Our Records: Deaths of Scottish Seafarers

A complete record of the deaths of Scottish seafarers from late Victorian times until 1974, totalling over 14,000 records is available online through the ScotlandsPeople site. Included are the Deaths of Seamen listing Scots along with other crew members of all nationalities who were serving on British-registered vessels, 1909-1974. This includes crewmen on the Titanic.

Also included are Returns of Deaths at Sea for the years 1902-1905, completing the record since 1855. They list Scottish seamen, including many fishermen who drowned in Scottish waters, emigrants who did not reach their hoped-for destination and those who served in the Royal Navy. The records also contain hundreds of entries for Scottish sailors, engineers and other crewmen who died in every corner of the world, whether at sea, or in foreign ports or hospitals.

Deaths of Seamen which list Scots along with other crew members of all nationalities who were serving on British-registered vessels, 1909-1974. The records were compiled by the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen and sent to the Registrar General for Scotland.

Among those to appear in the new records is William M Murdoch, the Dalbeattie-born First Officer on the fateful maiden voyage of RMS Titanic on 15 April 1912. He appears with 24 other Scottish-born crew members among the 673 men and women listed in the returns. Like most of them, Murdoch was living in Southampton, where the White Star Line was based. The returns do not include passengers, so the majority of those who perished on the Titanic do not appear here. Discover more about Murdoch and the Titanic.

The same is true of the Lusitania, torpedoed by the Germans on 7 May 1915. The Deaths of Seamen list 405 crew members who were killed or drowned, most of whom were from Liverpool or Ireland. Of the 17 who can be definitely identified as Scots, John Thompson or Thomson, an ordinary seaman from Annan, was aged just 15, and serving on the deck crew, while Alfred R Thorn, a waiter, was listed as 50 years old and born in Greenock. Like most of the crew their last place of abode was Liverpool, where the Cunard liner was based.

An illustration of the sinking of the Lusitania

The sinking of the Lusitania, 1915

Wiki Commons, Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

The death entry of John Thompson

The Deaths of Seamen entry for John Thompson

National Records of Scotland, Marine Returns, 038/MR 146

 

Returns of Deaths at Sea

Also available online are Returns of Deaths at Sea (also known as the ‘Marine Returns’) for the years 1902-1905. These years complete the series beginning in 1855 which are also online through ScotlandsPeople. The returns list Scottish seamen, including many fishermen who drowned in Scottish waters. Some passengers were also reported to the Registrar General for Scotland as having died, including emigrants who did not reach their intended destination.

Many of the deaths off the north-west coast of Scotland were of men who drowned after falling or being accidentally knocked overboard from fishing boats. For example, John McIver, aged 34, was a deck hand from Swordale in Lewis, who drowned  on 21 Nov 1905 ten miles north-west of Gairloch Head in The Minch. He was working on the Stornoway-registered boat the ‘Grateful’.  

The death entry of John McIver

The Deaths at Sea entry for John McIver

National Records of Scotland, Minor Records, 27/MR423

John McLauchlan was the captain of the steel-hulled sailing ship ‘Durbridge’, with more than 36 years’ experience at sea from the age of 15. After seventeen years on sailing ships he obtained his master’s certificate in 1884. He captained the ‘Durbridge’ on voyages between South Africa, Australia and South America. On 13 December 1902 he died suddenly at sea off the southern tip of Africa. The report by the next most senior officer of how he found the captain dead in his cabin is recorded in the Deaths at Sea.

Report on the cause of death of John McLauchlan

Report on the cause of death of John McLauchlan

Report on the cause of death of John McLauchlan

National Records of Scotland, Minor Records vol. 27, Returns of Deaths at Sea, page 291 (March 1903)

 

The Returns of Deaths at Sea include poignant entries that throw light on the experience of Scots emigrants and those who worked abroad in scattered parts of the British Empire.

For example in 1927 John Robertson, aged two years, died in 1927 on the ship ‘Orsova’ in the Gulf of Aden. His father had a job for life working as a painter on the Forth Bridge, but decided to emigrate with his wife Jeannie . Tragically they lost their elder son just a few weeks into the long voyage to Australia.

Death entry of John Gray Robertson

Return of Death at Sea of John Gray Robertson

National Records of Scotland, Minor Records, 030/MR69

 

Although the records are a grim catalogue of sudden deaths far from home, not every story ended badly. In October 1901 it was reported that the vessel ‘Fire Queen’ had lost one of its crew north of Ailsa Craig off the Ayrshire coast. Peter Hughes, a fireman aged 30 from Glasgow, was missing presumed drowned on 18 October. A few months later a letter was sent to the master of the ‘Fire Queen’: ‘You will be surprised to learn that your supposed drowned Fireman Peter Hughes has turned up. His wife has had two letters from him one enclosing a P.O. [postal order] for 10 s/-. The letters are from London. These are facts which I have had verified.’

The letter informing the master of the 'Fire Queen' that Peter Hughes was alive.

Letter to the master of the 'Fire Queen' about Peter Hughes

 

Royal Navy Seamen

When HMS Hood was sunk by the German warship Bismarck in the Battle of the Denmark Strait on 24 May 1941, all but three of the 1,421 crew died. Among them was William Conchie, aged 16 years and 10 months. One of the three survivors was a Scot, Midshipman William Dundas.

On 17 January 1942 HMS Matabele (G26) was on escort duty with Arctic Convoy PQ-8, when she was sunk by the German submarine U-454. All but two of the crew of 238 perished in the ice-cold waters. The returns of death include this page listing nine Scots. The returns also include the names of some of the many merchant seamen who died on the Arctic Convoys and on wartime service elsewhere.

Return of Deaths at sea on board HM Matabele

Returns of Death at Sea, Minor Records, 31/MR 455

Examples of the records covering the deaths of seamen on well-known ships, during the Second World War, including the Athenia and Lancastria, can be found amongst our records. To search for deaths at sea, please search within the statutory register of deaths, and select 'minor records' from the drop down menu. For further information about statutory death records, please see our guide.

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