In pushing forward my research relating to Plymouth registered vessels 1814 – 1945 I have, for some time, been using historic newspapers accessible on-line. It occurred to me that information on some of these sources, with an example illustrating the highs and lows, might be of interest to SWMHS members generally.
The first and largest source, “19th Century British Library Newspapers” contains full runs of 48 influential national and regional newspapers and comprises scanned reproductions of the original newspaper articles. Normally there would be a charge for accessing this material, but all of the County Councils and many of the Unitary Authorities in our core area subscribe, so that the service is free for library members. Taking Plymouth as an example, from the Council’s Internet Home Page the route is “Libraries”, “cyberLibrary Home”, “Reference on-line” this reveals a list of subscribing libraries, from which, selecting “Plymouth Library Members” displays a list of library services to which the Council subscribes. The first service is “19th Century British Library Newspapers” and selecting this brings up a field into which your library membership number must be keyed, before a final page allowing a selection between the British Library Newspapers and the Times is displayed. For maritime matters there are some obvious papers to select – the Liverpool Mercury, Glasgow Herald, or London Daily papers. Local papers, such as the Ipswich Journal, or the Saint Peter Port Star often provide coverage of local events.
“The Times Digital Archive 1785 to 1985” – The Times is a valuable reference source over a longer period, but there is a need for news to be a bit more world-shattering to make its pages, than perhaps the pages of The Exeter Flying-Post or The Royal Cornwall Gazette. News often has a business related slant, for example the loss of a vessel may be reported from a marine insurance standpoint.
“London Gazette” – Access to the archives of The London Gazette is available on-line for free, although a charge is made for current material. Gazetted letters from Naval Officers to their superiors, service appointments, prize payments, the award of medals and notices of Government tenders are examples of things which may be found in its pages.
Search the Internet for London Gazette and in its home page select “Search the Archive”.
“Cambrian Newspaper Index” - Swansea Reference Library have made available their index to the Cambrian Newspaper; covering most of the nineteenth century, it contains close to 400,000 entries and is still growing. It can be found at:-
and a copying service is provided at reasonable cost. (I was introduced to this site by SWMHS member Michael Guegan.)
In all cases (except the Cambrian) searching appears to be by character recognition and so perseverance -searching all possible combinations of names, dates or facts- may be needed before a result is obtained.
The appropriately named smack Perseverance, built Penzance 1816 as a three masted open boat and registered at Plymouth on 5 June 1857, provides an example of how this source can unlock vital evidence. Her Plymouth register shows that John Holson Bootyman of Plymouth sold her to William Bucknell of Exmouth, boat builder, by Bill of Sale dated 31 May 1858 and he sold her on the same day, to John and Joseph Skinner of Otterton Devon, yeomen.
She was only a small vessel, length 41.7’ breadth 12.7’ depth 7.25’ and 23.65 tons register, but the register is closed “Lost near Tenby about 10 Oct 1858” .
A search of the Plymouth newspapers (not on-line) failed to find any mention of her loss and a search in the on-line sources also failed to find a report, leading to doubts as to the accuracy of the loss date, particularly in view of the use of “about”.
SWMHS member Martin Benn, however, kindly provided vital assistance by locating the following Lloyd’s List reports, which show a vessel lost at an appropriate date and place, which might have been the Perseverance. (While the final report is a pointer, it does not constitute positive proof that the lost vessel was the Perseverance.)
LLOYD’S LIST NUMBER 13891, MONDAY, 11 OCTOBER 1858 “Swansea 10 October: It blew a heavy gale last
night from SSW but shifted to the W this morning and moderated.”
LLOYD’S LIST NUMBER 13893, WEDNESDAY, 13 OCTOBER 1858 “Tenby 11 October: A sloop apparently of about 30 or 40 tons, coal laden and supposed Welsh, came on shore west of Giltar Head, in the night of 9th October and broke up and the crew drowned. Two bodies have been found plus a letter dated 2 October from Mrs. E. Rolins to her husband Thomas Rolins, a carpenter, who it is supposed was a passenger.”
Giltar Point is a headland lying to the west of Tenby and is separated, by Caldy Sound from Caldy Island so that this and the following report are closely linked geographically and in time, although from the terms of the report there was no evidence washed ashore at the wreck site from which the vessel could be identified. The Liverpool Mercury of 18 October added the important information that the letter was found in the pocket of one of the two bodies that were recovered and was dated “Morton 2 October”
LLOYD’S LIST NUMBER 13895, SATURDAY, 16 OCTOBER 1858 “Tenby 14 October: A small boat painted lead colour inside with the name Perseverance of Plymouth, William Southcombe, has been picked up off Caldy Island.”
These reports provided additional search parameters and a search was renewed in the on-line sources. A number of newspapers were located carrying similar reports each based on Lloyd’s List of 13 October, naming neither the vessel nor Tenby, hence the failure of the first search. However, they did enable comparisons, which brought the addition of the small, but significant, detail from the Liverpool Mercury. A report was also located in the Cambrian although, from the indexing, this appears to be a reiteration of the Lloyd’s List entries.
Best of all, the search yielded an immediate and unexpected result for a search against “Rolins”, in Trewman’s Exeter Flying-Post of Thursday 21 October although, unfortunately, that newspaper failed to name the vessel.
“OTTERTON. A MELANCHOLY ACCIDENT - LOSS OF THREE LIVES.
A most distressing occurrence has lately occurred here by which several families have been thrown into the deepest sorrow. It appears that a short time since arrangements were made by Messrs. Skinner, farmers, of this place, for burning lime again in the kilns at Lardram [sic] Bay, and accordingly a vessel was procured for the purpose of fetching the necessary limestone and culm; but, unhappily, the craft was not so seaworthy as she aught to have been, and frequently her crew had to pump hard to keep her afloat. About three weeks since the men parted from their families for a trip to Newport for culm and reached that port in safety, though the weather had been most boisterous. The load was taken in, and the return trip commenced on Tuesday, the 5th inst.; but, alas! their homes were never again to be eached, for the tempestuous weather beat the vessel about in the Bristol Channel for the succeeding four days until at length she was cast ashore on the night of Saturday, the 9th a little west of Giltar Head, near Tenby, and all hands (three in number) met with a watery grave. The vessel went entirely to pieces; nevertheless, by dint of great exertions, the Tenby boatman rescued two of the bodies, but the third has not yet been found.
A subscription has been set on foot, under the auspices of the Rev. Mr. Coldridge, the curate of the parish, Mr. Pullen, surgeon, and Mr. Carter, the poor-law guardian, on behalf of the bereaved families; and should any of our readers feel disposed to contribute, the above-named gentleman will be glad to receive subscriptions. The names of those who are lost are -- William Thurscombe, who leaves a delicate wife and three children; Thomas Rolins, leaving a wife and an infant a fortnight old; John May, leaving two orphan girls.” (British Library Newspaper Collection)
Despite the fact that the article does not name the vessel lost west of Giltar Head, it does provide positive proof that she was the Perseverance, as her registered owners were John and Jacob Skinner; the farmers who had planned to re-introduce lime-burning at Ladram Bay, which, with its red sandstone sea-stacks, lies a short distance east of Otterton. Thomas Rolins’ body, identified by his wife’s note, provides the essential link between Lloyd’s List of 13 October and the Exeter Flying-Post of the 21st. From Roz Hickman, the on-line Parish Clerk for Otterton, I have learned that Thomas Rolins correct name was in fact Robbins; it seems probable that the letter in his pocket, gave Thomas the glad news of the birth of his first child, the “infant a fortnight old” of the Exeter Flying Post, a girl named Rosa, who he did not live to see or hold. And the master’s name on the stern of the boat found off Caldy Island is the correct name. (For further information concerning “UK Online Parish Clerks” see
- I have twice used this network and enjoyed excellent help.)
If any member is aware of any similar on-line sources of newspaper material it would be very useful to know of it; particularly if it relates to a local coastal newspaper. There are of course many secondary sources on the Internet, of lesser or greater accuracy, The Island Register - P.E.I. Ship Info Index! under the heading “PEI Maritime History and Passenger Lists” “Shipping Notes, Disasters, Shipbuilding” contains some excellent information extracted from Prince Edward Island newspapers. This material is unusual in that it relates to the early days of settlement in the island, with an environment far different to our own. In it will be found accounts of large teams of horses dragging vessels for several miles over ice to a launch site and of the ice-boats developed to cross Northumberland Strait between the island and the New Brunswick mainland during the winter months. I recommend this site to members, both for research and as an interesting read.
By Gary Hicks
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