Figured Walnut Mid-19th Century Id’d Sea Captain’s Medicine Chest


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Figured Walnut Mid-19th Century Id’d Sea Captain’s Medicine Chest – This extremely rare example of a near complete, whaling captain’s, on-board, medicine chest is in superior condition. The chest appears to date from the 1840s to the late 1850s. Skillfully painted, in black letters, on the top of the chest is the name “W. W. Allen”; a whalebone plaque is inset on the top – this plaque reads: “Medicine Chest”. The interior of the chest is skillfully divided into several compartments which house bottles, vials and containers of original medicinal substances, most still retaining their original labels, indicating that most apparently originated from the Queens Road Pharmacy in Hong Kong; this pharmaceutical establishment was founded in 1828. Some of the medicine bottles, vials and containers still contain their original medicinal contents. Additionally, inside the chest, are three lidded compartments, each with a diminutive, whalebone pull, opening knob; within these compartments are Epsom salts, bandages, tapes and other medicinal items. Stowed in other compartments are the following: Hard India rubber syringe in its original box, leather covered case containing period forceps, a bone handled, two-tine fork. We have had several, shipboard, medicine chests, all somewhat diminutive in size and none identified to a specific ship or commander. This chest is both expansive and wonderfully crafted, as well as being specifically identified to a whaling captain of the antebellum era. The chest and contents remain, as mentioned, in superior condition. Captain Allen, amongst several ships he apparently commanded, did command the Bark Catalpa, in 1861, on a voyage to San Francisco, where the vessel was sold. In April of 1876, the Catalpa was used in a well- known international maritime incident – several Fenian prisoners, housed in an internment camp in Australia, were rescued by American backers, aboard the Catalpa and freed in New York City, after a lengthy voyage,. (see additional information listed below)

Medicines contained in the chest:

  • Powders and tinctures: Blue Stone, Dover’s Powder, Calomel, Calomel & Jalap, Emetic Powder, Tincture of Iodine, Caustic, Bell, A Emetic, Cham, Toilet Vinegar, Magnesia, Opodeldoc, Camphor, Billious Drops and tinctures for fever and chills, Blistering Fluid, Essence of Peppermint, Simple Cerate Ointment, Basilian Ointment, Blue Ointment
  • Most of the listed medicinal items have labels indicative of original purchase at the Queens Road Pharmacy in Hong Kong

Measurements: Width (across the front of the chest) – 18.5”; Width (front to back of the chest) – 13”; Height – 7.75”

William W. Allen – William Allen, known as Captain William Allen, owned shares in a few whalers and merchant ships out of New Bedford and Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Allen was born in Dartmouth, in 1816 and died there, in September of 1871. He married Sarah Weeks, in 1855 and continued to live in Dartmouth; the Allens had two sons, William H. and Thomas. Captain Allen’s single deep-sea voyage was undertaken on December 7, 1861, on the bark Catalpa, in route to San Francisco. Research indicates that Allen may have been the master of a number of whaling vessels in the 1850s, but ongoing research may reveal additional information. (City of Bedford Library)

According to research from Old Dartmouth Historical Society Whaling Museum, Captain William W. Allen is listed in the Ship Registers of New Bedford, but only for a non-whaling voyage of the Bark Catalpa, in 1861. The vessel had been withdrawn from the fishery and was sold to a buyer in San Francisco. Apparently, Allen was the commander of the Bark during its trip from New Bedford to San Francisco. In the Directory of Whaling Masters from American Ports, Allen’s name does appear; listed are five voyages originating from New Bedford, Massachusetts, made by Captain William Allen; the vessels listed, commanded by Allen were: the Montezuma in 1846, the Kathleen in 1852, the Huntress in 1856 and 1857, the Pacific in 1867.

NAME: William Allen
AGE IN 1870: 53
BIRTHPLACE: Massachusetts
HOME IN 1870: Dartmouth, Bristol, Massachusetts
RACE: White
POST OFFICE: North Dartmouth
OCCUPATION: Master Mariner
INFERRED CHILDREN: William H Allen; Thomas F Allen
Name Age
Thomas J Weeks 62
Lucy A Weeks 59
William Allen 53
Sarah A Allen 34
William H Allen 14
Thomas F Allen 10



Name: Capt William Allen
Gender: Male
Birth Date: 19 May 1816
Birth Place: Dartmouth, Bristol County, Massachusetts, United States of America
Death Date: 26 Sep 1871
Death Place: Dartmouth, Bristol County, Massachusetts, United States of America
Cemetery: South Dartmouth Cemetery
Burial or Cremation Place: Dartmouth, Bristol County, Massachusetts, United States of America
Has Bio?: Y
Father: Benjamin Allen
Children: Thomas Franklin Allen, William Henry Allen

The Catalpa rescue was the escape, on 17–19 April 1876, of six Irish Fenian prisoners from the Convict Establishment (now Fremantle Prison), a British penal colony in Western Australia. They were taken on the convict ship Hougoumont to Fremantle, Western Australia, arriving 9 January 1868. In 1869, pardons had been issued to many of the imprisoned Fenians. Another round of pardons was issued in 1871, after which only a small group of “military” Fenians remained in Western Australia’s penal system.

In 1874, prisoner James Wilson secretly sent a letter to New York City journalist John Devoy, who worked to organize a rescue. Using donations collected by Devoy from Irish-Americans, Fremantle escapee John Boyle O’Reilly, then living in Boston, purchased a merchant ship, Catalpa, and sailed her to international waters off Rockingham, Western Australia. On 17 April 1876 at 8:30 am, Wilson and five other Fenians working outside the prison walls, Thomas Darragh, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hassett, and Robert Cranston, boarded a whaleboat O’Reilly had dispatched, were taken aboard Catalpa, and escaped to New York.

The Clan’s committee purchased (in the name of their member James Reynolds) in 1844 three-masted merchant bark Catalpa for $5,500 ($135,717 in 2021 dollars). She displaced 202.05 tons and was 90 feet long, 25 feet in breadth and 12.2 feet deep. She had earlier been a whaleship, sailing out of New Bedford, but had been converted to merchant service with an open hold. Under Captain Anthony’s direction, Catalpa was carefully restored to the fitting and rigging of a whaleship “ostensibly for a voyage of eighteen months or two years in the North and South Atlantic”.