Calvert is an ancient but common English name of Anglo-Saxon origin, deriving from the Middle English "calfhirde" or herder of cattle. For centuries the heaviest concentration of Calvert families was in rural Yorkshire, England’s largest county. From there the name spread, and by the 1700s and 1800s many Calverts had spilled over to the neighboring counties of Durham and Lancashire.


This is a story of one small branch of Calverts, beginning with George and Hannah Calvert who were born in County Durham, England in the mid-1700s, and continuing with their son and three grandsons who became sailors, and others of their posterity.


George Calvert was born in 1750 in the emerging port of Sunderland. His wife Hannah was born two years later. We have no evidence that living close to the River Wear gave George any particular interest in the sea. The only record we have of his employment - a parish church burial record noting his death on 5 April 1804 - indicates that he was simply a labourer. George’s wife, Hannah, outlived him by another 30 years, to the age of 83. They appear to have lived most or all their lives on Monkwearmouth Shore, north of the River Wear, and in Gateshead, a few miles to the north on the banks of the River Tyne.


Records of this time are scanty, and only two children have been positively identified as George and Hannah’s - named George and Christiana. There is also a William Calvert’s birth recorded to parents named George and Hannah, but it is in Bedlington, across the River Tyne in Northumberland 10 miles north of Newcastle, and we still need conclusive proof that this is the same family.


Christiana’s life can be traced on parish church registers. She grew up to marry a potter named Joseph Holmes. They were married at Holy Trinity Church, Sunderland, in 1814 but moved to Ousburn, near Newcastle, where there was a thriving pottery, and where they had at least four children.


Our main interest focuses on son George, born in 1791 in Gateshead. George was short - only a fraction over 5ft 5 inches, with brown hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion. Judging by what he later accomplished in his life, he must also have had drive. In 1809 George went to sea in the merchant navy service as an apprentice. This was right in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, during which British shipping in the English Channel was protected by the Royal Navy, but which nevertheless could be perilous. Where George Calvert sailed and in which ships is yet to be discovered, but he must have done well because later records at the National Archives in London show him to have been a master’s mate by 1847, and he became master or captain before he retired.  For at least part of the time when he was not at sea, George resided at Seaham, a coastal town just south of Sunderland.


In the age of wind-driven ships it’s possible George sailed mainly in the coastal waters of England. We simply do not have the records to know. In the 1800s  a huge trade developed between Newcastle and Sunderland and London, the world’s largest commercial city. Mariners sailed brigs - double masted, square rigged ships that were used by the Royal Navy in warfare but which were often used for cargo by the merchant service. They were fast and maneuvrable but required a large crew for their size. They declined rapidly after the introduction of steam-driven ships that had no problem with headwinds.


George married Mary Charlton in 1812. They had at least seven children, but their lives were to be plagued with tragedy. In 1828, after the birth of their seventh child (one of whom died at age 2), Mary died at the age of 32. A year later, George remarried, to a young widow, Ann Sands, formerly Ann Roxby.


All three of George and Mary’s eldest sons - yet another George, William and John - followed their father into a life at sea. And all three died in the service. George and John both drowned in accidents. John died in 1844 at the age of 27 in Monkwearmouth, close to home. On his death certificate the coroner recorded accidental drowning, but no other details.  Sixteen months later, brother George was pulled out of the cold waters of the River Thames, dead after four hours in the water. He was just 34 years old. He is buried at St. Mary’s Church, Rotherhithe, not far from the banks of the river. Further research may throw more light on these accidents.


Some five years later, in the 1850s - a date that has proved elusive - daughter Hannah Eliza Calvert died in her late 20s or early 30s, leaving husband Nicholas Otterson to raise their one son, John. William, the remaining mariner, is believed to have died at sea sometime between 1861 and 1871.


Of the seven children of the first marriage, only three had survived beyond their 30s, and only two to what would be considered the age of a full life.


Of the second marriage, George Calvert had four more children with Ann Sands. Son Henry died age 6. The lives of the others are still being researched.


George himself lived to be almost 80. He died on July 10, 1871, at Sunderland.

The Seafaring Calverts
  County Durham, England
  1750-1871

Above: A square-rigged, two-masted brig, such as used by the Calverts in the 1800s. When George Calvert drowned in the Thames, he was serving on the brig Mayflower.

It was common for the names of ships to be passed on once they were out of service. An earlier brig, also called the Mayflower, was captured in 1779 by American warships in the English Channel during the War of Independence, when American raiders tried to disrupt English shipping.

Distribution of the Calvert surname in 1891, with data taken from the census of that year.

London

Sunderland

Gateshead

Seaham

Right:  The parish church of St Mary’s, Rotherhithe, where George Calvert (1812-1846) is buried. The Church stands so close to the River Thames that its foundations have often flooded. It has a strong maritime tradition, lying at the heart of riverside merchant activity. Ironically, the church is the final resting place of Christopher Jones, captain of the original Mayflower which took the Pilgrim Fathers to America in 1620. The Mayflower is also the name of the brig on which George Calvert was serving when he drowned in 1846.


Below: National Archives record of George Calvert (1791-1871) in the English merchant navy service. The record describes his physical appearance as well as the year he first went to sea, and the fact that he was a mate in 1851. However, it lists no voyages between 1845 and 1850, for reasons not yet known. It was during this period that George lost several members of his family.

Above left: Holy Trinity Church, Sunderland, and above right, St. Peter’s Church, Monkwearmouth, Sunderland, where many Calverts were christened and married.