammoth task. However, the absence of customs returns is more difficult to explain. The Customs Bondage Store was functioning from 1797 and extended by 1806, suggesting an increase in shipping activity. Timothy Folger is described as “a surveyor of ships,” and Samuel Starbuck Jr. was appointed “supervisor of wrecks,” as such having control of their cargoes, which makes this lack of information all the more puzzling.

Abiel Folger’s diary, written between December 1806 and March 1811, has provided the most illuminating record of whaling activities in Milford to date. She often comments on the sailing or arrival of ships, whether from the fishery or America:“27th June 1807 Baxter sailed, got all on board” and “9th June 1809 the ship Arora [Aurora] got to the kay.” Abiel and Timothy Folger regularly invited the ships’ masters to dine: “14th October 1810 we have had Gwinn [captain of the Ann] and Dunamon [captain of the New Zealander] to dine.” Timothy was an expert candlemaker, and he either continued this business from Milford or imported Nantucket candles to sell in London. His wife wrote: “18th April 1810 I have cleand and wipd three boxes candles.” He was also directly involved in the industry as well as the provisioning; Abiel writes “my H cutting bone but makes a poor ham.”

Clearly the whaling town of Milford did not, as Greville had hoped, contribute to the success of the British Southern Fishery to any great extent, but became a prosperous branch of the New England Fishery, which by the early 1800s had begun to recover. New Englanders, and Nantucketers in particular, who were used to crossing the oceans of the world to carry on this trade, saw the whaling vessels as links to keep their scattered community in touch with one another and their island home. Although the majority of the Nantucket settlers were either Loyalists or had Loyalist sympathies, their allegiance in their new home was less to“king or country” than to their Quaker faith and to the whaling trade from Nantucket.


Jane Clayton Ph.D.: Jane Clayton’s whaling interest stems from her early studies in geography and beginning doctoral studies in 1968. In 1970, she visited Nantucket to work with Edouard Stackpole, who was to become a good friend and mentor. After a career in nursing—both as a practitioner and researcher—she was prompted to resume her whaling studies in 1997 upon the rediscovery of her early data,which led to the completion of her Ph.D. thesis in 2002. She hopes to retire in July of 2007 and devote more time to writing. She lives near Chania in Crete.