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Beginning Your Family History

Part Ten: My Ancestor was in the Merchant Navy

User Avatar Penelope Lovesy 25/06/2020 23:14:55

Living and working in Poole it is impossible to ignore the presence of the sea, especially working in Poole Museum, which is right on the Quay and full of Poole’s maritime history.  Many family historians who use our resources are enquiring about ancestors who went to sea, whether they came from Poole, or used it as a gateway to the world. 

I thought that we could investigate some of the online resources you can use to trace your ancestors who worked at sea. Searching for information about people employed on ships is not easy or straightforward as you may need to consult different records in various locations.  However, potentially you will be able to piece together an interesting picture of your ancestor’s life at sea.

The National Maritime Museum has a series of comprehensive guides https://www.rmg.co.uk/research-guide-a3-tracing-family-history-maritime-records which take you through many of the resources that are available. In this blog we’ll explore some of the records which are signposted and highlight what might be available locally.

The Crew List Index Project (CLIP) is described on the website as, “a not-for-profit volunteer project, set up to assist research into the records of British merchant seafarers of the late 19th and early 20th century. Over the last twenty years we have worked with hundreds of people and many archives around the world to make the largest database of seafarers' records and provide unique resources which are widely used by maritime researchers.”

http://www.crewlist.org.uk/   When you enter the site there are several options; some specific help sections and, if you scroll down, you will reach all the resources which are available to search.

For an example search go to Seafarers names from crew lists. Enter Augustus Martin born in 1828. This leads to a selection of information about Augustus Martin, born in Poole. If you click on more detail and transcript next to the records, you will find out more about the ships and voyages. This will add some invaluable information to your picture of your ancestor.

The Crew List website is vast and detailed, so if you are searching for ancestors at sea then you will need to spend some time exploring the site and different search functions.

If you have access to Ancestry, then there are several resources to investigate.  From the homepage:

  • Click on search (the search on the top bar)
  • Scroll down to by location
  • Select England
  • Click see more about England
  • Select England Immigration and Travel

For our example we will select Dorset, England Crew Lists, 1863-1914

From here, search again for Augustus Martin. This brings up 26 records of crew lists that he was part of. This is wonderful as you can trace his career through the years and ship by ship. The first result, the crew list of the Heroine in 1868, reveals that Augustus travelled from Poole to Labrador and back to Poole. This was a journey that should take no more than six months, and finding this titbit of information gives some insight into what Augustus’s life would have involved.

Remaining with the Heroine, I want to use some of our local resources to consider the possibility of finding out more about individual ships. This may be a search that can be duplicated in other local history centres. To begin with I searched the website, www.poolehistory.org.uk , and was able to find a Ship Portrait of Heroine, this may not be the same ship as the one Augustus travelled on, but it does give an idea of what ships at the time looked like.

Within Poole History Centre we have a local ship index. I had a look at this and found a few entries;

Heroine No.1650

Schooner 2 mast square stern built Poole 1848 by Wanhill 88 tons 70.1’x16.4’x10.8’ new Measurement of vessel Merchant Shipping 1854 (5 & 6 William iv c 56) 81.28 tons, 72.4’x18.2’x10.8’ sheathed with yellow metal iron bolted 1848,1856,1862 some repairs 1862 reg Poole 1848. Poole-St Michael’s, Azores 1848, Poole-Med trade 1866.  Owners (1)Thos & J M Wanhill 1848, J Wanhill died 7.5.1857 widow Mary Elizabeth (2)Thos Wanhill & Mary 7.5.1857 (3)Thos Wanhill 30.12.1861 (4)Henry Charles Burt 18.4.1867. Poole Shipping Index. Lloyds Register (copy) No.346 1850. No.318 1860/61


Ship portrait of schooner John Dean master entering Leghorn 14.10.1833 signed Michel Renault. Pooms:1979.063

1864 & 1866 Owner Thos Wanhill, Poole. Crew list available SR/P/1864 DCRO

This information does confirm that the portrait is the same ship that Augustus would have worked on. It also tells us the ship’s history and owners. Again, we can piece together more knowledge to build a more complete story of Augustus Martin.

Finally, in Poole History Centre we are always adding to a newspaper index of shipping movements.  A search uncovers a Heroine but too early for Augustus to have been aboard.

This local information adds a great deal, even an image, so it is always worth consulting the resource which is local for your ancestors.

Lloyd’s Lists have provided shipping bulletins in London since 1734.  “Also known simply as The List, it was begun by Edward Lloyd, the proprietor of Lloyd's Coffee House, as a reliable and concise source of information for the merchants' agents and insurance underwriters who met regularly in his establishment in Lombard Street to negotiate insurance coverage for trading vessels. The digital version, updated hour-to-hour and used internationally, continues to fulfil a similar purpose. Today it covers information, analysis and knowledge relevant to the shipping industry, including marine insurance, offshore energy, logistics, market data, research, global trade and law, in addition to shipping news.”

There are numerous Lloyd’s Lists online and free to search - by port, ship or master. http://www.maritimearchives.co.uk/lloyds-list.html This is a good resource as it begins in 1741 and goes up to 1826 so an earlier period compared to the crew lists we searched on Ancestry.

Lloyd’s Register Foundation is another potential source of information; “The Lloyd’s Register Foundation, Heritage & Education Centre is a public-facing library and archive holding material concerning over 250 years of marine and engineering science and history. The Centre is a part of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and is focused on enhancing public education and research in a number of areas, from maritime history to STEM disciplines.”  The website is a good place to browse and enquire, https://hec.lrfoundation.org.uk/archive-library/using-our-collections-for-research

Finally, as always, the National Archives has produced guides to their maritime resources, they are always worth looking at and searching; https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/?research-category=military-and-maritime

This should provide a varied selection of advice and places to begin when searching for more information about your seafaring ancestors. Please contact us if you have any questions or uncover any fascinating stories localhistory@bcpcouncil.gov.uk


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