Given that 2014 is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, I’ve set myself the task of finding out what part my ancestors may have played.
I’ve previously posted about my two Great-Grandfathers on my Dad’s side: George RETTIE and Hugh IRVING. I know Hugh was in the Scots Guards and died in Belgium and that George was in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve for the duration of the war (and after!) ending up in Dover. Now I’ve turned my attention to my Mum’s side of the family…
Launching my MacFamilyTree database, I was immediately struck by how bare the entries were on my Mum’s side of the family – with only Birth, Death and Marriage data. Then, looking at the folder where I store the certificate images, I realised it’d been over 2 years since I’d looked at my Mum’s tree. This would have been the time when I first started my genealogy adventure with evening classes at Strathclyde University. Maybe we hadn’t got to Census records at that point in the course? Since that time I’ve been wrapped up in my RETTIE One-Name Study, so it’s fair to say this side of the family has been badly neglected.
Walking The Plank
My Mum’s maternal Grandfather was William Boyd BURNS. William was born on 14 Feb 1878 in Grangemouth, Stirlingshire, Scotland and was the son of John BURNS and Rachel BOYD.1 John worked as a Ship’s Carpenter from the 1881 Census through to his death in 1922.2,3
Continuing the maritime theme, I found that William was a Marine Engineer in the 1911 Census and that his young family lived at Wallace Street in Grangemouth.4 He had married Elizabeth Jackson HENDERSON on 10 Nov 19025 and Elizabeth’s Father, James, had been a Ship’s Master, Fish Merchant, Ship Sail Maker and Master Mariner in his long career.
Grangemouth is the town on the River Forth where I was brought up, and its busy port was the main source of employment until the petrochemical industry arrived in the 20th Century.6 (My Dad was a Research Chemist at Imperial Chemical Industries’ Dyes Division).
Full Speed Ahead
The 1878 year of birth and Wallace Street, Grangemouth address tied up with the Census and his Birth record. Extra detail provided was that he was a Chief and/or 1st Engineer (I think equivalent to a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Navy); he was aboard the SS Boorara out of Glasgow; he was awarded the Mercantile Marine Ribbon and British Medal Ribbon on 10 April 1921 and the Mercantile Marine Medal (awarded to those who served at sea for at least six months, and on at least one voyage through a danger zone) and British Medal (automatically awarded to all recipients of the Mercantile Marine Medal) on 17 April 1923; and there was even a picture of him!
Shot Across the Bow
The SS Boorara didn’t look much like a Scottish name. Sure enough it turned out to be an Australian ship, but it was also an ex-German ship – the SS Pfalz. And, to my amazement, it seems that this ship was fired on by an Australian land battery in the first shot of the First World War by forces of the British Empire!7
Carrying out further research on the SS Boorara, I found that it had been attacked twice by German U-Boats.8
This brought back a family story which I vaguely recollect from childhood. I remember my maternal Grandfather (who was also in the Merchant Navy) telling some story about the war involving a U-Boat but I’d thought HE was involved and that it was the SECOND World War. Perhaps this is the real story?
Sangster & Henderson’s have secured from the recent Sale of Ship Salvage Goods steamer, ex s.s. Boorara, which was torpedoed bound for Melbourne, part of the Drapery cargo, which amounted to over £20,000. The Goods are slightly damaged by Water.9
The ship was evidently repaired as she sailed on future voyages to Australia as well as places such as Antwerp and Hamburg after the war.10,11,12
I also found that the SS Boorara was moored at the former Prince’s Dock on the Clyde here in Glasgow,13 on the other side of the river from the Riverside Museum (European Museum of the Year 2013) – just a couple of miles from where I now live.
I’ll be making my second visit to the WDYTYA? Live event in London next month and I have booked an ‘Ask The Expert’ session as part of my Ancestry VIP Pass. I now intend to use this to find out more about researching Merchant Navy records. This should hopefully help me locate more details regarding my Great-Grandfather’s maritime career.
1. 1878 Birth of William Boyd BURNS in Grangemouth, 14 Feb 1878, ScotlandsPeople (SR Births 481/0B 0022)
2. 1881 Census of John BURNS in the Household of Ellen SINCLAIR, 1881, FindMyPast (1881 Census RG11/481B/2/5)
3. 1922 Death of John BURNS in Grangemouth, 1 Feb 1922, ScotlandsPeople (SR Deaths GROS 481/B2 0028)
4. 1911 Census of the Household of William Boyd BURNS in Grangemouth, 1911, ScotlandsPeople (1911 Census 481/B2 009/00 001)
5. 1902 Marriage of William Boyd BURNS & Elizabeth Jackson HENDERSON, Grangemouth, Stirlingshire, Scotland, ScotlandsPeople (Statutory Marriages 481/B2 0031)
6. Falkirk Local History Society, Grangemouth
7. “AUSTRALIA’S FIRST SHOT”, Leader, 8 Aug 1914.
8. Australian War Memorial, Collection Item H02290.
9. “All Roads Lead To Sangster & Henderson’s Great Salvage Sale”, Aberdeen Journal, 23 Jan 1919.
10. “BOORARA, for Australia, left Clyde, 17th” in Shipping News, Edinburgh Evening News, 20 Nov 1920.
11. “Boorara, fm Antwerp and Liverpool, at Adelaide, June 6.” in Shipping News, Dundee Courier, 8 June 1922.
12. “Alexandra Dock, SAILED: Boorara, s, Hamburg, general” in Hull Shipping Intelligence, Hull Daily Mail, 26 May 1924.
13. Aberdeen University, Detail from Ships Database.