Seeking my Stowaway

This is another post to document my research journey with my great-great-grandfather William Williamson. This week’s research has presented me with two stumbling blocks, which I’m yet to resolve, but they’ve also exposed significant gaps in the academic literature. So if anyone out there is looking for juicy research topics, keep reading!

Stumbling block No.1 must be a familiar one to genealogists—the stowaway. The story which has been passed down through my family is that William stowed away on the Norfolk, thinking it was bound for America. It turns out the ship travelled to Australia, where he arrived in Melbourne in 1862.  The steamship Norfolk travelled from London to Melbourne twice in 1862, but William does not appear on the passenger list for either journey. I wonder whether if he really did stow away on the Norfolk, would he have been converted to crew once discovered? The Public Record Office of Victoria keeps hard copies of the Mercantile Marine Office Release Books. After each voyage the discharge and release of the crew was recorded—the master and crew signed to release the ship owner from any future claims for wages etc in relation to the voyage. I’d be interested to know whether stowaways appeared on these documents.

And what happened to stowaways on arrival in Victoria? He could have been very young, either 10 or 15—if he was 10, would charities have taken any interest in his life? Would this be recorded anywhere? This relates to stumbling block No.2— I cannot establish exactly how old William was when he arrived in Victoria. Some family researchers place his birthdate at 1847, and some at 1852. Both are plausible on the basis of birth and census records. But if he was born in 1852, he would have been only 10 when he stowed away. If the 1852 birthdate belongs to my ancestor, then it’s likely he was the 9 year old “ragged scholar” at the All Saints Charity School in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, recorded on the 1861 census.  From my preliminary reading on ragged schools, the students tended to ‘graduate’ at about 10 years of age, so he would have been let loose in 1862… did he then journey down to Plymouth alone, to the Plymouth Export Depot to get on a boat?

Some exciting historical questions are starting to emerge as I research William’s life. My list of areas to investigate is rapidly expanding—a quick search has revealed that very little has been written about stowaways, or the Ragged Schools movement in England. Life at the heaving Plymouth Export Depot also sounds fascinating, and understudied. The possibility that William arrived in Melbourne in 1862 as a 10 year old also reminded me of a fascinating seminar I attended at Macqurie Uni this year with Simon Sleight about young people and urban life in Melbourne (see his book: Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870—1914 (Farnham & Burlington: Ashgate, 2013).

My immediate task is to try to pin down William’s timeline, but I would love to hear from anyone who has met similar challenges in their family or academic research, or with an interest in Ragged Schools, Plymouth in the 1860s, or stowaways.

 

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