Mar­itime dis­as­ters

Ship­wrecks and how to re­search them

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

Ev­ery fam­ily his­to­rian is, from time to time, faced with an­ces­tors who ‘dis­ap­pear’. There are lots of po­ten­tial ex­pla­na­tions for th­ese peo­ple van­ish­ing from your fam­ily tree, but have you con­sid­ered that they might have been a pas­sen­ger on a ship that was lost? Sea voy­ages were a lot more com­mon in the past than now – peo­ple trav­elled to find work, con­duct busi­ness, to em­i­grate, meet fam­ily, and to take a hol­i­day.

There is no cen­tralised, sin­gle re­source de­scrib­ing ev­ery per­son who died at sea. The ear­li­est records re­lat­ing to the demise of com­mer­cial ships were pro­duced to en­able ship-own­ers, mer­chants and in­sur­ers to keep track of their busi­ness in­ter­ests. Lloyd’s List has recorded the loss of ships at sea since 1740. It will tell you that, for ex­am­ple, the schooner Waterwitch was wrecked off Florida in 1816, but not much else. In­di­vid­ual pas­sen­gers are not men­tioned and we have to wait un­til the 1850s be­fore the Board of Trade be­gan sys­tem­atic at­tempts to record the deaths of the trav­el­ling pub­lic at sea. You have to be a lit­tle care­ful with th­ese records be­cause they are not com­pre­hen­sive, and some­times only pro­vide cur­sory de­tails about in­di­vid­u­als such as a sur­name and ini­tial. You may end up with a num­ber of pos­si­ble iden­ti­ties for

A ship runs aground on the Sus­sex coast in Novem­ber 1829

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