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Week 18: 17-23 November


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…

2 comments to Week 18: 17-23 November

  • Aaron Lewis

    The crews of a fishing fleet would be drawn from a particular area. Everyone on board knew the styles of knitting in the villages that supplied fishermen for that fleet.

    Find a body in the surf, and something about the gansey would indicate which fleet the fisherman had worked. Get the gansey to a boat from that fleet, and somebody on board is going to recognize what village that knitting came from. In the village, somebody will recognize who knit that gansey.

    It was traditional for a new gansey to be worn to chruch for the first year of its life so that everyone in the village knew it on sight. Then the second year of its life, it was worn to sea.

  • Veronica

    The biggest problem I have with the idea is that people think a week-old (or older) corpse is going to be sent by pony-cart a dozens (or hundred) of miles down the coast for burial. Get serious. Our ancestors weren’t that stupid. There were many decades when a wooden lead-lined coffin was just too expensive to buy for your own kin much less a stranger. Bodies that got washed ashore or picked up by fisherman got buried quickly.

    Now, I can imagine that occasionally some thoughtful wife/mother kept the sweater aside and when they heard which village lost a fishing boat, they sent the sweaters along to the grieving families. If only one ship was a handful or two of men was lost then it’s not unreasonable to assume that the community could recognize that sweater A belonged to Annie’s Tom and sweater B to Our Billy.

    If you’re talking about a dozen ships with a total of a few hundred men lost at sea, then not a chance.