Waifs of the Sea

An Index of Identifiable Wreckage from Shipwreck, and Losses from Vessels, recorded in the British Press in the 19th Century.

By Ed Cumming, NAS Fellow, MIBEC Publications

If you can add to this publication in anyway please make contact with Ed Cumming directly ([email protected])

The amount of wreckage from shipwreck, ship incidents, and losses from vessels, drifting around the seas of Great Britain, recorded over the years of the nineteenth century was huge. That on which there was recorded readable text, also turns out to be very significant. Not all modern publications dealing with the subject of shipwreck in particular, cover material like this, particularly when there has been no obvious evidence of a local incident. Many of these items were boards with names on from the main vessel which can include; name-boards, head-boards, quarter-boards, arch-boards and stern-boards etc., these can often identify, or give clues to the identity of the vessel from which they came. Depending on which part of the vessel is recovered, it may at best also identify the vessel, the master, and the port. Small boats from these vessels are also a significant source of information.

Unfortunately, these and some of the other items mentioned, were often lost during a gale or major collision, meaning of course, there is no guarantee their discovery is the result of a total loss.

It appears from the newspaper archives in particular, that post 1800 when newspaper publication increased significantly, there was a concerted effort to report and document wreckage like this when recovered. It was of coarse of particular interest to companies like Lloyd’s and must, although news of great concern, have been important information to the vessel’s owners and the families of the crew. Only in a few of the lengthier reports, however, is there any follow up.

In Appendix 1 you can read reports which reveal pressures on ship owners to ensure their vessels and small boats were adequately marked.

Since the advent of information appearing in newspaper archives like the British Newspaper Archive (BNA), it has become far easier to record reports which include the type of information mentioned above. The object of this publication is to focus on this particular type of report which may help to identify the fate of at least some of these missing vessels. It will hopefully aid ship incident research across the whole of the British Isles.
Since data like this can never be definitive, the aim like many previous publications of this type is to at least make a start, this will hopefully be added to when new material is teased from the existing archives and those which are continually finding their way onto databases like those appearing on the Internet.

Reports in which it has been made very clear that items, like name-boards and ship’s boats, were lost during the voyage, or where they are recorded directly from a clearly identified wrecked, derelict or abandoned vessel are not generally recorded in this particular publication. These, and listed missing vessels, will hopefully be the subject of a future publication of this type.

There is little doubt that a large number of the items listed in these reports are the result of a total wreck, particularly where when there has been a visual report of a foundering, additional wreckage has been reported associated with the discovery, and where significant sections of the vessel are still attached to the named wreckage.

To validate many of these, particularly with the British vessels, additional research may be required, more information could well be discoverable in the BNA, Lloyd’s Register, Lloyd’s List and importantly in the local port archives. The many foreign vessels currently present a much greater challenge. Items like arch-boards and stern-boards, both from the main vessel and the ship’s small boats in particular, do, as mentioned, often have the addition, of their home ports identity. In fact, many of the broken boards only highlight the port of registry.

Sadly, this data is only highlighting items of wreckage where there is readable text, available in a specific report and, of course, only if discovered by a particular search engine. It is quite obvious that thousands, of vessels, will sadly never appear, i.e. those lost without any trace or witness or discoverable record in the archives available. Unlike previous wreck incident listings, very few of these reports indicate a positive outcome for the ship’s company.

Download the full searchable Waifs of the Sea Index here.