Mauled English: the fate of James Brabner

James Brabner Merchant Navy Apprenticeship Indenture TNA
James Brabner’s Apprentice Indenture records he ‘Died at Sea’ aboard the Colonel Maule source: UK Apprentices Indentured in the Merchant Navy, 1824-1910,

With over two decades of experience in researching family history records I really should have seen it coming:  ‘Colonial Maul’  as a death cause for my  ancestor’s brother instead should have read ‘Colonel Maule’, and it was actually the  name of a ship.

It had started off as a  really exciting day to finally find a reference to James Brabner, the missing older brother of great great great grandfather Alexander Dalgleish Brabner (1836-1899) of county Fife in Scotland.

Alexander Brabner was a queue jumper, one of those migrants who these days would be considered a threat to our sovereign borders.

Never mind that his father was a doctor  and that his grandfather fought for the defense of the British nation. Alexander Brabner got it in to his head to make a fresh start in a the land of opportunity and without waiting for anyone’s permission he  jumped ship at Melbourne in 1855.

Researching the family history a century-and-half later was  mainly been done from a distance, and via snail mail for nearly all of Alexander’s ten siblings remained based in Scotland except brothers George and John, who made their way to Canada, but thankfully the digital revolution and the internet are changing the family research can be done.

We had found out the old-fashioned way that Alexander was born in the southern Tay-side  rural township of Balmerino in county Fife in 1836, and thanks to the John Brebner Genealogies online we knew he was the fourth of twelve sons born to Dr James Brabner (1804-1873) and his wife Margaret Dalgleish (1805-1884).

Mary jane Booley nee Brabner
Mary Jane Booley (nee Brabner) was born at Smythesdale,Vic in 1869. Her father Alexander D Brabner (1836-1899) was the brother of  James Brabner (1832-1851).   Photo courtesy of David Williams from the collection of Leigh Williams, Ballarat.

His brother James was born two years earlier on the 7th June 1832, the second eldest of the Brabner boys and named for his great-grandfather James Brabner (c1744-) of Newburgh, some ten miles further west and where at least four generations of Brabner’s had lived.

All of the Brabner boys where at Balmerino or minutes away at nearby Creich or Gauldry. a region where their father practiced as a surgeon as well as the region’s official medical officer.

After 1851 the Doctor packed his family up and moved some ten miles away to the larger city of Dundee, over the bridge and on the  northern side of the Tay.

Because James  Brabner wasn’t listed on the 1851 census of Scotland along with Alexander and the rest of his family  it has long been presumed he died as a infant.

But recently -obtained documents have revealed the boys’ grandfather William Brabner (1770-) had served for nearly a dozen years as a gunner in the East India Company before retiring infirm on a pension, to the family home in High street, Newburgh where his own father had lived before him.

The influence of  grandfathers can resonate a long time especially if they live long enough to captivate a young audience of grandchildren,  and particularly if they can enthrall them with stirring tales of life at sea in Napolean’s heyday.

I have often seen seafarer’s in records who followed their fathers or male relatives to sea, so with alarm bells ringing I dove into a  U.K collection of records for apprentices who were indentured in the merchant navy.

If James’ grandfather had been in the Royal Navy I would have searched those first, for entry into that service was often by purchase or by connection, but as grandfather Brabner was in a private commercial company it would make sense his grandson might follow him there, or go in the commercial-orientated merchant navy.

The National Archives of United Kingdom (TNA)in Kew, Surrey holds an extensive collection of seafarer and ships records including the Register of Shipping and Seamen: Index of Apprentices , referenced as BT (Board of Trade) 150/1-53.

This collection of records has recently been made available through Ancestry and its online databases like Ancestry. com. au,  as UK Apprentices Indentured in Merchant Navy, a collection of records 1824-1910.


Along with other TNA records (BT114, BT113) the records revealed that the four eldest Brabner brothers all went a-seafaring, our Alexander included.

And more particularly the Apprentice records finally reveal James Brabner’s story, albeit they were misleading in giving his birthplace as Dundee though that was only the place he was living when he was signed up.

Barely past his fifteenth birthday,  James Brabner  was apprenticed on the 24th November 1847 to Joseph Garland, a ship owner of Newburgh (where James’ grandfather lived) and who later shifted his centre of operations to Dundee.

James Brabner was signed up for a four year apprenticeship,  which was to be completed on the 27th November 1851, and served aboard the Garland-owned Ben Nevis.

A (later-written) entry in red writing states TR.1.7.51 suggesting James was transferred to another ship on the 1st of July 1851.

As he was still under his apprenticeship with Garland it would need to be completed on one of the latter’s ship.

James Brabner Tr 1.7.51 reference from his Apprentice Indenture record
Tr 1.7.1851 is noted on James Brabner’s Apprenticeship Indenture: The original documents are held at TNA ‘Register of SHipping and Seamen: Index of Apprentices, BT150/1-53. This copy via

Then in another hand it is noted (and my late night interpretation was)  ‘Died at Sea from the Colonial Maule,  of Dundee (no date)’.

On colonial Australian documents it is not uncommon to find death causes that begin with colonial …and with ‘fever’ being probably the more usual ending.

A Google search however produced nothing on a medical condition called ‘Colonial Maule’ and a quick search through medical dictionaries shed no further light on the mystery illness.

With the freshness of dawn it was back to the original document on Ancestry, and with some digital manipulation to eradicate blobs, blots and unrelated marks, it turns out the true interpretation of the handwriting is:

“Died at Sea aboard the Colonel Maule, of Dundee (no date)’.

In the ‘Remarks’ column it states simply ‘Dundee’ which was a home-port for Garland and his shipping business by this time .

James Brabner’s assigned seaman’s number is given on this document as ‘94536‘ and this reference is also documented in BT114 (Merchant Seaman Tickets index available at Findmypast) which confirms James BRabner, seaman number 94536 was born at Gauldry (a few minutes from Creich where James was born, near Balmerino in country Fife).

So my great great great-grandfather’s brother,  James Brabner, seaman number 94536, born on the 7th June 1832 at Creich in county Fife,  died at sea in 1851 (no date).

Lloyds Register of Ships  shows that in 1847 the Ben Nevis was a 319-ton brig (formerly a 282-ton bark) built on the River Tay (Scotland).

In 1948 the Ben Nevis was owned by J. Stewart of Dundee, and in the Liverpool to Hobart Town (Tasmania) trade.

However by 1848 she was under the ownership of Garland, and registered for the Dundee – Archangel trade under the command of captain P. Dorward (possibly Peter Doward who previously held a maritime position near Balmerino).

In 1850 and 1851  Dorward is shown as  in command of the Colonel Maule, built as a bark of 390 tons in Quebec in 1849 but overhauled to a 437 ton brig and registered to Garland, at Dundee for the Liverpool- Acapulco trade.

The evidence suggests James Brabner began his apprenticeship aboard the Garland-owned Ben Nevis, under the command of P. Doward before both transferred ship to the also Garland-owned  Colonel Maule.

The Gales News Vault is the go-to site for historic newspapers online (and free to Australians! through a membership with the National Library, through its E-resources parterships).

Report of the loss of the Keldy Castle and rescue by the Colonel Maule
Source: GALE NewsVault

Gales’ extensive collection of newspapers include UK papers which contain regular shipping columns detailing ships’ movements for well over a century.

The North Wales Chronicle (Bangor, Wales) on the 28th August 1851 reported the Colonel Maule saving the crew of a ship which had taken to its boats, after their ship had burned to the waterline at sea. (Source: GALE News Vault).

On the 30th of June 1851  while on a journey from Callao to Liverpool,  a lookout on the Colonel Maule   spotted a boat ahead in the distance and upon making  it found it to contain the Mate and two seamen from the crew of the Hartlepool-registered Keldy Castle.

The Mate reported the entire crew of the Keldy Castle had been forced to abandon her on the 25th of June 1851,  after she was found on fire while carrying a cargo of coal on charter by the West India Mail Steamer Co for its Monte Video depot.

The Captain and six men of the Keldy Castle took to the long-boat whilst the Mate took two others in his boat, and they kept company for a short while before losing sight of each other, while their vessel burned to the waterline and they were left helpless at sea.

When found,   the Mate and his men were in an exhausted state and having taken them on board,  the captain of the  Colonal Maule’s ordered his men to search for the missing others, who were found about two hours later some distance to the leeward and also brought on board.

With an extra 10 to provide for and being short on provisions for his own men, captain Doward put the  Colonel Maule  into Pernaumbuco for provisions, where he landed the mate and five of the crew  of the Keldy Castle before taking the remainder on to Queenstown (Ireland).

The Cork Examiner (Friday August 29, 1851) reported the Colonel Maule sailed from there for Liverpool with a cargo of Guano, and The Standard (London, Oct 31 1851) reported the Colonel Maule  departed there on the 30th October for Havanna,  under the command of Dorward.

Harking back to James Brabner’s Apprentice Indenture, it had ‘TR 1.7.51’ written above his name, which coincides with the time the Colonel Maule rescued the crew of the Keldy Castle (30th June) and conveyed them to Pernaumbuco,  and then Queenstown ( 28th August).

So if James Brabner was ‘Transferred’ from the Colonel Maule on the 1st of Jul 1851, it was two days after the crew of the Keldy Castle were rescued, so did it take place at sea, or maybe at Pernambuco when some of the crew of the Keldy Castle were landed.

And if he ‘died at sea’, was it in this same time frame?

Doward, as master of the Colonel Maule,  or Garland as its agent, would have had to supply a Muster  of their crew when the vessel reached its home port (Liverpool),  so that document might say more about James’ death as each seaman’s time spent on board is recorded, as well as those who died or deserted.

I will be satisfied if  James Brabner (1832-1851)  got to live beyond infancy, even if he died far from home.

‘Going to Sea’ was always a risky business and one our Alexander Dalgleish Brabner circumvented by jumping ashore at Port Phillip, but then he had other problems back home that he probably wanted to avoid and that is another family story!

Colonial Maule is not a death cause