Uncovering family history aboard a Canadian Pacific steamship
Imagine how excited you would be to find a key piece of your family history amidst formal archival records. That’s exactly what happened to Sian Jones, who works as an archives clerk for Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation; an archivist found herself in the archives!
In 2012, Canadian Pacific transferred archives from its steamship subsidiary to the Canada Science and Technology Museum. Archives clerk Sian Jones has worked on the collection, amidst other work assignments, since its arrival. She found part of her family history preserved in the voyage reports. Many other Canadians will be able to find themselves in these archives as well. The Ingenium Channel sat down with Jones to talk about how her history unfolded.
Sian's sailor doll from the Empress of Canada trip.
Did you know before you started working with the archives that your family came to Canada in a Canadian Pacific steamship?
Yes, I had known that we had immigrated by ship in 1966. My parents had bought us each a souvenir of our passage in the form of a doll, dressed as a sailor, with the ship’s name on his seaman’s cap. I hadn’t really thought much about the specific carrier until we acquired the Canadian Pacific Steamships Limited (CPS) fonds and I pulled out the sailor and saw that he was from the ‘Empress of Canada’.
Sian’s family aboard the Empress of Canada.
Cover of the Captain’s General Voyage Report for the 12-29 April 1966 crossing of the S.S. Empress of Canada.
When did you find yourself in the archives? Was it an accident or did you seek the documents out?
As I worked my way through all the different types of documents, I was excited to find that they included Voyage Reports as well as photographs of the ships. My mother had told me stories of how my parents had been wined and dined at the Captain’s table the entire trip, the Captain trying to get my mother to sign a release form following an incident. During those days any babies had to be boarded by one of the ship’s nursing staff. The nurse carrying me tripped on the carpet while we were boarding and my head struck the railing. Needless to say, I screamed and my mother was very distressed. I was taken to the doctor for examination and it was noted in the Surgeon’s Report. A Surgeon’s Report is included in every Voyage Report when an accident or injury was sustained on board. They can be quite humorous! Some deal with inebriated passengers who had slipped on wet decks etc., others with more serious issued such as measles requiring quarantine. I knew that we had left the UK in April 1966, so as I came to the records for these voyages I took a closer look at all the different reports, and one day there I was! They did get the order of my names wrong though.
Do you have some advice for people who might want to look for their family history in the CP Steamships fonds? Are the record series complete?
I think the whole fonds is great, but more specifically for genealogists, the Voyage Reports, Passenger Lists, and Immigration Reports will prove of immense value.
The different series are by no means complete in the sense that we have a report for every voyage, but certainly most of the vessels – both passenger and merchant – are represented at some point in their career. I would suggest that researchers gather as much detail as they can about a person’s travels, such as: year of travel, vessel name, passenger name, etc., and then contact the Archives. The database is now complete so it’s fairly easy to determine if we have anything for a vessel, passenger etc. If you never ask, you will never know for certain, and you could be miss out on some really great information and details. I would also suggest that researchers go beyond just the names and dates. Look at the brochures and travel itineraries. The artwork on some of the cruise brochures is truly spectacular – the colours and images are vibrant and provocative. They evoke the glamour, romance, and excitement associated with early ocean travels and speak to the adventurer in all of us!
This was a big project. How do you feel now that your work is complete?
Talk about being thrown into the deep end! This was a huge project, but it feels amazing to have completed my work. It was very satisfying to place the label on the last box. Publishing the description to Archeion in January was the icing on the cake!
The descriptive record in Archeion can be found here: https://www.archeion.ca/canadian-pacific-steamships-limited-fonds. The Archives is looking to digitize the most useful material with the help of a partner. Contact us for further information.