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

11. Wrecks on Christmas Day

Wrecks on Christmas Day are somewhat inevitable when the prime ‘wrecking season’ is between October and March in our northern hemisphere. There are numerous instances of such wrecks, so here are a few representative examples – there are far more in our records than I can possibly include here. However, it does show that it is possible to mine the database for the same day regardless of year, as well as a specific date.

Plymouth in particular seemed really rather dangerous on the 25th December in the late 17th century: on 25th December 1675 the George  and Spread Eagle, both from Bordeaux with wine, were lost west of the Citadel, as was a Dutch ship, the St. Job of Naarden. On 25th December 1689 a similar event happened, resulting in the loss of the CenturionHenrietta, Blade of Wheat, Dover Prize, Eendracht  and two unknown French prizes which had been sent into Plymouth. However, accounts are probably skewed by Plymouth’s status as a naval base and importance as a port, making it one of the premier ‘reporting ports’ for the few newspapers at this time.

In 1810 a gale on Christmas Day accounted for four wrecks in various locations, two of them in Liverpool. The wind conditions on that day were reported at Deal as ‘West, blows hard, a tremendous gale in the morning.’ On the same day a year later, the crew of the Giertru Chrestiane from Drammen in Norway were picked up in their boats after striking the Leman and Ower off Norfolk on Christmas Eve.

On 25th December 1814, the Valette schooner went to pieces off Warkworth, Northumberland, with what sounds like a very Dickensian cargo of toys and clocks from Rotterdam. In 1830, the German brig Anna, bound for her home port of Hamburg with coal, came ashore at Mundesley, Norfolk, on Christmas night at 9pm in a ‘strong gale and a very severe frost’.

One hundred years later, the crew of the Norwegian collier Eli,  bound from Blyth for Rouen with coal, had a most un-festive shock when their ship was mined on 25th December 1914 off Scarborough – a reminder that while the Christmas truce was holding across much of the Western Front, mines could strike at random.

Happily all the crew were saved, hopefully to enjoy the remainder of their Christmas!