Seaman’s Protection Certificates – An Unusual Source

In an earlier post I compared Ancestry’s then new “U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939” to draft registrations to answer the question of whether someone who registered for the draft actually went on to serve. I used as an example, the five Zimmerman brothers, who all registered for the draft but didn’t all end up serving. One of those brothers, Charles Stephen Zimmerman, was in training with the Merchant Marines in June 1918 and therefore exempt from military service. In the course of my research into Charles and his Merchant Marine service I came across an unusual and remarkable source. A source which not only gave a physical description of Charles, but also had his thumb print, his signature, date and place of birth and current age, and best of all, his photograph. The source was Charles’ application for a Seaman’s Protection Certificate made on 14 August 1918.1

Seaman Snip Photo

Seaman Snip thumb

What are Seaman’s Protection Certificates?

According to NARA (The National Archives and Records Administration) these documents were issued during the late 18th century through the early half of the 20th century, at all U.S. ocean and Great Lakes ports, and served as a seaman’s passport. Those applying had to be United States citizens and had to provide evidence of such in the form of a birth certificate, or an affidavit by a relative or friend, or a citation to naturalization proceedings. 2 Often those documents were appended to the application. In Charles’ case, no other documents are in his file but there is a note indicating he provided his birth certificate, from the parish priest at St. Mary’s church in Stockton, California.

Seaman Snip parish priest
“Affiant produced birth cert. from Parish Priest St. Mary’s Church Stockton showing place of birth as Stockton Cal.”

The history of the Seaman’s Protection Certificate

These certificates were first issued to American sailors to prevent them from being impressed into service by British warships in the period leading up to the War of 1812. Impressment was the forced recruitment of men, practiced most often by the British Navy, into service on their ships.

During the years of American slavery, free men of color who were sailors or seamen, were also issued these protection certificates to prove they were not slaves when stopped by officials or slave catchers. Frederick Douglass himself used the ‘protection papers’ of a free man of color, a sailor, to escape: 3

“It was the custom in the State of Maryland to require of the free colored people to have what were called free papers. This instrument they were required to renew very often, and by charging a fee for this writing, considerable sums from time to time were collected by the State. In these papers the name, age, color, height and form of the free man were described, together with any scars or other marks upon his person which could assist in his identification. This device of slaveholding ingenuity, like other devices of wickedness, in some measure defeated itself—since more than one man could be found to answer the same general description. Hence many slaves could escape by impersonating the owner of one set of papers; and this was often done as follows: A slave nearly or sufficiently answering the description set forth in the papers, would borrow or hire them till he could by their means escape to a free state, and then, by mail or otherwise, return them to the owner. The operation was a hazardous one for the lender as well as for the borrower. A failure on the part of the fugitive to send back the papers would imperil his benefactor, and the discovery of the papers in possession of the wrong man would imperil both the fugitive and his friend. It was therefore an act of supreme trust on the part of a freeman of color thus to put in jeopardy his own liberty that another might be free. It was, however, not infrequently bravely done, and was seldom discovered. I was not so fortunate as to sufficiently resemble any of my free acquaintances as to answer the description of their papers. But I had one friend—a sailor—who owned a sailor’s protection, which answered somewhat the purpose of free papers—describing his person and certifying to the fact that he was a free American sailor. The instrument had at its head the American eagle, which at once gave it the appearance of an authorized document. This protection did not, when in my hands, describe its bearer very accurately. Indeed, it called for a man much darker than myself, and close examination of it would have caused my arrest at the start.” 

douglass image
Example of Seaman’s Protection Certificate from 1854. Image credit: “Seaman’s Protection Certificate for Samuel Fox, August 12, 1854.” African American Odyssey: Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period, Documenting Freedom, Black History Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

According to an article in Prologue, the magazine of the National Archives, almost a third of applications were for free men of color. 4 African American research can be difficult, these Seaman’s Protection certificates can be great value to those researchers. The Prologue article is excellent and worth reading to get further information on this unusual source.

The use of these certificates as a form of identification went on until just before the Civil War and then was reintroduced for a short period during the World War 1 time frame which is when Charles S. Zimmerman applied for one.

Besides giving Charles’ physical description and date and place of birth, the certificate also indicated where Charles had trained and the ship he was expected to join. For those seamen who were not born in the United States, their certificates may contain information on where and when they were naturalized, including the names of their parents. Those who witnessed the application were sometimes related to the applicant, providing further clues to follow.

CharlesStephenZimmerman1897_military
Charles S. Zimmerman in uniform

Seaman’s Protection Certificates are definitely an unusual source for genealogists, with an interesting history. It’s worth your time to take a look and see if your ancestor may have applied for one.  Both Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org have collections of Seaman’s Certificates, search their catalogs using the keyword ‘Seaman’ or ‘Seaman’s Protection’.

This post was written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Week 38 prompt: Unusual Source

 


  1. “U.S., Applications for Seaman’s Protection Certificates, 1916-1940”, database with images, Ancestry.com, (www.ancestry.com : accessed 20 September 2018), application for Charles S. Zimmerman, number 9882; citing NARA; Application for Seaman´s Protection Certificates; NAI: 2788575; Record Group Title: Records of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation; Record Group Number: 41; Box Number: 112 – San Francisco. 
  2. “Applications for Seaman’s Protection Certificates, 1916-1940”, index, NARA (http://www.catalog.archives.gov : accessed 20 September 2018), Records of the Bureau of Marine Inspection and Navigation, 1774-1982, Record Group: 41. 
  3. Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Hartford, Connecticut : Park Publishing Co., 1882), 223-224; digital images, Archive.org (https://archive.org/details/lifetimesoffrede1882doug : accessed 20 September 2018). 
  4. Ruth Priest Dixon, “Genealogical Fallout from the War of 1812”, Prologue. Spring 1992, Vol. 24, No. 1. National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1992/spring/seamans-protection.html : accessed 20 September 2018). 

My Grandfather’s Sword

Ornamental-SwordAs a young child I can remember opening my father’s closet and seeing a very fancy looking sword hanging in there. I don’t think I knew whose it was until I was older and learned it belonged to my mother’s father. My grandfather, Harold James Davis, died about 2 years before I was born. The one thing I remember being told about him was that he was a military man through and through. Tough, no-nonsense and a strict disciplinarian. However, I do think he had a soft spot as my older brothers’ remember Sundays when he would give them money for an ice cream … if they had finished all their dinner.

But back to that sword. Some time ago I was looking through photographs of my grandfather and noticed that sword at his side in his wedding photograph. Just barely peeking out but it immediately reminded me that I had no photographs of the actual sword. My mother still has it in her home in South Africa and I immediately asked her for photographs of it so I could document it in my files.

Here is the wedding photograph of my grandparents, Harold James Davis and Hazel Jane Keown on their wedding day, 19 June 1937 in Johannesburg, South Africa.1 It’s a little difficult to see as the resolution isn’t great but the yellow circle shows the hilt of the sword at his side, just near the hand of his wife as she holds onto his arm. You can also see the baldric (my new word of the day: a baldric is a belt worn over one shoulder that is typically used to carry a weapon (usually a sword) or other implement such as a bugle or drum.)2

HaroldJamesDavis1908_Weddin

There are no other photos of my grandfather wearing that sword. Used only for formal ceremonies, I imagine that there weren’t many of those that came up. He spent many years in the military, serving part-time at first in the Imperial Light Horse Regiment, then entering the South African Defense Force full-time during World War 2. He served in Egypt with the Allied Forces in the North African Campaign. He was honorably discharged in 1947 due to the partial demobilization of his unit.3 Family heirlooms have stories to tell. How have you used them in telling the stories of your ancestors?

 

 

 


  1. Harold James Davis and Hazel Jane Keown wedding photograph, 1937; digital copy in Sue McNelly collection, Phoenix, Arizona. Original photograph in possession of Estelle Davis Thomas, South Africa. 
  2. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki), “Baldric,” rev. 31 May 2018. 
  3. Harold James Davis military papers, compilation of enlistment and service records; privately held by Sue McNelly [address for private use], Phoenix, Arizona, 2018. This collection includes records from the S.A. Defense Force, unit service timelines, enlistment and discharge papers. 

Two True Friends – the Soldier and the Nurse

Charlotte Lillie Davis never married and probably would have been known as the maiden aunt of the family. However, that doesn’t mean she never loved nor led a fulfilling and interesting life. She was my second great grand-aunt; a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a niece, and a fiancée.

Very little is known about Charlotte’s fiancé, not even his full name. Official records refer to him only as R.L. Harrison. In 1901 he was with the British Army Post Office Corps, serving in South Africa at the time of the Second Boer War.1 It’s unclear when R.L. Harrison and Charlotte met, but likely Charlotte was already in her late 30s. Charlotte, aged 39, was working as a nurse at Beckett Hospital in Barnsley, Yorkshire in 1901. 2

Their long distance love story is encapsulated in the seven envelopes that are framed, hanging on the wall of my cousin’s home in England. Addressed to Miss L. (Lillie) Davis, they were sent from South Africa by R.L. Harrison, complete with incredibly detailed hand drawn sketches on the front. As befits Private Harrison’s job with the Army Post Office Corps, the franking is very thorough on each envelope. Below are 3 of the 7 envelopes.

Envelope1
“Two True Friends – the Soldier and the Nurse”
Envelope2
“Tommy’s Smile” (Tommy was slang for a common soldier in the British Army.)
Envelope6
“A Gentleman in Khaki”

Sadly, their love story was short and sweet. R.L. Harrison never returned from South Africa. His exact death date is unknown but in the Roll of Individuals entitled to the South African War Medal he is noted as ‘Deceased’ as of 9th July 1901. 3

Also in my cousin’s possession are Corporal Harrison’s medals. The Queen’s South Africa Medal was presented to British, Imperial and Colonial troops serving in the Boer War. It has bars representing individual campaigns fought in. Corporal Harrison’s medal contains bars for service in the Cape Colony between 11 October 1899 and 31 May 1902, service in the Transvaal between 24 May 1900 and 31 May 1902 and a third bar for service at Wittebergen 1 July 1900.

RlHarrisonMedal
R.L. Harrison’s Queen’s South Africa Medal.

There is also a British War Medal for Charlotte Lillie with her name, C.L. Davis and S.(Staff) Nurse, 1914-1918 written on it. Charlotte Lillie served in France as a member of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve (QAIMNSR), which was the nursing branch of the British Army. 4

Charlotte Lillie fit all the requirements for entry into the QAIMNSR which stated that members were to be over the age of 25, single, educated, of impeccable social standing, and must have completed a three-year course of nurse training in a hospital approved by the War Office. 5

CLMedal
Charlotte Lillie Davis’ British War Medal.

During the time that she served as a Staff Nurse, Charlotte kept a small autograph album which some of the men she was nursing, wrote in.  One of the pages is shown in the photocopy below. The large black square is a plaster (bandage) stuck to the page. A transcription of the page follows.

DavisAutogrph
Page from Charlotte Lillie Davis’ Autograph Book.

“This court plaster is warranted
Not to heal “unkind cuts” “wounded feelings” “injured innocence”

“cracked heads” & “broken hearts”
              ___________

If you should carve the Xmas goose
This plaster you may find of use
For you’re so kind upon my word
You’ll cut yourself and spoil the bird.”

A.W. Narrel. The E/Surreys
Ward 22
Sep ’17

To Sister Davis”

Charlotte Lillie Davis never did marry.  Perhaps I am being fanciful but I wonder if her heart ever recovered after learning of Corporal Harrison’s death.

After her service in the war, she lived for some time with her older brother, William Davis in Doncaster, Yorkshire. Later, she moved to a Nurse’s Home in Wentworth, West Yorkshire. From 1931 until her death in 1940, Charlotte Lillie lived at 14 Woodland Road, Wath-Upon-Dearne, near Rotherham, Yorkshire.6

CharlotteLillieDavis1862_lastresidence
14 Woodland Road, Wath-Upon-Dearne, as it appears today.

The maiden aunt of the family perhaps, but so much more. I would have liked to meet her and hear her tell her love story in her own words, and listen as she described her care of the ‘boys’ fighting in France during the Great War.

 

WordCloud

 

This post was written for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Week 14 prompt: Maiden Aunt

  1. “Natal & South African Forces Death, 1899 To 1902, Army Post Office Corps”. Database with images, Findmypast.com (www.findmypast.com : accessed April 3, 2018), Roll of Individuals entitled to the South Africa Medal, entry for R.L. Harrison. 
  2. “1901 Census for England and Wales,” database, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 12 February 2004); entry for Charlotte Lillie Davis, Barnsley, Yorkshire West Riding; citing the National Archives, RG 13, piece 4314, Folio 79, p. 1. 
  3. “Natal & South African Forces Death, 1899 To 1902, Army Post Office Corps”. Database with images, Findmypast.com (www.findmypast.com : accessed April 3, 2018), Roll of Individuals entitled to the South Africa Medal, entry for R.L. Harrison. 
  4. Scarletfinders, (http://www.scarletfinders.co.uk/2.html : accessed April 7, 2018), “Researching A Nurse.” 
  5. The National Archives (U.K.), “Service Medal and Award Rolls Index, First World War,” database, Discover Our Collections (http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ : accessed 6 April 2018), “Medal Card of Davis, Charlotte Lillie”; citing catalog reference WO 372/23/10656. 
  6. West Yorkshire, England, Electoral Registers, 1840-1962, Township of Wath-Upon-Dearne, p. 36 for Davis, Charlotte Lily, 1940, residence 14 Woodland Rd; image, Ancestry (www.ancestry.com : accessed 23 February 2012). 

He registered for the Draft but did he serve? Using Ancestry’s new collection U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939

troop ship
803rd Pioneer Infantry Battalion on the U.S.S. Philippine docked at Brest Harbor, France, July 18, 1919. Photographs, prints, ephemera from the Gladstone collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-11458

Ancestry’s new collection U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939, consists of passenger lists detailing all those departing from or arriving at U.S. ports on Army Transport ships.  World War 1 Draft registrations show who registered for the draft but that does not mean they served. The Army Transport Services Lists show the men enlisted at the time of the war.  It is important to note that these are not military service records.  They include the ship name, arrival and departure date and place and the service member’s name, rank, service number, age, residence, next of kin with relationship and the regiment that they were attached to.

HenryEZimmerman1892_ww1
U.S., Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939. ancestry.com. Accessed April 6, 2017.

Private Henry Edwin Zimmerman departed Brooklyn, New York on 15 August 1918 on board the Briton sailing for Bordeaux, France.  Further U.S. Army Transport Service Lists in which Henry Edwin Zimmerman appears show him departing Bordeaux, France on 7 June 1919, arriving back at the port of Hoboken, New Jersey on 18 June 1919.  If we previously did not have the regiment Henry Zimmerman served with, these Army Transport Service lists provide that information.  Further research can then be done on that regiment to learn more about their role in the war.

Comparing Draft Registrations with U.S. Army Transport Service Passenger Lists

An interesting comparison can be made between a Draft Registration and the Army Transport Service Lists to determine if someone who registered for the Draft ultimately ended up serving.

Henry Edwin Zimmerman was one of five Zimmerman brothers eligible for service during World War 1.  All five registered for the Draft.  Two of the brothers claimed exemption, one on medical grounds and one based on his employment in the farming industry. Of the three who did not claim any exemption, one was aged 32, married with an infant and was a farmer.  He was temporarily exempted under Draft Category III: ‘Temporarily exempted but available for military service. Registrants employed in agricultural labor or industrial enterprises essential to the war effort’. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selective_Service_Act_of_1917)

Youngest brother, Charles Stephen Zimmerman, aged 21, was drafted under the second Draft registration, on June 5, 1918, for those men who attained age 21 after June 5, 1917. Charles S. Zimmerman was training with the Merchant Marines which exempted him from military duty.  The third brother who did not claim an exemption was 22-year-old Otto Emil Zimmerman.  He registered for the draft on 5 June 1917.  As of this post, military service records for him have not been found. Otto Emil Zimmerman was single with no dependents and would have been eligible and liable for military service.

It is interesting to note that the two brothers, Henry Edwin Zimmerman and Louis William Zimmerman who both claimed an exemption, were called up for service.

Name Draft Registration Date
Age & Occupation
Claimed exception? Served?
George Everett Zimmerman 12 Sep 1918; 32; Farmer No No.[1]
Henry Edwin Zimmerman 5 June 1917; 25; Salesman Expert Yes. Grounds – hernia. Yes[2]
Louis William Zimmerman 5 June 1917; 24; Shipping Clerk Yes.  Grounds – employed by farmer making farming implements Yes[3]
Otto Emil Zimmerman 5 June 1917; 22; Book keeper No No records found
Charles Stephen Zimmerman 5 June 1918; 21; Office Work – Shipping No Training with Merchant Marines[4]

[1] Third Draft Registration for men aged 18 to 35.  George had married in 1917 and had a 4-month-old child in September 1918.  Perhaps exempted Class III: ‘Temporarily exempted, but available for military service. Registrants employed in agricultural labor or industrial enterprises essential to the war effort’.

[2] First Draft Registration, on June 5, 1917, was for all men between the ages of 21 and 31. Henry was unmarried with no dependents therefore was eligible and liable for military service.

[3] First Draft Registration, on June 5, 1917.  Louis was unmarried with no dependents, therefore was eligible and liable for military service.

[4] Second Draft Registration, on June 5, 1918, registered those who attained age 21 after June 5, 1917. Charles was in training with the Merchant Marines in June 1918 and therefore exempt from military service.

Army Transport Service Passenger Lists are another great resource for research into World War 1.  In addition to troop information, this collection also contains information on non-military passengers traveling on these ships, including any family members traveling with their military spouses.

 

 

 

 

 

The Life of a Miner: from County Durham, England to Kimberley, South Africa.

johnbellas1859b
John Bellas (1859-1938)

I have always been fascinated by the life of my great-grandfather John Bellas.  Born into a coal mining family originally from Flintshire, Wales, he spent his entire life working down the mines.  John was born in 1859 in St Giles, County Durham, England.  He was the third child and first son for David Bellis and his wife, Margaret Williams.  There would eventually be 9 children in the family. David Bellis and Margaret Williams were both of Welsh birth but by 1851 the family had left Wales and moved to the coal fields of County Durham, England. [At some stage John changed the spelling of his surname from Bellis to Bellas].

english_coal_miners
County Durham Coal Miners.  Photo in public domain.

The 1871 England Census for Thornley, County Durham shows David Bellis and sons John Bellas (age 12) and Thomas Bellas (age 10) working as miners in the Thornley Colliery.

1871census
1871 England Census, Thornley, County Durham, Class: RG10; Piece: 4976; Folio: 31;  Page: 60, Ancestry.com

John Bellas’ life was marred at times by tragedy beginning with his first wife Elizabeth Jane Robson.  They married in 1880 and had 4 children together.  Tragically all four children died in infancy or early childhood.  Elizabeth herself died in 1886 at age 24, only one month after her 3rd child died. She left behind her husband John and 2-year-old son, also named John.   A year later, in June 1887, John married Anne Wilson.  John and Elizabeth’s surviving child (John) passed away in June of 1889.  John and his second wife, Anne Wilson went on to have 11 children, five of which also died in infancy.

In 1893 John Bellas left on his first trip to South Africa.  This was the beginning of numerous trips back and forth between England and South Africa between 1893 and 1911. It’s not clear what precipitated the trip to South Africa but perhaps prospects there were better than in the coal fields of County Durham. For many years newspapers had reported on the ease with which diamonds could be found in South Africa and implied a man could get rich very quickly.

diamondfields
Manchester Evening News, Tuesday 12 September 1871.

The discovery of diamonds in the 1860s and 1870s caused a great influx of men, particularly experienced miners, seeking their fortunes in the diamond fields of South Africa. Because the labor needs of the diamond fields were so great, the British encouraged labor migration to Kimberley.

kimberley
Diamond Mine. Kimberley, South Africa 1896.  Photos.com/jupiterimages

In 1893 John Bellas was hired by the De Beers Diamond Mines in Kimberley, South Africa.  Through correspondence with the De Beers Archivist and the Africana Research Library in Kimberley, and using employment records and passenger lists, I was able to track John Bellas’ movements in South Africa.  Between 1893 and 1898 John traveled back and forth between County Durham and Kimberley, South Africa four times.  Approximate travel time was 17 days via one of the Union Castle steam ships which traveled weekly between Southampton, London and ports in South and East Africa.

union-castle
One of the many advertisements for the Union Castle Line. Photo in public domain.

Throughout these years of back and forth travel, Anne Bellas and their 4 young children remained behind in County Durham. In 1899 newspapers in County Durham began to report on the developing tensions in South Africa, especially around the town of Kimberley.  This must have caused great anxiety for Ann Bellas.

newspapersiege
Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette. Tuesday 31 October 1899

                               “The Siege of Kimberley.  Boers Building Forts.
                                      (Reuter’s Telegram) CapeTown, Monday.
                It is reported from Barkly West that the Boers are building forts
                     around Kimberley for the purpose of shelling the town.”

Ultimately the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand, and the influx of foreigners as a result of that discovery, led to increased tensions between the Boers (Afrikaans speaking settlers) and the ‘Uitlanders’ (foreigners).  The Boers feared that the Uitlanders would seize all political power and therefore passed laws that made Uitlanders in effect, second class citizens.  Tensions escalated between these two groups. Britain was in control of the Cape Colony and wanted to incorporate the Boer Republics and keep them under British control.  Failed negotiations between Britain and the Boer Republics in 1899 and the failure to remove British troops congregating on the borders of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State led to the declaration of war.

John Bellas began serving with the Kimberley Town Guard ‘D’ Company Division II.  The town guard had been raised in October 1899 to defend the town of Kimberley from Boer attack.  The Boers besieged the town for 124 days but ultimately failed to take Kimberley, which had finally been relieved by the advancing British forces.

kimberley-town-guard-war
Dundee Evening Post. 30 March 1900.

Transcription: “The Siege of Kimberley:  Town Guard Defending Carter’s Ridge.
The Kimberley town Guard lost twenty-one killed and forty-one wounded in defending this position.”

 

kimberley-town-guard
Kimberley Town Guard.  Photo credit: angloboerwar.com

In March 1900 the Kimberley Town Guard was officially dismissed.  There was no work to be had at the mines which had shut down during the Siege of Kimberley and John Bellas returned to England in July 1900.

newspaper1900_kimberleytownguard-disbanded
South Wales Daily News. 12 March 1900

It was not long before John Bellas returned again to Kimberley and employment with De Beers Mines.  This time his family traveled with him.  John and Anne Bellas and their 4 young children made the journey to Kimberley about 1902/1903. Five more children were born in Kimberley between 1902/1903 and 1909.  Unfortunately 3 of the children died in infancy, two from influenza and one from meningitis.  My grandmother, Elizabeth Bellas, was about 7 years old when she moved to Kimberley and 15 years old when the family returned to England permanently in 1911.  In her older years she could still remember a word or two of Afrikaans which she had learned as a young child in South Africa.

Although Anne Bellas and children never returned to South Africa again, John Bellas traveled back again in early 1912.  He only stayed a few months, returning for the final time to County Durham in December 1912.

John Bellas seems to have been a man who didn’t mind adventure and many years spent going back and forth across the ocean between countries.  He was the first in the family to set foot in South Africa but certainly not the last.  His daughter, Elizabeth Bellas, would have a son, my father, who would eventually immigrate from County Durham to South Africa and raise John Bellas’ great grandchildren there.

 

One of The Second World War’s Best Kept Secrets – Misfortune for the HMS Curacao

The headlines rang out with the news:  “Queen Mary Cut Cruiser in Two. Disaster that was Kept Secret.” (Dundee Courier) and “Queen Mary Sank a British Cruiser.  Disaster While Evading U-Boat” (Daily Record).  It was Friday 18 May 1945.  Joseph and Mary Thomas had been wondering for 3 years exactly how and where their youngest child, Stanley Mather Thomas had died.  They had received the news in 1942 that their 22-year-old son was missing ‘at sea’ presumed dead. The story of what happened to Joseph and the other 338 British sailors who died in October 1942 was one of World War Two’s best kept secrets.

Stanley Mather Thomas was born on June 1, 1920 in New Silksworth, Sunderland, County Durham.  He was the youngest of four children born to Joseph and Mary (Mather) Thomas.  Stanley joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Force, a reserve force of the Navy called up during war time operations.  At the time of his death in 1942 his rank was ‘Able Seaman’ indicating he had at least 2 years’ experience at sea.

StanleyMThomas1920_Navyrecord_snip
UK, British Army and Navy Birth, Marriage and Death Records, 1730-1960.  Thomas, Stanley Mather, ancestry.com. Note:  the 2. refers to ‘Missing – death on War Service presumed

On October 2, 1942 Stanley was on board the HMS Curacao in the coastal waters north of Ireland. The ship had been ordered to provide an escort service to the 81,000 ton ocean liner, the Queen Mary.  The Queen Mary, sailing from New York across the Atlantic, was carrying some 10,000 U.S. troops.  Converted from a luxury ocean liner and painted battleship grey she was one of the fastest and largest troop ships in the world.

StanleyMThomas1920_ships
“World War II Today – ww2today.com – edited by Martin Cherrett.  Photos in public domain

In order to deter U-boats and German aircraft the Queen Mary undertook a zig-zag pattern moving across the ocean.  The HMS Curacao was to provide anti-aircraft cover for the other ship and in order to do so sailed to within 200 yards of the larger, faster ship.  Historical newspaper accounts differ somewhat to witness accounts of what exactly happened next.  In 1945 newspaper accounts reported that a U-boat had been spotted which caused the HMS Curacao to change course in pursuit and in doing so put themselves in the path of the Queen Mary.

StanleyMThomas1920_newspaper_snipCuracoa
Dundee Courier, Friday 18 May 1945 via Britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

Witnesses to the accident reported that the HMS Curacao was traveling far too close to the Queen Mary but do not mention the sighting of a U-boat.

“We could see our escort zig-zagging in front of us – it was common for the ships and cruisers to zig-zag to confuse the U-boats. In this particular case however the escort was very, very close to us.  I said to my mate “You know she’s zig-zigging all over the place in front of us, I’m sure we’re going to hit her.” And sure enough, the Queen Mary sliced the cruiser in two like a piece of butter, straight through the six-inch armoured plating.”  — Alfred Johnson, eye-witness, BBC: “HMS Curacao Tragedy”  (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/13/a2733013.shtml

“It all happened during the watch changes, the “Curacao” was doing a zig jag course in the fare of Q.M: and naturally losing her distance and it was during one of her sweeps across the bows of Q.M that she was cut in two halves. The Q.M: went throu her like a knife throu butter, to this day I wonder what the bridge personnel and lookouts of both ships were doing not to notice the nearness of each other.” – Able Seaman on watch Enoch Foster aboard HMS Bramham.  (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/28/a4146428.shtml)

The HMS Bramham was assigned to escort convoys from the North sea into home port in Ireland.  As described above several sailors witnessed the accident from the bow of the HMS Bramham.  The Bramham arrived at the spot it had last seen the Caracao only to find a tragic scene.

Able Seaman on Watch Enoch Foster, on board the Bramham:

“I immediately contacted the bridge and reported “Curacao” had disappeared, from then on it was panic, our ship turned about, asdis lamps flashing messages, we past the Queen Mary she was still making for homeport like a bad horse, we arrived at the last position where I had seen “Curacao” what a terrible sight it was, the sea was covered in oil, dirty and black with hundreds of heads with oily faces and panicky white eyes, mouths opening and closing like fish, some shouting for their mothers and help, others just chocking with fuel oil in their lungs and dying from drowning, all good British lads, bobbing up and down. We picked as many as we could 97 out of 650 the rest perished. On our way back to Ireland 5 out of the 97 we had saved from the sea died on board due to the fuel in their guts, all that destruction in the time it takes to light a cigarette”  (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/28/a4146428.shtml)

Captain Charles Illingworth of the Queen Mary was under strict orders to not stop for anything and the Queen Mary continued on to Ireland, sustaining a damaged bow.  The Curacao sank in about five minutes. Approximately 101 survivors were rescued some hours later by HMS Bramham.   Witnesses to the event were sworn to secrecy and details were kept very quiet. The loss of any ship due to war time activity was not reported publicly so as to keep the Germans unaware.  Three years after the accident, in 1945, newspapers began to publish the first accounts of the collision.

Immortalized on the Chatham Naval Memorial in Kent, England are the names of the 338 men who lost their lives that day on the HMS Curacao, among them is that of Stanley Mather Thomas, my first cousin twice-removed.  The wording on the memorial is particularly poignant:

“The names of over 18,500 men and women are recorded on this memorial;  of these some 8,500 died during the First World War and 10,000 during the Second World War. All were buried or lost at sea or were otherwise denied, by the fortunes of war, a known and honoured grave”

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Chatham Naval Memorial, Kent England

The wreck of the HMS Curacao is today designated a “protected place”.   In 2015 a Scottish documentary team, working with the National Geographic Channel produced a series titled ‘Deep Wreck Mysteries’.  One of the episodes explores the story of the collision of the Queen Mary and the Curacao.    A portion of that episode, along with witness interviews from those on board both the Queen Mary and HMS Curacao, can be seen here.

This post was written in 2016 but fits the theme for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge from Amy Johnson Crow. Week 12 prompt: Misfortune

Hide and Seek with Harry

My maternal great-grandfather, Harry Joshua Davis, has generally made himself extremely difficult to find after 1923.  In fact, I have not found him or his date of death or where he might have died and I have been looking for a very long time.  Yes, it’s annoying and he most definitely qualifies for July’s Genealogy Blog Pool party theme. Elizabeth of Little Bytes of Life writes:

‘Do you have an ancestor which makes you absolutely miserable?’  Why yes I do! ‘Bring your most aggravating ancestor to our summer pool party and PUSH HIM (or her) in the pool!’

Harry Joshua Davis was born in Gorton West, Lancashire, England in 1879.  He was the first child of Joshua Davis and Helena (Schmidt) Davis.  He is easily found in the 1881 and 1891 UK census with his family in or near Manchester, Lancashire.  By the 1901 census however Harry is not found with the family who has stayed within the parish of South Manchester.  In fact, despite numerous searches, I have not found him at all in 1901 in England.  I do however know that by June 1902 Harry Davis was in South Africa.  He joined the British South Africa Police (B.S.A.P) in Johannesburg and I am fortunate that I have his enlistment papers.

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B.S.A.P Enlistment Papers for Harry Joshua Davis

However not being able to find Harry J. Davis in 1901 in England raises the question of whether he was already in South Africa at that time.  Did he go over to fight in the Boer War?  As a paramilitary unit, the B.S.A.P fought in the Second Boer War but Harry Davis’ B.S.A.P enlistment papers clearly show he enlisted in Johannesburg in 1902. (The Second Boer War had officially ended on May 31, 1902).   In 2003 I hired a researcher to do a search in the Public Record Office in London with the goal being to find out if Harry Davis had enlisted in the British Army prior to 1902.  Although several men were found with similar names, none fit the details I already had for Harry Joshua Davis.  Was Harry intrigued by the lure of adventure in deepest Africa?  Perhaps he saw one of the many newspaper advertisements asking for men to join the B.S.A.P?

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Morning Post (London), 21 January 1898

Harry’s trail in South Africa from 1902 until 1923 is fairly well documented in his enlistment papers.  I also know that Harry Davis married Adelaide Agnes Maud Hayes somewhere between 1902 and 1908.  However, I do not have their marriage certificate or a confirmed date of their marriage. It’s difficult to get this sort of documentation in South Africa as there is no central repository for vital records and many are kept on a local level by the various church’s – if they exist at all.   There is also the unconfirmed family story that Harry and Adelaide were not married at the time of the birth of their first son, my grandfather, Harold James Davis in 1908.  A birth certificate for Harold James Davis may have shown the word ‘illegitimate’ had that been the case but again, I have not been able to find one for him.  In fact, the family story goes so far as to say that Adelaide’s father went out and found Harry and told him he would be marrying his daughter –  ‘shot-gun’ wedding style.  Until I find their marriage certificate I can’t prove or disprove that family story.

Harry Davis did well working with the B.S.A.P and his records are full of praise and commendations.  He was promoted in 1907 to a Detective Probationer and then to Detective in 1908.  In September of  1914  the notation in his enlistment papers shows that Harry was called to active duty.  The First World War had started in July of 1914 and South Africa’s military forces, including the B.S.A.P, participated in the fighting in various parts of Africa including the East African Campaign.  Harry Davis survived and returned to Johannesburg on June 26, 1915.  Approximately 4 years later Harry was again promoted to Detective Lieutenant Constable.  In 1921 Harry Davis moved to Cape Town where he was stationed with the newly formed C.I.D (Criminal Investigative Division) of the B.S.A.P.

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The B.S.A.P is called into action for World War 1

Harry Joshua Davis and Adelaide Agnes Maud (Hayes) Davis had 4 children together:

  • Harold James Davis, born in 1908 in Johannesburg
  • Lillian Adelaide Davis, born in 1909 in Johannesburg
  • William Francis Davis, born in 1912 in Johannesburg
  • Florence Maud Davis, born in 1922 in Cape Town

Harry Joshua Davis left the B.S.A.P in 1923 at the age of 44.  And that is the last time I have found any mention of him in any document.  I don’t know where he went after he left the B.S.A.P.  I do know that there was a separation from his wife Adelaide and that when she died in 1964 her death notice stated she was a widow. Whether Harry Davis had died by then is unknown.  Widows were not always widows but may have preferred to be known as such rather than as the woman whose husband abandoned her.

There are various family stories that have been told about Harry Joshua Davis including:

  • When Harry and Adelaide separated Harry went to South West Africa (now known as Namibia).
  • In 2001 at the age of 79, daughter Florence Maud Davis was of the opinion that her father died in South Africa and that he may have taken his own life. She believed she was about 11 when her parents separated and in her early teens when Harry died, which would put his death around 1935 or so.
  • Information from Florence Maud Davis’ husband was that when Harry Joshua Davis left the B.S.A.P he started a plumbing business with a partner. The partner absconded with all the money and the business failed.  Interestingly enough Harry’s father, Joshua Davis, was a plumber (back in England) so perhaps there could be a shred of truth here.
  • In 2004 Adelaide Agnes Maud (Hayes) Davis’ nephew was asked if he remembered anything about Harry Joshua Davis. He stated that he thought Harry went into the bakery business and worked for a company called T & F Connery.  And again, Harry’s grandmother Charlotte L. Cook had been a confectioner/baker back in England. So again, perhaps a shred of truth?

Harry Joshua Davis remains a man of mystery right now.  Every few months I go back to Harry and look at him again, read the few documents I have on him, and look through any new South African records that have been placed online, but no luck so far.  Harry is doing a great job at hiding.  And that’s pretty aggravating, right?