Case study 3: The story of a ship and her crew

Long overdue

On January 21, 1918, Captain Andrew Wilson guided the SS Beverly away from Munn’s dock in the port of Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. Loaded with a shipment of salt cod and cod liver oil, the ship was bound for Greece.

By June 19, 1918, the ship was long overdue and Lloyd’s List Weekly Summary officially declared her missing. Beverly was one of approximately 120 of Newfoundland’s foreign-going merchant vessels which was lost during World War I.

For most people in Newfoundland, the loss of Beverly was of only passing interest. For a maritime people, the loss of a ship was a reality of life and the story of the Beverly soon faded from memory.

Suzanne Sexty, a retired librarian from Memorial University of Newfoundland, does community research and writing. Suzanne, with Liz Browne, decided to revive the memory of Beverly and her crew. Much of her research on Beverly and the other lost ships was done in the university’s internationally important Maritime History Archives (MHA) in St. John’s.

Suzanne has kindly provided us with a summary of her research and CLIP is most grateful for her help.

Some of Suzanne's research used resources such as microfilm and documents available at MHA itself, but many resources are available online; we have concentrated on those in this account.

Research does not always go in a straight line. It is often more like finding the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle, which then begin to link together and cross-check (or not). Some information will lead off in unexpected directions. Eventually, there will be enough to assemble a good picture.

This case study therefore illustrates how Suzanne found enough pieces of Beverly’s story to produce the book Long Overdue: SS Beverly (1885-1918).

To get the full story of the Beverly, you will need to read the book - Long Overdue: SS Beverly, 1885-1918 (St. John, NL: DRC Publishing, 2021) which is available through DRC at: DRC or from Downhome: Downhome

Using the case study

The case study can be followed step by step, or you can jump to a step by following one of these links:

The context Initial searches Records of British shipping Canadian shipping records American shipping records Crew agreements Using newspaper reports

Some of the steps have a 'More information' panel which you can open by clicking on the link on the panel.

If some of the screen shots are too small, from a keyboard you can enlarge the page using Ctrl + (Ctrl 0 resets it).


The context

When Britain declared war against Germany in 1914, Newfoundland and Labrador, at that time a Dominion of the British Empire, immediately pledged its support. Initially, this support came in the form of men and women who served either as combatants in the army or navy, or as non-combatants in the forestry and medical support services. Still others were engaged in supplying iron ore and pit props to the military.

By the latter half of 1915, there was an increased demand for Newfoundland’s major export, codfish. The codfish industry, salt cod and cod liver oil, had been at the centre of the country’s economy since the early 16th century. Merchants shipped the locally caught and processed fish to markets in southern Europe, the Caribbean, and South America. When wartime pressures forced Norway and France, key market competitors, to reduce their production and sale of codfish, Newfoundland merchants rushed to fill the demand.

This increase in market demand, coupled with the loss of merchant vessels through their sale or mishap (fire, grounding, collision, storm) or by enemy action (U-boats or raiders), created a need for ships, an urgency which could not be met by local shipbuilders. Merchants had to go abroad to find fish carriers. Some of these ships, including Beverly, were not designed to make a North Atlantic crossing in winter. The question of Beverly’s seaworthiness would be a major consideration during the enquiry into her loss.

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Initial searches

When starting any research, a public or university library, archives, local studies centre and the internet are good places to start.

For example, you need to be sure that no-one has written a complete book about the subject of your project!

It is quite likely that someone will have written a book about the local ships, or the history of a port, or of ship-building in that area, which will give at least a local context.

You will need to bear in mind that many sources are likely to be secondary sources, so any information there has to be treated with care - incorrect information has an uncanny knack of propagating. Check everything back to a primary source wherever possible - ship registers, crew agreements, censuses etc (though of course they will also need to be assessed for accuracy).

Archivists and librarians are the experts when it comes to tracking down information and documents. Use their skills to help you.

Even if you do not have access to a first-class library, online resources such as University of Newfoundland's Digital Archives Initiative (DAI) make many documents available anywhere.

For example, the report of the enquiry into the loss of the Beverly is available here: The enquiry report - DAI

Suzanne was able to locate photocopies of the enquiry transcript and of the final report into the loss of the Beverly. These documents gave a timeline for the period after the ship left Newfoundland.

The report of the Marine Court of Enquiry investigating the ship’s loss, concluded that:

I have noted the many possible causes of the loss of the 'Beverley' advanced by Mr. Howley and without definitely finding that any one of these may not have been the cause of her loss; I find that the most probable is that her build and character did not fit her to safely ride out the storms of mid-winter in the North Atlantic

Marine Court of Enquiry in the matter of a Formal Investigation into the Loss of the Steamship Beverly

The documents also provided leads to the history of the ship before it was purchased by a local concern, including an alternative spelling of the ship’s name as Beverley.

Suzanne also learned the names of the crew and the towns they came from. Although some of this information was not accurate, it was a starting place.

The next step

You may well need to go back to these library and internet sources again but, in the case of individual ships, there are useful basic records online for every British registered ship, which you can access via the indexes on this site and we explain how below.

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Records of British shipping

The records of British shipping include ships which were registered at ports worldwide which fell under British jurisdiction - ports in Barbados, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India amongst many others.

The simplest way to start finding details of a ship is to use the CLIP indexes, because they include basic details of every British registered ship, from 1855 to the 1950s. They can be searched using either the ship's name, her official number or her port of registry

The indexes also provide links to images of the primary sources, such as the Appropriation Books and the Mercantile Navy List.

Searching for a ship using the CLIP indexes

From the menu bar, choose  Data  and then  Ships by name , which will open a search form.

Enter the ship's name and choose the type of search, in this case, 'Exact match'.

Click  Search  to display a list of ships whose name ends with the search text.

Fig 1: Using the CLIP ship index to search for a ship by name
Fig 2: The search returns a list of the ships named Beverly

There were four ships of that name, three of which were not extant by 1918. The ship with official number 140053 is the one we want.

The search results provide links to the sources, for example the Appropriation Books. Clicking on the link will open an images of the page in the books.

There are also links on the search results page which lead to images of the Mercantile Navy List.

Fig 3: Entry in the Appropriation Books for the Beverly 140053

The Appropriation Books are the central record of the official numbers allocated to British ships and the record shows that the ship was registered in St John's, with tonnage 1013 and the entry '34 17' indicates that it was the 34th entry in the St John's register for the year 1917.

The Mercantile Navy List was the annual record of British registered ships afloat, and images of most of them are available via the CLIP web site.

Fig 4: MNL entry for 1919
Fig 5: MNL entry for 1918

Note: The entries in MNL were compiled during the previous year, so shown entries for the Beverly in the 1919 edition. Though she went missing in 1918, the information probably did not reach London in time for the printing of MNL 1919.

The British records thus provided Suzanne with several useful pieces of the jigsaw, for example the ship's dimensions and owners. They showed that the Beverly was built in the USA in Baltimore in 1885, so she was quite an old ship when she came into British registry. In the 1918 edition, she is shown with different tonnages and different owners, so may have been altered and re-registered.

More information about records of British shipping...

For full details of the records of British shipping and how to use them, see our main information pages.

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The next step

There are three possible routes on from these basic details:

We will look at the Canadian records first.

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Canadian shipping records

Shipping registers provide the basic physical details of a ship, a list of all her owners and any transactions such as sales or mortgages. The registers nearly always show when and why the register was closed.

Canadian researchers are fortunate in that all the shipping registers for Canadian ports have been digitised, with an index and images available online.

We explain how to use these registers below.

Using the Canadian registers of shipping

Library and Archives Canada have microfilmed all the registers of shipping for Canadian ports and also prepared a name index so that they can be searched by the name of the ship, her official number or port of registry.

This is a link to the search form:

Enter the details for the ship and click the Search button. If you know the ship's official number, it is a good idea to use that, so that you do not get results for other ships of the same name.

Fig 6: The search page for the index of shipping registers
Fig 7: Searching using the official number produces 3 results. The sample shows the result for 6311. Look at all 3 records and note the information at “Reference” and “Other Reference"
Fig 8: This is the result for the 1918 registration

CLIP has made an index to the Canadian shipping registers which provides a quick way to view the images (more details below): Register images

Select the port of registration, St. John’s, from the list and click the Details icon.

This will show all the St John's registers. To view the reels for Beverly, find the years 1904-1918, vol. 438/1651 and click on the Images icon. You can now easily go to folios 16, 48, and 62 where you will find the 3 registrations.

The images as presented on the viewer are low resolution and need to be magnified using the + icon (up to 5) to be able to see enough detail. If you want to see the whole image, it may be simpler to use the mouse right-click menu to copy the image and paste it into your favourite image viewer.

Shipping register entries for the Beverly

Fig 9: The first British registration for the Beverly, 34/1917
The first register entry shows her previous (foreign) registry in New York, USA. Ownership was always divided into 64 shares, but in this case there was only one owner.

Work had evidently been done on the vessel which altered her tonnage measurements, so she was re-registered in October 1917, as was usual when significant changes were made. This entry was closed as noted in the bottom line of text, though it is not easy to make out.

Fig 10: Re-registration on alteration of tonnage, 66/1917

Register entries for the same ship are nearly always linked in the registers, so you can trace the registry forward or backwards. This second entry (66/1917) links back to the first (34/1917).

Register number 66/1917 shows two transactions: first that she was sold to SS Beverly Limited (a single ship company), then that she was sold to William A. Munn.

This register entry was then closed on account of a change of ownership and the Beverly was re-registered. This would be unusual in British registers (apart from early ones) but may have been the normal practice in Canada.

Fig 11: Further re-registration on account of change of ownership, 2/1918

This final register entry was closed as shown in the line of text below the entries:

Registry closed [12?] [Jun?] [1919?]

Vessel missing since leaving Harbour Grace, Newfoundland on 21st January 1918 bound for Gibraltar. C[ertificate] of registry with the vessel. Form 20 forwarded to the Reg[istrar] General of Shipping and Seamen, London.

More information about registers of shipping and the quick way to Candiana register images...

There are more details about registers of shipping, here:

CLIP has a list of the register holdings for all archives. The Library and Archives Canada entry is shown here:

The list of registers is divided into ports. Select the port you want and click the index button.

Fig 12: List of register holdings at Library and Archives Canada

This will show the list of registers for that port.

The image button on the right hand side of the list will link to the Canadiana site and show the first page of that register.

It is then simple to browse through the images to find the entry you want.

Fig 13: List of register holdings for St John's

The next step

The Canadian registers provided Suzanne with more information about the Beverly, including the changes of owner in Newfoundland and the closure of the St John's registry.

The next step is to search for her previous American registration.

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American shipping records

American shipping was recorded in registers similar to Lloyd's Register of Shipping. For example, the 'Record of American and Foreign Shipping' was published by the American Shipmasters Federation.

Images of 'The Record' are available on the Hathi Trust web site. Scroll down to see the list of editions available.

These are the images for entries in 'The Record' for 1917 and for 1899.

Fig 14: Entry for the Beverly in 'The Record' for 1917
Fig 15: The entry in in 'The Record' for 1899 shows her previous name of Baltimore

The entry for 1917 shows the Beverly's American official number (3329), which confirms that the entry in 1899 as the Baltimore is the same ship.

In her research, Suzanne used these registers to trace the records back year-by-year to check for changes - of owner, for example.

More information about records of American shipping...

The original records of American shipping registration, similar to the British registers of shipping, are at the American National Archives, on microfilm. They are not available online, so the principal resources are copies of the annual publications such as 'The Record'.

The American registers of ships list many ships which were, or had been, British registered. Similarly many ships built or registered in America came into British registry, especially in maritime Canada. The registers are thus useful in researching British registered ships, as well as American ones.

Some of the American registers are referred to as American Lloyds and in general all the registers contain details similar to those in the British Lloyd's register. They include official numbers, which (unsurprisingly) often are the American official numbers, not British official numbers, so that information has to be treated with great care.

Several sites provide access to the American registers of ships.

The next step

The next step is to search for any list, agreement, log or any other account of the crew of the ship.

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Crew agreements

British registered ships making foreign-going voyages were required to complete a crew agreement, which was a formal contract between the ship's owner and the crew, which continued until the crew were formally discharged at the end of the voyage. At that point, any obligations between the owner and the crew, in either direction, ended.

One copy of the agreement went with the ship on the voyage. A second copy, which sometimes survives, was on a red form and acted as an 'office copy' of the the agreement. Where ships were lost or sank, taking their papers with them, the office copy may be all that survives. Sometimes, crew lists for missing ships were made up retrospectively from whatever those on shore could remember. Often, there is no record for missing ships.

Searching for crew lists for a ship using the CLIP indexes

From the menu bar, choose  Data  and then  Crew lists by ship , which will open a search form.

Enter the ship's official number.

Click  Search  to display a list of crew documents by year for that ship.

Fig 16: Using the CLIP crew list index to search for documents
Fig 17: The search for crew documents produces a null return

None of the crew documents for the Beverley appeared to have survived.

As explained above, this is not unusual in the case of a ship that went missing. There is little that can be done, except perhaps asking archives to double-check their catalogue. For example, if there is a sequence of documents for the years before the ship went missing, it would certainly be worth looking through all of them, because archivists are human and mis-filing and mis-cataloguing does happen occasionally.

If you follow the 'More about finding crew documents' links below, our page on finding crew lists show other reasons why they may not be found.

Fortunately, while reading throgh newspapers and magazines, Suzanne saw a "Notice to Seamen" which indicated that a crew list should have been filed with the Colonial Secretary. The crew list was located in the papers of the Colonial Secretary at The Rooms, Archives Division.

More about finding crew documents...

CLIP information pages have details of which archives hold crew documents and how to find them.

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The next step

Newspapers online have become a useful source of historical information and Suzanne made good use of them.

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Using newspaper reports

Searching newspapers

There are several web sites which provide access to newspapers and our site has links to them - see below:

Searching sometimes takes a little patience.

You can use some combination of the ship's name, the port, the master's name, and adding the word 'Shipping' sometimes helps. Ships were often identified by their master's name, so 'Mary Jane, Jones' refers to the ship Mary Jane with a master named Jones.

Filtering for particular newspapers, such as Lloyd's List, might help, but remember that many newspapers for inland towns also carried shipping news.

Narrowing the date range for the search can be highly effective if you are looking for a particular voyage, but bear in mind that information often took days or weeks to be transmitted across the world and that reports of inquiries into sinkings might be published some time after the event.

A selection of newspaper cuttings showing the purchase and conversion of the Beverly.

Fig 18: The Baltimore Sun, May 20, 1885, 4
Fig 19: The St. John's Daily Star, May 14, 1917, 10
Fig 20: The St. John's Daily Star, May 19, 1917, 10
Fig 21: The Evening Telegram, May 31, 1917, 1
Fig 22: The Evening Telegram, September 8, 1917, 6

The newspapers also revealed stories about the ship’s voyage to Montreal and grounding on the return trip to St John’s. They showed the sale to W A Munn, and subsequent departure from Harbour Grace. Each story gave clues about where to look for more information – names to follow, questions about weather.

Suzanne also wondered about the mystery of a ship so elegant that the furnishings were auctioned, and whether any of these items were still in Newfoundland.

More information about newspapers online...

CLIP information pages have details of newspapers online with another example of how they can be used.

The link opens a new browser page or tab and we suggest that you keep the present page open and return to it to follow the case study.

The next step

This is far from the end of the story.

There was much more research and putting material together into a book or even an article can take a surprisingly long time. Proof-reading and adding an index can seem to take for ever.

To see the end result, you will need to buy the book.

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