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