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Tracing Ancestors Using Shipping Records

The easy part of genealogy is tracing the basics of birth, marriage and death, and looking for people on census returns. This gives you the bare bones of someone's life story. Professional genealogists can help with more specialist research however, and this can often uncover stories and records which give a much deeper understanding of what our ancestors' lives were like.

Liverpool Crew Lists - what's in Shipping Records?

One of the favourite ancestor stories in my own tree is that of Joseph CLARK, a distant great uncle on my maternal line. Joseph was born in Dumfries in November 1846, the fifth of eight children of William, a merchant seaman, and his wife Mary. Possibly following in his father's footsteps, Joseph headed south to the booming port of Liverpool in his mid-teens and found work as a merchant seaman on the "Dundonald" Many of the Liverpool Crew lists for this period have been digitised by Ancestry and are available as the Liverpool, England, Crew Lists 1861-1919 collection. The Maritime Museum in Liverpool also has a large number of research guides for people who are interested at looking at ancestors who worked on boats out of the port at this time.

One of the less-explored aspects of this record set is that some of the original Captain's Log documents have been digitised. These are the captain's records of the voyage; ports visited, latitude and longitude, incidents on board. If an Ancestry search indicates that the person you are researching is mentioned in a Log, then read the whole thing. I can't stress that strongly enough - READ THE WHOLE THING. The Log will give a real insight into life on board. For example, the log in which I found Joseph starts on Tuesday August 7th, 1866 at 6am, in Sydney. The Captain logs that the Chief Mate had gone to the galley to find out why breakfast had not been served, and found that the cook, William RAE was absent. He then records that RAE returned to the ship at 9am in a "beastly state of intoxication, barely able to walk" and was unable to work for the rest of the day.

The Captain then records several other incidences of disputes with sailors over the following months, desertions, and complaints about the conditions on board. By January 1867, the ship had been to Shanghai to collect cargo, and was on its way back to Liverpool via the Cape of Good Hope at the south of Africa. The Captain recorded "Joseph Clark complained of having a bad head ache and a bad taste in his mouth", and was sent to rest in his bunk. His symptoms did not improve and the captain then diagnosed "inflammation of the brain" and decided the appropriate course of action was to shave Joseph's hair, apply lotions to his head and give him purgative medicines. Joseph continued to deteriorate and the last entry on Saturday 9th February 1867 reads:

"About 6am I went in to see Joseph Clarke and found he was quite insensible, gave him thirty drops of liquid amonia. About 7am convulsions came on, and continued about an hour, he then became quiet but sank rapidly, and died without a struggle at 8.30 am. Aged 20 years".

Joseph was buried at sea that same evening. The position given by the captain indicates the ship was in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar. The following page lists Joseph's personal effects (three pairs of trousers, one canvas bag, six pairs of stockings) and the wages due to his family after his death.

The vivid picture of Joseph's illness and death on board ship, as well as the other events around drunken cooks and deserting sailors give such a clear idea of what life must have been like. These records are well worth exploring.


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