Captain Fraser 1


A good place to start is with those still around to tell us their stories, and so a week ago I sat down with my father, set my iPhone in front of him on the Voice Memos app, and asked him to talk about anything he liked.  He was uncertain at first, even said I shouldn’t have told him I was recording so that he’d be more natural, but it didn’t take long before he forgot all about the recording device and just talked, and talked, and talked.

Mostly he talked about his time at sea, as those are the stories he remembers best and most likes to tell, and of course I had heard some of them before.  In times past he would suddenly launch into a detailed rendition about some naval engagement in World War II, and I would always regret that I didn’t have a tape recorder handy.  This time, with a little prompting, he went into much more detail, and the larger story of his early life began to emerge.  Before we were done that evening, I had recorded over an hour of our conversation, which I am still transcribing.  We covered the period of his life in some detail from the age of 17 until his late 20s, which covers the war years through obtaining his Master’s Certificate as a merchant mariner.  We touched on later events in a little less detail up until the time of his emigration to the United States at the age of 48, not much older than I am now.  I expect to follow up with him when he’s ready to go back into this period (1945-1969) in more detail, and also to press on to the later years, when of course I was more present in the picture and have a few memories of my own to complement.

Our discussion naturally raised more questions and left me with some leads for further investigation.  He mentioned attending “Clifton College” or the “University of Clifton” in Bristol, England, in 1938, studying in their Department of Navigation.  So, I contacted the Assistant Keeper of the Archives for Clifton College, which is a well-regarded public school (private school to Americans), knowing that it didn’t seem the sort of institution which would be training merchant mariners.  It is really more of a university-prep high school, and indeed the Archivist confirmed that my father was not on their rolls.  He suggested, however, that I try the City College of Bristol, which does have a marine studies program today.  I am waiting to hear back from them.

My father served on ships belonging to the J & C Harrison company out of England, but J & C Harrison is now out of business after having run steamships around the world for nearly 100 years.  He then served aboard ships for the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand; they too are now defunct.

Southerly aspect from Norwich Quay. At No.4 Wh...
Union Steamship Company vessel MV Kaimiro at Lyttelton, New Zealand, in 1956

However, I have contacted Maritime New Zealand, which in the 40s and 50s was known as the Marine Department, and from them obtained a scan of handwritten entries in their register showing the dates my father’s 1st Mate‘s and then Master‘s Certificates were issued.  His received his 2nd Mate‘s Certificate in England, so they don’t have a direct record of that.  Unfortunately the actual Certificates, along with his papers detailing the ships he served aboard, have been mislaid during a house move in recent years, which is something of a tragedy.  I do hope that perhaps we will still find them among papers held in storage, but my confidence in this is not high.

I do have, however, a crew manifest from the Hartlepool upon her arrival in Astoria, Oregon, from Nagoya, Japan, in April 1939, in which my father’s name appears as a Cadet.  I also have a document from the British National Archives detailing one or more of the medals he was awarded for service aboard merchant ships during the war.  The actual medals still hang upon his wall in a frame.

Together we also applied for a copy of his service record from the New Zealand Defence Force Archives, as he was an active member and officer of the Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve.  I am still waiting to hear back, but as this is happening by regular postal mail, it may take a while.  It appears similar records may exist with the British Royal Naval Reserve and merchant service, but most of these do not appear to be available online; they will eventually require a personal visit to their offices.  Fortunately, I may be able to call upon family in England to help with that.

Slowly, piece by piece, his life is coming together as a coherent narrative.  For these early years, at least, it is a narrative of adventure, a boy running off to sea to find his future, a war shaping the boy into a man, and a man coming home only to sail over the horizon once more, commanding ships as they ply all the waters of the world.  There are torpedoes and dive bombers, cold Russian ports and warmer Pacific ones, romance across the Atlantic, and love found while far from home.

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The Time Thief


Why are so many amateur genealogists retired?  Simple answer:  genealogy is time-consuming.  Don’t get me wrong, the detective work is fun, but after the initial rush when historical records just seem to fall in your lap, things really slow down and every new fact is hard-won, often involving many hours of research to locate and confirm.  For those who, like me, are still at work, weeks may pass between data points discovered.

So I find time wherever I can.  Sometimes I have twenty minutes at lunch, sometimes an hour in the evening, and like anything else, the context switch is expensive.  Computer scientists are familiar with this concept, the price (in time) paid to have a processor swap in and out of execution threads.  It works the same with people:  multitasking is expensive because of the time lost getting back up to speed on something after a context switch.  Everything is so much more efficient if one can just focus on it for several hours at a time, but those hours are necessarily taken at the expense of something else.

There is another aspect to time here, however.  Perhaps like many with this interest, I planned to research my roots “someday,” and it was only when I was laid up for a week with an injury that I felt “someday” had arrived and I began in earnest.  There is a cost to this delay:  those with direct memories of facts and events of interest are now getting on in years and may not be around later to tell what they know.  My father is now 90 years old, and his memory is not what it was even just a few years ago.  Names, dates, and places become confused, and everything must be carefully cross-checked.  He is also interested in seeing the results of my work, seeing his own links to ancestors — who knows, perhaps some famous ones? — and said to me pretty directly “You’d better hurry; I may not have much time, you know.”

So, I do feel a certain sense of urgency, and I am refocusing my research to fill in life details for more recent ancestors.  I know my father would like to know more about those a few generations back — his father never told him much about his grandfather — but his own story is so interesting that I want to make sure I get it right.  The stories of those more ancient will still be there waiting to speak to me.  Time is on their side; it is only the living who must steal it when they can.

Emigrants


Earlier I recounted a story of the emigrant ship Adamant on her 1875 voyage from England to New Zealand, but I didn’t give much detail about my connection to that ship.  The Adamant brought the Spratt family, of Liverpool, to New Zealand, where they settled in Invercargill, one of the most southern cities.  James and Maria Spratt (nee Rawlinson), both 31 years old, and four children, Maria (who turned 12 and became a “single woman” during the voyage), Elizabeth, Ada, and Harriet, all set out for a brave new world, leaving behind the life they had known.  James opened a shop in Invercargill as a sailmaker and cloth worker, and he and Maria had four more children after arriving in the new country.  One of these, Florence, born almost exactly four years after arrival, would become my great-grandmother.  James would live to the age of 90, and Maria to 65.

In 1905, at the age of 25, Florence Spratt married John Crabbe Winning, another native-born New Zealander of Scottish parents, moving their family slightly north to live in Dunedin, Waimate, and Timaru.  John was a butcher, and then a stationer, by trade, with a fancy goods shop in Waimate.  The both of them enjoyed singing, composing their own songs and performing in an orchestra.  They had two children, the elder of whom, Dulcie Rawlinson Winning, was my grandmother.  Florence would live to the age of 68, and John to 87.

Dulcie, born in 1908, at the age of 20 married a Christchurch man, John Charles Hargreaves, another native New Zealander born of English parents who would take her north to his town.  There they would have a daughter, Judith, who would later become my mother.  The family later moved to Wellington on the North Island, where John would rise to the position of managing director of a large department store, Kirkcaldie and Stains.  Unfortunately, Dulcie did not live a long life, passing away at the age of 47, and John went on to marry twice more, eventually being survived by his third wife when he died at the age of 84.

A year before her mother’s death, my mother married a dashing sailor, a merchant marine officer by the name of Robert Fraser from an Auckland family, and Auckland is where they chose to live, until 1969 when they emigrated to the United States with four children, one of whom was — me.