Mailboats Article 7 for Tribune Spring/Summer 2016: Roberts Dynasty
Sir George William Kelly Roberts, KT, CBE, lived between July 19, 1906 and June 24, 1964. During that time – particularly in the late 1920s – he transformed and standardized the subsidization of mailboats as well as financed the construction and operation of at least eight vessels. In order of year built they were the Alice Mabel (purchased in 1923, when he was 17), Richard Campbell (1937), Gary Roberts (1940), Air Pheasant (1942), Drake (1942), Noel Roberts (1943), Air Swift (1943), and the Captain Roberts (1945). According to Anne and Jim Lawlor in their book “The Harbour Island Story,” they were owned under the holding company Richard Campbell Limited of Nassau. This is their story.
Sir George was born on Harbour Island, Eleuthera the son of Captain George Campbell and Nellie Maud Roberts, whose ancestors arrived from Bermuda with the Eluetherian Adventurers in 1647. According to the Lawlors, as a young man George “sailed before the mast on the three-masted schooner Bentley under his father before moving to Nassau at the age of 12. As a self-made man he grew to own the City Lumber Yard….”. He married Freda Genevieve Sawyer at Trinity Wesleyan Church in Nassau on January 7th, 1929, when he was 23. Together they had three sons: Richard Campbell (in 1929), Gary William Kelly (born 1934), and Noel Sawyer Roberts (in 1938). From the late 1950s the family residence was “Lucky Hill” on Eastern Road, near Dick’s Point Road in eastern New Providence.
Sir George was active in politics, and served in the House of Assembly from 1935 (aged 29), to 1955, and as a member of the Executive Council between 1946 and 1954. He led the Government between 1949 and 1954 and was president of the Legislative Council (LegCo) in 1954. He served briefly as the President of the Senate of the Bahamas, from January 1964 until his death on June 24 of that year. On New Years’ Day 1958 he was awarded the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.) and knighted. He is buried on the grounds of the library named after him in his hometown of Dunmore Town, Harbour Island.
The sailing vessel Alice Mabel was a 47-ton schooner with more than one mast and an auxiliary motor. She was built in Marsh Harbour, Abaco in 1923. It is not known which islands the vessel served, though it is safe to assume that Eleuthera was among its ports of call. Richard and Susan Roberts say that one of her skippers was Captain John Carey. By 1940 the small ship was no longer listed in mercantile navy lists.
The Richard Campbell was built in Nassau in 1937 of wood. At 89 gross tons, she was 85.6 feet long, 16.3 feet wide and 8 feet deep. The vessel is described as a single-masted sailing sloop with an auxiliary motor. For ten years until roughly 1947 she plied between Abaco, Miami and Nassau. In “Islanders in the Stream, Volume II” Craton and Saunders quote an account of the vessel in 1947 as a “rickety, cockroach-infested boat (nicknamed “Wretched Campbell”), with its Conchy Joe captain [Russell] and mate and all-black crew.” According to author Kevin Griffin the Richard Campbell was employed in “12-day voyages through the Out Islands.”
The motor vessel Gary Roberts had two masts but was primarily propelled by a 100 horsepower Cooper-Bessemen diesel motor. She was 66 feet long, 16.5 feet wide and 7.2 feet deep. Weighing 59 gross tons, she was built in 1942 of wood by Earl and Gerald Johnson, family friends of Sir George’s, in Harbour Island. She was named after the Roberts’ son, Gary William Kelly. The Lawlors, in their history of Harbour Island, have collected a photo of the vessel.
The Air Pheasant, built of wood in 1942, was a sister ship to the Drake in as much as her dimensions were 110.8’ long, 17’ wide and 6.5’ deep. Constructed by Luders Marine in Stamford Connecticut in 1942 she had two General Motors 1,540-horsepower engines, could make 21 knots, and weighed 148 tons. She was known as USS PC 1015 (patrol craft) until 1942, then SC-1015 (sub-chaser), and USCG Air Pheasant (WAVR-449) from 1945 to 1948. Presumably sold to the Bahamas in 1948, she replaced the Monarch of Nassau on the San Salvador mailboat run. Then it appears that Roberts chartered her to the Erickson brothers for their Morton Salt Company to serve Inagua. One of her captains, at least in 1964, was Anton Lockhart of Ragged Island, who was born in 1906. Tragically he lost his young wife, sister and brother-in-law in a collision with the American freighter Robert Luckenbach off Castle Island on the 7th of June 1931. According to published reports, the Air Pheasant also served Fortune Island/Long Cay, Crooked Island and Acklins in the 1950s and San Salvador in the 1970s. The ship was scrapped in 1982, signifying the end of a 44-year career in the islands.
The motor vessel Drake was built by Robinson Marine Construction in Benton Harbor Michigan in 1942 for the US Navy as USS PC 541, a patrol craft. Weighing 136 tons, she was 110.9’ long, 17’ wide and 6.5’ deep. Her twin 1,540 horsepower engines propelled the boat at an impressive 21 knots. After serving in the navy the vessel went to the US Coast Guard between 1945 and 1948 when it went to a New York fishing company until 1954 then the Crosland Fish Company, based in Key West as the Drake. George Roberts purchased her in 1956 and put the vessel to use between Nassau, Rum Cay, and San Salvador in the southeastern Bahamas. She traded through 1964 when she was mentioned in a “Holiday” magazine article. A vessel of similar dimensions but named “Bahamas Drake” is listed as having wrecked and sunk off the Exuma chain on the 29th of December 1968. Probably this was the Drake.
The Noel Roberts was built of wood by Earl and Gerald Johnson in Harbour Island in 1943. She was 115 feet long, 23.3 feet wide, 11.3 feet deep, and weighed 180 gross tons. She was named after George and Freda Roberts’ son Noel, who went on to represent Harbour Island in parliament between 1972 and 1977, and then from 1987 to 1997. Immediately upon being launched during considerable fanfare alongside the Government Dock in Dunmore Town, the Symonette-owned former minesweeper BA 2, built for the Royal Navy in WWII, towed her to Nassau to be fitted with an engine. In 1948 she is recorded by the Kingston Gleaner as having carried a load of lumber as far as Kingston Jamaica. In 1957 she was on the British mercantile marine lists, and was recorded as still trading in 1961. The vessel’s final disposition is not known.
The Air Swift was built of wood in 1943 by Thomas Knutson Shipbuilding of Halesite, New York. Her dimensions were the same as Air Pheasant and Drake (111’ X 17’ X 6.5’). Her original name until 1945 was USS SC 1340, then USCGC WAVR 471 Air Swift until 1948. It is assumed that George Roberts purchased her in 1948, as she became an institution in the Bahamas, serving right up until the Bahamas Daybreak replaced her on the Harbour Island run in the 1970’s. During the 1960s the vessel served Harbour Island and North Eleuthera. According to Jeff Albury her remains lie in shallow water off Six Shilling Channel, between Rose Island and The Current.
The short life of Sir George’s 111-foot motor vessel Captain Roberts, named after his father, is chronicled best by Anne and Jim Lawlor. The boat was commissioned by Roberts and built of wood by Earl and Gerald Johnson in 1945. She was fitted with a Fairbanks Morse diesel motor. According to the Lawlors, “This was the third boat built for him in four years by Earl and Gerald Johnson….. Unfortunately, in October 1945, freakish winds destroyed a number of small boats on Harbour Island and the Captain Roberts was wrecked on its maiden voyage.” According to the website wrecksite.eu, the location of the Captain Roberts’ final resting place is near Great Isaac Light north of the Bimini Islands, suggesting she may have been on her way to or from Florida when wrecked.
Sir George Roberts is believed to have been a driving force behind “An Act to Establish an Improved Inter-Insular Mail Service” passed in August 1948. It establishes that the “Governor may establish mail service between Nassau and the Out Islands.” Roberts was a member of the Executive Council at that time. The influential “Inter-Insular Mail Shipping Act” of 1966, based on the 1948 act and the basis of legislation since, is largely credited to Roberts’ efforts in the legislature. It standardized aspects of the carriage of mail, passengers and cargo within the Bahamas, as well as government subsidization of the fleet of mailboats which carried them. According to the entrepreneur and ship-owner Craig Symonette, son of Sir Roland Symonette, “It was Sir George that designed the first MailBoat Subsidy Act….still in place to this day.”