Edouard Voisard

Capitaine au Long Cours, Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur

Edouard Voisard
Edouard Voisard

Edouard Voisard, my 2nd great-grandfather, spent his lifetime at sea, first as a simple matelot rising rapidly to captain the “Clippers” sailing from Le Havre and Brest to Rio de Janeiro and Valparaiso. He retired to Le Havre and became a local celebrity saving many people from drowning.

Voisard was born in Honfleur on the 27th February 1824 the son of Charles Voisard and Reine Picard. Charles Voisard was himself a local celebrity, Pilot Major for the port of Honfleur and a well-known and successful life-saver in his own right. Edouard first went to sea as a cabin boy at the age of ten, and was made captain only sixteen years later.

In 1845, the brig Reine-Amelie, commanded by Lieutenant d’Harcourt, left Brest in heavy seas bound for Cherbourg. As the brig pitched deeply the bowsprit split apart. Surrounded by rocks, the stricken ship and her crew were in serious danger.

Survival depended on strengthening the fractured bowsprit, but with the vessel pitching and taking water over the sides, the procedure would be extremely dangerous. D’Harcourt asked for a volunteer brave enough to attempt such a delicate task. Voisard, a twenty-one year old matelot, came forward. It took half an hour, during which he had to be repeatedly dragged out of the water to breathe, but Voisard succeeded and the ship safely completed her voyage.

Rising to captain, Voisard soon gained the confidence of the ship-owners of Le Havre and was known for his courage, skill and decisiveness.

The most successful part of his officer career was on the “Hirondelles de Rio” – the clippers which pioneered transatlantic trade from France to Rio de Janeiro – most notably in command of the Mineiro and the Mathilde. The Mineiro was an American-style Clipper, built in Bordeaux in 1850 and displacing 750 tonnes.

His first voyage as her Captain was to collect guano in Valparaiso, leaving Le Havre in October 1851. Amongst the twenty three passengers on-board was a publisher, Augustin Lieutaud, who was travelling to the new world with his wife and daughter. Lieutaud kept a detailed journal of the seventy day voyage. From what I have seen of this journal, Lieutaud was not impressed by Voisard’s single-mindedness and his seeming contempt for his crew.

The day before Mineiro left Le Havre, the Chincha had left for the same destination and wagers had been placed between the owners and Captains of the two boats. Voisard’s determination to win this wager of 1000 francs troubled Lieutaud. He speaks of the Captain’s uncontrolled rages when the Mineiro was becalmed and of his intense joy when the Chincha was caught and passed. As she passed the Azores, Voisard pushed the Mineiro too hard in a violent squall, breaking part of the mizzen mast. Rather than seek shelter in the Azores, he drove the crew to make repairs around the clock. Voisard was to win his bet, but not the admiration of at least one of his passengers.

As the ship approached Cape Horn, the crew’s quarters were flooded by a violent wave and their belongings and sleeping quarters were soaked. The crew asked their Captain for permission to sleep on deck but were refused. Lieutaud overheard this conversation and, feeling pity of the bedraggled matelots, organised the passengers into donating dry clothing. Voisard went some way to redeem himself by donating twenty-five of his best Havana cigars. Lieutaud did, however, admire Voisard’s sense of humour when he could be distracted from his race with the Chincha. During the traditional ceremony to mark the crossing of the Tropic of Cancer, Voisard stuck a hair to the lens of his telescope and invited the more gullible of his charges to view the “line” of the Tropic!

Voisard captained the Mineiro for two separate terms, the longest of which spanning fifteen years from 1855, achieving record crossings from Valparaiso to Le Havre in seventy days in 1855 and a voyage home from Rio de Janeiro in thirty two days in 1859.

The second part of Voisard’s career was spent on the steamships of the “Compagnie d’Honfleur et de Caen”, serving the ports of Calvados from Le Havre. From now on, it was as a saver of lives that Voisard earned respect.

In October 1873, he saved the fishing boat “Bonne-Mère” from Honfleur as she was on the point of capsizing and in July 1874, Voisard rescued Louis Saffrey, who had fallen overboard while disembarking from Voisard’s command, the “Eclair”. In September that same year, a young actress, Francine Nantin, fell from the “Eclair” and was saved by Voisard, who dived into 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 December 1876, in command the steamship “Perle” moored on the Quai d’Notre Dame in Le Havre, Voisard saved Charles Roger, who fell in to the water while trying to jump from the quay onto the steamship’s paddle. In February of the following year, Voisard was amongst the crew of the lifeboat which rescued the crew of the English schooner “Wilson”. This rescue won him a Gold Medal from Queen Victoria. In February 1879 Voisard, who was by now the vice-president of the Société des Sauveteurs, rescued the crew of the German schooner “Renner” which was ship-wrecked at the harbour entrance.

In July of the same year, during the “Regattes du Havre”, Voisard performed yet another rescue. The story is told in the following extract from the Annual Report of the Royal Humane Society in London.

Captain Edward (sic) Voisard,

French Merchant Service

During the International Yacht Race at Havre, Douglas Yates, a seaman of the yacht “Hildegarde”, belonging to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, was washed overboard from the bowsprit while bending the jib topsail. Capt. Voisard most gallantly jumped overboard from the “Hermine”, a small screw steamer, and succeeded in rescuing the man from being drowned, although he died soon afterwards from congestion of the brain. The wind was blowing fresh with a chopping sea on, and both vessels were going fast through the water. The seaman was unable to swim. Her Majesty the Queen was most graciously pleased to grant a gold medal to the salvor.

The Times also carried the story:

The Times – August 23rd 1879

BRAVERY. – A gallant act on the part of a Frenchman named Edouard Voisard, formerly a captain in the mercantile marine and belonging to Havre, has just been investigated by the committee of the Royal Humane Society. The case was recommended to the society by the Prince of Wales, to whom the facts in connexion with it were known and who has taken much interest in it. On 7th of last month, while the International Yacht race was in progress at Havre, a man named Douglas Yates, of the celebrated yacht Hildegarde, was washed overboard from the bowsprit while engaged bending the jibtopsail. Voisard was at the time on board the Hermione, a small screw-steamer, and on witnessing the occurrence, without the slightest hesitation, jumped overboard to the rescue. This was a task of no small difficulty; for in the first place Yates could not swim, and, indeed, was so much injured in the fall that he was rapidly drowning; and, in the second place, there was chopping sea caused by cloudy and squally weather, which necessitated considerable exertion to reach the man. At length, however, he was successful, and the poor fellow was got on board, but died shortly afterwards from congestion of the brain. Voisard has been unanimously voted the silver medallion.

In November 2010, Via this website, I got an email from John Yeats on Waiheke Island, New Zealand:
“My great, great grandfather (John Douglas Yeats) was one of those people your great great-grandfather Edouard Voisard attempted to rescue. As per your site, he fell into the sea while bending the jib topsail on the yacht Hildegarde. Unfortunately he didn’t make it in spite of your man’s efforts, and was subsequently buried at Cherbourg. This course of events significantly changed the history of my family, as his children were sent to an orphanage in London, and later apprenticed into the printing trade by the then Prince (Edward).”

During a stormy July night in the same year, while the work of the harbour’s pilots was hampered by the bad weather, the British three-master “Edmond Richardson” raised her distress signals. The lifeboat took to sea and succeeded in transferring Voisard to the vessel who steered her to the safety of the quay.

In November 1879, Captain Feron, who was alone on board the ship “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. The “Georges” was able to set off with a minimal sail and abandon it’s anchor to take shelter in the harbour. In September 1880 the Italian ship “Stefanino” was lost on the Seine. Voisard was aboard the lifeboat which saved the thirteen men of the crew.

On August 13, 1882 he received the Légion d’Honneur following a popular campaign in the local newspapers.

Edouard Voisard died on the January 2nd 1896, aged 72. The Mayor of Le Havre, Louis Brindeau, spoke these words at his funeral:

He was a man driven by devotion and instinctively drawn to danger. In the true spirit of the Havrais, his brilliant career will always evoke memories of this glorious period for our maritime trade, when ships from our ports took the Tricolore, the flags of the ship-owners, the commercial reputation of our town and the reputation for courage of the French sailor, to all points of the globe. Throughout this period, Voisard personified this with dignity. Equally, he personified the sailor of yesteryear, who used more primitive means than those of today and who had to find, in his natural qualities and experience, in his audacity, and in his spirit of enterprise,  the strength necessary to struggle hand to hand against the elements.”

Extract from “L’Almanach Illustré du Courrier du Havre”, 1897

“Captain Voisard, one of the most famous lifesavers of Le Havre, died on January 2nd, 1896.

His first rescue was in 1845, and it would take an entire volume of this almanac to recount all that he did since then. However, we will remember one particular episode:

In 1879, Voisard was in command of the “Hermine”. He jumped into the sea, fully clothed, to rescue a drowning man. Both Voisard and the unfortunate sailor were picked up by the “Fauvelle” of Monsieur Perignon. Soaking wet, Voisard borrowed a jacket from Perignon which bore the ribbon of the Legion d’Honneur that had recently been conferred on Perignon for his part in saving the crew of the “Normandie” off the coast of Provence.

Three years later, it was Voisard’s turn to receive the medal for the devotion that he showed during the events of March 26th. In all, the Captain was awarded twelve medals for rescues, plus the gold medal conferred by the Queen of England in 1877. He was born in Honfleur in 1824. In 1873 he was a member of the Société de Sauveteurs of which he was later to become Vice President.

In 1880, the academy awarded him the Prix Gremond worth 1000 francs. Voisard was of a rare modesty, lightly brushing aside complements, speaking little but with an excellent nature. His only pleasure was to do good.

We ask that is name is given to a street in Le Havre where he lived for many years, where he saved the lives of many people and where he died in 1896.”