M is for Master Mariner

When researching my husband’s family tree the occupation “Master Mariner” caught my eye.  James Burns, husband of Isabella Muirhead, was reported by John’s family to be a Master Mariner and a ship’s captain.  He was said to come from Dundee, Scotland and married Isabella in Sydney in 1861.

Isabella came out to Australia with her parents on the ship “John Bunyan” in October 1857.

That gave her four years to meet James and marry him.  The first record of James I can find is his birth and later baptism in Dundee, Angus, Scotland on 21st September, 1839.  His parents are listed as James Burns and Jean Anderson.  This is important because James Burns is not exactly an uncommon name and I had great difficulty differentiating him from other mariners with the same name.

In 1866, five years after his marriage, he is listed as an AB on the steamer “Auckland” on the Auckland to Sydney run.  An AB or Able Seaman is a naval rating indicating more than two year’s experience at sea and considered “well acquainted with his duty”.

In 1868 he is a “trimmer” on the ship “Black Swan” travelling between Maryborough in Queensland and Sydney.

A coal trimmer or trimmer is a position within the engineering department of a coal-fired ship which involves all coal handling tasks starting with the loading of coal into the ship and ending with the delivery of the coal to the stoker.

The trimmers worked inside the coal bunkers located on top of and between the boilers. Trimmers used shovels and wheelbarrows to move coal around the bunkers in order to keep the coal level, and to shovel the coal down the coal chute to the firemen below, who shoveled it into the furnaces. If too much coal built up on one side of a coal bunker, the ship would actually list to that side.

Trimmers were also involved in extinguishing fires in the coal bunkers. Fires occurred frequently due to spontaneous combustion of the coal. The fires had to be extinguished with fire hoses and by removing the burning coal by feeding it into the furnace. Wikipedia

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The Black Swan State Library of Queensland

The Black Swan was an Iron steamship with two cylinders of 60 horsepower and  two masts, schooner rigged. She was a regular on the Bass Strait run when she collided with the Paddle steamer Luna in Port Phillip Bay, Victoria and sank. However she was raised, repaired and purchased in July 1868 by ASN Co. As a matter of interest she was broken up November 1880.

The following certificates could be those of our James Burns but I do not have enough information to be absolutely sure.

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 An “ONLY MATE” must be nineteen years of age, and have been five years at sea.  In addition to the qualifications required for a Second Mate, an Only Mate must be able to find longitude using a chronometer, use a sextant, understand tides, know how to moor the boat, keep a log, know how to use mortar and rocket lines etc.      

If family lore is correct James received his Certificate of Competency as Master.  In the year 1874 he worked on the “Rebecca and Jane” on the McKay to Sydney route as an Able Seaman.

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Meanwhile he and Isabella had four children, all born in Newcastle.  James was born in 1862, Robert in 1863, Elizabeth in 1866 and Hugh in 1868.

Elizabeth is my husband John’s ancestor.  She married Robert Muirhead.  Her mother’s maiden name was Muirhead so I’m still trying to get my head around that how they are related. Their son Hugh was John’s grandfather so there are quite a few generations descending from James and Isabella.

There are so many unanswered questions.  I have searched but can’t find a record of the deaths of James Burns or his wife Isabella.  Nor can I find any shipping records after 1874 so I still don’t know if James ever became captain of his own ship.

12 thoughts on “M is for Master Mariner

    1. I have looked in NSW BD and M after nothing came up on Ancestry.com. I can only assume they died outside the state but I would have thought they would stay in the Newcastle area with their family.


  1. How did you find the certificates? Were they inherited within the family? My grandfather was a mariner and I have inherited photocopies of all his discharge certificates.
    My father told me that a sailor would be given the certificate after each journey to sea. The Certificate of discharge would provide information of the trip the ship, and dates and the company hiring, the sailor’s character and conduct. When he applied for his next voyage he would show the certificates to prove his experience etc. Any gaps in the certificates would also need to be explained.
    I have been told it is very hard to find these certificates unless the ships were Australian merchant vessels and the dates are known. I’m not sure when this practice started but it might help explain why you are having such difficulty finding any records.
    With steam and engine skills he would have also been in much demand on the goldfields during this period as well, looking for work on land may have prompted him to move.
    Just a few thoughts

    Dropping by from the A to Z Challenge
    Sandra, Aspiring family historian, fellow participant in the #AtoZchallenge
    Sandra’s Ancestral Research Journal

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found the certificates on Ancestry.com under UK and Ireland Masters and Mates Certificates. After your query I checked them out and though age and birth place matches they could be incorrect as they are issued in the UK and I dont know if he went back on his voyages. As a result I am amending the blog. thanks for your comment.


  2. Hi LInda,
    Another coincidence. My Great Grandfather was a Master Mariner, although he never became a Captain in his own right. My uncle said he didn’t want the responsibility of the other men’s lives, which could be explained by a shipping accident which he was involved in, also in Port Phillip:. Here’s a link to the post: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2019/02/20/when-two-ships-collide-stumbling-across-the-wyrallah-disaster-1924/
    Best wishes,


  3. Hello Linda, I have just read your blog regarding James Burns and Isabella Muirhead with great interest as I am researching my MUIRHEAD/RIDDLE line. I have found a funeral notice naming HUGH, JAMES and ROBERT MUIRHEAD and their beloved sister ISABELLA who died 1881. It was advertised in the newspaper Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate 20 June 1881. It mentioned her late residence was Onebygamba.
    I also have the detail of Isabella’s half-sister Elizabeth who died at Newcastle of fever 19 May 1868 at the residence of her brother-in-law James Burns.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Royston,
      Thank you for the new information . I found the newspaper article you mentioned on Trove and realised I hadn’t found it before because I was looking up Burns. I will start searching for details of your other info on Elizabeth. I have not been researching ancestry recently and let my membership to Ancestry.com lapse but you can still find what I have in my husband’s tree (Curry Family Tree) quite easily. I can still make changes to the tree so have just put in Isabella’s death and an image of the newspaper notice.

      Thanks again for the information.
      Linda Curry


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