Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Caithness, James Ernest (1839-1902) 1

Is it a mariner’s life for me?

James Ernest Caithness was born at No.7 George Row, Bermondsey (just south of the River Thames) on 17 May 1839. His father James Ramsey Caithness (1815-60), a Master Mariner, and mother Elizabeth Watson nee Ridges (1815-51) had married the previous year in Southampton.  James had been both born & baptised as James Edward but decided he preferred the middle name Ernest at some point during his life.

There was a strong maritime tradition in his family. His grandfather James Caithness had seen action whilst serving in the Royal Navy against the French in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. His father James Ramsey and his uncle George had received their education at the Lower School of the Royal Hospital Greenwich and joined the Merchant Service rather than the Royal Navy.

The Royal Hospital, Greenwich

James Ramsey Caithness decided to settle in South Africa and in the early 1840’s brought his wife and the young son James Ernest out to join him. They were to have five more children, born in either Cape Town or Port Elizabeth, before his wife Elizabeth Watson died in early 1851. He remarried by the end of the year.

Young James Ernest was to witness the harsh realities of a mariner’s life. His father James Ramsey had his fair share of accidents – through no fault of his own. The worst incident perhaps was in 1855 when one of James Ernest’s brothers, likely to have been Alfred Douglas, was killed during a fire on board the ‘Flying Dragon’ whilst his father was in command (the same ship had also caught fire the previous year under Captain Carter off Simon’s Bay).  James Ramsey Caithness himself died in 1860 ‘after a long and painful illness’ aged 44.

Family oral tradition mentions that James Ernest tried his hand at sheep farming in South Africa. Life at home was apparently hard. His mother and father had died and his widowed step-mother had five step-children and three of her own children to support. James Ernest Caithness disappears for a while and next shows up at his wedding in London in 1877. His life has taken a new direction – Eureka!

Guest Post by Tom Sheldon, 2 x great grandson of James Ernest Caithness
Photo portrait by kind permission of June B-R

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