Guest post: So, what did your ancestor's passenger ship look like, then?

Guest contributor: Janelle

Once we have discovered which ship our ancestor came to New Zealand on, for most of us, the next question is "Where can I can get a picture of that ship?" And, just like passenger lists which are scattered in many places, so too are images of ships. Here are some of the search strategies and sources for ships pictures that I know about. I suspect that there are others out there that have escaped my notice, so please don't take this as an exhaustive guide!
A logical place to start the search for a picture is any museum or library you can find at or near the port where your ancestor arrived. If the ship was using that port, then a local photographer may have taken a photo and that image may now be housed in a local collection. If you have no luck with that port, check other NZ ports, to see if the same vessel ever put in there and if it did, check those institutions in turn.

You may find a list of NZ museums here and a directory of NZ libraries here.

A helpful source in determining which ports a particular vessel visited is "Shipping to New Zealand 1839-1889" popularly called the Comber Index after its compiler. The Comber Index doesn't contain passenger information or references to pictures, but it does give the departure dates, brief voyage details, and arrival ports and dates of immigrant ships to NZ. 

The Central Auckland Research Centre holds a copy of the Comber Index on microfiche.

Although the idea of checking libraries, archives and museums seems very straightforward (though time-consuming), there are a couple of other important points to keep in mind.

Firstly, the bulk of photo collections are not yet digitised, so even if the library or museum of the port of interest to you has an online digital archive, do not assume that the lack of a hit on that database indicates that no image is held. What is available in digital form may well be only a selection from the total collection of photos owned, so enquire specifically about your vessel of interest to the relevant institution.

The Heritage Images Online collection held at the Auckland Library is an example of the sort of situation I am talking about. The online collection of images is over 40,000 (not just ships, of course!), but the total collection is over half a million. 

If local collections at ports of interest don't yield an image, try Matapihi - a site that lists amongst other things, pictures contributed from a range of large national collections such as Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, which holds material reflecting the entire country, not just one region.

If a ship also visited Australian ports, a picture may be held in that country, if not here. Try the National Library of Australia's Picture Australia website that works in a similar way, reporting the holdings of many Australian contributing collections.

Secondly, you need to be careful to identify your vessel correctly. If you are lucky there will be enough information accompanying the image in the collection to be sure that you have the correct ship, but this is not guaranteed. If the relevant details are lacking then you need to be wary. Not only might there be two vessels afloat at the same time using the same name, but many shipping companies 'recycled' ship names, renaming new vessels with traditional company names as they took them into their fleet and disposed of the old vessel of that name.

So, (hypothetical example here),if you know that your ancestor's ship was the SEAHORSE owned by the J.J. Bloggs Shipping Company and arrived in 1874, check that photo you find of the SEAHORSE owned by J.J. Bloggs Shipping but dated 1885 very carefully. Is it the same vessel or the replacement? You may have to do some research on the history of the 1874 SEAHORSE to see if it was still afloat and owned by the same company. You could discover that it was wrecked in 1878, or that it was sold to another shipping company and sailing under adifferent name by 1885! (Which of course means you have to search for pictures under that alternative name, as well.)

Historical newspapers, encyclopaedias of shipwrecks, shipping company histories, and maritime sources such as Lloyds Register of Shipping, are some of the things that may be checked if you need to ensure that you have the correct ship. For information on Lloyds Register and associated sources, see the website of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich in the UK.

The National Maritime Museum also holds a large collection of ship pictures. Another helpful website is The Ships List. Also try the New Zealand Maritime Index (vessel search) to identify pictures of ships that have been published in books relevant to NZ.

The Central Auckland Research Centre holds on CD-Rom an index listing the location of more than 11,000 ship pictures held in the State Library of New South Wales
Master index to ships pictures in the Mitchell Library: Sydney, Australia (1500-1991)
The above is not an exhaustive list of sources, but I hope it gives some ideas about where to start looking. If your search for a picture seems to hit a brick wall, don't give up. You never know what will turn up eventually and where you will stumble over the vessel you want.

For instance, if anybody is interested in the ship CITY OF AUCKLAND which brought out immigrants to New Zealand during the 1870s, there is a rather nice model of it in a glass case, sitting on display against the far back wall of the Central Auckland Research Centre, Level 2, in the Auckland Central Library, Lorne Street.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, 31 May 2011 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response.

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