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Thursday, 11 October 2012

Mariners and Migrants - Sepia Saturday

Sepia Saturday encourages bloggers to record their family history through photographs.

This week's shipping theme prompted two stories from my family history.  


To me "snow" was the white stuff falling in winter and a "smack" was a slap to a recalcitrant child. But that all changed as I began researching my husband's maritime ancestors and learnt about the different names for ships in the 19th century - barque or bark or barc, brig, sloop. smack and snow - an illustration of the diverse routes that family history can take you.

I traced the Donaldson family back through census returns and Scottish Old Parish Records to the marriage of Samuel Donaldson, merchant in South Leith (near Edinburgh).  His grandson Robert went from South Leith to the port of South Shields on the River Tyne and his son Robert moved to Porstmouth on the English south coast - the linking factor the sea with family occupations for the Donaldson's  and their extended family ranging from merchant, master mariner, seaman, caulker, roper, ship's carpenter and river policeman.

Master mariner, John Moffet - my husband's great great grandfather in a Napoleonic pose.


River Tyne at South Shields,  with the Norwegian ferries across the river at North Shields.

Tyne and Wear Archives provided information on the life of Robert Donaldson (1801-1876), master mariner of South Shields, and the ships he sailed on, listed in "“A Dictionary of Tyne Sailing Ships: a record of merchant sailing ships owned, registered and built at the Port of Tyne 1830-1930”, compiled by Richard Keys. This is a complete A-Z of Ships, master mariners and owners, detailing ships, voyages, disasters and share-ownerships, and much more - a must for anyone with maritime ancestors in this region.

The entries make fascinating reading, with all six ships on which Robert Donaldson sailed, having an eventful history and coming to a sad end (though not under his charge).

The Thetis became a wreck after sinking off the Yorkshire coast in 1869.

The John was stranded in 1861 and became a wreck during a severe easterly gale. Twenty-eight other Tyne ships went ashore in the same area during the same gale.

The Emerald, in December 1855, when on passage from the Tyne to London, foundered in five fathoms on the Dough Sand (Long Sand) Thames estuary. Three survivors were brought ashore by two Bridlington smacks. Eleven others were unaccounted for, including some of the crew of the rescuing smack who were in a small boat, which disappeared.

The Hebe was wrecked in Robin Hood’s Bay, along with other vessels on 27 January 1861. The Ann & Elizabeth disappeared after leaving the Tyne in November 1863, with her captain leaving a wife and six children.

The William Mecalfe was Robert Donaldson's largest ship On her maiden voyage, it transported 240 male convicts from Portsmouth to Hobart, on a passage that took 102 days. In January 1855 eight of her crew were sent to goal for three months each by the North Shields magistrates for refusing duty. In October 1858 her master and one man were washed overboard. Nine days later, the ship was abandoned, with the crew taken off.

These incidents were by no means unusual and bring home the hazards our mariner ancestors faced in their daily lives.

I often wished I had emigrants in my family history to add some colourful stories. but my research had led me to assume  that all my mother's Rawcliffe family,were very firmly based in the Fylde area of Lancashire, England.

So it was a huge surprise to find, in a very casual browsing for Rawcliffes on http://www.familysearch.org/, an entry for Alice Mason, nee Rawcliffe, born Hambleton 1853 and that she had died in Jamesburg, New Jersey on 24th February 1930 - the first time I was aware of any American connection. I was delighted at the discovery and keen to find out more.

Alice was the sister of my great grandmother Maria. Born 1853 at Hambleton, near Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire, she was the fourth daughter of Robert Rawliffe and Jane Carr. She married John Mason and they settled in Fleetwood where they had six children - Robert William, Jane Elizabeth, John Thomas, James Richard, Margaret Alice and George Rawliffe - all family Christian names.

The Family Search information had been supplied by a contributor. Frustratingly when I wrote to find out more, the letter was returned “not known at this address”. Further efforts to make contact with any American descendants through message boards etc.  had been slow to bring results.

What had prompted the family to leave the fishing port of Fleetwood for America and the teeming tenements of New York?   I shall never know.

American census returns on Ancestry.com showed that John Mason entered the USA in 1886, with Alice and their children following in 1887. The family took out American citizenship  and at some point moved from Brooklyn, New York, across the river to Jamesburg, Middlesex County, New Jersey.

Are these my American connections?

I found out through the New York Passenger Lists on the Internet that Alice was 34 when she set sail from Liverpool with six children aged 1 to 13 (and two pieces of baggage) aboard the ship Auronia. Within twelve years of her arrival in Brooklyn, New York, she had a further five children - Arthur Valentine (born appropriately 14th February), Harold Arthur Victor, Lillian Eveline, Bessie Irene and Florence Adelaide. Arthur, Bessie and Lillian all died in infancy.

The photograph (left) was a bit of a mystery. It was in the collection of my great aunt (Maria's daughter) but not identified and nothing to indicate where it was taken. It must surely be of one of of my great grandmother's sisters - Anne, Jane, Alice, or Jennet? The composition of the family and ages of the children ruled out Anne, Jane or Jennet. So is this Alice and James Mason? Eldest daughter Jane Elizabeth was still unmarried in the 1920 census, so she could be the woman on the back left, and is that her younger sister and brother - possibly Florence and Harold?

It has taken a decade for me to find out more when Alice's great granddaughter  (my third cousin) found my blog earlier this year, saw the picture, got in touch and we have exchanged stories and photographs.   I now have migrants in my family history!

Alice and James Mason with their e
eight surviving children c 1920's


Click  here to find  other bloggers' stories on this week's  theme.
his roots i


  1. A vey interesting and enjoyable post Susan! it's funny to see your emigrant wish when we Aussies are all about the migrations. It was great that you made that onnection. Thanks for the book title too...just sorry I missedit when I was there. I reckon your husband's family and mine knew each other either in Leith or perhaps Nth Shields.

  2. Very, very interesting. I like this kind of stories.


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