In August 2012, Maitland will celebrate its 26th annual Launch Day – a day dedicated to the Launch of the WD Lawrence, the largest wooden hulled, full-rigged ship built in Canada. It’s a day when time returns to 1874 and William Lawrence’s crowning achievement is celebrated. However, we should not only celebrate the launch of a magnificent vessel, we should honour the indomitable spirit of Lawrence.
The WD Lawrence was constructed during a time of great upheaval in Canada. Confederation had occurred, the political structure of the country was changing, great debates were taking place, and the future was uncertain. The year before the launch a huge financial crisis known as the Panic of 1873 swept across the United States and Europe resulting in a grave depression. This perhaps would have deterred some, but not Lawrence.
Although parts of the world were in economic crisis, Nova Scotia and indeed the Maritimes were experiencing unprecedented commercial prosperity. Lawrence continued with his monumental undertaking at great financial risk, incurring $27,000 in debt and also faced personal and professional ridicule. He defended his beloved ship from an “army of croakers” who criticized the vessel. It was ungainly, a financial disaster and not going to float. His determined spirit and pride in his province carried him through:
“Gentlemen, I love Nova Scotia…I desire to see her cities grow, her commerce extend, her ports crowded with shipping and manned with sons of our own soil…”
On October 27th 1874, the WD Lawrence was to be launched in Maitland. The village became a bustling place as crowds began to gather. People came from all over the Maritimes, the United States and Great Britain to watch the event, some to gloat, some to cheer and some to turn a quick buck!
It is perhaps not too well known that Maitland was a “dry town” (at least to the eye it was) and Lawrence, a teetotaler. On the day of the launch a whiskey peddler arrived in town hoping to take advantage of the gathering crowd. When Lawrence heard about this, it is reported that he himself, the Presbyterian Minister and Albert Putnam chased him out of town. Interestingly, this peddler supposedly originated from the Georgefield area. To this day, there is a corner on Georgefield Road known as “Peddlers Corner” where at a certain time of year you can apparently still see a peddler selling his wares!
With the peddler banished the celebrations continued in Maitland. The village was overflowing with onlookers. Over 4,000 people arrived to watch the launch, some in anticipation of success, many predicting failure. As crowds began to gather on the waterfront there was one notable absence, William Lawrence. He is reported to have stood quietly on the bluff watching the crowd grow. We can only imagine the emotions he felt as he awaited his defining moment in history.
It was a success. The WD Lawrence, christened with non-alcoholic apple cider, was launched. Against all odds and perhaps to the bewilderment of some, William Lawrence of Maitland had triumphantly built the largest wooden hulled, full-rigged vessel in Canada!
It is perhaps questioned whether or not Lawrence was of sound mind when he embarked on such a remarkable undertaking considering the political and financial situation at the time. I would say he certainly was. Not only did he pay off all debts, he accumulated around $140,000 in profit!
During her Maiden voyage, the WD Lawrence circumnavigated the world with William Lawrence aboard. With truly remarkable foresight, he documented in depth, the entire journey and returned to Maitland with numerous souvenirs, many of which are still in his home today.
The Lawrence House Museum stands proudly in Maitland and is displayed much as it was during the Launch of 1874, and for this, we must thank Abbey Lawrence, W.D.’s granddaughter. Without her courage, determination and sheer perseverance, the story of W.D. Lawrence, his home and belongings may have been lost to a new world. Another East “Hantsonian” with an indomitable spirit, whose story will have to wait for another day, unless of course you were to visit the Lawrence House Museum during Launch Day, partake in the celebrations and look beyond what the eye sees, wonder and ask!
- Kate Robson (Before Aug./2012)