No. 65 A Complete Absence of Fishermen’s Ganseys

It’s often said that ganseys (knitted sweaters) with traditional village-specific patterns have been used to identify the bodies of fishermen drowned at sea. It’s also often said it is a myth, so I thought the wealth of shipwreck data we hold would be an obvious place to shed light on this question!

In all my years researching wrecks, I do not recall ever coming across such a story, but I decided to take a more scientific approach: mining the database with its wealth of primary sources. The starting point was data for any fishing vessel lost in English waters 1750-1950, with 2,655 hits, using keywords for knitted clothing, bodies and the identification thereof. (1)

This approach yielded no results for any fishermen identified by their clothing, ganseys or otherwise.

The closest story was that of a French fishing vessel lost in October 1826 on the Kentish Knock at the entrance to the Thames. In early November some bodies washed ashore at Margate, ‘judged to be part of the crew of a French fishing boat, reported to have been lost on the Long Sand or Knock.’ This suggests their garb was distinctively French, but this clue was clearly combined with local knowledge of tides and currents and prior knowledge of the wreck.

By contrast, records of passenger vessel losses are rich in detail of bodies identified, and how, so here are just a few examples:

When the Elizabeth foundered in the Bristol Channel in 1781, the stockings on one victim identified him, but his clothing is likely to have been distinctive, since he was a Quaker. Again, when the Piedmont transport struck Chesil Beach, Dorset, in November, 1795, an officer was recognised by his scars (suggesting fairly rapid recovery of the body, consistent with a stranding).

In 1814, Captain le Coq of the Mentor, lost off Cornwall, is said to have been recognised by his gold watch and seal (from an as yet untraced citation from a primary source, indicating the body washed up fairly quickly afterwards). Who identified these individuals, all unknown in the communities where they met their final resting place?

In all three cases above there were survivors who would have provided corroborative information. Where the blanks could not be filled in, they were published in newspapers to aid identification. A night of carnage on the Bamburgh coast in 1774 resulted reports of bodies being washed ashore, among whom was a lady with ‘five diamond rings on her fingers, and gold ear-rings in her ears’.

The 1826 case on the Kentish Knock shows how difficult it was to identify fishermen washed up far from home and from the location of the wreck site. At the present state of knowledge there appears to be no reported evidence for the use of ganseys alone to identify drowned fishermen in English waters, unless a well-corroborated story comes to light.

Can anyone help?

(1) The parent database that feeds PastScape, from the National Record of the Historic Environment. Keywords were: gansey and its synonyms guernsey, jersey, sweater, jumper + knit-; body/ies, corpse(s), remains; identified, known, proved (as in ‘proved to be’), recognised

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11 thoughts on “No. 65 A Complete Absence of Fishermen’s Ganseys

  1. Hello Tamar, thanks for that interesting synonym, not one I have come across before. Which region is that from? I did search by “knit -” plus wildcard, which would have covered “knitfrock”.

  2. Hello Jane,

    Thank you for that suggestion, does this refer to a gansey or a fisherman’s smock? Which region is this from? In the first instance I wanted to concentrate on garments I could definitely identify as knitted ones, as it is the patterned knitted gansey which usually seems to be the focus of such stories. At this rate I shall have quite a few terms for an update revisiting the subject!

    1. I suggested “shirt” as a search word as there is a tradition, mentioned by James Norbury, Rae Compton, Michael Harvey and probably others, in which an elaborate gansey is knitted by the future wife of a fisherman for their wedding and then Sunday Best, and is generally known as a “bridal shirt”. So I felt there was a strong likelihood that a gansey might also be called a “knit shirt” since it was worn next to the skin. However, if you have tried “knit” plus wildcard, you have covered that one. Everyone interested in ganseys reads the “folk” traditions, we all long to know if there is any truth in them. This makes your investigation so interesting.

      1. Dear Jane,

        Many thanks for telling me more about the “bridal shirt” or “knit shirt” and for your kind words about my post. I’ve learnt a lot about ganseys from the discussions around the subject, but that’s the nice thing about blogging, it stimulates the exchange of different perspectives. I’ve always been fascinated by regional traditions and dialects, which in themselves sometimes affect how we interpret wreck events, filtered through the local idioms. But that’s another post for another day, glad you found this one interesting!

  3. I am the descendant of a long line of fishermen on the east coast of Yorkshire and the idea of a corpse being identified by its gansey is a complete myth. It seems to have originated with a character called von Kiewe who had a lively imagination. Gansey patterns were copied by the herring lasses who sailed with the fleet. The patterns we have are named from the towns and villages where they were recorded. There were favourite patterns obviously as in my own family but they were by no means exclusive. Knit frocks were a Cornish item.

    1. Thank you very much for your very interesting comment – I was not aware of the origin of the myth, so thank you particularly for that.

      I thought by scientifically trawling (sorry, in this case the pun is inevitable!) through our shipwreck data, it would help provide evidence out there to prove or disprove the myth so I am glad there is a consensus from all sorts of angles. Interestingly the English Heritage photo collections contain many photos of fishermen at work, where smocks, oilskins and sou’westers seem to prevail!

      You can see the archive collections here: http://www.englishheritagearchives.org.uk/ and add the search term “fisher” to pick up both -man / -men as captioned.

      You may also be interested in the shipwrecks of Yorkshire fishing communities, accessed on the public version of our shipwreck database on PastScape: http://pastscape.org.uk/ There is an interesting heritage of Yorkshire cobles and associations with the long traditions of all the fishing communities of Yorkshire between the Humber and the Tees.

  4. “Frock” was the term commonly used in Cornwall, where the “bridal shirt” was also known as a “bridal frock”. Parts of Scotland refer to a “froke”. There is an example from Foula known as the “Foula Froke”.
    Thanks for you ‘non-evidence’. The Knitting & Crochet Guild have been trying to dispel this myth for some time.

  5. Thanks for looking into this. We held a Gansey Exhibition this summer in the Sheringham Museum and tried to discount this myth, as indeed do the local fishermen. It would seem macabre for women to knit for their menfolk with a view to identify the bodies, although one knitter did suggest,tongue in cheek, that it could be useful for the insurance. Good to have some evidence as it is a popular myth.

  6. Thank you very much for your comments. I am delighted this post has aroused so much interest and had so much positive comment and I in turn have learnt a great deal about ganseys too!

    I think this really illustrates the impact and potential research derived from heritage data can have in all sorts of areas of interest – sometimes in surprising ways, as in this instance.

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