Monday, September 16, 2013

Mariners: The First Rung of the Ladder

Map showing Bowness-on-Solway, Glasson, Easton and Drumburgh:
places along the shores of the Solway Firth associated with William Bell and family
Merchant mariners of the 19th c often had the sea in their blood, i.e. they came of seafaring communities and families. This was not an invariable rule, of course. William Bell’s father wasn’t a mariner but a labourer, still working as such in the Bowness-on-Solway area of Cumberland in 1841.

The mouth of the Annan and Solway Firth, Skiddaw in the Distance:
engraving by Wm Miller after C Stanfield
Bell family information, an unreliable source, would have it that William ‘ran away to sea at an early age’. There was no need for him to do so. The sea was ever-present throughout his childhood; the salty tang pervaded the low-lying shores of the Solway Firth and church registers recorded documentary evidence of maritime occupations for the majority of the neighbourhood’s breadwinners – many of whom had the surname Bell.

Solway Firth, Cumberland
Bell’s parents may not have had the wherewithal required to start William off on the first rung of the maritime ladder but it’s likely that some family member or contact was either in shipbuilding or shipowning or both in some degree (there was an extremely successful shipbuilder named William Bell operating in Bowness at the time though his relationship to young William hasn’t been established) and would be able to put in a good word for the boy when it came time for him to be apprenticed – in William’s case probably around 1820.

For this is how most mariners began their career: being indentured like any other apprentice to a trade, contracted to work for a period of seven years usually starting at the age of 12 to 15 and emerging qualified to earn a living as a seaman. During that time the apprentice would live, eat and sleep anything and everything to do with ships, including building them and sailing them, in theory and in practice – ‘learning the ropes’ has come down to us as an expression from this world and for the seafaring apprentice it covered much more than its literal meaning.

Becoming a mariner was a hands-on process: one learned by experience and had hard knocks along the way. Training was much the same for future masters as it was for the average AB (Able Seaman). The sea was a great leveller as a man, regardless of his origins, could ascend through the ranks based on his own practical ability and intelligence. 

In the early 19th c, then, apprenticeship was an accepted form of maritime education; later, the numbers dropped. We’ve seen that this route was taken by William Falconer and he provides an example of a boy apprenticed to his father who was a master mariner.* Such an arrangement frequently would have been informal, with no indenture papers kept. Despite intensive searches, no apprenticeship record has emerged for William Bell, who was indentured to Ritson of Ritson’s shipbuilding company, Maryport. This fact is known purely by accident – a brief but welcome reference in a Cumberland newspaper.**

Maryport Pier as Bell might have known it:
perhaps he stood watching from the sea wall much like the boys in this picture

A well-known maritime researcher working regularly at The National Archives, UK, states that though the impression is given that there are 10% of indenture records surviving, the actual proportion is much smaller. 

In any case, if your mariner’s career pre-dates 1835, records are scarce because the government wasn’t particularly concerned with individual merchant seafarers. There are sources of various kinds, mostly kept for reasons other than the mariners’ activities per se, e.g. customs books, port books, High Court of Admiralty records etc, but these are diffuse, not easy to research and often not that useful for family historians. Occasionally a rewarding nugget comes to light.

**  spotted by Marion Abbott

Derek Ellwood

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