As an actor, David Suchet has spent his working life assuming the identities of many different characters, most notably that of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. However, he knew surprisingly little about his own background, so was very keen to trace his ancestry.
David knew that his exotic family name, which had been changed at some stage in the past, came from a diverse European heritage. But he had no details about the origins of his ancestors, what the initial family name had been, or why it had been changed.
David also wanted to investigate the extent to which his own personal passions were rooted in his family background. Aside from photography and performing, David had always loved travelling on waterways: he once lived on a narrow boat for six years. He was intrigued to see whether any ancestors shared his longstanding love of water.
David’s beloved maternal grandfather Jimmy Jarché introduced him to one of his great hobbies, photography. David had always assumed that he inherited his theatrical talent from Jimmy's wife Elsie Jezzard, who was a music hall performer in the early 20th century. David wondered whether his passion for the theatre could be traced back any further along Elsie's line.
We decided to start the investigation by examining Elsie's birth certificate for clues. Birth certificates are a great way of tracing back from a known relative to the generations before. They include the individual's place and date of birth, his or her parents' names and the occupation of the father. If the individual was born in the UK after 1837, these certificates can be searched for and ordered online (see Related Links). However, it's always worth asking within your extended family to see whether another member already has certificates belonging to a shared relative.
On Elsie's certificate, David discovered that her father was called Walter Jezzard. Armed with this new piece of information, he was then able to search census records online to look for any other performers in Elsie'’s family.
Censuses are extremely useful in plotting the movements and makeup of cohabiting groups of family members through the generations. They also reveal details about an individual's occupation. The 10-yearly censuses from 1841-1901 for England and Wales are available online (see Related Links).
David traced his great-grandfather Walter Jezzard (Elsie's father) back through the censuses until he found him as a young boy in 1871. In this year we discovered that Walter was living with his father, George Jezzard.
George, David's great-great-grandfather, was recorded as a grocer's assistant: not quite the theatrical vocation that David had hoped for.
Going back to the earlier census of 1861, we discovered that George was already working as a grocer but was living with his father, also called George Jezzard. However, this George, David's great-great-great-grandfather, was classified in the census as a 'master mariner'.
To his great surprise and delight, David had turned up a sailor in the family!
Having discovered that he had a nautical predecessor, David wanted to find out more. What was a master mariner? Where had George sailed and on what kind of vessel?
We ordered up George's Master's Certificate of Service from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, where the original certificates are held (see Related Links).
From 1850 onwards, all masters or mates of foreign-going British merchant ships had to obtain a certificate of competency or service from the Board of Trade. The certificates can be a valuable source of information about the personal details of seafaring relatives, the ships they served on and the voyages they undertook.
George's certificate showed that he had served for 38 years, first as a ship's boy, then as a mate, and ultimately as a master on sailing ships.
But another smaller, handwritten letter accompanied the certificate. It provided more unexpected information. A ship owner had written the letter, stating that George had been master of a brig called the Hannah, and that the ship had sunk off the coast of Yarmouth on 28 May 1860.
As master mariner, George Jezzard was the captain of his ship. It was a highly responsible and respected position. A brig such as the Hannah would have been a standard cargo ship of the 19th century, prized for its speed and manoeuvrability. With a reliable ship and George's decades of experience at sea, something serious must have happened for the ship to sink.
David was advised to look through Lloyd's List, which has recorded shipping movements and news since 1741, including details about voyages and losses of ships and crew. Indexes organised by ship name are available in the National Maritime Museum, along with copies of the original volumes (see Related Links).
In Lloyd's List, David found a report of the Hannah's sinking. It stated that the ship foundered on 28 May, nine miles off a location called 'Kissingland'.
With the help of a nautical map, National Maritime Museum archivist Chris Ware showed David that the coastal location cited is now known as Kessingland, and is situated on the Suffolk coast near Lowestoft.
We headed for Lowestoft to find out more about the sinking of the Hannah and George's rescue. Local newspapers and publications can be a very good source of information about people and past events in an area. The British Library Newspapers collection in Colindale, London holds a large collection of British national and local newspapers, alongside overseas publications (see Related Links). Local papers are also often available in local archives or record offices.
In Lowestoft's library, David searched through microfilmed copies of local newspapers from the 19th century. He discovered that there was in fact a great storm on 28 May 1860, the day the Hannah sank. More than a hundred vessels were wrecked and there was 'lamentable loss of life' with at least 40 people killed.
One of the reports stated that just off Southwold a large brig was seen sinking eight miles from the shore. At the time of writing local people had feared the worst for the crew of the brig. David was sure that this ship must have been the Hannah.
We learned that the storm of 28 May 1860 was one of the worst the coast had experienced, with snow blizzards reported 100 miles away in London. From crew lists for the Hannah we knew that the brig was employed in the coal trade. Most crew lists can be found in the National Archives (see Related Links).
George Jezzard and his crew were likely to have been ferrying coal on a common route from the north-east coast of England to London when the storm suddenly struck.
To find out more about the fate of the Hannah's crew, we turned to a book within the library that details local sea rescues.
If an ancestor has been involved in a notable local event, it's a good idea to ask local libraries whether they might have specialised books on the subject. These books might have been published on a small scale, and may not necessarily be available elsewhere.
In a book entitled Storm Warriors of the Suffolk Coast, David discovered that a man called John Cragie, a local fisherman from Southwold, had heroically saved the lives of the crew of the Hannah. We headed to Southwold to see if we could find out more about the man who had saved George and his crew.
Local museums can be a source of surprising information about the people and places of a particular area and notable moments in its history. In Southwold, we called at the Southwold Museum to see if anyone there knew anything about John Cragie (see Related Links).
The museum staff knew that there was a man called John Cragie currently living in Southwold. They directed David to the harbour where this present-day John Cragie was restoring a 19th century lifeboat!
At the Alfred Corry Museum (see Related Links), David was thrilled to discover that John Cragie was the great-grandson of the John Cragie who had rescued his great-great-grandfather, George Jezzard.
From parliamentary papers relating to shipping losses and casualties, accessible via the Guildhall Library (see Related Links), John told us that his great-grandfather had been out in his fishing boat collecting salvage. John Cragie and his fellow sailors were looking for vessels in trouble when they came across the Hannah. They rescued George and his crew with minutes to spare. They were later rewarded with £1 per man that they had saved.
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