Elisabeth Miller (1792 – 1864) Saltcoats-born ship captain of the brig ‘Clytus’.

Elisabeth (Betsy) Miller was born 11 June 1792 in Saltcoats, the eldest of ten children born to parents William Miller a Merchant Taylor, and Mary Garret.  At the time of their marriage on 12 December 1791, Mary was the widow of John Mackey with whom she had had two children, John, born 1783 and Margaret, born 1785.  Betsy’s siblings were:  Hugh, born 01 November 1793; Mary, born 28 February 1795 and died prior to 1801;  Hannah, born 29 January 1796 and died prior to 1808; William, born 15 December 1797; Margaret Crawford born 07 November 1799; Mary Garret born 03 December 1801; John born 05 April 1804; Robert, born 20 September 1806 and Hannah Thomson born 29 August 1808. 

 Her father became a timber merchant and ship owner with a thriving business.  Her brothers William, John and Robert served apprenticeships as seamen.  By 1818 William was a Ship’s Master and was issued a Masters Certificate in 1853 prior to commanding a vessel sailing to Australia where he died in 1869.  Robert was issued a Masters Certificate in 1853 and again in 1856.  He had served onboard ships sailing to North America, India and China. 

Betsy acted as a Ships’ Husband ensuring the smooth running of her father’s business and may never have gone to sea, except for the tragic death of her brother John who drowned while returning from a day’s pleasure trip to Horse Island on Tuesday 01 October 1833.  See the attached excerpt from The Glasgow Herald, Friday 04 October 1933, page 4”. 

In his final years William Miller wasn’t as successful in business and when he died, he owed his creditors £700 (approximately £69,440.00 in 2019).  The principal asset of his business was the brig Clytus which was one of 33 ships driven ashore on the Ayrshire Coast during a severe storm in February 1839.  At the request of Mr Finnie, a Kilmarnock coal master, Betsy took charge of the extensive repairs.  She did this so efficiently that Mr Finnie persuaded her to take command of the Clytus for one voyage in order to further her knowledge of her father’s business.  That voyage proved to be so successful that she continued to Captain the Clytus for the next 22 years until failing health forced her to retire in 1862 at the age of seventy.  Quickly paying off her father’s creditors, as well as comfortably providing for her dependent sisters, Betsy earned the respect of both the fourteen-man crew of the ‘Clytus’ and those working in the ports she visited.  Despite the Clytus’s hold being filled with coal from the mines at Auchenharvie on the outward-bound voyage, Betsy always appeared in port with a spotless white mutch (cloth hat). 

Due to gale force winds the Clytus was one of 103 ships forced to seek shelter in the Loch at Lamlash, Arran.  The Glasgow Herald of 20 February 1852, page 6, reported that “the Clytus was commanded by a heroic and exceedingly clever young woman, Miss Betsy Miller, daughter of the late William Miller, Esq.  She has weathered the storms of the deep when many commanders of the other sex have been driven to pieces on the rocks.  Her position and attitudes on quarter-deck in a gale of wind are often spoken of and would do credit to an admiral.  Her crew speak of her with the greatest respect.  She is familiarly known by the rude Highland boatmen as ‘Inloig laish Caphtain borin,’ i.e., the ship with the she-captain.”  

Betsy was honourably mentioned by the late Earl of Eglinton in the House of Lords during the discussion of the Shipping Bill in 1854, and in the House of Commons that same year. 

Betsy died 12 May 1864 at Quay Street, Saltcoats, a month short of her 72nd birthday.  Her cause of death was given as natural decline over the previous two years along with Haemiplegia (stroke) nine months prior to her death.  She is buried in the graveyard of Ardrossan Old Parish Church, now the Heritage Centre.  Her death was reported in both British and Foreign newspapers.  The Leeds Times dated 21 May 1864 reported:  

“A Glasgow paper notices the demise of Miss Betsy Miller, aged 71, whose life and labours have often been quoted as illustrative of what a right-minded, earnest, and indefatigable woman can do in order to discharge a debt and earn an honourable maintenance. Miss Miller was a daughter of the late Mr. W. Miller, for a long time a shipowner and wood merchant in Saltcoats. In her younger years she act as clerk and “ship’s husband” to her father, and when business affairs took an unfavourable turn, with a resolution which truly might be called heroic, she took the command of an old brig, the Clitus, and became “sailing-master”. So successful was her career that she enabled to pay off a debt of £700, which her father’s estate owed, maintain herself in comfort, and bring up two sisters left dependent upon her. The Clitus traded between Ardrossan and the coast of Ireland for more than 30 years; she transacted all the business connected with freight, cargo, and ship’s course through all weathers”.  

Betsy’s death was registered as ‘Eliza Miller, Ship Owner’ by her youngest sister Hannah, who took on responsibility for the business and continued to command the Clytus successfully for several years.  On Wednesday 29th March 1876 the Glasgow Herald reported that the old Brig Clytus had been condemned and sold for £122 by Mr Symington, auctioneer, Saltcoats.  

Betsy Miller Wynd and Clytus Court in Saltcoats are both named after her. 

Further Reading 

The Glasgow Herald of 20 February 1852, page 6