As regular readers will know, recently I have spent time trying to discover as much as possible about those who perished in the fishing disaster off Clovelly in 1838 and their descendants. This was made more difficult by the paucity of records. The only list of names was in a local paper (subsequently repeated by other publications) and proved to be inaccurate. Although villages of origin were noted in conjunction with the names, there were no ages. As about half the bodies were never recovered, these victims have no death certificates and no burial records, which might have given further clues. Strangely, some seem to have burial records but no death registrations. Even allowing for the fact that some may have been registered as unknown deaths and subsequently identified in time for burial, this seems odd, especially as there were inquests. It was of course very early in the days of death registrations but this does not seem an adequate explanation.
As a direct result of the tragedy, The Shipwrecked Mariners’ Association was formed 175 years ago and they were celebrating this milestone with the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the victims of the 1838 disaster. As the research progressed there were hints of a royal involvement in the event. Initially this was all very hush hush but eventually it transpired that I and the descendants I had unearthed, would be invited to meet HRH Princess Anne, the Princess Royal. Great in theory but this involved posh, not only do I not do ‘posh’ but this was the sort of posh that was compatible with standing on a windy and possibly rainy, quayside having descended a steep cobbled street. Fortunately hats were deemed unnecessary and in the end the weather was kind, although my version of posh did not really go with flat shoes. I was tempted to send Mistress Agnes in my stead – warm and comfortable at least – but Master Christopher was reluctant to accompany her so she had to attend disguised as her twenty first century self.
When the date of the event was set it was too good to be true, the day after the end of our annual Braund family reunion. Braunds would be descending on North Devon from near and far and may want to stay to witness the unveiling. Some Braund Society members were already involved in the day as descendants of the victims. A swift bit of negotiating and I gained permission for others to attend.
On a lovely day I assembled in my designated position on Clovelly quay where I was to introduce some of the descendants to HRH. Having unveiled a fountain at the top of Clovelly, the Princess descended the cobbles and spent five minutes or so talking to each of the six assembled groups on the quay. HRH had clearly done her homework and spoke in an informed way to each group. The memorial was unveiled and a Cornish shanty group ‘Stamp and Go’ sung a song composed especially for the occasion. I thought my job researching the descendants was bad enough but when the composer contacted me for help with information, prior to writing the song, I knew who had drawn the short straw! My response went along the lines of, ‘Good luck with that one’. Not much scanning or rhyming potential in ‘Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Royal Benevolent Society’ but they did a great job.
The Braunds who were expecting only to spectate were thrilled that the Princess stopped to talk to them on her way back up the quay. Two of them appeared on the local news, even though the BBC manage to mis-spell one of their surnames.
So I can now add shaking hands with a Princess and talking to her about research to the list of unexpected experiences to which my research has led.