Unlockthepast 5th Genealogy Cruise- British Isles, 2014-Day 1, Tilbury

Vern and I have returned home from our overseas holiday, and it is now a month since we disembarked from our cruise with the Unlockthepast family history team on-board the Marco Polo. We had a marvellous time, and saw things, and went to places, we are not likely to see or do again.

Over the next few days I thought I would give you some idea what we saw and did, while on this cruise.

Day 1 , Saturday 19 July

We had been staying with distant cousins at Strood in Kent. We have the same ancestors some seven generations back on my ‘Bell’ family line. They had offered to drop us off at the Cruise Terminal at Tilbury, after we had lunched at a local pub called ‘The Three Crutches’. An interesting name for a pub, but that is another story.

The traffic was very heavy, so a forty minute journey took well over two hours and we arrived at the Tilbury Cruise Terminal just after three- thirty.

The Marco Polo was berthed at the terminal, and was already boarding passengers. She was not one of those huge floating cities, but had a more traditional profile with teak decks and a distinctive dark blue hull. She was just over 176 metres long and nearly 24 metres wide, and had 450 cabins, where she could accommodate up to 800 guests. She will be celebrating her Golden Jubilee (that’s 50 years) next year, and has a fascinating history. Check it out at www.cruiseandmaritime.com/ship/marco-polo/profile for photos and information.

There was all the hubbub of customs, and then the embarking hall where luggage, suitably ticketed, was whisked away by porters, and the ship’s staff collected our passports, took our photo and issued our photo identification boarding pass. This was a very important item for the cruise, as it not only got us on and off the ship but served as ‘cash’ on board.

As we walked along the covered gangway we could see artwork depicting the outlined shadows of all those who have used this terminal over the years. Here we also had ‘boarding photos’ taken by the ship’s professional photographers, which we could later purchase as mementoes of the voyage.

As we boarded the ship itself, we were met by staff and escorted to our cabin, where our luggage awaited us. We had requested this particular cabin, when we booked the cruise some nine months before.

We then went to the Marco Polo Lounge where we registered with the Unlockthepast team and collected our conference material and program.

We were soon out on deck watching others embarking.

I’m very interested in architecture and when I looked over to the front of the cruise terminal,I knew it was not a modern 21st Century building, and guessed it was much older, but how old? I made a mental note to research this when I had time. Anyone who knows me well, know I go off on research tangents all the time, as I want to know so much, about so many things.


Anyway, when I ‘googled’ it on the Internet, I found it had quite an interesting and important place in British maritime history. For instance, it took an Act of parliament, so the first docks could be built here in 1882. Secondly, it will soon be celebrating it’s centenary as a cruise liner terminal, and thirdly, it was the port of embarkation for all those who emigrated to Australia under the assisted passage scheme established and operated by the Australian Government after World War II. The “Ten Pound Poms” as they were known in Australia.

Many elderly first generation Australians, researching their family history, will come across the name “Tilbury,” and I wondered, were there any actually on board with us?

After the obligatory safety drill – though we appreciate we have to do it, but hope never have to use it – we remained on deck, and watched and felt, the Marco Polo pull gracefully away from the wharf and slowly move towards mid-stream of the Thames. She then turned downstream, where we met other commercial tankers slowly moving upstream towards their designated berths.

It was fascinating to look across the river and see all the old bond stores,and derelict wharves, which had all seen better days. However,the big surprise was the several ‘tall ships’ or old sailing ships which were berthed in all their glory, possibly around Gravesend. I was quite emotional when I saw them, as I know some of my Bell family left Gravesend as sailors on the convict ship “Asia” in 1837. Perhaps a small ‘time-warp’ to give me a glimpse of those far off days.

We enjoyed dinner in the ship’s Bistro, before we returned to the Marco Polo Lounge for the ‘ meet and greet’ of the conference participants and lecturers. All those eager family historians were a friendly lot, and it was great to catch up with old friends, as well as make new ones. There was a great line-up of several of the world’s leading professional genealogists to share their knowledge and wisdom with us over the cruise.

It was then free time, so we returned to the deck to watch the passing ships and landscape. It was mid-summer and so there was a long twilight before darkness fell late in the evening.


As we moved out into the Thames Estuary, and were leaving the land behind, we were surprised to come across what looked like ‘ huge rusting metal crabs’ perching in the sea. A quick ‘google’ and another unusual and interesting glimpse into British maritime history, as I found that they were what was left of the defensive Maunsell Army Forts of World War II. Again I wondered if there were any among us whose parents worked at any of the Maunsell Naval Forts, consisting of one large platform or the three Maunsell Army Forts in the Thames Estuary at Nore, Red Sands and Shivering Sands, which was north of Herne Bay and over nine nautical miles from the nearest land. No place to be in the terrible North Sea winter gales.

I guess ‘Goodwin Sands’ mentioned in the great days of sailing ships must have been about here, or perhaps a little to the south.

It was then time for bed, and it was nice to go off to sleep with the sound of the ship’s engines murmuring below us.