Book Review: Tracing Your Merchant Navy Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians by Simon Wills.

Review of Tracing Your Merchant Navy Ancestors
Tracing Your Merchant Navy Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians by Simon Wills

Tracing Your Merchant Navy Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians. By Simon Wills. Published by Pen & Sword Family History, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS, UK www.pen-and-sword.co.uk. US Distributor: CasemateIPM 908 Darby Road, Havertown PA 19083. www.casemateipm.com. 2012. x, 180 pp. Illustrations, index. Softcover $29.95

Pen & Sword continues its excellent Family History book series with this guide to researching your Merchant Navy ancestors, a common occupation for many British ancestors, yet they can be difficult to trace. This guide book puts your ancestors into social context and provides guidance on where to find specifics on the men, and the ships on which they sailed.

The book is divided into nine chapters: Britain’s Merchant Fleet; life in the Merchant Service; finding and following a ship; tracing seamen and non-officers; captains and other officers; disaster and bravery; Merchant Navy in wartime; places to visit; case histories.

The book is full of fascinating helpful facts that put your ancestors and the research issues into context. For example, in 1899 there are 10,998 British-registered steam and sailing ships over 100 tons, dwarfing the closest rival the USA which had only 2,739 seagoing ships, while other countries went down from there. The ships are also not necessarily where you might expect them to be for in 1835 a list of the top ten ports where ships are registered includes, not surprisingly in the number one position London with 2,663 ships, Newcastle in number two with 987 ships, but how about Whitehaven, Cumbria in the number 7 slot with 496 ships, and Southampton a well- known port does not make the list.

One of the keys to Merchant Navy research is understanding where and when your ancestor was likely to have been as sea. The records, and thus where and how to search vary greatly by time period. In additional many of the record collections have been broken up and disseminated to archives scatted around the British Isles, with a large collection to the Maritime History Archive at the University of Newfoundland. Luckily the book does provide suggestions on when the records are centrally located, plus where and how to search when they are not.

The book is not just for those who served as ships masters, mates and seamen, but also includes all the other occupations you may find at sea such as carpenters, cooks, donkeymen, engineers, firemen, greasers, gunners, medical officers, pursers, stewards, storekeepers, telegraphers, and trimmers. The role of women is also highlighted.

Each chapter has numerous illustrations of ships, crew and the documents they used or those created by officials. There are numerous finding aids, and references suggested and where you may also find material online the web addresses are provided. I was actually surprised at how much may now be online, making the search process from outside the British Isles a little easier.

If you have Merchant Navy ancestors you will certainly want to have a look at this up to date research guide.

 

Book Review: Tracing Your Naval Ancestors – A Guide for Family Historians by Simon Fowler

Review of Tracing Your Naval Ancestors by Simon Fowler ISBN 978 1 84884 625 8
Tracing Your Naval Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians by Simon Fowler

Tracing Your Naval Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians. By Simon Fowler. Published by Pen & Sword Family History, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 2AS, UK. www.pen-and-sword.co.uk. ₤12.99. US Distributor: Casemate Publishing, 1016 Warrior Road, Drexel Hill, PA 19026. www.casemateathena.com. US$24.95. Australian Distributor: Gould Genealogy & History, PO Box 119, St. Agnes SA 5097. www.gould.com.au. AUS$34.95. 2011. xi, 186 pp. Illustrations, index. Softcover.

Even the author admits that researching a Royal Naval ancestor can be intimidating, especially in comparison to working with the records of the British Army or the Royal Air Force. Yet, Fowler provides a clear guide on how to use and access these records found in numerous repositories around the British Isles. The bulk of the records are found at The National Archives at Kew, and he recognizes that Tracing Your Naval Ancestors by Bruno Pappalardo will be needed to fully use this repository but it is the identification of resources in other locations, including the internet, that makes this a valuable addition for Royal Navy research.

The book begins by providing a short introduction on how to get started in your research, emphasizing which common generally utilized records may provide indications of a career in the Royal Navy. Records of officers and ratings can be located back to 1660, with a higher rate of success than is likely to be found with the land forces. The discussion for officers and ratings are different and thus separated into two chapters, yet these chapters appropriately cover the whole period up to 1914. A separate chapter addresses all levels of the service after 1914. Additional chapters address the: auxiliary services (of which there are many) and the coastguard; care of the sick and wounded; the Royal Marines; researching ships; and HM Dockyards. Appendices identify: the large number of different naval ratings, how they compare with one another as they existed in 1853; documents now held by the Fleet Air Arm Museum; how to access merchant navy records (since many Royal Navy personnel also served on these ships); jackspeak, the language of the navy; useful addresses; and bibliography.

There are many records to use for naval research, varying depending upon the time period. This book gets you into these voluminous records, explains well what they contain and is well illustrated. It is also up to date highlighting which records are online, and there are many.

This book would make a fine addition to a personal or genealogical library for anyone interested in Royal Naval ancestors, British military and any British Isles reference collection because of the sheer number of families with maritime ancestors.