Trace your shipwrecked ancestors like Cheryl

By Jon Bauckham, 16 December 2016 - 10:19am

Simon Wills, an expert adviser on Cheryl’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, shares his top tips for tracing shipwrecked forebears

Cheryl learned about 19th-century shipwrecks with help from maritime historian Simon Wills

Researching a shipwreck in your family’s history is exciting, but it sheds an alarming light on the everyday dangers of travel for our ancestors.

Wrecks were common during the 1850s when Cheryl’s ancestor was a ship’s captain. In the 1850s, there were over 850 wrecks per year on the UK coast, but this is only part of the story because data for other busy shipping areas like the Atlantic or the middle of the North Sea aren’t available.

Ships were damaged by storms, ran aground in the fog, hit ice, became lost, caught fire and got into difficulties for many other reasons. There were so many ships afloat in Victorian times that collision was an important cause of loss.

Quite often ships simply disappeared – they left one port, but then failed to arrive at their next destination. In these cases, no one ever knew the fate of the crew and their vessel. This was the case for Cheryl’s ancestor and it’s a shock to realise that only 150 years ago the lives of a ship’s crew were written off as simply a casualty of the seafaring way of life.

Our ancestors who worked at sea were overwhelmingly men and they were the breadwinners, so when a shipwreck happened the victim’s family were often plunged into poverty. Cheryl’s ancestor, for example, was a captain so he was well paid. But this meant that when he died, his poor widow was suddenly reduced from a comfortable living to the impoverished life of a charwoman overnight.

Here’s a quick guide to some of the sources most likely to help you. There were such large numbers of shipwrecks in the past, particularly in the 19th century, that officialdom and the media struggled to record them all. Unfortunately, this means that sometimes you may not be able to find your ancestor.

Newspapers can often provide details of ships arriving late or declared 'lost'


Contemporary papers are a good source for named ships or where you have a rough idea of the date. Don’t rely solely on national newspapers, because wrecks were so common that the national media only recorded the most tragic losses. Make sure you check local newspapers too. Look at foreign papers as well, printed at ports where the ship originated or was sailing to.

When a ship is cited in a newspaper it often gives the ship’s home port and the captain’s name as well (e.g. ‘Unicorn, Smith, from Liverpool’). You can access British newspapers from subscription sites such as the British Newspaper Archive (also accessible via Findmypast). If the ship had Australian connections then the Trove website is comprehensive and free.

It’s quite common to find preliminary notices of concern in newspapers that a ship is late arriving at its destination before it is officially declared ‘lost’. We found one of these when researching Cheryl’s ancestor before we knew he had died.

Cheryl's ancestor, John Wood Laing, lost his life when his ship La Belle sank in 1857

Crew lists

Owners of ships had to keep an official account of every crew member after 1835. These crew lists can prove that your ancestor was on board at a specific time, because basic biographical data is recorded about each person such as age and place of birth.

These documents don’t always survive, but in Cheryl’s case the crew list for her ancestor’s ship had the word ‘lost’ written at the top. It can take quite a bit of hunting to locate a crew list, but The National Archives has several free research guides to help you locate crew lists.

The Crew List Index Project (CLIP) site covers crew lists from 1861-1913 although its name index is now hosted by Findmypast and requires a subscription. There is an impressive database of mariners taken from crew lists from the port at Swansea at and North East Lincolnshire Council has also digitised its Port of Grimsby crew lists database.

The RMS Atlantic sank off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1873, killing 535 people (Credit: Getty Images)

Wreck reports

If your ancestor was involved in a wreck after 1876 and there were witnesses, then the official inquiry may have been published, and you can see these free and in full online by clicking here.

Look first under year, and then the shipwrecks are indexed alphabetically by name. The reports describe what happened, who was at fault, and often list the victims and any survivors. If you find a wreck report it may tell you everything you need to know.

Search through BMD Registers to find the deaths of ancestors overseas

Registers of deaths at sea

There were various official methods to record the deaths of British citizens at sea, but none were comprehensive and there are lots of names missing. Even if you find an ancestor, it may give little information other than the name. To complicate matters further, digitised versions of the registers are indexed by the name of the deceased, but spread across a variety of providers.

However, two subscription sites in particular are helpful, but you need to look at both to be sure you haven’t missed your ancestor’s name. Use Findmypast for General Register Office (GRO) overseas deaths from 1761 onwards, and Board of Trade and Admiralty deaths (1781 onwards). BMD registers can be used to research Board of Trade deaths 1854 to 1891 (not included in the above), and deaths abroad as reported by UK consuls and other overseas officials.

GRO deaths and the indexes of deaths abroad require you to order a death certificate for more information after you’ve located the name. These currently cost £9.25 and can be ordered here.

The 1887 shipwreck of the Tally Ho in Eastbourne, East Sussex (Credit: Getty Images)

Ship sources

Free online databases can be helpful if you know the name of the shipwreck you’re looking for or if you know part of the name. The best starting point is called Wrecksite. This gives basic details for a wreck such as when it happened, who owned the ship, and what happened. For ships that sank on the English coastline, you may find information on the Historic England website

Naval and commercial ships that were sunk in the First World War by enemy action are indexed at and there is a list of commercial ships lost in the Second World War on the Battleship Cruisers site. For early wrecks, an index to Lloyd’s List (1740-1837) may be your only hope.

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