The Plight of the Fastest Ship in the World — the “James Baines”

Jeannette Holland Austin
12 min readAug 3, 2022

James Baines, of the Black Ball Line.

In its day, the most celebrated line of passenger ships was the Black Ball Line. This line of vessels would have never become a concern were it not for the genius of the great American shipbuilder, Donald Mackay who gave Baines an order for four ships, the likes of which the world had never seen before.

James Baines, a young man barely thirty years of age, had the courage of his convictions, designed larger clipper ships for Mackay, which ultimately made the reputation of the Black Ball Line.

James Baines was born in Upper Duke Street in Liverpool, ENgland where his mother kept a cake and sweet shop. He was a very lively, little man, fair with reddish hair. His vitality was abnormal and he had an enthusiastic flow of talk. Of an eager, generous disposition, his hand was ever in his pocket for those in trouble; and he was far from being the cool, hard-headed type of business man. He was as open as the day and hail-fellow-well-met with everybody, nevertheless his far-sightedness and his eager driving power carried him to the top in so phenomenally short a time that his career has become a sort of romantic legend in Liverpool.

The story goes thus. In 1851 a dirty-looking ship with stumpy masts and apple-cheeked bows lay in the Queen’s Dock, Liverpool, with a broom at her masthead, thus indicating that she was for sale. This was a ship that seafaring men contemptuously compared to a barrel of pork. It was cheaply constructed at Miramichi, and was evidently going for a low price. James Baines scraped together what little money he had and bought her, sent her out to the American Colonies and made a good profit on her; and this was the humble beginning of the great Black Ball Line, which in 1860 possessed 86 ships and employed 300 officers and 3000 seamen.

The ships ran between New York and Liverpool. The packets and steamers of the combine provided a service to Australia from Liverpool twice a month, but in 1861, upon the failure of Barnard’s Bank, Baines suffered financially. Too, many of his clippers were already past their prime when he purchased them, and were becoming more stained and water-soaked. The two last clippers in which he had an interest was the Three Brothers, having once been Vanderbilt’s yacht, famous for its unsuccessful chase of the Alabama, then a hulk at Gibraltar.

Jeannette Holland Austin

Author of 100+ genealogy books. Owner of 8 genealogy websites available by subscription.