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Mob scene

Archivists a hit at British genealogical fair

By Janet Harron

Vincent Walsh and Tanya McDonald of the Maritime History Archive recently returned from a whirlwind trip to the U.K. that is bound to attract business and increase awareness of the archive’s services among the British.

The Who Do You Think You Are? show, which took place Feb. 27 to March 1 in London, capitalizes on the growing interest in researching family history. It is an offshoot of the popular Who Do You Think You Are? television series, which recently aired a Canadian edition on CBC TV.

This is the second time representatives from the Maritime History Archive have made the trip but nothing could have prepared them for the sheer numbers of attendees flooding to their booth this year.

“We had barely got our coats off when the first person showed up and it was six hours later before I got a chance to even talk to Tania,” said Mr. Walsh, assistant archivist and digital project co-ordinator.

Mr. Walsh attributes the huge amount of interest to two key learnings from the 2008 show.

“We downplayed the Canadian aspect and highlighted the word ‘seafarers’ on our booth’s banner. And I think word got out last year about us which set the stage for this year’s increased activity.”

The reason for the frenzy?

The Maritime History Archives holds 70 per cent of the crew lists of all British-registered vessels that sailed from 1863 to 1976. According to Mr. Walsh, this adds up to about two million lists in total and includes documents from whatever colonies were a part of the British Empire at the time (i.e. Australia, Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, India, etc.).

Mr. Walsh went on to explain that the Public Record office in England was planning to destroy these records in the late 1960s. The British National Archives at Kew kept a random sampling of 10 per cent of the lists; the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich kept all records for every year ending in “5” and various ports such as Cardiff kept records of their own vessels. The National Archives also kept crew lists of celebrated ships such as the Titanic and all crew lists from the Second World War period (1939 to 1950).

The bulk of the records however found a home here at Memorial University in St. John’s.

“Some British people we spoke to at the show were obviously angry when they discovered officials were prepared to destroy these documents in the late 1960s but are very happy that the Maritime History Archive came to the rescue,” said Mr. Walsh.

Mr. Walsh explained that crew lists were sorted by the official vessel number and year of sailing, which was the only way that the huge number of records could then be organized. If a patron has a vessel name, representatives from the Maritime History Archive should be able to find the number, says Mr. Walsh.

Ultimately, he hopes in time to be able to recruit volunteers to go into each list and identify the surname of each crew member which would of course help from the perspective of those hoping tracking to track down ancestors.

“For the British records, this is pretty much it. If the mathematics buildings (where the Maritime History Archives is housed) ever burnt down everything would be lost,” said Mr. Walsh. Because of resource limitations none of the original crew lists have been microfilmed or digitized.