Isles of Scilly – a place my ancestors called home

Map of The Isles of Scilly

My great, great, great, great grandfather, James Thomas Shipley was born on the island of St Marys in the Isles of Scilly in 1805. Like his father John Shipley, James worked as a gig pilot, a perilous job which involved rowing out to sea to meet incoming ships, climbing aboard – often using nothing more substantial than a rope – and navigating through hidden, underwater obstacles to steer the ship to the safety of the harbour where it could be unloaded. As a young adult James left his home and travelled north to Liverpool where he used his navigation skills on the River Mersey. To anyone who is familiar with the beautiful Cornish islands he left behind this might seem like a strange move. However, in the times James lived it would have been an eminently sensible one.

The Isles of Scilly lie in the Atlantic ocean about 28 miles off the south-west coast of Cornwall and consist of five inhabited islands: St Marys, St Agnes, St Martins, Bryher and Tresco, along with numerous, smaller uninhabited islands. They were named by the Romans who called them Sully, meaning The Sun Islands. It is easy to see why. They are blessed with a moderate climate – at least in the spring and summer months – so much so, that in the 19th century the flower growing industry emerged, and thousands of blooms were exported to the mainland every year. In the 1841 and 1851 censuses James’ mother, Elizabeth, gives her occupation as ‘farmer’. It is likely that even if flowers were not her main crop, they were an important one. This industry has taken second place to tourism in recent decades, but is still significant. Although people commonly refer to the islands as the Scillys, the correct terms are either the Isles of Scilly, or just Scilly. Local people are known as Scillonians.

The islands may have been named by the Romans, but they have been inhabited since the Stone Age, and the remains of Stone and Bronze Age houses and burial mounds can still be seen. Those Stone Age people lived by farming, fishing and kelp harvesting, and this way of life continued for many, many centuries. It must have been hard, especially during the winter months when the islands would be lashed by violent Atlantic storms. Bearing that in mind, it isn’t really surprising that many people took advantage of the opportunity to smuggle as a way to supplement a rather basic existence and possibly buy a few luxuries. Their location so far out in the ocean meant that the islands were the first port of call (literally) for many cargo ships, and the illicit trade became a hugely important part of the economy of the islands. One can see how important when one considers that a successful attempt to stamp it out in the early 19th century brought the islanders to the brink of starvation and measures were put in place to provide financial support to the fishing industry as a means of bolstering the economy.

In 1834, life on the islands changed dramatically, and not necessarily for the better. Scilly came under the control of Augustus Smith, self-styled Lord Proprietor. Smith made numerous changes to the islands. Some were for the good, for example; he built new schools (and attendance was compulsory), and a new harbour at St Marys. Other measures were less popular, particularly the eviction of residents to make way for a deer park.

It was around this time that James made the move to Liverpool. Of course, I can not know why he chose to do so, leaving behind his family and the place his ancestors had called home for so many centuries. Maybe, he saw his father risking his life to battle against the Atlantic on a daily basis, and opted for the steady ebb and flow of the Mersey. Maybe, he found life in Scilly too slow, too predictable, and wished to experience the bustle of a busy, prosperous city. Maybe, he saw no place for him in the new Scilly. However, I suspect that James – like so many young people from rural areas today, – realised his future lay elsewhere. The determination and ingenuity that had helped his forefathers (and mothers) survive such a rigorous lifestyle gave him the courage to sail away and travel to a strange (and relatively exotic) city hundreds of miles to the north to seek a more stable and financially secure future. And I’m glad he did, because it was in Liverpool that he met his wife, a young Welsh lass called Margaret Evans, and if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this today.

Tresco, Isles of Scilly

St Martins, Isles of Scilly

Photographs courtesy of Wikipedia

This post has been submitted to the Carnival of Genealogy.


11 thoughts on “Isles of Scilly – a place my ancestors called home

  1. It always amazes me how each of us walking this earth today, are the result of thousands of decisions all of our ancestors have made. Had just one of those decisions been made differently, we wouldn’t be here!

    The pictures were beautiful and I enjoyed reading about the Isles of Scilly which I hadn’t even known existed.

  2. A great post and as Terry said the pictures are wonderful.

    I too may have been bliss in my ignorance of the Isles of Scilly (at first glance I thought they were fictional and perhaps from an old Monty Python skit) but I am now better informed thanks to you!

  3. Terry – it is quite mind boggling to think of all the random acts and decisions that resulted in our existence.

    Thomas – LOL Yes, it does sound very Python-esque.

    Craig – To be honest, until I discovered my family came from there I knew little about them.

  4. Kate,

    I thought I was pretty good with geography until I read your story and realized I’d never heard of Scilly. A fascinating article. It reminds me a bit of my own ancestors who lived just off the coast of New Hampshire. Certainly a difficult life.


  5. I would imagine people on the these little islands probably would have more in common with each other than the folk living on the mainland of the countries they actually belong to.

    I do envy you having a knack for geography – I’m terrible at it. For years I thought County Durham was in Ireland, it wasn’t until I moved up north that I discovered it is actually in the north of England. I also though Torquay – a place in Devon – was in Spain (blush)

  6. You have some great information here about the history of the Isles of Scilly.
    The Scillies are magical place to live, with only 2000 residents on the islands. If you go to our website, you will see a few more photo’s that hopefully show the beauty of the isles of scilly. a couple of the photos included are

    The island of Treso from above and Tresco – Abbey Botanical Gardens. The gardens were started by Augustus Smith in the 1830s in what remains of an old 10th century Benedictine monastery – some amazing plants to be seen.

    The slipway on the island of St.Agne’s

    We will be adding more soon.


  7. Thanks for the information about James Thomas Shipley! He’s my great, great, great grandfather. I’ve been looking into all the facts and figures, but this blog post I accidentally stumbled on actually brings his story to life somewhat, so thanks for writing it. It’s fascinating to ponder on what might have possessed James to leave the Isles of Scilly for Liverpool so that I, for one, would end up born in Burnley, Lancashire. (A part of me can’t help wishing I could have been born on the Isles of Scilly like my ancestors). I’m keen to trace the Scillonian Shipleys back a lot further, but I’m stuck on John Shipley, 1760-1830. Did you ever manage to find out any more about John Shipley and where he might have come from? If not, do you have any tips or suggestions for how I might go about finding out more information?

    Thanks for everything you’ve put on this blog; I’ll be bookmarking it, for sure!

    In case you’re interested, I’ll tell you where James Thomas Shipley fits into my ancestry: Like you, I’m descended from one of the children James had with Margaret Evans; I’m descended from James Thomas Shipley (Jr.), born in Liverpool 1846, (i.e. your great, great, great grandmother’s brother, I guess). He married a woman called Sarah Thornton (born in Liverpool 1850), with whom he had (among several other children, of course) a child called Edward John Shipley, born in Liverpool 1877. Edward John Shipley (who would have been my great grandfather) ended up working as a cab driver in Colne, Lancashire, (very near Burnley), where he married a woman called Jane Maxwell (whose father also came to Colne from Liverpool, but who appears to have been of Scottish descent as far back as I can trace the line) and fathered rather a lot of children, one of whom (Arthur Shipley, to be precise) would have been my paternal grandfather if he hadn’t died in WWII long before I was even argued about…

    Thanks again for your blog; I’m glad I stumbled on it.

    1. Hi…my grandmother was Edna Shipley, one of Arthurs younger sisters…I can let you have many more details about Jane Maxwells family…I also have a very tattered photo of her which I could let you have a copy….and a copy of one of Edward John Shipley. I have also traced Sarah Thorntons ancestry…

      your cousin Colette

  8. My grandfather was James Thomas Shipley who married Sarah Ann Wood
    He was your grandfathers brother
    Could tell you more if you are interested

  9. James Thomas Shipley who came to Liverpool and married Margaret Evans, was my great great grandfather, his son Martin was my great grandfather and his son William Henry my grandfather. I visited the Scilly Isles in 2014 and was very interested in your history of the Scilly Isles. Like you I can’t find anything further back than John and Elizabeth Shipley. I know they lived in Old Town, St Mary’s, where I visited when I was over there.

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