Neal relations at Cuckoos Cup, The Wrekin

Entirely to the Water from Birth The nautical Harper Smiths

It is not often nowadays that an article in Who Do You Think You Are? magazine sends me off immediately to follow it up. But the March issue, received yesterday, has a Focus article on ‘Masters and Mates Certificates’ {4} which indicated it was worth checking to see if the 3 x great grandfather who had the title Captain could be found. He was born in the 1790s, so was already a master mariner when certificates came in from 1850.

There was no problem identifying this John Smith – there were only two of the right age and just the one born in Norwich. Here’s an extract from the second page of the record, applying for a Masters Certificate of Service, detailing his qualifying experience:

John Smith Masters Certificates extract

This is my transcription:

“Never was a Lad or Seaman nor Mate in any sea going vessel {3} but  B?? up entirely to the Water from by Birth and my early Experience obtained me the Situation of Master from Commencement.”

So was his father also a mariner? And the family living perhaps on a working Norfolk barge? A tantalising image.

Any thoughts on the missing word? Perhaps it is meant to be ‘Brought’, but he didn’t know the spelling. Is this all in his own hand? See Note 2 for more of the certificate’s content.

Various updates in the Notes: more of John and Lydia’s offspring {5}, and more seafaring in later generations {6}.



1. Captain John Smith’s daughter Harriet married Robert Neal, 19th Feb 1843 Norwich, and they were the parents of great grandfather Robert Smith Neal. This image is a clipping from Norfolk Chronicle dated 25 Feb 1843, sourced from British Newspaper Archives on FMP. There are a few siblings of Harriett to track down, then {5}.

Norfolk Public Houses website lists John Smith as licensee of the Green Man, 131 King Street, Norwich, in 1822, and as John Harper Smith 1830 -1839. This address is near the river and he is not the only waterman on the licensee list. A Robert Smith is licensee of the Green Man in 1851, just possibly John’s son. The ‘Harper’ name leads on to confirming that the 1871 census in Yarmouth for John H Smith (widower) must be him, with his death registered in that town as John Harper Smith 25th Dec 1872 age 81 (natural decay). Odd that ‘Harper’ doesn’t appear on the masters certificate. UPDATE: The latter may be because his son, also John Harper Smith (1825-1903), was applying for a Mates certificate at about the same time, so this would help avoid confusion.

John Harper Smith’s baptism also now located, St Julian’s Church, 6th May 1792, courtesy of It gives date of birth as 28 April 1792, a plausible error against that on the certificate. Parents John and Mary (nee Harper). UPDATE: baptism also available in Ancestry’s Norfolk records collection.

A further search on the British Newspapers archive (using last of free credits!) for John Harper Smith found:

  • Second wife Mary Bilby (nee Payne) died 1868 age 64. smithmary_death1868Marriage was in London, so Ancestry has the parish register entry (1st June 1858).
  • John Harper Smith Insolvent Debtors notice Feb 1836: “late of King Street, in the city of Norwich, Publican, Coal Dealer, and Master Mariner, trading in the Ship Nelson, of Norwich and Port of Yarmouth, in the county of Norfolk (sued as John Smith)”.

This note is getting to be longer than the original article. Also see Hanging by a thread for more on his offspring.

2. Further transcription:

Front: Master’s Certificate of Service, Number 47,246. John Smith, Born Norwich Norfolk on 18 April 1792. Has been employed in the capacity of Master — 16 years in the British Merchant Service in the coasting trade. Bearers signature …. Issued at Yarmouth this 9 day of January 1851.

Page 2, Claim for certificate: Vessel’s Name/Port/Tons/Capacity/Trade/Dates

Nelson, Wells, 61, Master, Coasting, 1835-1836

Frank, Yarmouth, 65 , Master, Coasting, 1836-1837

David, Yarmouth, 59, Master, Coasting, 1843-1850

Larne ?, Yarmouth, 91, Master, Coasting, 1850-continue

Then the above entry, Witness James Till, residence Row 122, signed John Smith, Place of Address Chapel Row, Yarmouth. (At 1851 census, 30th March 1851, the address is Row 102. He is on the vessel New Fairtrader in Northumberland at the 1861 census, second wife Mary is in Nelson Road, Yarmouth).

Various websites have information on Great Yarmouth’s Rows. Row Houses at Row 111 and the Old Merchant’s House are rare remnants managed by English Heritage.

3. As the WDYTYA article suggests, experience of lower ranks was usually listed, typically rising through Ordinary Seaman (or “Lad” as it seems to be in many crew lists), Able Seaman (AB), Bosun, Mate.

4. ‘Masters and Mates Certificates 1850-1927’ is an Ancestry dataset.

5. John Smith married Lydia Bacchus 1809 Norwich. Lydia died in Yarmouth 12th November 1857 (bronchitis), and John remarries to Mary Bilby nee Payne 1858. Details of Harriet’s siblings and their offspring on new article: Hanging by a thread. Thanks to Susan Falco for copies of various BMD certificates.

6. Further nautical generations.

  • John Harper Smith junior, b 24 Jul 1825 Norwich, d 17 Jan 1903 Yarmouth, master mariner.
  • Thomas Crisp Press, b 22 Dec 1814 Yarmouth d 13 Nov 1895 Yarmouth, was a master mariner. He married Jane Bacchus Smith, daughter of John and Lydia Smith.
  • Thomas Press b 1839 Norwich, son of Jane and Thomas Crisp Press, was Great Yarmouth harbour master from at least 1881 to 1911 (and died 1922 Yarmouth). So gave work to his relations mentioned below as working for the Harbour Board? Thomas Crisp Press junior, born 1874, was a marine engineer  (see this note).
  • Assuming Lydia Smith married John Denmark Dunch, he was a waterman in Norwich.
  • Joseph John Isaac, son of Joseph Isaac and Matilda Bacchus Smith, b 1857 Lowestoft, was a master mariner.
  • Edward Ernest Isaac, son ditto b 1860 Yarmouth, becomes a sail maker in Portsmouth (1881 to 1911 census).
  • George Stone, husband of Mary AE Isaac, shipwright and later (at 1911) foreman of works for Harbour Board (Gorleston or Yarmouth?).
  • John Ashby Rainer, husband of Rosina Matilda Isaac, variously fisherman, sailor, dredging master for Yarmouth Harbour Board.



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3 responses to “Entirely to the Water from Birth The nautical Harper Smiths

  1. Heather Wright avatar
    Heather Wright

    I can’t find the St Julian baptism for John Harper Smith (senior) in 1792 but can find one at St Mary Coslany in 1787. This gives his birth date as 18th April 1787 and his baptismal date as 22nd April 1787. His parents were John and Mary Smith his wife late Harper.
    This makes sense when compared to the baptism of Harriet Smith, born 19th August and baptised 27th August 1820 at Norwich St Peter Southgate to John Smith jun, waterman, and his wife Lydia late Bacchus. The use of the jun for John Smith suggests his father must also be John Smith (sen)!
    It also makes sense with his marriage to Lydia Bacchus in St Mary Coslany in 1809. Had he been born in 1792, he would only have been 17 at marriage – not impossible but even then not that common, whereas being born in 1787, he would have been 21 on 6th March 1809. This is all in the bishops transcripts 1600 – 1812 on Ancestry.

    1. Cutlock & Co avatar

      I’ve replied by email but here’s a quick thought. The first son John died in 1789 – perhaps the parents muddled the birthdays when it came to the second John born 1792.

  2. Linda Smith avatar
    Linda Smith

    Hi have a number of photos for you. Matilda Bacchus Smith, Jane Bacchus Smith and Thomas Crisp Press. Please contact me if you would like me to send.
    Linda Press

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