Tuesday 27 May 2014

Passenger Ships – How our ancestors travelled to their new home

Most of the ancestors of North Americans, outside of the native population, arrived in the New World by ship. Tracking down just when and on which vessel an individual of family sailed is an exercise all genealogists go through. Often the ships, themselves, have very interesting histories, which adds to the narratives about the people who ventured out in search of a new life.

My father wrote an account of the Shepheard family for KIK Country, a compilation of stories by descendants of people who has settled in the Kathyrn-Irricana-Keoma area of Alberta published in 1974. He stated that his father, James Pearson Shepheard, had arrived in Canada, at the age of 17, in 1907, working first at “Meamington, Ontario” and then coming west to Alberta in 1909. So I had a sailing date and a destination. One problem with the information is that I have never found a place called Meamington.

One can find information about passenger records to Canada in a number of places. Library and Archives Canada has copies of records of immigrants to Canada and the ships on which they arrived. The National Archives in Britain has information on emigrants to many parts of the world which can be searched in their catalogue.  The Ships List website has a substantial amount of information on passengers and vessels. Subscription sites, such as Ancestry and FindMyPast  also have actual images of the passenger manifests. Not all are indexed and even some of those that are contain errors.

After searching a number of databases, I finally found my grandfather on the passenger manifest of the RMS Empress of Britain, which left from the Port of Liverpool on 14 June 1907, arriving in Quebec on 21 June. Of course he was shown as J. Shepherd, a farmer, aged 19, which complicated the search.
Portions of the outgoing passenger manifest for the SS Empress of Britain, leaving Liverpool on 14 June 1907 – showing passengers James Shepherd and Charles Salter  (copyright The National Archives; image downloaded from FindMyPast 20 August 2012)
After a roundabout search, I found him on the incoming passenger records as well. He was indexed on the Ancestry list as James Shephard, born 1898! On the actual image, though, his age was the same as the outgoing manifest – 19. More particular were found on the immigration list, though, including that he was a dairy farmer, born in England, last lived in Somerset and whose destination was Napanee (Ontario).

Portions of the incoming passenger manifest for the SS Empress of Britain, arriving at Quebec on 21 June 1907 – showing passengers James Shephard and Charles Salter (copyright Library and Archives Canada; image downloaded from Ancestry 20 August 2012)
He was also shown with the designation “Com. Paid C. G. E. A. No 1947 British Bonus Allowed” and travelled in Steerage. The British Bonus was a commission paid by the Canadian government's Immigration Branch to steamship booking agents in the United Kingdom for each suitable immigrant who purchased a ticket to sail to Canada. C.G.E.A. was the abbreviation for Canadian Government Employment Agent. They also received a commission from the government for placing newly-arrived immigrants with employers who were seeking labourers or domestics.

Both James and a fellow passenger, Charles Salter, also supposedly aged 19, were headed to Napanee. A postcard sent to James from his friends at the Shepheard Dairy in Somerset, in October 1907, is addressed to him “c/o Mr. W. J. Bowen” at Deseronto Post Office. Deseronto is only 11 km from Napanee. Very likely both James and Charles ended up working for the Bowen family. I suspect that the fares of both boys may have been paid by the Bowens and that they had to work off the debt on the farm before they could move on.

The RMS Empress of Britain was a 14,189 ton vessel, built for the Canadian Pacific Steamship line by Fairfield Shipbuilding in Govan, near Glasgow. It was launched on 11 November 1905 with her maiden voyage from Liverpool begun on 5 May 1906.

SS Empress of Britain at Liverpool in 1905 – photo part of E. Chambr√© Hardman Archive (downloaded from Wikipedia 21 September 2013)
Postcard of the SS Empress of Britain, pre 1924 – original now in Liverpool Record Office (downloaded from Wikipedia 21 September 2013)
The ship could carry up to 310 first-class, 470 second-class and 730 third-class, or steerage passengers. She regularly traversed the Atlantic between Canada and Europe, except during the First World War, until 1922. During the war, she was re-fitted to become a merchantman with the British Admiralty. The Empress also struck an iceberg, just two weeks after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, however damage was reported as only slight. In 1924 the ship was renamed SS Montroyal. She carried her final passengers in 1929. A second, much larger ship, at 42,348 tons, was also named RMS Empress of Britain and launched in 1930. It was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in 1940. A third RMS Empress of Britain, of 25,516 tons, was built in 1955. More information about the ships can be found on Wikipedia.

One can only imagine the excitement and possibly trepidation of a teenage boy, with limited resources, leaving family and home for a new adventure thousands of miles away. In the end he was very successful in establishing a new life and raising a family in Canada. I do wish, though, that I had known enough to inquire about his early life in Canada so that I could have learned about his travels and his decision to leave England. He and my father both passed away before I really got deeply involved in genealogy and knew the value of asking questions of those who were part of our family’s history.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.