Finding the Elusive and Mysterious Captain Priske

Continuing from my previous post which highlighted the beginnings of my search for my roots with Ted Priske’s story, the following is an article I published in the Qualicum Beach Family History journal in June 2009.


“There is always just that one “triggering event” that seems to make you want to find your ancestors.  As a young child I had listened with fascination as different stories about my paternal grandfather’s past were told, how he grew up as Sydney Pope, married and had his first child (who died in infancy) under that name, then all of a sudden, in 1901, his mother told him he really wasn’t a Pope at all, his father’s name was Priske.

According to family lore, apparently after hearing that information, he never spoke to his mother again, changed his surname to Priske and even went so far as to change the headstone on his son’s grave to read Priske.

Then there were the stories that Thomas Montague Priske was a Dutch sea captain and had been buried at sea, that Mercer Pope (his stepfather) was a seaman and had been buried at sea, that Thomas Montague Priske had married a woman at sea who was of a lower class than him and on his return home his father had the marriage annulled, and all the other wild and wonderful stories that families love to tell. Where was the truth in all of this?

My research started with my grandparents, Sydney Montague Priske and Alice Kate Wheatley.  I knew that they had immigrated to Canada from England and lived in Schreiber, Ontario.  My grandfather was killed in a head-on train crash in Schreiber in 1938 and I did have a copy of his obituary, which was my starting point – it gave his birth date.

Tracing my grandmother, his wife, through the censuses, I found a marriage of Alice Kate Wheatley to Sidney Montague Pope.  By purchasing both the marriage certificate and my grandfather’s birth certificate I had the proof from the birth certificate that his father was Thomas Montague Priske, and on the marriage certificate there was an annotation dated 1901 that he formally changed his name to Priske and changed the name of his father to Thomas Montague Priske, Chief Mate of a sailing vessel.

I began searching censuses again and could never find the mysterious Captain Priske.  The next step was to research marine records. But I didn’t know how or where to search. That meant more hours on the net reading and studying the steps to research marine records.  Finally, through I found a document which explained the steps to find Captain’s records at Guildhall, but was still not sure what to do.  At that point I thought perhaps a local family history society might be able to give me some information.

As luck would have it, I then called the Qualicum Beach Family History Centre on a Monday afternoon and Donna Fraser answered the phone.  Within five minutes I had the information I needed to research Captain Priske’s mariner’s records.  I did hire a researcher to find these records, but being a greenhorn at this, I paid too much and it took far too long to get the simple one-page document that only contained names of ships of which he had been master. But within that one-page document there was that one clue I needed.  He was born in Truro, Cornwall in 1852.

The next step was to find a birth certificate for Captain Priske.  I had everything I needed to find it, right?  Wrong!  All my searching was to no avail, there just wasn’t any information on his birth or baptism.  I joined the Cornwall Family History Society, and for the sum of £4 they would research birth and baptism information.  Weeks went by with no answer and then I finally received an e-mail stating that they could not find any birth records for Thomas Montague Priske.  So, my quest began again.

One day, while researching at the Qualicum Beach Family History Centre, I had spoken with Donna Fraser about my lack of success in finding my elusive captain.  Shortly after our conversation I had an e-mail from Donna, saying that another Society member Miriam Cook, had an interest in mariners in Cornwall and she had given Miriam my phone number.  Miriam did call me, saying that she had a CD with a list of Cornwall mariners and could check it for me, which she did.

Captain Priske was on that list, with his certificate number, but, more importantly, she gave me the e-mail address for Lorna Leadbetter, who was the London off-site researcher for the Cornish Masters & Mates Project.

sailing ship

Lorna went through the records at Guildhall and found Captain Priske’s first mate, second mate and master’s certificates, extracts of all the certificates and a list of the ships he had sailed on from the time he first went to sea until 1888.

But I still didn’t have any proof that this was my Captain Priske.  Then, out of the blue, and entirely unexpectedly, I had an e-mail from a member of the Cornwall Family History Society saying that they had found my captain.  He was born Thomas Teague Prisk in Truro, Kenwyn Parish, Cornwall in 1852 and his father was William Prisk.  I now knew his birth name was Thomas Teague and there was no “e” at the end of his surname.  Would this be the same person?

There is a website for Cornwall on-line parish clerks who provide research on Cornwall parishes.  I contacted the clerk,Carol, for  the Kenwyn Parish.  She not only provided his birth information, but also the names of his father, his mother, his grandparents and names of the children from his mother’s previous marriage.

With the information from Carol, as well as information tracing Captain Priske’s mother,  Cecelia Symons, and the information from mariner’s records provided by Lorna, including addresses in the mariner’s listings, I was able to definitely confirm that, indeed, Thomas Teague Prisk and Thomas Montague Priske were one and the same person.

In casual conversation with other researchers about the difference in names, it was suggested that this was the Victorian age and he had perhaps wanted to “gentrify” his name, changing his middle name to “Montague” and adding the “e at the end of “Prisk”.  I personally think that he just wanted to make sure that future generations would never have their last name either spelled or pronounced correctly!

Carol, the Kenwyn on-line parish clerk, went so far as to do research in Essex through the General Registry Office, using the information I had found on Captain Priske’s family in the censuses living in the Victoria Docks area, Essex (now part of Greater London).

Through Carol’s research in Essex we were able to find a death record for Captain Priske and his wife, as well as the names of their children who had died in infancy, one child being named Cecelia (his mother’s name), further proof that the two were indeed the same person.  Carol also found the names of the two children of the captain’s son William.

Would either of the children of William still be alive?  How would I be able to find living relatives?  I posted a question on the Essex Family History Society website mailing list about finding living relatives. Sue Keene from Australia e-mailed me within a couple of hours, saying she had found a  female Priske relative living in Cornwall and thought that might be my relative, providing an address and telephone number.

Well, I could write to this relative, telling her who I was and wait for a reply or I could do what an impatient person would do, pick up the phone and call her.  Rehearsing madly what I was to say, I called the number.  The phone was answered  and I began my story about her grandfather’s “other child”.  Needless to say, she was skeptical, but after more conversation, she began to accept the fact that we were related.

I then e-mailed her a copy of my grandfather’s birth certificate, the attestation from his marriage certificate and a picture of him taken in the late 1920’s.   We talked again by phone and she has now invited me to visit her in Cornwall and will “walk me about the town”, showing me where my elusive Captain Priske grew up, where his mother’s bake shop was and generally fill in the blanks of what she knows of his earlier life.

There is much more to this story and I know there is more research to be done, but without the help of Donna Fraser, Miriam Cook, Lorna Leadbetter, researchers from the Cornwall Family History Society who wouldn’t give up searching for a birth certificate, Carol, the on-line parish clerk for Kenwyn, Sue Keene from Australia and a few others, I would still be standing on the shore, looking out at the ocean and wondering if there really was a Captain Priske who had sailed these seas!

As you read this, in May of 2009 I will be in England realizing a dream, visiting a relative I Cornwall and seeing where my elusive and mysterious great grandfather, Captain Thomas Teague [Montague] Priske began his life.”

That was the beginning of my journey into my roots and in future blog posts you will be able to follow along my path to finding our ancestors, as well as more stories about some of the many fascinating facts I found along the way.






Posted in Family Stories, Genealogy.