Monday, 8 November 2021


One of my several hobbies is finding out about my family. And I have found some really interesting stuff in the past already. One thing I found recently was the fact that one of my ancestors worked on a boat and called himself a skipper or turf skipper on several occasions (the births of his children). Five I noted immediately: they were born in the canal(!) or on the ship moored at a particular spot.

Pieter and his wife actually had 11 children in total, 9 of which made it to adulthood and of those, 8 made it to their seventies and eighties. Not bad going considering they were born between 1815 and 1837. Back to the skippering bit though.

For some reason Pieter became a skipper. It was probably a fairly lucrative market if you could get enough loads and the weather was good (remember: no engines back then apart from wind and muscles). It was also a tough world where you had to keep your wits about you to make sure you got some well paying loads and you had your family helping out.

And from the records I have found so far, Pieter must have lived on board with his wife and his children once they came along. Although some of the children born prior to 1830 were born on land (the farmhouses of relatives probably), five were born on board. Not in the canal as such obviously, but it that's how it was put down: in the town canal.

Irish turf, in the Netherlands we had our own stash
Conditions on board were not the best. It was cramped and by the first on board delivery, there would have been other children already. It was dirty, as the ship's loads would often be turf (peat), manure (animal and human), dirt, mud, potatoes etc. Not the cleanest of environments to give birth. 

Once the children were there and alive, the worries weren't over. Drownings were common amongst the skipper people and many (small) children would be tied to the mast with a rope that would give them less then two meters either way in order not to fall off the boat. 

As I said earlier: the family would need to help out. If there was no wind and you had to get your load to its destination (you would only get paid on delivery), there were only two things left to do: use the beam and push yourself forward or use the rope and pull. Often it was the job of the woman to do the pulling (horses cost money they might not be able to afford, hence human power was often used). The man in the mean time would use the beam to keep the boat from hitting the side. 

Safety first for this sea dog.
Older children would also be used, but they could only do so from the age of 12 onwards, the family could be fined severely if found breaching that law. The whole family would also be expected to load and unload, mend sails, do other small jobs and for the wife and any daughters: cooking and cleaning.

Perhaps Pieter got fed up with it all. Perhaps his wife told him that she had had enough, but in 1830 he gave up the skippering job and went to farming.


  1. Mara that is so interesting. I have been researching my family tree for years and would like to find our more about the way my ancestors lived. This post has given the inspiration to try to do more of that. A great post thank you for sharing.

    1. I don't like to have just the dry facts. I love to know more about how and where they lived. One thing that we don't know in the Netherlands is cause of death as it was not recorded. The only way to know is through family members who remember.

  2. Hari Om
    ...though farming is no less industrial and physically demanding! It does, at least, have a warm, potentially clean and definitely dry and stable home to rest in once the work is done.

    Very interesting stuff, the social history of our ancestors. Thanks for telling us of Pieter and the family. Indeed good genes, as you say, to have so many live long (and presumably prosper!) YAM xx

    1. Farming was more secure I think, especially during long winter months and other bad weather. Besides, he came from a farming background, so it was quite strange to find he had become a skipper!

  3. You are pretty good at this. I haven't done Ancestry for quite a long time even though I have a active membership. I think I have my basic lineage as far as I can go, but I will want to check some things.

  4. Mara I really admire you determination to be the family's historian. As I have aged (when I was younger) more and more folks are doing this. I wish I had known more about family research before the older members of the family passed.
    Hugs cecilia

  5. You have done really well with your research. I remember some of your earlier posts and how interesting they were.

  6. That is such an interesting story and for 8 of their children to live into their 70's and 80's is wonderful. Thank you for sharing. It must feel good to find this information on your family.

  7. We find this tale of your family history very interesting. It's nice to learn about the boat life too.


Any weighty (and not so weighty) comments are welcome!