Canada Comes Up Trumps


 Last spring I had been going through one of those periods of ennui and despair that affect us all when, faced with not one but several blank walls, we fail to make even the smallest knothole in any of them. Leaving out the apocryphal stories about the Spanish lady shipwreck and the hasty marrying of one of Earl Stanley’s housemaids to the coachman - no, really, better not go there, as they say nowadays!

These aside, despite the very pleasing progress I had made with most lines of my family, there were still several intractable problems. However, just as I was beginning to wonder whether I could go no further, I stumbled on two wonderful finds within a couple of weeks of each other and both involving Canadian records.

The family of my father’s mother, Mary Agnes Williams, posed several problems. Her mother’s family, the Joyces, of course derived from Ireland, despair of many an amateur genealogist. However, I was able to shelve that can of worms for a later date, as my Great Grannie Mary Agnes Joyce asserted on census forms that she herself had been born in Southport, Lancashire. This at first seemed a very unlikely place for Irish immigrants to start a family, but North Meols FHS and the Rootsweb Southport link proved helpful and informative. Many Irish immigrants had in fact landed there and later made their way to the Liverpool or Manchester areas. There was even a community of them living virtually on the sands!

I acquired from North Meols FHS transcriptions of the baptismal registers of St. Marie on the Sands RC Church for 1831 to 1852. Here I found a likely record of the birth of Mary Agnes to Michael Joyce and Eliza, nee Sharland on 3 June, 1852. Although this date was a year later than census forms suggested, I knew that ages given were often approximate, either owing to enumerator error or to the persons themselves having unclear ideas of their age and birth dates.

This was where things started to get difficult, however. Repeated perusal of census records failed to unearth more than one likely couple as candidates for the parents, Michael and Eliza(beth) Joyce, in the Liverpool area. Unfortunately, I could find no record of any daughter for this couple, only a son, baptised in Liverpool. True, children did go out to work very early in those days. Dad’s mum herself had been in service at 11, so perhaps her mother had been living and working elsewhere by 1861. I did find a likely Mary Agnes on the 1871 census, a 17 year old servant in West Derby . Her birthplace was given as Welshpool, but as her colleague Sarah Jones was described on the same form as born in Southport, I felt fairly confident that a mix up during enumeration had occurred. I amused myself with the idea that perhaps two young girls had enjoyed a joke at the form filler’s expense.

Previous research had revealed that Mary Agnes had married Charles Williams in 1873. The certificate I obtained then showed that Michael and Eliza Joyce were both present at the wedding in St. Anne’s RC Church, Liverpool. Clearly both parents were still around.

The census of 1881 found the Michael and Elizabeth Joyce of the 1861 Liverpool census now resident in Garston. For the first time, instead of the usual “Ireland” given as Eliza’s birthplace, the magic word “Spain” appeared, followed by the words “B. Subj.” Could the Ionian bride of family legend have been found at last?

By 1891 a widowed Elizabeth was living at the same address in Garston, with son Edward, and this time her place of birth was made clear: “Gibralter”. Very excited, I sent off for the death certificate of Michael Joyce, whom I discovered to have died in the workhouse at Kirby, where he presumably had been taken for medical treatment, as his occupation was given on the certificate, “Watchman of Garston”.

Just to round out what I was now sure must be a picture of my Great Grandmother Joyce‘s family, I sent off for the birth certificate of Edward Joyce, the son of Michael and Elizabeth, born in Liverpool in 1853. When it arrived, I found written on it the words that at a blow destroyed all my carefully composed hypotheses. Edward’s mother, Eliza Joyce, was “formerly Riley”, not “Sharland”. She could not be the Eliza Joyce whose daughter had been born in 1852 in Southport. So which was the wrong Joyce family, those given on the baptismal registration or those whom I had so happily traced via the census forms, whose promising family records could solve my Spanish mystery? How could I find out?

Whilst I was cudgelling my brains over this problem, I had been gnawing away at others. I had tried without success to find on those embarkation lists online any record of the departure for Canada sometime in the Twenties or Thirties of my father’s uncle Herbert Williams and his wife Annie, with Herbert’s sister Evelyn. Then a letter arrived from my sister in Niagara Falls, stating that Great Grandmother Bennett, formerly Williams, nee Joyce, (I’ll explain the name changes later) had also emigrated. What was more, Lola went on to state, she had died in Niagara!

A trawl of Ancestry’s Canadian Death Records brought up the record I was seeking. A photocopy of the register page appeared and I was thrilled to find how detailed these Canadian records were. Each page holds the records of three deaths, arranged vertically in columns with topic headings at the right hand side of the page. I found the tiny print very hard to read and it would be impossible to reproduce here. There are 37 headings, 10 of which give details of medical treatment and cause of death.

Mary Agnes Bennett died on 8 September, 1929, of cerebral haemorrhage and vomiting, having been ill for 59 days. She had been resident with her son in Niagara Falls, Ontario, for the whole duration of her 6 year stay in Canada. My Great Uncle Herbert was the informant and did not know many of the facts about his mother and her family. Her place of birth is simply “England” and her parents names “Unknown”. He guessed that her father had been born in England.

However, Uncle Herbert was confident about the date of his mother’s birthday (Great Grandmother must have celebrated it every year!): “3 June, 1853”. The day and month corresponded exactly with those written in the St. Marie’s Baptismal Register of 1852, thus confirming for me that this was the correct birth record. So unless some strange error had resulted in an incorrect maiden name having been entered there for Eliza Joyce twice (there was also an earlier birth of a sister), or there had been an error on Edward Joyce’s birth certificate, the family I had tracked down through several Liverpool censuses could not be my ancestors.

As well as helping me to clarify the date and time of my Great grandmother’s death, the amazing detail in the Canadian record had also provided me with information that should prove useful in pinning down two other dates that had so far eluded me: the year when my father’s uncle and aunts emigrated, and the date of death of my great grandfather Alfred Bennett. The first is still outstanding as I write, but the second already has been found.

The widowed Mary Agnes Williams had married Alfred in 1900, shortly after the death of Alfred’s first wife, Mary Stanley, and two years after the union of her daughter, Mary Agnes Williams, with his son, Edward Bennett. It now seemed likely that Alfred’s death took place just before Mary Agnes emigrated to Canada in 1921. A search through the BMDs quickly turned up a possible entry and the certificate confirmed that Alfred Bennett, aged 70, had died from cancer of the bladder on 8th February 1919, at 46 Church Street, Widnes. His son, my grandfather, Ted Bennett, husband of Agnes Bennett, had registered the death. Another piece had fallen easily into place, thanks to the Canadian death records.

Despite the fact that the death record from Canada has not helped me to determine where Michael and Eliza Joyce went after the birth of their second daughter in Southport, I am now certain that the St. Marie’s registration is the correct birth record and this couple were my 2 x great grandparents. Where they went next and whether they were indeed the same Michael and Elizabeth of the Liverpool censuses is a puzzle yet to be tackled.

In my next instalment I’ll be describing how a Canadian institution lent a massive helping hand in advancing my researches into another apparently insoluble problem, the death at sea of Mary Agnes’ first husband, Great Grandfather Charles Williams.


In my previous article , I described how Canadian death records had assisted me in clarifying details of the birth of my great grandmother, Mary Agnes Joyce. In this second instalment, I turn to the fascinating wealth of information I found out, again with Canadian help, about her first husband.

Charles Williams had been described on their wedding certificate of 1873 as “Sailor”. The census return of 1881 revealed him absent, presumably at sea, occupation Ship’s Steward, and father of four children, youngest of whom was my grannie. I could find no trace of the family on the next census. A search through BMDs and censuses for details of Charles’ birth and family was every bit as hopeless as I had feared, given the fairly common last name and the fact that his father was also a Charles. I also had no idea whence the family originated, which made impossible any attempt to pick a likely Charles Williams from lists ranging all over the British Isles. I therefore decided to try working things out from the wrong end, so to speak, and look for a death record.

The marriage certificate of Alfred Bennett and Mary Agnes Williams, giving a marriage date of 31st March, 1900, suggested that, unless I numbered bigamists among my ancestors (not unheard of at this period), Charles died sometime between this date and that of the 1881 census return. The details of the 1901 census helped to narrow it down further, however, as included amongst the younger members of the Williams family residing in Garston with the Bennetts was my Great Aunt Evelyn, the youngest child, then aged 10 years. It was very likely that Charles had died between 1891 and 1900. However, despite several searches of the BMD records online, I could find no record of a suitable death during this period. He must have died at sea.

I then read in one of the family history magazines that The Genealogist website had recently acquired lists of deaths at sea, so this seemed a good place to start. I took out a subscription and was delighted to discover two possible records for the death of a Charles Williams between 1891 and 1900. The age of one of these men being too old by a few years, I marked on the printout the entry for the death of Charles Williams, aged 45, on the Wallachia in 1892.

I now needed to find whether there existed a copy of the Wallachia’s Crew List covering 1892. I discovered that TNA had disposed of most of the lists formerly held there, keeping only a random 10%. The Wallachia was not among them. Nor was it kept by Liverpool Records Office or Maritime Museum. The only remaining possibility was the Maritime History Archive at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. I logged onto their friendly website and discovered that indeed they did possess the document I wanted. Furthermore, they offered research and photocopying facilities.

I sent off an email explaining the details I hoped to find and was thrilled when a couple of days later I received a reply confirming that the Wallachia’s Crew List did in fact contain the name Charles Williams - 8 times - and the details of his death. At present they had no secure facility for online payment of the quite modest fee for copying 8 pages and suggested either sending banking details on a series of separate e mails (at which I boggled) or simply ringing them up.

It had been a long time since I’d indulged in a transatlantic phone call and I was a little startled by how quickly and clearly my call to Newfoundland was put through. I spoke to a friendly Canadian voice who informed me that she was Tracy and yes, she had indeed the relevant document right at hand. She would send the photocopies by airmail within 5 days.

She was true to her word. The documents when they arrived were utterly fascinating. Charles Williams, Ship’s Cook, born in Herefordshire or Hertfordshire had signed on for a voyage to Savannah, Georgia on 2 January 1892. (They were perhaps picking up a cargo of cotton or tobacco.) By 9th April, they had returned to Liverpool and, the crew having signed a new agreement, set off for Genoa. Charles Williams died of apoplexy only four days later, on 13th April, 1892. The ship reached Genoa on the 20th and a statement on a stamped certificate reads:

British Consulate
April 25 1892

I certify that on arrival the master reported to me the death of Chas. Williams who died from heart disease on the voyage and that his wages (if any) and effects will be accounted for to the vessel’s arrival in the United Kingdom.

The document is signed by Edmund G. Reader, Vice Consul.

I gleaned a great deal of interesting information from this sheaf of documents, which included the crew agreements and pay record for both voyages, as well as the certificate quoted above. The name and place of birth of each crew member was recorded, as well as his occupation on board. These details were all written on each document in one authoritative hand, presumably an officer’s. The handwriting differed from one Agreement to the other, showing a change in scribe. This probably accounts for the fact that Chas. was recorded on one Agreement as born in Hertford and in the other Hereford.

The crewmen were a varied bunch, with sailors from Sweden, Ohio, Germany and Corsica mixing with local Scouse lads. Each seaman signed his name in the final column agreeing that the information was correct. Those who could not write, like my great grandfather, made their cross between forename and surname as written by the officer in charge.

The Agreements shed an interesting light on the composition of a merchant vessel’s crew of the period. After the Master was listed the Mate and Second Mate, with their Certificate numbers. Then came, as next in importance, Carpenter, Bosun and Steward. The Ship’s Cook, rather surprisingly, came next, followed by six Able Seamen, three certified Engineers and 5 assorted firemen, stokers etc. On the first page of each document was specified the provisions per day: 1lb of bread, 1.5lb of beef or pork, half a pound of flour every other day, alternating with a third of a pound of peas (no other vegetables listed except the statutory Lime and Lemon Juice). Small quantities of tea, sugar and coffee were doled out each day as well as three quarts of water. What a diet! No wonder Charles had apoplexy.

Tellingly, both Crew Agreements had been stamped “AT THE MASTER’S OPTION NO SPIRITS ALLOWED”. A lengthy description of the conduct required of the crew and the deductions from wages to be made for infringements is followed by a handwritten addition:

Any member of the crew using insulting or obscene language to any officer will be fined 5/- for each offence.

The crew agree to work overtime when required (Sundays included) at the rate of 6d per hour.

At the end of each voyage the payments to the crew were made and receipted. The monthly wage ranged from nine pounds for the Master to around four pounds, so a five shilling fine for obscene language was truly a serious deterrent.

Many men, including Charles Williams, had been advanced a portion of their wages before leaving port. My great grandfather had taken half of his five pound wage before he set sail for Savannah. Again, he was advanced two pounds ten before he left on his final voyage to Genoa, of which he completed four days of the 26 day round trip. I hope the owners didn’t demand that his grieving family pay back the advance.

The information contained in these documents is helping me to break down a major brick wall. Formerly I knew very little about my seafaring great grandfather other than the fact of his marriage, for he had been at sea when censuses were taken. Now, having studied the data on the Crew Agreements, I looked online for a birth record around 1847 in Herefordshire or Hertfordshire for Charles Williams, son of Charles Williams. I didn’t find one, but I did find 5 year old Charles Williams recorded on the 1851 census born and living in Longney, Gloucestershire, on the very border with Herefordshire, a few miles from the Bristol Channel. His father, Charles Williams, is described as “Waterman”.

In 1861 both Charles were absent from their home in Bristol, probably both at sea. A note made by the enumerator in the margin records that “Captain Williams” had left home on 7 June. Given the places and family connection with the sea, I am fairly sure that I have succeeded in identifying the background of at least one of my problem great grandfathers.

None of this would have been possible without the Maritime History Archive of the Memorial University of Newfoundland. It’s strange to think that, when our own National Archives were set to destroy these fascinating historical records, a Canadian institution expressed its concern and gave them a home. Canada came up trumps - again.

Linden Osborn