Doing family history is all about patience, and oftentimes luck. Occasionally something will fall into your hands that helps to flesh out a part of the family story. Recently, I was lucky enough to be given the Continuous Certificate of Discharge of my great-grandfather, George Toms. This document, issued by the Board of Trade, gave a description the seaman who owned it, along with details of the ships he sailed. This means that for the ships George Toms sailed on we have the following information:
- The name of the ship, its official number, it’s port of registry, and its tonnage
- The date and place of engagement
- The seaman’s rating
- The date and place of discharge
- A description of the voyage (usually destination)
- The signature of the Master
- A report for character for a) ability and b) for general conduct
That means we now have a much clearer sense of the life he lived and who he was.
Born in Tramore, Co. Waterford on July 25 1870, by the time he was 5, George’s father had died. When he was just seven, his brother William, only ten years old also died. We know very little of his life from the age of seven until he was 29. At 29 he had a brief run in with a local RIC officer and was charged with public drunkenness, and fined 1s 6d at the Petty Sessions Court. Within a year, he was married to my great-grandmother, Sarah Kelly. The same year that George got married – he was married sometime between July and September of 1900 – is the same period after which we have his Continuous Certificate of Discharge.
According to the details of this document, George was 5’4 in height, with blue eyes and brown hair. His complexion is described as being fair. As was the norm in those days for sailors, George had two tattoos. Marcus Rediker in Outlaws of the Atlantic notes: “the original purpose of the tattoo was deeper than decoration: many a sailor wanted a telltale mark on the body so that in the event of catastrophic death he could be identified and properly buried.” One, on his left arm, with his initials GT, and another, on his right arm, of a harp and shamrock – both signifiers of his Irish identity, and together with his initials, undoubted aids for identification in the case of drowning. The culture of tattooing among sailors is generally said to stretch back to the 18th century, and, was particularly strong as a culture among sailors in Britain in the 19th century – the same culture of which George was a part. Rediker places tattooing into the wider culture of the sailor’s yarn, saying of tattoo symbols, like the heart “could prompt tales of loved ones back at home, while a liberty cap, pole, or tree could elicit a political rant bout ‘liberty’, a favourite theme among sailors in the age of revolution.” As well as identifying him as Irish, George’s harp and shamrock may well have elicited similar yarns about Ireland.
According to his certificate of discharge, George sailed a good deal between November 1900 and April 1905. According to this document, his first engagement was aboard the Eugenie, a London registered ship. He was engaged to work on the ship at Newport, Monmouthshire in Wales, and was listed as being AB, or an able seaman, which meant he probably had several years previous experience of working aboard ships. He would sail aboard the Eugenie to the Black Sea, returning on new year’s eve 1901, disengaging at Penarth in Glamorgan, Wales. Aboard the same ship in the course of the same journey, he made a trip to Malta, starting out from Penarth on 4 January 1901 and returning to Newport on 25 February 1901.
George was engaged again three months later again at Newport, this time aboard the s.s. Bona, on which he would travel to both the Mediterranean and the USA, returning 10 months later on 12 March 1902 to the port at Liverpool. The s.s. Bona turns up in the Port of London Medical Officer’s annual report, as having two cases of Enteric fever (Typhoid), on June 2 1902, a little under three months after George was disengaged. That year had seen a huge “war against the ship rat” according to one newspaper. According to the Medical Officer for January of that year in the Port of London with 2,293 ships inspected, there was some 7,626 destroyed. The danger of the diseases borne aboard ships making their way away around the ports of Britain and Ireland was a serious one, and one more of the many dangers faced by men like George while engaged in this difficult, laborious work.
After another two month spell, George was engaged aboard the s.s. Hypatia, sailing out of Barry in Glamorgan, and bound for the Cape. It returned to Barry on the 28 July 1902. George was not to sail again for almost twelve months out of Britain.
On 6 July 1903, he was engaged aboard the s.s. Harmodius out of Liverpool and was bound for Rosario in the Santa Fe province of Argentina. Lying 300km north-west of Buenos Aires on the Paraná river, the Port at Rosario began operating in 1852. George returned to Liverpool on 17 November 1903, and would not sail again out of a British port for over twelve months.
He may have returned to sailing in December 1904 on account, in part at least, following the birth of his and Sarah’s first son, my grandfather, John earlier in 1904. And so it was he left once more from Barry in Glamorgan, this time aboard the s.s. Peareth also bound for Rosario, returning after five months to Bristol on 1 April 1905. This is the last trip recorded in this Continuous Certificate of Discharge. Although it was probably a matter largely of formality, in his Continuous Certificate of Discharge, George received stamps of “very good” in his Report of Character, for all of these journeys. This Report of Character covered both ability and general conduct. After returning from Bristol, George lived and worked out of Waterford, and both he and Sarah had four more children, one of whom, named George, was born in 1905, but died in his first year of infancy.
George Toms himself would die at a young age, not long after he turned forty-one. On 19 December 1911, while working aboard the s.s. Reginald, this experience sailor fell from the deck while securing the covers of the on-deck cargo, and drowned before he could be rescued from the river. He was buried by Thompson’s of Waterford, in a walnut coffin, in Tramore where he had been born for a cost of £6 10s. It is ironic perhaps that this sailor, who had been far and wide aboard many ships, should drown not in waters remote from his home, but in the river that runs out to sea so close to where he was born and his family lived.