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Looking for the answer


papa soldier

Went to The National Archives at Kew yesterday to look for my granddad, James Scott.

He’s the one who said he fell off the Mauretania in New York. I had forgotten, in these days of being able to sit in front of a computer and find stuff at the click of a mouse, what a monumentally tedious task it is to search through original records. Plus, I had a bit of a hangover.

Took me bloody ages to get to Kew, and it was a blazingly hot, beautiful day, and there were several moments when I wondered if I was several twigs short of the full tree.

Granddad, according to my mum and my aunt, worked on the Mauretania, the fastest ship on the Atlantic for 20 years until 1929, and he was a steward or a waiter. My auntie had his registration book, but mysteriously, all the pages had been torn out of it.


My first bit of digging put me in touch with some specialists in the merchant marine who gave me the file names of the records I would need to search. I am absolutely certain they told me that each folder would be thin little thing containing about three bits of paper. I’d be through them in no time.

So you’re not going to be surprised when I tell you that the archivist at Kew took me to a enormous trolley overloaded with 34 hefty box files and smirked, she definitely smirked, as she waved her hand at them and said, ‘All yours.’

I sat down and began. Each log was about three inches thick, on stiff expensive paper, sewn together; gritty and grimy round the edges.


They were utterly fascinating. There were about 550 crew on each voyage, all dedicated to getting the 800 or so passengers (and mail) from Liverpool to New York in about three days and in as luxurious a manner as possible. There were 300 or more firemen, who spent all day stoking the boilers, 200 trimmers, who (I think) just broke up the coal, pages of cooks (a special Jewish cook, a confectioner, vegetable cooks, pastry chefs, sous chefs) and stewards and linen mistresses and waiters and barbers, and musicians and an interpreter and ships’ engineers, and a ship’s surgeon and, oh yes, all the sailors.

The captain’s notes were terse but illuminating. Flynn, O’Halloran, and Smith confined to quarters on being found too drunk to work. Hawker, fireman, on feeling ill, made his way to sick bay where he collapsed. Ship’s surgeon examined him and found him dead from heart disease. Upon inquiry I have found no further grounds to investigate. A short service was held and his body committed to the deep. His possessions included a pair of boots, three pairs of overalls, a good suit and a pair of silk socks. A woman in steerage was delivered of a male child this morning. Ship’s surgeon in attendance.

And there, on July 5, 1911, New York, 8 am, is the note, the following men deserted the ship taking with them their effects: James Scott, Frank Moran, Joseph Pendere, Henry O’Neil, James Nolan, Wm Lynch, Wm Hogan and Patk Branagan, firemen 

mauretania desertion

Hard to tell if it was the James Scott who is my granddad, (I didn’t get through all the files, I couldn’t verify the address, and the age isn’t right) but falling off a ship is as good a way as any of telling your daughter you jumped ship, and conditions were appalling. About five to ten men, especially firemen left the ship at New York on every voyage. And there were plenty waiting to take their place. It paid £6 a week, which was an enormous amount of money. Of course the irony is, that the harder the men worked, and the faster the ship went, the less they got paid.


I wouldn’t be surprised if he did jump ship. It would explain why he tore all the pages out of his registration book, which would mean he could then sign back on, on another ship in a job (as, say, a waiter) with better conditions.

But to make certain, I’d need to go back to Kew, and finish off the trolley. At 6pm yesterday after getting through 10 of the 34 files, I jumped ship. I’m not sure if I want to go back.


Pictures courtesy of creative commons:







About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I lwant to; even when I can't think of much to say. I do a lot of work for local businesses - get in touch if you like my style.


24 thoughts on “Looking for the answer

  1. Hi Elaine, remember me? I still post every now and again and check in with old friends. I loved this article – and cringe at the thought of how many hours it takes to research by book as compared to google. Aren’t we spoiled? Lucky Lucky! I could never write half the stuff I do without Google. Hope all is well with you. I love that after all that your Mother said maybe it wasn’t the Mauritania after all. I often wonder how oral history ever stands up to any scrutiny.

    Posted by librarylady | August 2, 2014, 12:52 am
    • Hi Geanie! Lovely to hear from you again. I was wondering what you were up to. Checked on your post a few months back, but there was nobody home. Glad you liked the post. I don’t suppose oral history is ever as good as the written kind, but there’s generally a bit of truth in it, somewhere….hopefully. x

      Posted by elainecanham | August 2, 2014, 10:15 am
  2. Fascinating story, and whilst it’s tedious to plough through piles of old files, it is exciting to see your family name, a great-great-relative popping up somewhere which has significance. I love how those old stories get somehow twisted over time, like a game of Chinese Whispers. I wish I’d known you were at Kew – I’d have popped along!

    Posted by Jools | August 1, 2014, 10:20 am
  3. Your interpretation makes sense. Difficult to know how accurate the records would be for things such as ages…You’d probably find plenty more of interest if you went back but…At least you’d now know what you were going to find…

    Posted by olganm | July 31, 2014, 10:31 pm
    • You know what my mother said to me today? ‘I’m not sure if it was the Mauretania. I can’t remember. Maybe it was another ship.’ Sigh

      Posted by elainecanham | August 1, 2014, 12:21 am
  4. Just goes to show what a bit of personalised incentive can dig up, doesn’t it? I rather watch the celebrities do it on TV, but I’m always disappointed then when they end up concentrating on the war stuff.

    I love the romantic idea of seafaring. When you think of how many people’s lives revolved around the sea, in comparison to now… if I were the sea, actually, I’d be really cheesed off.

    Posted by Tara Sparling | July 31, 2014, 1:41 pm
    • All that attention, you mean, and then suddenly none. Or just giving you (the sea) ridiculous blocks of flats that are called boats, instead of proper ships….although maybe it likes to be left in peace.

      Posted by elainecanham | July 31, 2014, 1:47 pm
  5. It’s so much easier to ask ancestors when they’re alive for info. Once they’re buried you have to dig for information! (Get it?) Now, you MUST go back; and asap once summer is over – if only because it is interesting beyond your family; a sort of universal story. (I find genealogical research is a winter thing).

    Posted by Bruce Goodman | July 30, 2014, 8:05 pm
    • I meant to say, the expression “he jumped ship” could easily over time transmute into “he fell overboard”. I’d say it was definitely your granddad what deserted the ship.

      Posted by Bruce Goodman | July 30, 2014, 8:12 pm
    • Yes, I’m inclined to think so. But it’s very easy to make these kinds of assumptions, and then fall in the doo doo. There were certain things about the description of the bloke I found, that were just wrong (his age was given as 33 not 23), and his address is troubling me slightly. Still I’ll get there. i’m with you on the transmutation. You’d never tell your kids you deserted, but you might say as a private joke, I fell off.

      Posted by elainecanham | July 30, 2014, 8:49 pm
    • yes, me too, but I wanted to find out before this closing date for the book’s publication.

      Posted by elainecanham | July 30, 2014, 8:45 pm
    • Ah yes. I forgot about the publication deadline. I fall in the doo-doo all the time. When it comes to creating family trees, we sometimes overlook the wonder of the family myths, so intent are we upon the facts.

      Posted by Bruce Goodman | July 30, 2014, 9:12 pm
    • I like a nice myth. I like the extraordinary truth better. Suppose that’s why I did so love being a reporter on a weekly paper. You never knew what was going to happen next.

      Posted by elainecanham | July 30, 2014, 9:31 pm
    • True. Although, I am descended from “A French Maid”. I always thought that was pretty exotic until the truth emerged in my 40s: “A French maid” is not from France but someone who looks after the household’s clothes. In this case, the myth was better!

      Posted by Bruce Goodman | July 31, 2014, 1:36 am
    • Yes, you have a point. I think it was john Irving who said that fiction was always better (stranger? more exciting?) than the truth,

      Posted by elainecanham | July 31, 2014, 9:36 am
  6. Ten out of ten for getting that far. Archives are fascinating but very sidetracky. You have to be really focused to follow your intent. And not hungover, of course. Give yourself a breather and go back next year.

    Posted by Jools | July 30, 2014, 4:51 pm
  7. You have my sympathy Elaine. Tracing the records can be hell.I found a whole new set of relatives I didn’t have thanks to picking the wrong man because of a similar name and D/O./B. By the time I’d done I found myself 3rd in line for the Throne. Oops.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    Posted by davidprosser | July 30, 2014, 2:59 pm
  8. I found all of the notes about the illness and lists of workers on the ship interesting. Though I wasn’t surprised the Irish names were the guys who were found drunk. I applaud your determination in wading through a mountain of logs and books to pull out the information and am not surprised you aren’t keen on going back.
    (I too started blogging because of the writer platform suggestion and now blog a couple of times a week.)

    Posted by mudpilewood | July 30, 2014, 2:47 pm
    • Not all Irish people get drunk, you know! It was fascinating, once I got there. Just a truly tedious journey, and I kept thinking about the sunshine outside. Thanks for dropping by!

      Posted by elainecanham | July 30, 2014, 2:52 pm
    • I do know as I am an Irishwoman who hates the taste of alcohol.
      Enjoyed your post.

      Posted by mudpilewood | July 30, 2014, 2:55 pm
    • Thanks. Actually I think the reason Irish names kept cropping up again and again, was because the Mauretania’s home port was Liverpool, and a big part of the population there are descended from Irish migrant workers

      Posted by elainecanham | July 30, 2014, 3:46 pm

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