Despite my late response to this week’s Sepia Saturday post, this theme produced an instant image association. It was so reminiscent of photos I’ve seen of the old harbour in Leith – the port for Edinburgh, Scotland, over many centuries. Just imagine the whisky that may have been shipped!
My own Melvin (aka Melville) family were closely associated with the waterfront of Leith for many generations. Much of the time they lived either on the Shore or very close by. I first visited Leith in 1992 when it had that run-down, vaguely seedy atmosphere stereotypically associated with busy working ports. On my most recent visit in 2010, gentrification had settled in, with Michelin-starred restaurants and flash water-side apartments.
Despite this, so many of the old buildings remain that it’s easy to see where my ancestors lived and, with some imagination, envisage the bustling scenes they’d have witnessed daily as goods and ships were loaded ready for their voyages up or down the English coast or across the North Sea to Scandinavia.
My Melvin family included porters (perhaps bustling with the whisky casks being loaded) and many merchant seaman, some just ordinary seamen but a few who were also the ship’s cooks or stewards. The life of a seaman is not an easy one, with the risks of the sea and the economic hazards of getting work. The evidence suggests that my ancestors were fairly poor, living in the tenements near the waterfront in small rooms, but they presumably gained regular work.
Of all my emigrating ancestors the Melvins were perhaps the best prepared for the long voyage ahead. They would also become the first of my families to make the voyage back and forward to the old land: international voyagers. The price they paid can be counted in the graves of Janet Peterkin Melvin, my great-grandfather’s first wife, who died at Peel Island in Moreton Bay shortly after arrival in Australia or that of my great-great grandfather Laurence/Lawrence Melvin who is buried somewhere in Rotterdam.
If you’re feeling it’s a case of “that week went quickly”, you’re right. I’m busy catching up with my Beyond the Internet series. So let’s just pretend it’s now Week 49, not weeks 48 or 50,as weexplore the sources of information beyond our computer screens and this week’s topic is Occupations –Merchant Seamen.
I have a whole branch of these on my family tree and even after they left this occupation they remained my international travellers even 100 years ago or more.
Writing about this topic is a classic example of the speed of genealogical events and records overtaking us all. I’ve had this on my scheduled list since the beginning of the Beyond the Internet series. Meanwhile the subscription site, Findmypast UK, has added digitised records which you can search here, under Education and Work. To see the image you will either have to pay, take out a subscription or visit a local reference or family history library (or order in the microfilm via the LDS church). What you are mainly looking for here are your merchant seaman’s ticket.
Family Search, which is free, has indexed some of the same merchant shipping records enabling you to identify which microfilm you might wish to order in: this is how I’ve done my maritime research pre-digitisation. You can also search the Family Search catalogue for the keywords “Board of Trade” to see what other records are available and pertinent. It’s worth noting that sailors on British ships will need to have been ticketed with the Board of Trade so these records also include men from non-British countries including Ireland and Scandinavia.
Of course there are more records available for officers within the merchant navy so you should also explore the records for these as they had to sit for exams to gain their officer’s and captain’s tickets.
READING & IMAGES
You should also make it a priority to beg, borrow or “steal” a copy of Records of Merchant Shipping and Seamenby Smith, Watts and Watts, in my opinion THE benchmark book for understanding this occupation. This book explains in detail the cryptic entries you will find on your ancestor’s ticket which you’ll want to pursue to complete your understanding of his service. You might also find information on the National Maritime Museum (NMM) useful to understand more. You may also want to read more widely on your ancestor’s specific responsibilities in the merchant navy.
Online there are many sites with images of various ships (but make sure you’re not looking at a later one than the one your ancestor served on, as the names are often reused). You may even find postcards of them on e-bay which I’m pretty sure are mainly copies of an original. In Australia you will want to look at the Mariners and Ships in Australian Waters (who might come from anywhere in the world)
A further source of information on the ships is to look at the Lloyd’s List for the timeframe so you learn more about where it was registered, who owned it, size etc. Another option that has come online instead of needing to search in a reference library.
It is also worth paying particular attention to maritime deaths, and also newspaper reports, which will tell you more about their lives including the hazards of working and living on board ships which sailed in dangerous conditions.
It might even be wise to check that there’s not a second marriage lurking somewhere in the records, not that I wish to malign our ancestors.
CENSUS and CREW LISTS
If you can identify one of your ancestor’s ships it may lead you through the others that he served on. You should then see if you can find the ship’s crew lists through the CLIP site even though you may need to order them in. I have one friend who was very lucky with this (sadly I haven’t been, at least so far!). Some of these are also on Findmypast UK under Education and Work.
Census records may include your ancestor’s name on board ship, provided they are in port somewhere in England/Scotland or Wales: in fact you may even find your ancestor mentioned twice! It’s worth searching to see if there are special CDs which coincide with the census, as some years ago I discovered a series called Seamen’s Crewlists 1851 which was most helpful.
And a final word of warning: don’t rely entirely on the online transcriptions. I know I have entries which are mis-indexed on the online sites as well as some information that I’ve found in microfilms or on site at the National Archives in Kew, and vice versa. I only regret that I didn’t have more time to spend in the NMM when I was there a couple of years ago.
This is a huge topic which needs further development. My intention had been to do that here, but it will need to be a topic in its own right in 2013. Meanwhile if you have an interest in this area, you may wish to have a preliminary look at a series of conversations on RootsChat from a few years ago. The researcher found the tips he’d received from a few of us very helpful and you might do as well: no point everyone re-creating the wheel.