Here I hope to share my adventures in family history with family, friends and interested parties! Hopefully you'll find something here of interest, I would love to hear your views.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Ethelbet Peter Sayers 1820 - 1900

This Case Study appeared in Your Family Tree Magazine No. 99 February 2011

Master of a Grimsby Fishing Boat

When I first starting investigating my ancestor Ethelbert Sayers, it was with difficulty; I kept coming across references to an Ethelbert Sayer/s and a Peter Sayer/s, both appeared to have been born in Kent in Herne Bay (or Herring Bay as one census entry had it) between 1820 and 1825. It was only when I had accumulated several documents and certificates that I was able to say with certainty that the Ethelbert Sayer born in Herne Bay in Kent in 1820 and baptised there on the 4 August that year, was the same person as the Peter Sayers who appeared on the 1841 census with his wife Harriet and two young children, John aged 2 years and Thomas 5 weeks. Ethelbert it seems preferred to be called Peter, and one can only wonder if that’s because he didn’t like his given name, yet if that were the case, he wouldn’t have attempted to give his name to his sons.

Ethelbert Sayers settled, with his wife and family, a third son William was born in 1843 and a daughter named Harriet after her mother in 1845, in Grimsby where he was a mariner probably employed in the coastal shipping business. In 1846, the younger Harriet died aged only 3 months, and tragedy was to visit the family again in 1847 when Ethelbert’s wife died of heart disease on the 22nd September on a visit to her mother and step father in Hull. Mary and Benjamin Wilman were to take on the three little boys to bring up in Hull, whilst their father continued living in Grimsby on his own. In the 1851 census, Ethelbert is enumerated as Peter Sayer, a Visitor in Dover occupation given as Mariner, and in 1861 he is living at 21 Flour Square, a 40 year old widower, occupation given as Fisherman.

 Many of the original skippers of Grimsby smacks became owners, usually of no more than one, but some made big business out of it. The crew lists are kept at the North East Lincolnshire Archives in Grimsby, and it was here a couple of years ago that I first found Ethelbert or Peter Sayers mentioned as skipper on fishing vessels.

The indexes to these crew lists now appear on NE Lincs archives website, and searching these, I found that Ethelbert appears as skipper throughout the 1880s and 1890s on the John Shapley, the Emperor, the Frolic, the Kerry and the Alethia. All these smacks were owned by James Meadows, who appears to have owned about 25 fishing smacks, Ethelbert sailed exclusively for him between 1884 and 1893. In 1883, certification of skippers and mates of fishing boats were introduced, and on a visit to the National Archives in Kew, I found Ethelbert’s certificate in BT130/1, which is kept on microfilm; his certificate number is 0596 and it was issued on 13th December 1883, this also gives some details of his voyages on the John Shapley.

In 1864, Ethelbert had married again to Mary Ann Fraser, the widow of another fisherman, by this time his children from his first marriage were grown up and married themselves. Ethelbert and Mary Ann were to have nine children from 1865 to 1876, but only the last born was to live to adulthood. On a visit to the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies for a weekend workshop, I was working in their library when I first came across the sad tale of the deaths of Ethelbert’s children. Working through the microfiche of burials for the parish of Great Grimsby, I kept finding burials for young children:

Mary Ann Sayers buried 12 September 1866, Flower Square aged 6 weeks
Ethelbert Sayers buried 15 December 1865, Flower Square, aged 6 weeks
Ethelbert Sayers buried 18 May 1868, Flower Square, aged 8 weeks
Frederick W Sayers, buried 10 July 1870, Flower Square, aged 3 weeks
Mary Ann Sayers buried 9 August 1873, Flower Square aged 3 weeks
Ethelbert Sayers, buried 21 October 1874, Flower Square, Aged 5 weeks
Ethel Rosamund  buried 18 December 1874, Flower Square, aged 2 years
Alfred Sayers buried 27 December 1874, Flower Square, aged 5 years

By the time I had finished going through the burials, there were tears in my eyes, so many young children dying in their first weeks of life, with only two, Alfred and Ethel surviving to live for a paltry few years. Between 1865 and 1874 Ethelbert & Mary Ann lost eight of their nine children, aged from three weeks to five years, all whilst living at Flower Square, surely an inappropriate name - the only child to survive to adulthood from this marriage was Isabella Ethel born in 1876, the youngest child, she wouldn't have known any of her brothers & sisters, how precious she must have been to her parents.

Sending for three of the death certificates (using the online ordering system at www.gro.gov.uk) for Ethelbert who died in 1865 aged six weeks, Ethel Roseman who died 1874 aged two years and Alfred who also died in 1874 aged 5 years, I discovered that they had all died from childhood diseases that were prevalent in the overcrowded urban areas of the mid nineteenth century. Ethelbert died of Diarrhoea, Ethel of Scarlet Fever and Alfred from Diphtheria, all treatable and preventable today in the 21st century.

Grimsby, like most urban areas in the nineteenth century, was filled with overcrowded unsanitary houses built by speculative builders to house the workers, in this case the fishermen near to their work. Flour or Flower Square was at the end of Victoria Street near to the docks, in his book, A History of Grimsby, Edward Gillett describes some of the homes people were living in; there were ‘... houses where the basement floor was laid upon the ground, no joists put between, and water oozing up’, there were ‘three houses with an unpaved yard which ... was contaminated by leaking closet boxes’. These insanitary conditions must have been hard on the families living in them as they struggled to make a living. It is no wonder then that in the late 1870s the family moved to Humber Street in nearby Clee with Weelsby, an area of better housing and cleaner air.

Ethelbert continued fishing until he was well in to his seventies, I have had sight of a memoriam card for him, that stated he was known as Old Peter and had been well known in the town and well respected. It also states that when the New Dock was opened in the 1850s, Ethelbert walked the full length of the dock under water in a heavy diving suit, that must have been a sight to be seen. I have a great admiration for Ethelbert, he moved north to find work, his first wife died young and he suffered sorrow and tragedy with the death of so many of his children from his second marriage. He died in 1900 and is buried in Scartho Road cemetery in Grimsby. He must have been a man of strong fortitude and I feel as though I know him well, and am proud to have him for an ancestor.

Childhood illness and death

Death in childhood was all too common in the nineteenth century, families from all walks of life experienced sickness and death of their children. Childhood diseases were rampant, with diphtheria, scarlet fever and diarrhoea being killers and many young children succumbed to outbreaks of measles, cholera and small pox. Many families could not afford a doctor, and often relied on folk remedies or patent medicines, which could frequently be dangerous in themselves. Attitudes to death in the nineteenth century were often tempered by the belief that the loved one would be in a better world, many more people than today attended church and the teachings of the bible were often a comfort to families. Funerals could be expensive, but there were Friendly Societies, burial clubs and savings clubs that working class people could use to insure against the paupers burial.


A respiratory disease that is contagious and causes an inflammation of the throat which makes breathing difficult and can cause asphyxiation. Epidemics often broke out in overcrowded urban areas, tubes inserted into the throat could stop victims from suffocating, a vaccine was introduced in the early part of the twentieth century.

Burial records

Often overlooked, these records can help fill out the missing gaps in your family tree and help build up a picture of your ancestor’s lives. Parish register burials can often be accessed on microfiche or microfilm at the archives centres, local history libraries or specialist libraries such as the IHGS or Society of Genealogists.

Fleeting System

This was introduced in the mid-nineteenth century to make fishing more efficient. Several smacks would sail together and offload their catch packed in ice to the carrier by rowing boat, the carrier take the fish to the home port before returning to the fleet once more.


Gillett, Edward, A History of Grimsby, 1970 Oxford University Press
Tunstall, Jeremy, The Fishermen: The sociology of an extreme occupation, 1962 MacGibbon and Kee