How to trace shipwreck records
Did your ancestor die in a shipwreck? Here's how to trace their records
There were many infamous shipwrecks in the Victorian era. Hundreds died when RMS Tayleur ran aground off the coast of Ireland in 1854, and there was a heavy death toll when the Northfleet was rammed by a steamer in the darkness in 1873. The sinking of HMS Birkenhead in 1852 gave rise to the expression “women and children first”, because the military men on board were ordered to stand to attention as the ship sank, so that the most vulnerable passengers could be evacuated safely. However, many shipwrecks had far fewer victims and have been long forgotten, but were no less tragic for the families that lost their loved ones.
The prospect of researching an ancestor’s shipwreck is exciting, but there are several problems you may encounter. The most frustrating factor from the genealogist’s point of view is that records were simply not kept about the fate of many ships in the 19th century. It is common to merely find a sentence in an old newspaper stating that a certain ship has not arrived at its destination and fear is growing for the safety of its crew. Beyond this, you may never find anything more about the vessel’s demise or details of the people on board. Sometimes this is because nobody knew what happened; sometimes it’s because shipwrecks were so common that only certain incidents were recorded. In the 1860s about 10 ships were lost per week off the coast of Britain alone. Worldwide there were many more than this.
Thankfully, the situation improves somewhat as the 19th century progresses and you are likely to find more comprehensive written sources after about 1860. However, a new challenge then confronts the family historian: there is no single place to look, and there are a great many potential sources of information.
How to find Royal Navy shipwreck records
Royal Navy personnel are the easiest shipwreck victims to research, because their service records specify each of the vessels on which they were stationed. Naval service records are all available via the website of The National Archives (TNA). If a seaman or officer was killed in a shipwreck, their service record will usually say so. There was usually a court martial after any naval shipwreck too, which will provide more detail about what happened. You can see court-martial records at TNA in series such as ADM194. You can also look at the history of individual ships on The Victorian Royal Navy.
How to find Merchant Navy and passenger shipwreck records
Records for civilians involved in shipwrecks are more complicated. Generally speaking, there are more options for researching crew members than passengers. Merchant Navy employment records of all kinds may reveal that a seafaring ancestor died in a shipwreck. These include documents such as ships’ crew lists, Lloyd’s Captains’ Registers at the London Metropolitan Archives, and Merchant Navy apprentice records. These records are not consistent in their reporting of deaths, but it is worth exploring all of the employment records that you can find relating to a particular individual.
There are some records that specifically deal with seamen who died at sea. They were kept by the Board of Trade (BT) and are not always complete, especially in the early years. They are held at TNA. The three series BT153, BT156 and BT157 cover 1852–1890, and the first of these contains notes about any wages owed to a dead seaman’s next of kin. An additional series at TNA, ADM80/6–12, includes seamen who died sailing to or from the Caribbean between 1798 and 1831.
There are also record series that describe the deaths of passengers. BT158 and BT159 together cover 1854–1890. From 1891 onwards seamen and passengers are included together in series BT334.
The most comprehensive family history website for accessing these records is Findmypast, which includes almost all of them (except BT159) in the collection ‘British Armed Forces and Overseas Deaths and Burials’. Ancestry does not have ADM 80/6–12 or BT334, but has all of the rest in the collection ‘UK, Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths at Sea, 1844–1890’. Finally TheGenealogist has BT158 and BT159 in its ‘Non-Conformist Records’ collection.
Taken collectively, these records include deaths from shipwreck but also deaths at sea from many other causes too, such as medical illness and accidents. Ships that are wrecked are usually described as “lost”, and the number of victims varies considerably. The exact format changes with time: some series have little more than names, whereas others are more detailed. BT334, for example, may include details of crew members’ age, home address, role and nationality.
Other shipwreck records
National newspapers can be especially helpful for dramatic shipwrecks or those in which there was significant loss of life, because they may list both victims and survivors. Do try and consult more than one source, because it’s common to find that these lists vary between particular newspapers. It’s also worth looking for newspaper correspondence regarding individuals, since family members may appeal for accounts of their loved one’s last hours or write to correct information published about them. Local newspapers may provide detail about victims of smaller-scale wrecks too. If you know the name of a ship that was wrecked, you can often learn more about the circumstances by consulting the specialist shipping newspaper Lloyd’s List via the British Newspaper Archive, which is also available on Findmypast. However, although it is less comprehensive, the free Wrecksite database may have all of the information that you require.
If your ancestor was involved in a famous shipwreck with heavy loss of life then contemporary books were often written which frequently list all those involved and interview eyewitnesses; try searching the millions of out-of-copyright books on the Internet Archive.
When there was significant loss of life, a public inquiry was likely to be held. Some of these are in series MT at TNA. However, all official inquiries from 1876 onwards are available free online via Southampton Maritime Archives, and these are very rich in detail.
A final angle that you can sometimes pursue fruitfully is welfare and legal records of various kinds. If a married man died at sea, then his wife and family were often immediately thrown into poverty. In many cases, women learnt that their husband had died, and within a few weeks faced eviction and starvation as well. Workhouse or charity records may therefore record that a woman and her children are seeking relief because their main breadwinner has died at sea. Similarly, notes attached to a will or administration may briefly outline the circumstances in which someone was lost at sea. Unfortunately, families could face legal delays for control of an estate if their relative was presumed drowned but a body was never found.
Piecing together the story of a shipwreck can be an emotional but time-consuming process, involving multiple sources. However, many enjoy this kind of jigsaw puzzle, and find the research very satisfying.
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Dr Simon Wills is an expert in nautical genealogy who has worked on many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? He is the author of Tracing Your Seafaring Ancestors and Tracing Your Merchant Navy Ancestors.