Was this baby re­ally born at sea?

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - QUESTIONS & ANSWERS -


My grand­mother’s half brother David Richard Hiber­nia Pryce was born “at sea” ac­cord­ing to the 1861 and 1871 cen­suses.

In 1861, he was at Gosport Bar­racks with his fa­ther Thomas Pryce ( serv­ing in the 19th Reg­i­ment of Foot) and mother Vi­o­let Pryce (née Duff). Ac­cord­ing to my mother, David was given the name ‘Hiber­nia’ af­ter the ship on which he was born.

I have dis­cov­ered that the HMS Hiber­nia from 1816 to 1855 was the flag­ship of the Bri­tish Mediter­ranean fleet, but in 1856 (un­til 1902) be­came a ‘re­ceiv­ing ship’ sta­tioned in Val­letta, Malta.

When David was born the ship was not ‘at sea’, so I won­der how my great grand­mother came to be on the ship. She was wet nurse to the colonel’s baby in In­dia around the time of the In­dian Mutiny, but I can’t imag­ine that gave her spe­cial sta­tus. I’m con­fused by two po­ten­tial reg­is­tra­tions of his birth in Chatham: one in 1859 and the other in 1860. Could these be the same David? Erica Moores, via email


child be­ing ‘ born at sea’ is not as rare as peo­ple think. Nor is it un­usual for the ship’s name to be given to the child. The Royal Navy gen­er­ally for­bade wives be­ing on ships, but there is ev­i­dence that they could be on board for var­i­ous rea­sons. Among the ‘ le­git­i­mate’ rea­sons were that fe­male con­victs and em­i­grants to the colonies were trans­ported on Royal Navy ships. Less le­git­i­mately, there are many ac­counts of sailors’ wives be­ing found ac­com­pa­ny­ing their hus­bands on voy­ages. Some sur­geon’s jour­nals give ac­counts of child­birth, and there is even an ap­pli­ca­tion for a Trafal­gar Medal from a woman who took part in the bat­tle, which was re­fused!

Un­for­tu­nately I haven’t been able to find a sur­geon’s jour­nal for the Hiber­nia, but I did check the logs for 1859 and 1860 and there is no men­tion of a child be­ing born. The cap­tain would not have wanted to draw at­ten­tion to the fact he was al­low­ing wives to live on board. It’s also worth point­ing that al­though the

Hiber­nia was sta­tioned in Val­letta at the time, it would have still been re­garded as ‘at sea’ as it wasn’t in a UK port. In fact, you would prob­a­bly find more women liv­ing on board a re­ceiv­ing ship – sailors weren’t al­lowed to live on shore and turn up for work each day.

So in con­clu­sion, there are no records to prove that David was born at sea aboard the Hiber­nia but there are no records to prove that he wasn’t. A ship’s sur­geon would have been able to de­liver the child, and we know from other records this did some­times hap­pen.

David’s birth was prob­a­bly reg­is­tered in Chatham be­cause it was the first op­por­tu­nity that they had to do so af­ter re­turn­ing home to the UK. Janet Dempsey

The fig­ure­head of the HMS Hiber­nia

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