LOST: THE BARQUE ‘COMMERCE’

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 11:41

My grandfather’s marriage certificate, dated November the third, 1873, states that Thomas Hudson, aged 33, a bachelor seaman, married Elizabeth Hammett, aged 22, spinster at the parish church St. Mary the Virgin, Cardiff, in the presence of Edward Crockford and Charlotte Crockford – the latter signing with an X. Both bride and groom were living at 36 Margaret Street, Cardiff, probably with the Crockfords. It tells us also that their parents, Thomas Hudson and George Hammett were dead.

My grandfather’s death certificate informs us that on February the fourth at the age of 41 he died of bronchitis at 9 Sapphire Street in the parish of Roath, Cardiff.

According to information given in a letter from the Glamorgan Record Office, dated July 2003, Sapphire Street still exists in an area where little development has taken place, but Margaret Street, which was much nearer the docks in the Roath Basin area, does not. Neither place at that time nor for a number of years after it would have been a safe nor salubrious milieu for a woman whose husband was at sea.

If my grandfather had lived another month, he would have been included in the 1881 census and some of the unknown factors that now present what even for Sherlock Holmes would have been a ‘three pipe’ problem would not obstruct research into the spear side of my ancestors. But as things stand, questions abound:
1. How did Elizabeth Hudson whose home was in Exeter meet a man who sailed from Cardiff, and who was reputed to come from East Anglia?
2. Why during the ten years I lived with her after my mother died when I was 13 did she never once mention her husband, or why, apart from his New Testament and Psalms, did she possess no other souvenir? That she had no watch nor anything of value was understandable. Poverty would have compelled her to sell them.
3. Why if as my father was convinced, her husband was an educated man who came from a well-to-do family, was he sailing ‘before the mast’, and why, when after his death she wrote asking for financial aid, did his widow receive no reply?
4. Why did research at Somerset House fail to find a record of his birth?

Unfortunately none of these questions entered my head while my grandmother, my father and his younger brother were alive, and the only definite information given to me by my father who was only six when his father died, was that one day when he was playing in the street a bearded man asked him where Mrs Hudson lived. A sea voyage had lasted so long that neither recognised the other. It was not, therefore, until I had completed my apprenticeship in J. S. White & Co’s machine shop, and was employed as a draughtsman in the first stage of a rewarding engineering career that, having found the aforementioned New Testament and read the following inscription: ‘Thomas Hudson, barque Commerce lying at Valparaiso, June 1864’ that I was inspired to uncover all the facts about my elusive ancestor and the ship in which he had faced the perils that threatened all who put to sea in those beautiful but lethal ‘daughters of the wind’. The good handwriting and correct grammar, providing he had written the inscription, would seem to confirm at least one of my father’s theories.

Having been unsuccessful, after spending a considerable amount of money and writing many letters in tracing the man, my next move was to seek advice from a friend, the son of a fo’c’sle cook who, when a young man, had employed his culinary skills aboard the Empress Eugenie’s yacht, Thistle. My friend, incidentally, after being taken at the age of two to the Cowes seafront to see the Titanic leave the Solent, had developed a life-long interest in liners and was a mine of information concerning them. However, although interested also in the sailing ships of bygone days, neither he nor any of his fellow members of the World Ship Society could offer any information apart from the suggestion the Commerce might have been a nitrate carrier.

From the Cowes Library I next obtained the address of a maritime magazine whose editor regretted his records included only one barque named Commerce, a vessel that had foundered at Anticosta on a Liverpool to Quebec voyage in 1861. Being a helpful man, he offered to publish my enquiry.

By writing to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, I received information concerning three barques including the one which had been wrecked. The others were:
1. One owned by Rayner & Co. of Stockton. Built at Nova Scotia in 1851, she was 319 tons, and her destination was Spain.
2. The second was owned by Fyffe & Co. of Dundee where she was built in 1859. This ship was 279 tons, and her destination was unknown. There was no evidence that either had traded in South America. In addition to this I was told Commerce was a fairly common name at that period, and I learnt also the more significant fact that only ships surveyed by Lloyd’s people would appear in their registers. Many ships were not inspected. Of these there might be no record in existence.

Perturbed but still hopeful, I wrote to the Information Bureau at Cardiff, requesting to be put in touch with some of the older shipping companies. Again I drew a blank. Enquiries made by the Bureau had failed to trace the owners of my grandfather’s ship. The manager, as a last resort, had communicated with the General Register and Record Office of Shipping and Seamen. Their reply regretted their inability to help.

In the meantime my published letter had caught the eyes of two enthusiasts. A correspondent in Runcorn had searched in his Lloyd’s Register for 1861-2, and found the three ships listed by the Greenwich Museum. He told me the Dundee-built vessel went to Mauritius.

The second response to my letter came from a retired master-mariner, formerly of East Cowes and then living in Kent – an enthusiast who had catalogued ten thousand ships and collected pictures of six hundred. He, too, quoted the three barques about which I already knew. Then his next letter brought fresh news. A friend had told him that the Commerce built for Fyffe & Co. in 1859 was a three-masted wooden vessel from the yard of Calman & Co. of Dundee. In 1866 she had been sold to Machan & Co. There was nothing to indicate she had been to the west coast of South America. Following this clue, I wrote to Dundee to ask if either firm was extant. In due course the City Librarian sent me the following facts. Until 1861-2 the names Fyffe and Machan appeared in the directories. After those years, up to 1909, Machan alone could be found, but beyond that date there was no sign of it.

Frustrated by this setback, for five months I took no further action until one evening I was visited by a local ship-lover, a stranger who had taken the trouble to walk a considerable distance carrying a heavy referee book in which he had located another Commerce. My published letter had reached his hands nine months after publication. The barque in question was recorded as being the property of Rea & Co. Limited, Master Porters, Stevedores, Tug Owners, etc. of Liverpool. She had, he thought, been built at Shoreham. The company, in reply to my enquiry, was as helpful as possible. Their Commerce had been bought in 1921 and used as a barge for transporting ore and coal.

She had survived until 1947 when, unfit for work, she was taken to Birkenhead to be broken up. My informant would have liked to supply more details and photographs, but all records of that ‘fine vessel’ and many other uncommon craft in the service of his company had been destroyed by enemy action in May 1941, exactly a year before my home was rendered uninhabitable by a concentrated raid. My correspondent was convinced his ship was the one for which I was searching. With no conclusive evidence I could not be sure.

At present a distant relative who is doing genealogical research into the distaff side of the family, from which she has descended, has been concurrently trying to succeed where I failed. Personally I do not think there is a hope in Hades of her adding to my title ‘Found: a Grandfather’. She has, however, traced another mariner, George Turner Hammett (1836- after 1881) my father’s uncle who, while at sea when serving in the Royal Navy had a leg amputated, and while my father lived with him in the ‘Eighties wore a wooden one.

Had George Hammett and his brother-in-law ever met, what tales of Kipling’s ‘immense and contemptuous surges’ and of faraway places might have been exchanged; some of them, no doubt, confirming Byron’s words that truth is stranger than fiction …
T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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