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Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen

Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen - how we did it

Great-great-grandfather - Roger Twist

Laurence now turned his attention back to his quest for seafaring roots. We headed to Greenwich to visit Laurence's brother Edward.

Step 1 - Family members

Talking to your own siblings can be a valuable exercise when researching your family background, especially if your parents have passed away. Different siblings will have particular memories and may have inherited artefacts or documents from your parents and grandparents.

Roger Twist and his wife
Roger Twist and his wife

Edward had an old framed photograph that had been one of his mother's treasured possessions. He remembered her mentioning the name Roger Twist in association with the photograph and suspected that Roger had been on his mother's side of the family.

Edward also had two certificates. The first was a marriage certificate dated 1884, and the couple getting married were Ernest Wilks and Ada Twist.

Laurence and Edward deduced that Ernest Wilks was their seafaring grandfather Ronald Wilks's father, as Ronald's middle name had been Ernest. Ernest and Ada were therefore Ronald's parents.

According to their marriage certificate, Ada's father was Roger Twist, as seen in the old photograph, and he was recorded as being a ships' chandler, or supplier of shipping goods. However, Edward's second document, Ada's birth certificate, told a different story.

Birth certificates are a great way of tracing back from a known relative to the generation before. They include the individual's place and date of birth, his or her parents' names and occupation of the father. If the individual was born in England or Wales after 1837, these certificates can be searched for and ordered online (see Related Links). However, it is always worth asking within your extended family to see whether another member already has certificates belonging to a shared relative.

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Laurence visits his brother Edward to look for any other seafaring ancestors

Ada's birth certificate showed us that she was born in 1866, and that her father Roger's profession was master mariner, just like his grandson, Ronald.

Step 2 - Mariner documents

We headed to the National Maritime Museum to meet naval historian Chris Ware. The National Maritime Museum is a fabulous resource for those investigating seafaring relatives (see Related Links).

The first document we found relating to Roger Twist was an application as 'only mate'. The only mate was second-in-command to the master of the ship. It was an important role. The application showed us that Roger Twist was living in Liverpool, and that he was applying to be an only mate at the age of 20.

We wondered whether this was comparatively young for such an important role, but Chris explained that the majority of sailors were young. They had to be physically fit and able, and most had started as apprentices on ships when they were just 11 years old.

In the 1840s, many boys like Roger Twist left their families to work on board coal transports, known as colliers. By the age of 13 they would be climbing the rigging in all weather, at heights of up to 150 feet above the sea. But it was their only way to progress through the mariner ranks.

Chris had found another of Roger Twist's applications. Only two years after applying for the only mate position, he was applying to be Master at the age of 22.

On the back of the application was a list of the ships on which he had worked, and the total length of service. Within the regulations, applicants had to prove they had been at sea for a certain amount of time and had gained enough experience.

One of the entries stated that Roger had been on board the Joshua from Liverpool for one year, one month and 27 days. Chris explained that this signified serious long distance, deep water sailing.

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Laurence meets with naval historian Chris Ware at the National Maritime Museum

We were intrigued to know where Roger might have gone on board the Joshua and what role he may have had. Chris offered to do some digging whilst we headed to the port from which the Joshua sailed: Liverpool.

Step 3 - Ancestors' experience

When Roger Twist lived in Liverpool in the mid 19th century, Liverpool was Britain's busiest international port and home to nearly 2,000 tall ships. When we arrived in Liverpool, we found the only working tall ship that is kept there today, the Zebu.

Whilst investigating your ancestors, it can be helpful to find places and environments in which they lived and worked. For example, there may be working mills, steam engines and, as in Laurence's case, sailing ships that provide an authentic experience. You can search online or contact relevant historians and associations for their advice.

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Laurence sails on a replica tall ship, the Zebu, from Liverpool

Laurence set sail on the Zebu, a replica 19th century tall ship, and spoke to its commander, Nicholas Warren. Nicholas described the responsibilities of a master, which haven't changed much at all over the centuries. They involve total responsibility for everything that happens on the ship. In Roger's time he would have commanded a crew of up to 40 sailors, during harsh and dangerous times for mariners. During his time as a mariner, every year one in 30 ships was lost at sea.

Step 4 - Crew lists

We returned to London to see what Chris had been able to uncover at the National Archives. The National Archives is the first port of call for agreements and crew lists, although some such records are also held at the National Maritime Museum.

Laurence looked at the Joshua crew list that matched the dates given by Roger Twist on his master's application. We were shocked to see that Roger's name did not appear anywhere on the list. Chris had also checked the lists for the Joshua a couple of years either side of the dates given by Roger, and he didn't appear on them either.

It seemed Roger hadn't been on board the Joshua at all and had fabricated a year's worth of experience on his master’s application. But why would he lie?

Crew list showing Roger's port of origin as Melbourne
Crew list showing Roger's port of origin as Melbourne

Chris thought the crew list for the next ship mentioned on Roger's list might hold the answer. Roger did appear on the Penelope's list. It also mentioned the ship on which he had previously served, the British Trident. When we examined the British Trident's list, we were amazed to see that Roger had joined the crew of that ship in Melbourne, Australia!

We were now curious to find out how and when Roger had gone to the other side of the world. Crew lists include a column where members of the crew were supposed to state on which vessel they had worked before the current one. On the British Trident, Roger and many of the others on the list had not written the name of the ship on which they had travelled to get to Australia. This seemed to us to be very odd.

But Chris had a fascinating theory: the date of Roger's fabrications and cover-ups was highly significant. In 1855, Melbourne was in the grip of one of the greatest gold rushes in history. A local paper reported: 'A complete mental madness appears to have seized everyone, as a consequence, there has been a universal rush to the diggings'.

There was evidence elsewhere showing that many British seamen deserted their ships to join the gold rush once they reached Melbourne, in an attempt to make a life-changing fortune. Sailors were running away in their thousands, and there was minimal risk of punishment as many of the city's officials had also joined the rush for gold. To see whether your gold digging ancestor left a document trail in Melbourne, try contacting the Public Record Office, Victoria, Australia (see Related Links).

Chris speculated that Roger may have been carried away by the madness, and absconded to the gold-ridden hills of Melbourne. As a result of the gold rush and subsequent lack of skilled crews in Melbourne, it seemed that when Roger finally decided to return to Liverpool he could take his pick of the ships to work on, with no questions asked.

Despite his desertion and the fabrication of details of his career as a young sailor, Roger became a successful master mariner. He eventually retired from the sea aged 42 and went on to run a shipping supply company at Newport docks.

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Laurence searches crew lists from the mid-1800s for Roger Twist

Having traced at least two serious sea dogs in his family, Laurence concluded that he definitely had sea salt in his DNA, although not enough to make him take to the high seas!

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