A mariner’s tale – with a twist

This story was originally posted on my professional research website at: https://lifelinesresearch.co.uk/2020/04/14/a-mariners-tale-with-a-twist/. William, the subject of the story, is a member of Group E.


William Annal was born to the sea. His father, John, together with his uncle William, left their native Orkney, and worked as fishermen along the UK’s east coast, before eventually settling on the Thames Estuary in Gravesend, Kent, sometime around 1820.

The connection between Orkney and the north Kent coast may not seem an obvious one but it comes via the Hudson’s Bay Company, whose ships regularly set out from Gravesend on their long journey to the Canadian North West, picking up cheap but reliable labour, in the shape of hundreds of young Orcadian men on the way. The Annal brothers would almost certainly have known other Orkney ‘ex-pats’ in the area when they arrived in Gravesend.

The evidence of John’s seafaring life comes from a number of sources and the fact that he married in Monkwearmouth, County Durham suggests that he was spending time, and getting to know the locals, in a variety of east coast ports. John married Margaret Bigg at the parish church of St Peter, Monkwearmouth (Sunderland) on 20 August 1822[1] and they went on to have at least five children, all born in Gravesend, including William, who was born there on 27 October 1823.

1823-William Annal baptism St George, Gravesend - Medway Archives P159-1-4 p.193
Baptism of William Annal, 2 November 1823, St George, Gravesend
Medway Archives reference: P159/1/4 p.193

Unfortunately, the records of the baptisms of the first three children (William, Margaret and Sarah Ann) are somewhat lacking in detail, and it’s not until John and Margaret’s fourth child, Sarah Ann, was baptised in 1830[2] (the older daughter of the same name had died young), that we get a precise address for the family in Gravesend: namely, West Street, where, perhaps unsurprisingly, the houses backed onto the riverfront.

Just a few months after the birth of their youngest child, Ellen, Margaret died. She was just 32 years old and, although no cause of death is given in the parish register, it’s tempting to link Ellen’s birth to her mother’s death.

The 1841 census finds the family living at an address in Caroline Place, Gravesend,[3] one of the many courts and alleys leading from West Street. John and his brother William were evidently both at sea at the time and the Annal household comprises a confusing mixture of their two families.

1841 census
1841 census, Caroline Place, Gravesend
The National Archives reference: HO 107/458/8 f.19 p.34

The other notable absentee from the 1841 census is William Annal himself, the oldest child of John and the late Margaret, and the subject of this story; again, William must have been at sea. Indeed, we know from the series of Seamen’s Registers held by the National Archives,[4] that William had first gone to sea in 1837, when he was just 13 years old.

In September 1843, William’s father died. John and Margaret are both buried at St George’s, Gravesend – in a grave situated not far from the memorial to Rebecca Rolfe, better known as Pocahontas, who had been buried in the same churchyard over 200 years earlier. The inscription on John and Margaret’s gravestone reads:

Sacred to the Memory of Mrs Margaret Annal Wife of Mr John Annal who departed this life the 4th day of October 1833 Aged 32 Years
Likewise the above Mr John Annal who died 19th September 1843 Aged 44 Years

The wording on the stone suggests that they were of some social standing although there’s nothing else in the records to lead us to believe that John was anything other than a run-of-the-mill fisherman.

The burial register records John’s abode as Kempthorne Street and this is where the extended family are to be found at the time of the 1851 census.[5] William and his uncle were once again both at sea. The tendency for merchant seamen to be absent from census returns can present some challenges when it comes to tracing their lives and it wasn’t until 1851 that any attempt was made by the authorities to record details of the thousands of men (and some women and children) who found themselves at sea at the time of the decennial censuses. It’s fair to say that those attempts were haphazard at best for much of the nineteenth century.

We do, however, have a number of documents dating from 1851 which help to fill in some of the gaps. On 9 January 1851, William was issued with his Mate’s Certificate of Service and then, later the same year, on 15 September he applied to be examined for a Master’s Certificate of Competency, which he was duly granted five days later. These documents, held by the National Maritime Museum and searchable on the Ancestry website, provide details of the various ships on which William had served and give us a basic outline of his career – it’s clear just from this limited information that by the time he was 30 years old, William had seen more of the world than most of us do in our entire lifetimes. Using crew lists and agreements, in conjunction with the details from the Seamen’s Registers, it should be possible to build up a fairly comprehensive record of the ships he sailed on and the places that his voyages took him to.

1851-William Annal master's certificate - National Maritime Museum (1)
Certificate of Competency as Master, issued to William Annal, 20 September 1851
National Maritime Museum, Master’s Certificate no. 5715

We’re fortunate to get a sighting of William in the 1861 census – and he wasn’t actually too far from home; his ship, the Stella, a 186 tonne Brigg, was on the Thames at Woolwich Reach at midnight on census night (7 April 1861).[6] William was described as married, 38-years old and an Able Seaman. This is slightly odd as we’ve already seen that he held a Master’s Certificate, but perhaps work was hard to find and he took whatever he could get.

William had by then been married for nine years. On 15 March 1852, he married Emma Jane Hunting at the church of St John, Waterloo, in Lambeth.[7] and on 1 October 1854, their first child was baptised at the parish of Holy Trinity, Milton-next-Gravesend, and named James William Annal.[8] The family’s address was given in the baptismal register as 12 Wellington Street, a recently-built terraced street to the east of Gravesend’s town centre – quite possibly Emma’s parents’ address.

By the time of the 1861 census three more children had arrived (Emma Jane, Frederick Harley and William Alfred) and the family were back in the Gravesend Annal heartland, living at an address in Bath Street, close to West Street and the riverfront.[9] But this was to mark the end of their association with Gravesend. Some forty years after William’s father’s arrival in the area, the family moved 20 miles or so up-river to settle in Greenwich.

Their first known address in Greenwich was George Street, where the family were living in November 1862 when their fifth child, Alfred Hamilton Annal, was baptised. Two more children were born in Greenwich in the 1860s (Margaret Alice and John Walter) and the 1871 census finds the Annals (minus William, who yet again would have been at sea) living in Coltman Street, a narrow street in west Greenwich, leading down to the riverfront.[10]

By 1881, William and Emma Jane had moved for what would prove to be the last time. Emma appears in the census as a ‘Mariner’s Wife’ (yes, William was away at sea once more!) together with two of their sons, living at 3 High Bridge, in east Greenwich;[11] yet another address with houses backing onto the waterfront.

1895-OS London 1-1,056 - Sheet XII.12 (detail)
Ordnance Survey 1:1,056 series. London Sheet XII.12 (detail)
National Library of Scotland, Maps Collection

Sometime shortly after this, William seems to have retired from his long life at sea. Between 1885 and 1900 his name appears in a variety of trade directories as a greengrocer at 2 High Bridge, Greenwich. The numbering of the houses in High Bridge over the years is quite erratic so it’s possible that what was listed as number 3 in 1881 was actually the same address as number 2 in later records, but either way, we can’t be certain which building housed the Annal family’s grocer’s shop. A postcard, probably dating from the early 1900s, shows High Bridge, looking eastwards along the ‘road’ and my suspicion is that it was one of the properties on the right.

Picture 015 edit
High Bridge, Greenwich. Postcard, ca.1900

Another view of High Bridge comes from a sketch dating from 1899; this time the view is from the other end, looking westwards and appears to show some shop fronts on the left.

High Bridge, Greenwich
High Bridge, Greenwich. Lithograph by T. R. Way, 1899
The Boston Public Library & the Internet Archive

The 1891 census lists William Annal, a grocer, and Emma at 2 High Bridge[12] with, confusingly, the returns for the Three Crowns listed in between those for numbers 2 and 3. I say ‘confusingly’ as the pub was, by all accounts, on the corner of High Bridge and Queen Street so it’s difficult to make sense of this.

The registers of the Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital record William’s admission on three occasions in the 1890s.[13] In January 1893 he was admitted with cystitis and then in 1896, he was admitted twice, first suffering from ‘disease of testis’ and then later with an enlarged prostate.

William and Emma were still at High Bridge in 1901,[14] and still running the greengrocer’s shop but later that year, on 16 November, William died. An inquest was held into his death as he died suddenly and unexpectedly but the coroner gave the cause of death as ‘syncope from heart disease’ with no suggestion of any foul play.[15] William was buried at Greenwich Cemetery on 25 November 1901[16] and Emma Jane continued to run the grocery (Mrs Annal is listed at 2 High Bridge in a 1903 directory) until her death in 1905.

So, we can see that the records have enabled us to put together a comprehensive story of William’s life from cradle to grave. Or have they? Is the story really that comprehensive?

The records that we use to reconstruct the lives of our ancestors can only ever give us a basic framework. The census returns, for example, are a snapshot, giving us a glimpse into our ancestors’ lives once every 3650 days. Other records that we use can fill in some gaps, providing us with information about their occupations and addresses but we’re still not going to get close to knowing everything about their lives. There are always going to be certain aspects that will remain forever hidden.

But thanks to the remarkable access that we now have to sources which were once effectively buried we can begin to uncover some wholly unexpected stories. Newspapers, poor law records, military service records, details of court cases – you just don’t know where your ancestors might turn up.

And William Annal is certainly no exception. Because, on 12 December 1863, our Gravesend/Greenwich-based merchant seaman enlisted as a Private in the 56th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteers.[17] We can be certain this is our William. He’s described in the records as a 40-year old seaman, resident in England (our William would have been precisely 40 years old at the time) and there is no other William Annal who could fit the bill.

Quite what he was doing in Boston, whether he had deserted from his ship in Boston Harbour and whether his wife and the rest of his family back in England knew anything about this episode in his life, is unknown.

Further research in Merchant Naval records may answer some of the questions but for now, we can simply state the fact that William was mustered in Company ‘A’ of the 56th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers at Camp Meigs, Readville, just to the south of Boston, Massachusetts on 26 December 1863. The American Civil War had broken out in April 1861 and by the time of William’s enlistment in the Union Army, the outcome of the war was in little doubt. Nevertheless, it would be a further sixteen months before the Confederacy’s final surrender so William must have expected to see military action when he chose to enlist.


As it turns out, William had a less-than glorious career in the US Army. He deserted on 28 January 1864, less than seven weeks after enlisting. Did he then return to Boston and sign up for a ship heading back across the Atlantic? Again, further research may settle this question but much of the story may sadly remain a mystery.

None of the English records give us the slightest clue about this fascinating event in William’s life and the lesson is that our stories can never be comprehensive but that we just never know what might be out there, waiting to be discovered…

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 14 April 2020

[1] Marriage of John Annal and Margaret Bigg, St Peter, Monkwearmouth – Durham County Record Office EP/Mo.SP 29
[2] Baptism of Sarah Elizabeth Annal, St George, Gravesend – Medway Archives P159/1/5
[3] 1841 Census, Caroline Place, Gravesend – The National Archives (TNA) HO 107/458/8 f.19 p.33
[4] Seamen’s Registers – TNA BT 113/125 and BT 116/2
[5] 1851 Census, 45 Kempthorne Street, Gravesend – TNA HO 107/1608 f.79 p.44
[6] 1861 Census, MV Stella – TNA RG 9/4448 f.55
[7] Marriage of William Annal and Emma Jane Hunting, St John, Waterloo, Lambeth – London Metropolitan Archives P85/JNA3/47 p.18
[8] Baptism of James William Annal, Holy Trinity, Milton-next-Gravesend – Medway Archives P252B/1/2
[9] 1861 Census, 31 Bath Street, Gravesend – TNA RG 9/471 f.100 p.12
[10] 1871 Census, 9 Coltman Street, Greenwich – TNA RG 10/752 f.15 p.23
[11] 1881 Census, 3 High Bridge, Greenwich – TNA RG 11/723 f.57 p.8
[12] 1891 Census, 2 High Bridge, Greenwich – TNA RG 12/511 f.47 p.6
[13] Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital Admissions and Discharges, 1826-1930 Ancestry.co.uk database. Original registers held by the National Maritime Museum
[14] 1901 Census, 2 High Bridge, Greenwich – TNA RG 13/539 f,59 p.18
[15] ‘Sudden Death At Greenwich’ The Kentish Independent 22 November 1901 p.7 col.f – British Library Newspapers
[16] Burial of William Annall [sic], Greenwich Cemetery – DeceasedOnline.com
[17] Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War, Vol. IV (1932) p.764

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