No.80 The Strange Case of the Madonna del Rosario . . .

Today’s wreck holds the record, I think, for having the longest name on our database of shipwrecks around the English coast: normalised to the modern spelling as far as I can make it, she was the Madonna del Rosario Sant’Antonio di Padova e la Stella delle Mare.

Ongoing research means that we often have to substantially revise our records for documented wreck events. This usually entails adding more detail or narrowing down the area of loss to a more specific location from the initial vague reports ‘near’ or ‘off’ a particular place. The length of the name in this case gave me room for some doubt since it is not unknown for the names of ships lost in company in the same location to be run together, particularly if they were foreign, and I had wondered if this long name masked more than one wreck event. It did, but not in quite in the way that I expected!

The first we knew about this wreck was a report that the ‘Catharina . . . and Madonna del Rosario and St Antonio de Padova e la Stella delle Mare, Captain Mellin, are both lost in Bristol Channel.’ (1) I had hoped that we would be able to revise their location to somewhere more specific, but what I was completely unprepared for was to find that the specific position for the Madonna del Rosario would be on the other side of the country!

She next turns up in the press in the Ipswich Journal, which states that a ship of that name (so we are clear that there were no multitudes of vessels hiding behind the one name), a Venetian, had struck on the Shipwash on 29 December 1781, on the approaches to the Thames off Suffolk, and that the crew had escaped and landed at Aldeburgh. (2) This was the preamble to an appeal to salvors from the area to come forward to receive ‘legal salvage’, but it also warned that there was a reward of ‘Five Guineas’ (£5 5s, or £5.25) for the discovery of any person concealing salvaged goods.

This is all very specific, so why did she end up being reported in the Bristol Channel instead? The confusion probably arose because of another Venetian vessel that was indeed lost off the Bristol Channel coastline of Wales, on Friday 28 or Friday 21 December 1781:

‘Extract of a Letter from Swansea, dated Jan. 5.

“Last Friday Se’nnight in the morning (3) a large Venetian Ship, laden with Cotton, Marble, and Coral, was stranded on the Skerr-Rocks, in this County. Soon after the Accident, the Country People commenced the barbarous Practice, usual on such Occasions, of plundering the Distressed and Helpless . . .’ (4)

I haven’t yet traced the Catharina in the contemporary press, although her voyage, also from Livorno to London or Ostend, suggests that she was also more likely to have been lost in the North Sea rather than the Bristol Channel, but there is the possibility that she can indeed be identified with the ship lost off Wales. There is no record of a Catharina or of a Venetian ship indexed in the region in the Shipwreck Index of the British Isles, Vol. 5: West Coast and Wales (Larn and Larn, 2006), nor are the arrivals and departures lists in Lloyd’s List any help (although often very helpful, they are selective at best, and the distinctive name of the Madonna del Rosario was absent).

Can anyone help with either vessel? If the Catharina is distinct from the Welsh wreck and was also lost on the east coast, then it would also be great to relocate the record for this wreck and help build up a more accurate picture of the archaeological potential around the English coastline. At the moment it looks as if she may be ‘lost’ in the other sense in the Bristol Channel . . .

(1) Lloyd’s List, 4 January 1782, No.1,324

(2) Ipswich Journal, 12 and 19 January 1782, No.2,242 and 2,243, both p3

(3) Se’nnight, that is, ‘seven-night’, cf. fortnight, still in use. January 5 was a Saturday so it might mean either ‘a week [counting from] the Friday just gone’, i.e. ‘a week ago yesterday’, or ‘a week ago on Friday last week’ depending on local usage. Interestingly newspapers of this time often copied news items verbatim from other papers, and the date of loss can vary by a week or two depending on how many times it was copied, and whether or not the local editors changed the date accordingly, or how they understood ‘Friday last’!

(4) Oxford Journal, 12 January 1782, No.1,498, p3

No. 65 A Complete Absence of Fishermen’s Ganseys

It’s often said that ganseys (knitted sweaters) with traditional village-specific patterns have been used to identify the bodies of fishermen drowned at sea. It’s also often said it is a myth, so I thought the wealth of shipwreck data we hold would be an obvious place to shed light on this question!

In all my years researching wrecks, I do not recall ever coming across such a story, but I decided to take a more scientific approach: mining the database with its wealth of primary sources. The starting point was data for any fishing vessel lost in English waters 1750-1950, with 2,655 hits, using keywords for knitted clothing, bodies and the identification thereof. (1)

This approach yielded no results for any fishermen identified by their clothing, ganseys or otherwise.

The closest story was that of a French fishing vessel lost in October 1826 on the Kentish Knock at the entrance to the Thames. In early November some bodies washed ashore at Margate, ‘judged to be part of the crew of a French fishing boat, reported to have been lost on the Long Sand or Knock.’ This suggests their garb was distinctively French, but this clue was clearly combined with local knowledge of tides and currents and prior knowledge of the wreck.

By contrast, records of passenger vessel losses are rich in detail of bodies identified, and how, so here are just a few examples:

When the Elizabeth foundered in the Bristol Channel in 1781, the stockings on one victim identified him, but his clothing is likely to have been distinctive, since he was a Quaker. Again, when the Piedmont transport struck Chesil Beach, Dorset, in November, 1795, an officer was recognised by his scars (suggesting fairly rapid recovery of the body, consistent with a stranding).

In 1814, Captain le Coq of the Mentor, lost off Cornwall, is said to have been recognised by his gold watch and seal (from an as yet untraced citation from a primary source, indicating the body washed up fairly quickly afterwards). Who identified these individuals, all unknown in the communities where they met their final resting place?

In all three cases above there were survivors who would have provided corroborative information. Where the blanks could not be filled in, they were published in newspapers to aid identification. A night of carnage on the Bamburgh coast in 1774 resulted reports of bodies being washed ashore, among whom was a lady with ‘five diamond rings on her fingers, and gold ear-rings in her ears’.

The 1826 case on the Kentish Knock shows how difficult it was to identify fishermen washed up far from home and from the location of the wreck site. At the present state of knowledge there appears to be no reported evidence for the use of ganseys alone to identify drowned fishermen in English waters, unless a well-corroborated story comes to light.

Can anyone help?

(1) The National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) curated by Historic England. Keywords were: gansey and its synonyms guernsey, jersey, sweater, jumper + knit-; body/ies, corpse(s), remains; identified, known, proved (as in ‘proved to be’), recognised