Unlockthepast 5th Genealogy Cruise- British Isles, 2014-Day 8, St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly

Saturday, 26th July 1914

Isles of Scilly are an archipelago off the south-west tip of the Cornish coast of England. The five main islands, St Mary’s, Tresco, St Martin, St Agnes and Bryher, have a varied and interesting history.

We had been advised by the Cruise Tour Director that St Mary’s would be a tender port , but not those belonging to the ship, as previously used, but local boats from the harbour itself. We were not sure what to expect.

When we arose next morning we in for a surprize. We had anticipated that it would be a fine, clear morning, as it had been previously, however the ship was wrapped in a thick sea-mist or fog. Although we could still hear the ship’s engines throbbing below us, it was difficult to know if were still moving as there were no reference points on land or sea.

The pilot- boat appeared suddenly at the ship’s side and disappeared just as quickly after the delivery of the pilot.

There was a hushed silence as those passengers on deck, spoke quietly amongst their shadowy selves. Suddenly the ship announced its presence with a long blast on its horn. It was not long before it was answered by horns and bells, somewhere on shore, both on our port, as well as starboard. Then there was a whole musical interlude as the pattern of blasts on horns and the clanging of bells spoke to each other in the fog and guided the Marco Polo to its anchorage in St Mary’s harbour. It was easy to imagine how it was in days gone by, as sailing ships inched their way into port.

It wasn’t long before the Tour Director announced the first of the tender boats had arrived to take the passengers off for the tours. We watched from the deck above as those below embarked from the ship’s loading platform into the open boats. The water was a little choppy and the boats heaved up and down making it difficult to judge when to take the step aboard. This was made easier by the crew assisting, who gave instructions to either ‘wait’ or ‘go’. When the boat was full it disappeared into the swirling fog.

After some minutes the announcement was made, that although the ship was still surrounded by fog, it was clear on shore and the tour groups for the other islands, such as the Tresco Abbey Gardens, could proceed. In an hour or so the fog had cleared to reveal a beautiful picturesque town laid out along the shore.


We went on shore late in the morning and wandered about the town, until we joined our tour in the afternoon. This was a walking tour conducted by an elderly, but very fit local husband and wife team. The history of the island was explained as visited all the landmarks, from the ancient castle fort on the hill top to the extensive naval defences on the shore for World War II.


We returned to the ship soon after 4 pm, as I had made an appointment with Paul Blake in the Research Help Zone,to discuss records held at the National Archives at Kew ( London), that I planned to research the following week. I had all the catalogue references, sorted in numerical sequence and printed out. As my time there would be limited, I sort Paul’s advice on the most efficient way to locate, order and use the material. I also asked him how I might go about finding records on my Irish soldier in the 18th Century.

There were two sets of lectures offered by Unlockthepast in the evening.

The first was’The Tithe: its history, records and administration’, by Paul Blake, and ‘Using ScotlandsPeople effectively’, by Marie Dougan. I heard Paul’s talk on the ‘tithe’, as I have researched many rural villages in England, I knew what an important factor this was in parish histories. A few days before sailing on the cruise, I had visited the manor farm where some of my ancestors had lived in the 16th Century, and the huge ‘Tithe-barn’ is still there today.

The second set of talks were ‘On-line Newspapers’ by Rosemary Kopittke, and ‘Reading the original; hints and tips for deciphering old documents’, by Jackie Depelle. I listened to Jackie’s advice on how to decipher old documents, as I’m finding reading 17th Century wills, I have been able to locate for some of my families, very challenging when transcribing. I learned that there is no easy way, but patience and practise is the key to success.

After dinner we sat on deck in the hazey twilight and watched the commercial sea traffic passing all around us, as we were virtually at the ‘crossroads’ in the English Channel, where the ships crossed to sail up the western or eastern coast of the English mainland.

Our day at St Mary’s had been a pleasantly casual one, and I wondered as I went to bed, what our next port, St Peter Port in Guernsey would be.