New book resource to help find your seafaring ancestors

Tracing Your Seafaring Ancestors

Those of you who have followed me for some time may realise that I have a number of seafaring ancestors in my family tree. As the wind this Easter blows up around Force 7 to 8, with the prospect of it reaching Sever Gale 9 as Storm Katie crashes her way into our lives tonight, my thoughts naturally turn to those who make their living at sea and those of my ancestors who made theirs on ships big and small.

Perhaps it was happenstance that this weekend I should get a press release from a publisher notifying me about a new book from Simon Wills that came out in February. This volume is a comprehensive guide to interpreting photographs of seafaring ancestors from 1850 to 1950. It is aimed at helping you identify your ancestor’s roles at sea. and it explains their ranks and medals and will provide the researcher with tips for investigating careers. The book is a fascinating insight into Britain’s maritime history so if you, like me, have sea salt in your blood then it is worth taking a look.

TRACING YOUR SEAFARING ANCESTORS by Simon Wills is published by Pen & Sword RRP: £14.99
ISBN: 9781473834330

Photographs of your seafaring ancestors may tell you more about their lives
than you realise, and Simon Wills’ helpful and practical guide shows you how to
identify and interpret the evidence caught on camera. Since maritime roles have
been so vital to Britain’s prosperity and military might, they are among the
commonest professions depicted in photographs of our ancestors, and this
handbook is the ideal introduction to them.

Maybe your ancestor was a seaman in the Royal Navy, a ship’s captain, a
steward on an ocean liner, or an officer in the naval reserves? This book shows
you how to spot photographic clues to an individual’s career. Whether your
ancestor served in the merchant navy or the Royal Navy or in another seagoing
role such as a fisherman, a Royal Marine, or even a ship’s passenger, Simon
Wills’ book will be your guide.

About the Author
Dr Simon Wills is a genealogist and journalist and a regular contributor to
Family Tree, BBC Who Do You Think You Are? and other magazines. He writes
mainly about maritime history and genealogy, but he also has a special interest
in health and disease in the past. He works as an information specialist, writer
and advisor to the National Heath Service and other healthcare organisations. His
most recent publications are his history of British passengers at sea, Voyages
from the Past, and a well-received novel Lifeboatmen.

Buy a copy of this family history book here now

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Is this a Primary Source for my family tree?

ManuscriptWhat actually is a primary source when it comes to family tree research?

Does an interview with an ancestor in a newspaper count as a primary source?

In my family tree, for example, we have my 2x great grandfather, Henry Thomas Thorne, being interviewed by the Dartmouth Chronicle in November 1904. This was on the occasion of his retirement after forty years on the railway steamer across the River Dart.

I would argue that the actual newspaper article fits the criteria to be a primary family history source as it, supposedly, is a faithful reproduction of his words.

But what about where a newspaper, or magazine, has written a factual account of an event in which an ancestor had been a part of and which was published at the time of the event? This is perhaps a bit more tricky. The press are often liable to put a spin on the way they present an item to their readers. Can this article be taken as a primary source, for our family history, when it is subject to the interpretation of the author?

My view on this is that what we have there is a derived primary source. It is the same principle as a census transcript is a derived primary source, or an abstract of an ancestor’s last will and testament is a derived primary source. I wonder what others think?

If the article had been written some time after the event, then this would definitely make it a secondary source. So a piece about the Victorian history of Dartmouth, and published in the 1970s, is obviously a secondary source – interesting as it maybe for its insight into the social history of an ancestor’s town.

A primary source, I have always been taught, is a document or physical object that was written or created at the time, or perhaps close to the time of the event or period that we are examining. These can be the original documents or the first-hand accounts of an event, or time period, that someone has lived through. Primary sources are valued by the researcher for being the most reliable in furnishing them with good information. Even though this is the case we are still aware, however, that primary sources can also contain errors, so any information we glean from them needs to be be corroborated.

I believe that a derived primary source is a source based on something that is a primary source. Examples of these would include the transcriptions of census records or an abstract of a will or an obituary. Here someone has copied the information from one source to create the derived source and so there is the chance that mistakes may have been made. It may have been unintentional but wrong information can so easily be copied and therefore it is always good practice for the family historian to check the original document where ever possible.

My conclusion is that the article, about my ancestor’s time sailing on the railway ferry, would be a primary source. However, I have only ever seen a typed transcription of this actual article and as such this makes it a derived primary source. If I, or another, were to use the article to then write about Henry Thorne’s time on the steamer, then this would be a secondary source.

If you want to discover your elusive English/Welsh ancestors then learn more about how to research and where to find the records and resources.

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Criminally insane or cold-blooded murderer?


Discover Your AncestorsI had a really interesting time researching my article about a 19th century cause célèbre, which has been published in this month’s Discover Your Ancestors online periodical.

The story is about a jilted lover who murders his ex-fiancée, in a sleepy Derbyshire village, and then helps a good Samaritan carry her home!

My background research found that it caused a good bit of indignation amongst the newspapers of the time; their view was that the reason preventing him keeping a date, with the official hangman, was that his family had money and claimed that he was insane.

Convicted by a jury, the judge passed the sentence of death on the prisoner – but then wrote to the Home Secretary to plea for a stay of execution!

The Home Secretary was forced to set up not one, but two enquires into the sanity of the man, while the unfortunate victim’s family mobilised their own powerful connections to have the sentence carried out.

Was the man insane, or was he just a cold-blooded murderer?

The incensed newspaper reports, urging that the murderer be hanged, were strangely reminiscent of the way the press today will take a stance that they think to be popular with their target readers.

To delve into this fascinating story I was able to access a plethora of records on TheGenealogist website including: The Illustrated London News, Census records, Tithe Records for Derbyshire and various Trade Directories.


Read my article in this month’s Discover Your Ancestors periodical.

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Can you find my ancestor?

Family History Researcher Academy

“Can you find my ancestor?” this old friend asked, pointing at the computer.


I took a look at the record set that they were using and broadened the date search out another +/- 5 years for them.


With a triumphant smile I replied: “Well I can if I look for them in the right year!”

“But they weren’t supposed to have been born then!” they indignantly said.

My friend was at the end of their tether. They has been looking for their ancestor for ages and they couldn’t understand why they couldn’t find them.

Looking in the wrong year is a quite common mistake to make and can really throw you off the track. Perhaps you are acting on some family tale, or a written note that is the ‘received wisdom’ in the family? Sometimes people seem so sure about a date in their past that they can be really adamant about it. Always treat a date as a clue to something until you have found the primary source that backs it up.

I saw a date, written down by a close relative of mine, that said that my great-great grandfather was born in a particular year. A check for the date of his birth required me to do a search for five years either side until I eventually found his correct date in the indexes, rather like in my friend’s example above.

The provider of the information had simply got their memories mixed up. The lesson is always try to confirm the information given to you by others by also checking the primary sources, before putting them into your family tree. If at first you don’t have luck try looking either side by 2 years, then 5, then 10 – increasing your date range out if need be.

If you want to discover your elusive English/Welsh ancestors then learn more about how to research and where to find the records and resources.

Join the many satisfied subscribers to the Family History Researcher Academy now!


Hit a brick wall with your English/Welsh ancestors?

Learn how to discover where to find the many records and resources that will help you to find your forebears.

Join the Family History Researcher Course online.

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Prisoner of War Records from WWII

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A press release from the British Genealogy Website, TheGenealogist, announces that it has added over 150,000 World War II Prisoner of War records to its already significant military records collection. These new records detail Officers and other ranks from the British Army, Royal Navy, RAF and those members of the British Empire land forces that were held as Prisoners of War in Germany and German Occupied territories.

This release will allow researchers to discover servicemen held by the Germans between 1939-1945 and includes many of the brave escapees whose stories of breaking out and dashing to freedom have captured the imagination for decades.

These records allow us to:

  • Research PoWs who served in Armies and other land forces of Britain and the Empire 1939-45 along with the Naval and Air Forces of Great Britain and the Empire 1939-1945

  • Find names and details of men who were captured and incarcerated in German PoW camps in Europe

  • Check the details such as names, service numbers, and regiments of ancestors that were German PoWs

  • Search for daring escapees from within the camp lists

  • Research where your military ancestors were held, revealing their camp number and location

  • Discover the ranks, PoW numbers, Service numbers and Regiments of those held

Covering the Nazi German camps in Europe, these lists are taken from official alphabetical nominal registers and reveal names and other particulars of:

  • 94,608 British PoWs in Germany, including Officers and other ranks

  • 39,805 PoWs from Empire Land Forces

  • 19,250 Naval & Air Force PoWs from Britain & its Empire

Joining an already comprehensive range of military records on TheGenealogist that span from 1661 to the 1940s, these lists are a useful addition for researchers. TheGenealogist’s military collections already include Army, Navy and Air Force Lists, Dambuster records, First World War PoWs, plus many other records.

Examining some of the names of WWII Prisoners of War released online at allows us to uncover the brave and determined Allied servicemen who made escape attempts from the Nazi German PoW Camps. One brave serviceman, although hampered by being a double amputee from an air accident from before the war, still did his duty to try and escape.

The famous WW2 Air Ace with no legs – Douglas Bader

Douglas Bader
Douglas Bader by Devon S A (Mr), Royal Air Force official photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From the RAF Officers listed in the recently released Second World War Prisoner of War lists on TheGenealogist, we can find Acting Wing Commander Douglas Bader, whose story was immortalized in the book and film Reach for the Sky.

On 9th August 1941, Bader, a formidable air ace, was flying a Spitfire on patrol over France when he was forced to bail out over German-occupied territory. He had jettisoned the spitfire’s cockpit canopy, released his harness pin, and the air rushing past the open cockpit started to suck him out. Unfortunately, for Bader, his prosthetic leg was trapped in the plane and he was part way out of the cockpit but still attached to his aircraft. Bader and his aircraft fell for some time before he released his parachute, at which point the leg’s retaining strap snapped under the strain and so he managed to get free of the plane. Captured, the Germans treated him with respect and even gave the British free passage to drop off a replacement leg for Bader over a German occupied French airfield.

PoW WW2 record Douglas Bader

Bader didn’t appreciate being a prisoner of war and made a number of escape attempts. Because he was considered likely to break out again by his captors, he was eventually sent to the infamous Colditz Castle – as we can see from the record on TheGenealogist, it shows he was incarcerated in Camp No: O4C which relates to Oflag 4C Saalhaus Colditz. It was here that Douglas Bader remained for the rest of the war until April 1945 when the camp was eventually liberated by the United States Army.

His name can be seen on the Battle of Britain War Memorial on the Victoria Embankment. A record, plus an image of this memorial, can be found on TheGenealogist amongst other military records that also include mentions of Douglas Bader in the various Air Lists.

The addition of the World War II Prisoner of War records to TheGenealogist gives family historians a fascinating insight into this period of recent history and allows them to add more depth to their research.

RAF war memorial on TheGenealogist
War Memorial Records on TheGenealogist
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