As you’ve probably all heard by now, one of the commonest myths associated with ganseys is that the patterns were so unique to families, or villages, that drowned sailors could be identified by them. But could that really be true? Certainly none of the books I’ve read can quote an instance when it actually happened. That doesn’t make it untrue, of course; but it would be nice to have some evidence.
The myth also begs a number of questions. For instance: how many fishermen were actually lost at sea? How many men drowned and weren’t recovered before their features were disfigured unrecognisably? (Some days you get the fish, and some days the fish get you…) How many had ID in their wallets?
The only way to answer those questions is to do a bit of research. For example, if you matched the burial registers for parishes on the coast against coroner’s inquest papers and local newspapers you’d have a pretty clear idea how many unidentified fishermen were recovered from the sea in that area. Certainly you’d expect the newspapers to report a story like a fisherman being identified by his gansey. Has anyone ever checked this? Did it ever happen?
(Incidentally, when I was an archivist working for the Suffolk Record Office in Lowestoft in the 1980s we had a collection of the old “fishing boat agreements”, boxes of the papers that the crew filled in before each voyage (every week or so) dating back to the 19th century (1852-1946 – I just looked it up online). Like a visitor’s book, each crew member would sign their name, age and role on board. These are fantastic documents; and rumour has it that somewhere in the collections is the signature of the young Joseph Conrad when he was working as a sailor, fresh from Poland – though sadly I think this is just another myth as we never found it.)
But I digress. The other two problems I have with this myth are these: firstly, to identify a man from his gansey, you’d need to know all the patterns of all the villages up and down the coast, which was hardly feasible a hundred years ago. And secondly, let’s face it, the patterns were just not that unique. The same pattern, as worn by the celebrated Henry Freeman, crops up in both Cornwall and Whitby in various guises. We know too that the fishing fleets travelled along the coast; there are pictures of the Scottish fleet in Yarmouth, for example. So everyone would have had a pretty good chance to take a good look at everyone else’s gansey patterns; and of course they’d have copied each other. (In fact, several of Gladys Thompson’s interviewees cheerfully admit as much! After all, we do – why not they?)
The thing we have to remember is that we are looking at them at a fixed point, frozen in time; at the time when they were recorded. So we make a note that this pattern is from this village, but that pattern is from that village – because that’s where we first saw them, crucially at a time when the practice was dying out. But I think the situation was far more fluid than that, much looser. (Which is not to say that some families didn’t keep the same patterns for generations, of course.) I can’t imagine asking every village from Whitby to Cornwall if they’ve lost a fisherman recently – it doesn’t seem very tactful, somehow.
Still, best not to lean too far over the side of the boat, eh? I mean, just to be on the safe side…