From Rothbury to Bermuda

Somerset Village Bermuda, by Clay Kaufmann

MIKE SMITH traces the naval history of his ancestors from Rothbury

It all began when I looked up the “wrong” death announcement in The Chronicle.  Like many others no doubt, I have found the website which contains an alphabetic list of all death announcements in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle from 1885 to 1906, a boon when trying to find what happened to local ancestors. Many thanks to Kathleen Bolam and Margaret Hall for pointing me in its direction:

In trying to follow the movements of my Ramsay ancestors who were born in Rothbury, I had had some success and it was one of the loose ends I was trying to track down. Thomas Ramsay was baptised in Rothbury in 1809, one of the brothers of my gt gt gt grandfather Robert Ramsay. I had no other information about him so a death announcement in July 1891 for a Thomas Ramsay aged 82 in Gateshead demanded investigation.

A trip to Newcastle Central Library to read the original announcement was disappointing in that it gave no information regarding family members, just that he had worked for many years in a local engineering firm. But it did give his address and so the next step was a search in the 1891 census. That too was a disappointment as it showed that this particular Thomas was not from Rothbury.

So where was “my” Thomas? For some reason I had not thought of searching the census records for him. Born in 1809, he would be 32 by the time of the 1841 census and could be almost anywhere in the world. I searched on both the Ancestry and FindMyPast websites (both of which are free at Newcastle libraries) without much success. While the Ancestry search engine comes up with all sorts of names not remotely like what you have entered, a FindMyPast search is much more “focused” and frequently finds people who seem not to exist in the Ancestry world.

After many attempts, I eventually had a piece of luck and found a Thomas Ramsay born in Rothbury (not many of them about) of the right age aboard the HMS Nile as Chief Engineer in 1861. He had been transcribed as “Mr Thos. Ramsay” and it was the Rothbury, Northumberland bit that found him! He was also shown as married, so I had another search on my hands. Where and when did Thomas marry?

The 1871 census brought up details of Thomas, his wife Charlotte and three children plus a domestic servant living in Plymouth. Charlotte was shown as born in Pembroke Dock, so presumably Thomas had been serving in the Royal Navy when he met her.  That made finding their marriage a simple task using the FreeBMD website. Thomas had married Charlotte Smyth in 1839 in Pembroke. According to the IGI, Charlotte Smith (sic) was christened in St Mary’s Church, Pembroke in 1822.

But then I noticed something strange on the 1871 census. While the two youngest children had been born in Devonport (another naval connection) the eldest daughter Charlotte E. S. Ramsay was shown as born in “ANCESTRY ANCESTRY, Somerset”. My first reaction was to wonder if there was a small village in Somerset called Bermuda. Unlikely but possible. But then other census returns turned up more surprises.

I found the recently married Charlotte living in Rotherhithe in 1841, shown of independent means. By 1851 she was head of the household in Woolwich, an “engineer’s wife” with three sons, a daughter and a “servant of all work”. Eldest son Robert Edward, aged nine, had been born in Rotherhithe so must have arrived shortly after the 1841 census, but a surprise was to see that three of the children (aged 3, 6 and 8) had been born in “West Indies, Calcutta”! Had the enumerator got it wrong?  Who had provided the information? Was it bad memory or what?

The youngest daughter Charlotte Eliza had been shown as born in Bermuda in the 1871 census so surely this must be correct. After a little Googling on the history of Bermuda, I discovered that there had been a major naval dockyard there so Thomas must have had his wife with him while carrying out his chief engineer’s duties in the navy. There was also a Somerset Island where Charlotte was born as indicated in the 1871 census.

Then it occurred to me that there might be some service records in the National Archives and documents online showed that indeed they had a record of Thomas Ramsay RN. For a modest cost of £3.50, I obtained an almost complete list of all the ships Thomas had served on from 1838 until his retirement in 1869. The page I received must be the last of at least two as Thomas is already 2nd Engineer when he spent three months on the HMS William and Mary. The list of ships is exciting – Salamander, Gorgon, Illustrious, Victory, Blenheim and of course Nile among others.

He had been promoted to Chief Engineer in 1848 while on the Blenheim. But why had he been on so many different ships? I had no idea what a Chief Engineer had to do and found a wealth of information on Extracts from the Navy Lists June 1849:

Rules and Regulations Respecting the Appointment, Rank, Examination, and Pay, of Engineers – 1847 Chief Engineer. No person will be considered qualified to hold the commission of a Chief Engineer who is not able to keep accounts, make notes to the Log of every particular of the working of the engines and boilers, draw rough sketches of any part of the machinery. with figured dimensions fit to work from, be able and willing to exert himself practically as a workman when occasion requires, either in driving the engines, or packing, repairing, or adjusting, the various working parts of the machinery and making good the defects of boilers. He must therefore possess a thorough knowledge of the construction and working of marine engines and boilers in all their parts, coupled with skill and experience as a practical mechanic. He must be so far acquainted with the elements of theoretical mechanics as to comprehend the general principles on which the machine works. He must understand how to apply the indicator, and draw the necessary conclusions from the diagrams. He must be acquainted with the principle of expansion, and able to prove, or at least to illustrate, the advantages to be derived from the time of expansive gear.

And so it went on. Phew! Quite a responsibility. I began to feel quite proud of my recently discovered ancestor. But was he really the right Thomas Ramsay? Yes, he was from Rothbury, but Ramsay is not an uncommon name in that part of Northumberland. What if there had been another Thomas Ramsay born in Rothbury around the same time? There are one or two possibilities in the Parish Register so I needed some extra proof.
The marriage certificate would show the name of Thomas’ father and ordering it from the Pembroke Registrar’s Office was a simple matter. Luckily is showed the “right” name Robert and Thomas had given his father’s occupation as farmer. Well at the time of the baptisms of all his children, Robert had been put down as Ag. Lab. or simply Lab. I suppose that over the intervening years, he might have risen to the rank of farmer, or was Thomas RN just trying to raise his social profile. After all, an officer in the Royal Navy could come from farming stock but not humble labourer origins.
So there it was. I had fairly solid proof that this Thomas was indeed one of my Ramsay ancestors and I could continue the quest. This proved remarkably simple thanks to the increasing availability of census and BMD information on the internet. Another website I find useful is which, despite the name, includes all the censuses and includes a map for the 1901 census which allows you to zoom in and see in which street each person was living. But it is not fool-proof. For instance, if your ancestor was living in Westgate, Newcastle, the map will indicate a small village of that name in Co Durham.
I now knew that Thomas had probably run away to sea and joined the navy, married while in Pembroke (to the 17-year-old Charlotte – assuming she was baptised while very young and born in 1822) and then after a short spell in Rotherhithe, sailed over the Atlantic (with wife and young son) to Bermuda. Three children were to be born in Bermuda, Thomas William Henry (1843), Ralph Alexander (1845) and Charlotte (1849). During this time Thomas’ service record shows he was at the Bermuda Yard on HMS Carron, Gleaner, Victory and Blenheim, being promoted to Chief Engineer on 26 July 1848.
Interested to know what life must have been like in those times, I delved further into the history of Bermuda – with astonishing results. Here is an extract from

1859 Log Book Royal Naval Dockyard Prison
The following transcript was generously contributed by Evelyn L Glenn in December 1999. The transcript was taken from an old leather logbook dated 1859
As soon as the muster was over the Irish again atackted the English. There were several injured & be taken to the hospital. 3 of the ring leaders were sent to Boaz Island to work in irons & 2 got 7 days in the hole. In the evening the Irish made another atacked on the English, 5 were locked up. Sunday the 1st of May 59, they mustered the men and let only 1 deck of men up at a time for only hour walk on the brakewater. They then clear the brakewater. Locked the men up & let another deck lot up and did all day. On Tuesday 3 moor of the ringleader were sent to Boaz Island to work in irons. Thir names is Dooley, Caine, Fitzmarice, Glennon, Gill, & Calachan. Then thir were 5 or 6 moor put in the lock up for a few days and then let out. A man received 75 lashes for striking Mr Fisk on the head with a pick handle about the 4th of May 59 at Boaz Island.

And to think Charlotte was living there with her very young children. Boaz Island lies next to Somerset Island! She would no doubt have been thankful to return to England where the next child John Smyth was born in Greenwich in 1851. There were to be two more, both born in Stoke Damerel, Devonport: Ellen (1854) and George (1860).
By the time of the 1861 census, Charlotte was living in Devonport with five of her children (while husband Thomas was aboard the HMS Nile). But two of her sons were not at home and I found Thomas boarding in Elswick, an engineer’s apprentice, (born West Indies) and his younger brother, the 15-year-old Ralph, turned up on his father’s ship the Nile as Master’s Assistant (born Bermuda). When first discovering Thomas Ramsay aboard the Nile, I had found him listed on page 2 of the Enumeration Book for the Royal Navy. It was only when I found his son Ralph on the same ship that I noticed he appeared on page 49. The list of the crew covered over 50 pages. Reading through those pages gave a fascinating insight into what life aboard a navy ship must have been like. Apart from the expected Rear Admiral (and his Secretary), Captain, Commodore, Chaplain, Surgeon (and two assistants), Chief Engineer (plus four assistants), Paymaster (plus three assistants) and Boatswain and his mates, there was an amazingly long list of not only dozens of Ordinary, Able and Leading Seamen, but an array of special trades and professions:- Sailmaker, Ropemaker, Carpenter, Plumber, Blacksmith, Armourer, Stoker, Shoemaker, Barber and even Bandsmen.

Amazingly, the Nile survived until the 1950s when she was wrecked in the Menai  Straits in 1953 and, sadly, destroyed by fire in 1956. Apparently, what remains now can still be seen at low tide.
Seeing the mention of a Barber in the list of the crew reminded me of something I had seen in the ‘Extracts from the Navy Lists’ regarding the wearing of beards.

Circular No. 36.-LMM. Admiralty, 24th June, 1869, Beards and Moustaches in the Royal Navy.
The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty have had under their consideration the provisions of the Chapter 44, Article 43, page 336 of the regulations forbidding the wearing of Beards and Moustaches by Officers and Men of the Fleet.
Representations having been made to their Lordships that it would conduce to the health and comfort of men, under many circumstances of service, were they to be permitted to discontinue the use of the Razor on board Her Majesty’s Ships, they have been pleased to issue the following Regulations:
1. Clause 43, Chapter 44, of the Regulations is repealed, and Officers and men on board her Majesty’s Ships, including the Royal Marines when embarked, will in future be permitted to wear Beards and Moustaches.
2. In all cases, when the permission granted in Clause I is taken advantage of, the use of the Razor must be entirely discontinued. Moustaches are not to be worn without the Beard, nor is the Beard to be worn without the Moustaches.
3. The Hair of Beard, Moustaches, and whiskers, is to be kept well cut and trimmed, and not too long for cleanliness. The Captain is to give such directions as seem to him desirable upon these heads, and to establish, so far as may be practicable, uniformity as to length of the Hair, Beards, Moustaches, and Whiskers of his Men; observing that those Men who do not avail themselves of the permission to wear Beard and Moustaches will wear their Hair and Whiskers as heretofore.
4. Officers of Divisions will take special care that the provisions of Clauses 2 and 3 are strictly attended to by such of their Men as may avail themselves of the permission contained in Clause 1, and failure in these respects is to be considered as an offence under Article C in the Table of Summary punishments.
5. Royal Marines on shore will follow the Regulations of the Army with regard to Beard and Moustaches.
6. Their Lordships desire that it may be distinctly understood that permission now given to wear Beards and Moustaches is not necessarily to be considered as permanent, and that if neatness and cleanliness are not observed this order will be revoked.
By Command of their Lordships, W. G. Romaine. To all Commanders-in-Chief, &c.

So it certainly looked as if the sea was in the Ramsay blood – at least in this particular branch of the family tree. By the time of the next census, Ralph, now 25, had done very well for himself and was in Portsmouth Harbour aboard HMS Duke of Wellington as Sub-Lieutenant. However, by 1881 he seems to have come down in the world as his shown as Mariner, boarding in Liverpool with a Retired Mariner.
His eldest brother Robert Edward had followed his father’s profession and was an Engineer (Applied) by 1861 in Stoke Damerel. Ralph’s other elder brother Thomas William Henry was yet another member of this branch of the Ramsay family to join the navy. In the 1861 census he is an engineer’s apprentice living in Gloucester Street, Elswick and by 1881 he was Chief Engineer aboard HMS Firefly. He had married Hannah Ward in Devonport in 1867 and they had four children. The eldest of these, Henry Ward Ramsay was to become a London surgeon. Thomas William Henry himself carved out an illustrious career rising to Staff Engineer, then Fleet Engineer and finally Inspector of Machinery. He retired in 1898 with a pension of £430pa and died in Plympton in 1908.
But the illustrious history of my naval Ramsays does not end there. The youngest brother George had also made his way to the top from Assistant Engineer in 1881, to Engineer in 1887, to Chief Engineer in 1894, to Staff Engineer in 1898 and Fleet Engineer in 1902, retiring with the rank of Engineer Captain on a pension of £445 in 1907.
With all this naval activity in the family, Thomas’ eldest daughter Charlotte Eliza was not to be left out and in 1871 in Plymouth, she married Frederick Stephen Turner – a Chief Engineer in the Royal Navy. They were to have two sons in Stoke Damerel, Frederick Thomas and Henry Strawson, both of whom were to go into the medical profession.
Frederick Turner was to do very well in the Navy, working his way up from Assistant Engineer 2nd Class to Chief Engineer, then Staff Engineer and finally Fleet Engineer. His service record was also available at the National Archives documents online and shows an amazing amount of detail including not only the ships on which he served but also his date of birth, date of retirement, his pension (£345 per annum) and the fact that his widow Charlotte Eliza Smyth Turner was granted probate in Exeter in 1920, the estate amounting to £419.
Charlotte’s father Thomas Ramsay (where this story began) retired from his very active naval career in 1869 living in Plymouth until his death in 1880.  He had become the head of a branch of my Ramsay ancestors of which I had been completely ignorant, nearly all of whom had made their way to the top of their profession – a long way from the village of Rothbury!