Old newspaper helps Stuart make disaster connection

Stuart Black of Berwick at Eyemouth Harbour with a copy of The Berwickshire from 18th October 1881, four days after Eyemouth Fishing disaster. Two of Stuart's relatives were killed in the disaster.
Stuart Black of Berwick at Eyemouth Harbour with a copy of The Berwickshire from 18th October 1881, four days after Eyemouth Fishing disaster. Two of Stuart's relatives were killed in the disaster.

PROGRAMMEs like BBC’s hugely popular ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ have prompted a number of people to piece together their family history and one Berwick man’s fact finding mission has led to him discovering two relatives perished in an event that changed Berwickshire forever.

Stuart Black from Prior Park had already done some research on previous generations of his family before his grandad passed away and left behind something that fueled his interest even further.

It was on going through his grandfather’s belongings with his dad that Stuart came across an edition of ‘The Berwickshire News’ from 1881 - the year that shook the lives of many families in east coast fishing communities for it was that year that brought the Eyemouth fishing disaster, the tragic event that saw 189 men perish at sea.

After weeks of bad weather the local fleet were becoming impatient to go to sea. On Friday, October 14 1881 they awoke to a calm morning.

Ignoring the low reading on their barometer, they put to sea.

By midday they had just begun their line fishing when the whole country was hit by a violent storm.

The boats rushed home but many failed to make it safely into the harbour. They either capsized or smashed on the Hurkar Rocks at the harbour entrance. Their families on the pier looked on helplessly. The majority of the men who lost their lives came from Eyemouth but 11 came from Cove, including two of Stuart’s relatives- John and Thomas Fairbairn.

The surname was already familiar to Stuart through his research on website Ancestry.com and old archives, which gave him access to old census records but it wasn’t until seeing the list of men who died in the old copy that the penny dropped as to why his grandfather had kept hold of the paper.

“My grandad died several years ago and when we went through his stuff we found the copy of ‘The Berwickshire’.

“It was in perfect condition but we couldn’t figure out why he’d kept it.

“I’ve been trying to put my family tree together for a while and on finding the paper I dug a bit deeper and things started to make sense.

“My grandad’s gran was an Aitchison and her father married an Alison Fairbairn so that’s how the name came into our family.

“Looking through the census I could find out where the Fairbairns lived, how many children they had etc and that’s where I first came across John and Thomas.

“If all my research is correct they were the two men who died in the disaster and they are relatives of mine. There’s not really a lot more research I can do. The geneology websites on the net can help you find out quite a bit but they’re also quite expensive depending on how deep you want to dig.”

Stuart said his grandad never ever mentioned any relatives losing their lives in the tragic day commonly referred to as Black Friday to anyone in the family, but all have arrived at the same conclusion as to why he kept the paper in such condition- as it was part of the family history.

Stuart continued: “My grandfather wasn’t born until 1913 so obviously he wasn’t around when the disaster occurred but the paper must have been something passed down through generations and there’s got to be a reason for that.

“None of us can get over how good condition the paper is in but we really don’t know what to do with it. We’re not sure if it’s worth something and we’ve also considered getting in touch with the boat museum in Eyemouth to see if they’d be interested.

“I’m not aware that I’ve got any living relatives in Eyemouth at present- possibly if I did more research I’d find out different. I know at one time there were a few Blacks in Eyemouth but I’m from Berwick and my other family are in Chirnside.”

Someone who offered Stuart guidance as he attempted to find out more about his relatives was Linda Bankier from Berwick Records office and she agreed that ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ had spurred him and others on to piece together their family history.

She told ‘Life’: “For as long as I’ve worked here people have often come in keen to find things out about their families but programmes like ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ have definitely provoked more of an interest.

“I get a mixture of local people and visitors; some who come up to the area for a few days to find out about family who lived here. Sometimes they’ll talk quite openly with me about who they’re looking for and what they’re trying to find out and other times I’ll just point them in the right direction and they’ll get on with their research themselves.

“We’ve got records from both sides of the Border - census returns, parish registers, trade directories, old newspapers, even monumental inscriptions - but people really need to come in having already done a bit of background research or at least have a vague idea of dates and names. If they come in completely cold it can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

The records office, based in the Northumberland County Council building, is open on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 9.30am-1pm and from 2-5pm.