Edouard Voisard

Capitaine au Long Cours

Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur

Edouard Voisard’s achievements, in particular the lives he saved, bear testament to an extraordinarily brave, selfless and driven man. 

Voisard, my second great-grandfather, proudly displayed an array of medals on his chest, including the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest award, demonstrating that he was recognised and appreciated during his lifetime. 

My hope is that this text will ensure that the appreciation lives on in the memories and histories of his descendants. 

Edouard Voisard was born in Honfleur on February 27, 1824 the son of Charles Voisard and Reine Picard. Charles was himself a local celebrity, Pilote-majeur for the port of Honfleur and a well-known life-saver. 

Voisard first went to sea in 1834 aged ten as a “mousse” aboard a fishing boat, the appropriately named Edouard, followed by Gazelle and Angélique. He then joined a coastal merchantman, Duc d’Orléans, as a novice in 1839 then Gazelle, Angélique and Père des Braves.

There are some intriguing references from contemporary regional UK newspapers to ships sailing to, amongst other places, Newcastle, Liverpool and Shoreham from Le Havre and Honfleur between 1823 and 1841 commanded by a Captain Voisard. Edouard would only have been a novice at this time, but he was aboard one of the boats mentioned – Père des Braves – in 1838. 

Just a coincidence? Maybe not: Edouard’s father, Charles, was a professional sailor of the period. Perhaps he was the Captain Voisard mentioned and, if so, it’s possible that his son served on his crew. More likely though, this refers to Edouard’s uncle, François Jacques Voisard who we know was a Maitre de cabotage and  an Officier de marine

As a matelot on Intrepide Corse, Voisard would have experienced his first voyages “au long cours” before he joined the French Navy to serve aboard Duc de Cherbourg in 1845.

Later that year, Voisard was aboard the brig Reine-Amelie, under the command of Lieutenant d’Harcourt, when she left Brest in heavy seas bound for Cherbourg. 

In a deep pitch, the bowsprit split apart. Rocks surrounded the stricken ship and the crew were in grave danger.

The ship’s survival depended on strengthening the fractured bowsprit but, as she was pitching and taking water over the sides, this would be extremely dangerous. The Captain asked for a volunteer who was brave enough to attempt such a perilous task.

Voisard, a twenty-one year old matelot, stepped forward. After half an hour of being repeatedly dragged out of the water to breathe, Voisard succeeded in his task and the ship was able to continue her voyage. 

Voisard then served aboard Mutiné, Duc de Brest, Fleurbeau, Descartes, Friedland and Prudence. 

He married Rose Ernestine Chouquet in February 1851 and they had at least four children: Edouard, Georgina Marie, Georges Victor – my great-grandfather –  and Jeanne.

After leaving the Navy, Voisard entered the employ of ship-owners Batalha and Lelièvre, gaining his first command, Le Vaillant, in 1851 and demonstrating his courage, skill and decisiveness on the “Hirondelles de Rio” pioneering transatlantic trade, most notably in command of Zouaves then Mineiro.

In October 1854, Mineiro left Le Havre under Voisard’s command to collect guano in Valparaiso. Amongst the passengers was a journalist, Augustin Lieutaud, who was travelling to the New World with his wife and daughter. He kept a detailed journal of the voyage. At the same time, the Chincha was preparing to make the same journey.

Chincha was a three-masted, square-sailed clipper, displacing 555 tons, newly-built in Nantes. With a gleaming white hull and golden lateral stripe, she had first entered Le Havre in August, and was ready for her first voyage. Her crew of twenty-four was commanded by Capitaine Méhouas. Chincha carried thirteen passengers, including three children.

Mineiro was also a three-masted square-sailed clipper, launched in 1852 in Bordeaux. She was the first clipper to be built in France, displacing 526 tons, 51 meters in length with a beam of 9 meters. A black hull with white and black false portholes set off gleaming white cotton sails. Her owners, based in Le Havre, were part of the Union des Chargeurs and, since her first arrival in the port in December 1852, Mineiro had already made two trips to Rio de Janeiro.

But now, and for the next fifteen years, Mineiro would be commanded by Edouard Voisard, aged just 30. It was his first voyage on Mineiro and his crew of twenty-eight men comprised a First Officer, a Lieutenant, a bo’son, fourteen matelots, five novices, two cabin-boys, a cook, and two maître d’hôtel. Amongst the crew were Amand Voisard, 14, and Henry Picard, 21. As they were both from Honfleur, and as Picard was Voisard’s mother’s maiden name, could they have been related?

There were also twenty-three passengers who had paid between 700 and 800 francs for their passage.

The crew lists were signed, the paperwork was complete and both ships were ready. Chincha was due to leave on October 19th, Mineiro on the 20th but they had to wait for favourable winds. After bad weather during the night of  Monday 23rd, the winds still gusted with squally, intermittent rain and hail. Regardless, Chincha set sail, aided by easterly winds, disembarking her pilot south-east of Barfleur.

Voisard boasted that he would arrive in Valparaiso ten to twelve days before his competitor even if he left five to six days after. He bet 1000 francs, around five months of his salary, that he would beat Chincha. The owners had also placed wagers so, on October 25th, he is ordered to sail, regardless of the weather.

The unofficial race between Chincha and Mineiro is one of the more intriguing themes in Lieutaud’s journal and reflects the pitiless rivalry between the owners of the clippers for the lucrative Southern Seas trade. At the time of the voyage, Chincha’s owners were competing with the Union des Chargeurs who wanted, at seemingly any cost, to eliminate their competitor. Lieutaud knew nothing of this, so he saw Voisard’s obsessive drive to beat Chincha as puerile, yet the whole tone of the voyage and the mood of the Captain – and thus the crew – is driven by this commercial agenda.

Towed behind a steam-powered tug, Mineiro left port on the noon tide. The wind blew violently from the west: there was a storm just miles out at sea. Some sails needed to be reefed so that the tug could take the ship out. The matelots, who had only just embarked knew neither the officers nor the ship and most were drunk. The Captain’s orders and the pilot’s instructions caused confusion and disorder; sails were torn, the sea roared, the wind pushed Mineiro toward the shore. While the women and children sought refuge in their cabins, the male passengers were roped into setting sails, heaving on lines. At last the sails were set and the tug led her charge out to sea before casting off and returning to port.

The storm redoubled its strength: torrential rain, lightning, thunder. At sunset, Mineiro was twelve to fifteen miles off-course, north of Le Havre; by the morning of the 26th, she was in the Pas-de-Calais. She turned about, but the wind was still against her, and by the evening she was outside Dieppe.

Worried, Lieutaud asked the Captain if they were in any danger. He replied brusquely, “leave me alone, I don’t know”

Finally the wind dropped, the sea was calmer and the Pilot could transfer to a yacht heading back to Le Havre. 

Mineiro was now two and a half days behind Chincha but Voisard, enthused by his vessel, wrote in his log about how much Mineiro’s handling impressed him.

Lieutaud noted that the crew, constantly rigging and replacing sails, were rewarded by double rations of eau-de-vie, but the bad weather had killed many of the hundred chickens, fifteen turkeys, twenty ducks, twenty rabbits, six pigs and six sheep embarked. Only two of the passengers were able to take their meals in the dining room, the rest remained in their cabins.

At daybreak, Lieutaud climbed on deck to ask the Captain for news of the night and what weather the day promised before going below to report to his wife.

When the weather permitted, his children also came on deck while his wife cleaned and aired the cabin, brushed the clothes, and scrubbed all items for mildew or rust. The rear of the poop deck was available to both officers and passengers. Four wooden benches were for the women; the men lay on the deck. When lunch was called, all able-bodied passengers were required by the Captain to take their meal at his table – he determined the seating arrangement: Lieutaud’s wife to his right, the place of honour, then Lieutaud next to her.

After lunch, passengers played bezique, while Lieutaud was schoolmaster to his children, or was in his bunk learning Spanish, writing his diary or reading the few books that he had brought or found onboard. 

There was no ship’s doctor and three men were sick so, with the Captain’s consent, Lieutaud improvised as medic. He read a small book that he found in the onboard pharmacy and dispensed cures: quinine for the sailor suffering from intermittent fevers, a poultice with a few drops of laudanum for a bruise.

The monotony of time on board sat so heavy that any distraction, any unforeseen event, stood out. Lieutaud described their first encounter with another vessel, one month out of Le Havre. In calm seas, the two vessels watched each other but neither raised their flags. Lieutaud wanted to know who they were, where they came from, did they have any news from home? Voisard’s refusal to communicate with them frustrated him, he described Voisard’s actions as absolute despotism. 

Food onboard – only simple fare for the sailors: sea biscuits and black coffee in the morning, salted meat at noon, beans in the evening all from the same bucket. 

But, at the Captain’s table, there was cured beef, pork, lamb or goose, accompanied by fresh bread. Lieutaud appreciated the variety and quantity of food available but lamented that the cook seasoned everything with pepper and onions: chicken, potatoes, macaroni, rice, eggs, artichokes, grilled sardines and herring. Bread was baked each day, but Lieutaud found it tasteless and unpleasant.

When a pig was slaughtered there was boudin and liver, spleen, heart, kidneys stewed in onions. In the evening there was soup from the head and roasted leg. The next morning: chops with onions, tête à la vinaigrette, followed by the second leg and soup in the evening. The second morning there was tripe, feet “a la mode de Caen”, then more chops with onions and then dinner of roast shoulder and soup until the last trace of the pig was gone.

Passengers and crew occasionally fished with lines 40 to 50 meters long while the sailors harpooned sea bream.

Sunday, November 5th at noon, about thirty miles to the east of the Azores, Voisard pushed Mineiro too hard in a violent squall, breaking part of the mizzen mast spars and broken timber dragged behind Mineiro; she was dead in the water. The Captain’s obsessive determination to catch Chincha caused this disaster but rather than seek shelter in the Azores, he drove the crew to make repairs around the clock. With the help of the passengers, it took two days to clear the debris and prepare a new mast.

The rigging was fixed and Mineiro resumed her course. The weather became hot and muggy; the calm was oppressive; the Captain, frustrated, brooded and paced. At last, on the 14th, Mineiro picked up the trade winds and made 12 knots gliding smoothly through the water, following the path of the storms and the doldrums. Sunday night, the weather was beautiful, the sailors congregated on deck to tell stories and sing songs.

On the evening of the 26th preparations were made for the “Crossing the Line” ceremony. The crew paraded around the ship in costume stopping near the bow where they had erected a makeshift chapel. 

They summoned those crossing the Equator for the first time – women, children, then the men – who appeared wet before them depending on their ability to escape the soakings by “Neptune” and his “devils”.

Lieutaud submitted to a seated foam bath and was ritually “baptised”. While the women and children hid in their cabins, the men were forced into a water fight against the sailors.

Meanwhile, another side to Voisard’s character. He selected the most gullible of his passengers to look through his telescope at the Equator – he’d stuck a hair across the lens.

On December 1st, at nearly full speed with twenty-nine sails deployed, Mineiro approached Bahia. 

On the 4th, another Clipper was spotted a league away on a parallel course. It raised the French flag, Mineiro responded, then both hoisted the colours of Le Havre. After an hour, the other ship raised a red flag on her mizzen mast with the initials TB…it was Chincha! 

Voisard, incensed, worked twice as hard to regain the advantage, even attempting to change the trim of the boat in the hope of winning a fraction of a knot. 

Chincha was still ahead on the 7th. Mineiro now showed thirty-five sails but Chincha was still ahead, Voisard hoped for bad weather in which his ship would fare better. He got his wish: storms, wind, rain, the night was awful. They lost sight of Chincha at 28 degrees south, just below Rio. 

Off Patagonia, the sky and the waters became iron grey. Lieutaud was surprised at the number and variety of seabirds, including albatrosses, and mammals – sea lions, seals, schools of porpoises and whales chased the clipper. 

December 21st: land ahoy! Four, five miles to the east were the Falkland Islands and, on the 23rd, they passed l’île des Etats.  

And yet, despite his demeanour and the violent rages, Voisard tried hard to ingratiate himself with his passengers and ordered another pig to be slaughtered for dinner on Christmas Eve, so boudin was added to the sausage, ham, cold veal, small cakes, biscuits and lots of champagne.

December 26th – it was the middle of summer, but even two shirts, a good cardigan and a strong padded coat were not enough; add a pair of fur gloves, a scarf wrapped five to six times around the neck and rubber-soled shoes – filled by slippers and woollen socks – then maybe, with head properly covered, the passengers could go on deck. 

On the poop-deck, officers clung to ropes while the matelot at the wheel was lashed to his post. Mineiro rolled, leapt and then came rain, hail, snow and a wind that pushed Mineiro south. On the 28th, a heavy wave broke over the side and smashed the roof of the dining room during lunch, soaking the diners and breaking glasses, dishes, bottles… a bench on the poop-deck was washed away. 

The crews’ quarters were flooded – they asked Voisard in vain to be allowed to sleep on deck. Lieutaud overheard the encounter and, pitying the bedraggled matelots, organised the passengers into donating dry clothing. Voisard went some way to redeeming himself by donating twenty-five of his best Havana cigars.

January 1st, 62 degrees south, the weather improved. Mineiro made 12-13 knots, travelling 300 miles in 24 hours and she rounded Cape Horn on the 3rd after eight days of hell.

Whales, porpoises, and albatrosses reappeared and the passengers were back on deck. In beautiful weather, Mineiro tracked along the coast and the Cordilleras. On January 5th, the crew scraped, scrubbed and painted to prepare the ship for her arrival in Chile. 

On the 12th, late in the afternoon, the port of Valparaiso was spotted through the telescope. The Captain hoisted the French flag and the colours of Le Havre.

The voyage had lasted 78 days but Chincha was not in port – she finally arrived in Valparaiso two days later – Voisard had won his bet.

Voisard’s reputation for fearlessness and determination was further illustrated by the de-masting of Mineiro on his final voyage in March, 1869 when close to Brazil en route to Rio de Janeiro.

Voisard commanded Mineiro between 1854 and 1869 making as many as twenty-seven voyages to South America, achieving a record round-trip to Valparaiso in seventy days in 1855 and a voyage home from Rio de Janeiro in thirty-two days in 1859. 

In 1871, Voisard returned to Le Havre to command the paddle steamers that served the towns and ports of Le Havre, Caen, Honfleur and Trouville where he continued to demonstrate extraordinary levels of seamanship retiring from the service in September 1877.

Voisard joined the Société des Sauveteurs du Havre in October 1873 and was rewarded with his own page in their Livre d’Or.

He became Vice President in June 1887 holding the post until October 1895.

In October 1873, while in command of the paddle steamer Éclair, he towed the fishing boat “Bonne-Mère” from Honfleur to safety as she was on the point of capsizing.

In July 1874, Louis Saffrey, a waiter at the Hôtel du Cheval Blanc in Honfleur fell from the gangway whilst disembarking from the Éclair just outside the hotel. Without hesitating, Voisard dived in to save him. 

In September that same year, a young actress, Francine Nautin, also fell from Éclair and was saved by Voisard, who dived in to the water, fully clothed, to pull her to safety. Voisard sustained a deep gash on his left thigh during this rescue which would cause him to limp for the rest of his life.

In October 1875, Le Havre’s dredger found itself in peril in atrocious weather. Several tugs and harbour boats refused to render assistance and Voisard’s command, François 1er, was alongside with her lights and boiler extinguished. 

In record time, Voisard had them re-lit, loaded a supply of coal and tow-ropes, and cast-off to tow the stricken dredger to safety.

In October 1876, Voisard was part of the lifeboat crew that rescued a man who had fallen overboard at the entrance of the Port du Havre. 

Then, in December 1876, while in command of Perle, which was moored on the Quaie de Notre Dame in Le Havre, Voisard saved Charles Roger who fell into the harbour while trying to jump from the quay onto the steamer’s paddle.

On February 20, 1877, a violent storm struck the estuary of the Seine. An English brig Margaret struggled in the heavy seas and a lifeboat from Le Havre was launched to rescue her, commanded by Paul Langlois. 

Voisard, not normally part of Langlois’ crew, volunteered. 

The lifeboat struggled to reach the brig only to find it abandoned – the crew had made their own way to safety. 

Turning back to Le Havre, they spotted the English schooner Wilson, bound from Alloa to Honfleur, which was in grave danger. Changing course and once again struggling in heavy seas, the lifeboat intercepted Wilson and rescued five of her crew, but Willis, her captain, and Amand Tribout, her pilot from Honfleur, had been swept overboard and lost some time earlier. 

Langlois brought the lifeboat to a hero’s welcome in Honfleur, tinged with great sadness for the loss of Tribout; one of their own and father of seven.

This rescue earned Voisard and Langlois the Gold Sea Gallantry Medal from the British Government, a medal conferred on British subjects or foreigners who displayed gallantry in saving the lives of British subjects: 

In 1879, Voisard took part in at least four major rescues:

In February, Voisard skippered the lifeboat which rescued the crew of the German schooner Renner which was ship-wrecked at the harbour entrance.

In July 1879, the yacht Hildegarde, owned by Albert, Prince of Wales later to become Edward VII, was competing in the Régates du Havre.

Douglas Yeats, a seaman aboard Hildegarde was washed overboard from the bowsprit while bending the jib topsail. Voisard was skippering the steamer Hermine which he steered towards Yeats then leapt overboard to rescue the floundering sailor.  Voisard succeeded in rescuing the man from being drowned, although he died soon afterwards.

In March 2011 via my website, I received an email from John Yeats on Waiheke Island, New Zealand – he was the great, great grandson of John Douglas Yeats and he told me that the Prince of Wales saw fit to contribute tho the future of Yeats’s children

Hildegarde was built around 1875 at Camper & Nicholson’s yard in Gosport. In an extraordinary coincidence, the company evolved into (on the exact same site) STS Defence where I worked from 2012 to 2023.

Within a fortnight of the Hildegarde rescue, Voisard skippered the lifeboat which rescued another British vessel, the three-masted Edmond Richardson.

In November 1879, Capitaine Feron, who was alone on board the Georges, found himself in difficulty at his mooring on the Eure. The wind started to blow violently and the ship was at risk of dragging its anchor towards the shore. Voisard’s lifeboat arrived in time and the Georges was able to set off with a minimal sail after abandoning her anchor to take shelter in the harbour. 

In September 1880, the Italian ship Stefanino was lost on the Seine. Edouard Voisard, along with Henri Lecroisey, was aboard the lifeboat which saved the thirteen men of the crew.

In 1880, l’Académie Française awarded Voisard the Prix Gémond. In his citation Monsieur Sardou said that Voisard was only doing his duty when he saved his own vessel from distress, but that he also saved fishing  boats and vessels from France, England and Germany, risking his life to save others from drowning. His chest was covered in medals of gold and silver from various countries so by presenting Voisard with the Prix Gemond, the Academy confirmed what everyone knew of Voisard’s courage but was proud to add their own mark of honour.

In January 1881, Voisard also turned his hand to fire-fighting saving the life of a woman in the Rue des Drapiers in a burning building. Falling in the stairs, it was noted that Voisard badly injured his leg.

In March 1886, Voisard rescued a child who had fallen into the Bassin de Commerce in Le Havre. It was his last rescue.

Many of the rewards Voisard received were accompanied by sums of money. A generous man, he took the opportunity to make donations to the hardship fund of the Sociétés des Sauveteurs

Throughout his career, Voisard’s exploits were closely followed and celebrated by the local newspapers and it was they who led a campaign for him to be given the Légion d’Honneur – from as early as 1874, after the rescues of Saffrey and Nautin and again in 1877 after the rescue of the crew of Wilson.

In 1880, Le Havre’s Société des Sauveteurs and the Commissaire Général de la Marine, announced they had formally proposed Voisard for the honour.

In 1881, a pamphlet entitled Actes de Courage et de Dévouement, was published by the Imprimerie Lepelletier, in Le Havre. 

In it, they published letters of commendation and press articles, possibly as part of the proposal for the Légion d’Honneur. 

A copy of this pamphlet survives in the family and is actually the source of many of the stories about Voisard. 

Eugène Grosos, the President of the Société des Sauveteurs du Havre, who had been instrumental in nominating Voisard, was charged with presenting the medal on the occasion of the Société’s Fête Solennelle on August 13, 1882.

Despite all that he accomplished, Voisard was not the most celebrated life-saver of his generation from Le Havre. 

That honour belongs to Pierre Durécu, born in Le Havre in 1812. Like Voisard, his life was spent at sea, surviving numerous shipwrecks, being stranded in the Arctic for four months and being enslaved for eight months in darkest Africa. Also like Voisard, he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur and a medal from the Royal Humane Society but, unlike Voisard, Durécu was rewarded by having a street in Le Havre named after him. Durécu drowned in 1874 during a rescue. 

During my research I came across two articles which incorrectly credit Durécu with rescues that were actually performed by Voisard. The first, in a book entitled Les Havrais et la Mer, describes the rescue of the Bonne-Mère in 1873 as being by Durécu which is contradicted by the contemporary letters from the skipper of the Bonne-Mère and Voisard’s Livre d’Or. The second, an article in the Journal Havre-Presse, April 16 2009, credits Durécu with the rescue of Edmund Richardson in 1879 which is surprising as he died in 1874.

In the morning of March 26, 1882 a fierce storm raged in the Seine Estuary. Fleeing the storm, the Vivid, a fishing sloop, was de-masted at the edge of sandbanks. Within minutes, Henri Lecroisey, the skipper of lifeboat No. 4 assembled his team of ten linesmen: Edward Leblanc, Paul Dessoyer, Ernest Moncus, Pierre Olivier, Alphonse Ménéleon, René Leprevost, Victor Jacquot, Edouard Cardine, Eugène Varescot and Henri Fosse who was just 23.

Lecroisey, LeBlanc, Dessoyer, Moncus and Ménéleon had been Voisard’s crew mates for the rescue of the Wilson in 1877 and Lecroisey was with Voisard for the rescue of Stefanino in 1880.

Just before they reached the Vivid, however, the simple row-boat was overturned by a sudden and violent gust of wind, drowning all on board. Six of the crew of Vivid also perished.

More than 100,000 people attended the funeral at Notre Dame and a monument was erected to honour the brave sailors in the Cimetière Sainte-Marie in Le Havre.

Voisard would have been 58 years old and had probably retired from an active role in the Société des Sauveteurs. Perhaps he was simply not on watch that night. Either way, as a committee member of the Société, and former crewmate of at least five of those who perished, he would have been profoundly affected by these events.

Edouard Voisard died on January 2nd 1896, aged 72, apparently after a long illness. 

His funeral, his final voyage, must have been an impressive sight. The cortège from the funeral home in Rue Beranger to the church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul was accompanied by an honour guard of soldiers befitting a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, by the mayor, Louis Brindeau, by members of the Société des Sauveteurs of both Le Havre and Fecamp, and by a company of sapeurs-pompiers. 

Eulogies were read by his two sons, Edouard and Georges, and by his son-in-law, Albert Dufour. After the service, the cortège processed to the Voisard family tomb in the Cimetière Sainte-Marie where Brindeau gave a moving eulogy: 

“Gentlemen, the death of Capitaine Voisard has profoundly touched the maritime community of our town; it has also deeply moved all those who believe in altruism and in the glorious history of our great port.

Born in Honfleur, on the shores of the same sea that was to become the theatre of his struggles and his successes, Voisard felt himself drawn as a small child towards the sea and faraway shores. He was a man driven by devotion and instinctively drawn to danger.  His career will always evoke in the Havrais the spirit and memories of this glorious epoch for our maritime commerce, where the ships from our port carried the colours of our tricolour, the flags of our shipowners, the commercial reputation of our town and the renown and bravery of the French sailor to all parts of the globe. Voisard personified all this with dignity; and represented the skill of navigators of yesteryear who had to find, in their natural qualities and experience, in their audacity, and in their spirit of enterprise, the strength necessary to struggle hand to hand against the elements.

On behalf of the city of Le Havre, that he honoured and served so well, in the name of all those he saved or helped, I send to this brave mariner and great citizen, a final adieu. He leaves behind his family to whom I address the deepest condolences of our city, and our appreciation of the nobility and valour that he brought to the noblest of causes.”