Malster to Mariner

How did my ancestor Edward PARKER move from Prickwillow to Colchester? From a malster to a mariner? Discover a story unknown until recently in my family history revealed through genealogy resources available to us all…



My story starts in Prickwillow, Cambridgeshire. The modern parish of Prickwillow was formed in 1878. The settlement of Prickwillow derives its name from the long thin skewers, or ‘prickets’ of willow which were used to roof the houses. These grew well in the fertile, fenland soil.

Before the 19th C the River Great Ouse flowed east of Ely, to Prickwillow, before rejoining the modern course of the Ouse at Littleport. In 1829-30, however, the river Great Ouse was diverted north from Ely, and the original channel was ploughed and filled in. Today’s village lies on the site of the old riverbank. The original course is remembered in the name of the roads (for example ‘Old Bank’) and the meandering field boundaries. Much of the Prickwillow area lies below sea level and so, to ensure the land remained workable, a series of steam pumping engines was installed at the base of the newly dug drain, linked to the River Lark.

Prickwillow Drainange Engine Museum is a fantastic, small museum run entirely by volunteers celebrating this heritage. Of course owing to the high water table, church burials take place in Ely, which is built upon a mound of clay.


Prickwillow Drainage Museum

Encountering Edward

My first encounter with Edward PARKER was in the 1851 UK Census when I located his father George PARKER1. Edward is detailed as the Grandson of the Head of the Household, aged 2; born in Cambridgeshire, Prickwillow. My first Cambridgeshire ancestor!

In 1851 the census gives useful information for genealogists (family historians). It lists 1.5 million people with the most common occupation detailed as Domestic Servant:

+ relationship to head of household given

+ marital status

+ middle names, or initials

+ exact ages

+ exact place of birth given

+ medical disabilities recorded

+ night workers (many omitted in 1841) recorded at place of work (although some may be listed twice – at work and at home)


Both the 1841 and 1851 census are important as they can take us back to births and marriages before civil registration was introduced. A great introduction to Parish Records.


Ag Lab

George PARKER, Edward’s father is listed as an Agricultural Labourer. This is an occupation that has been in the family for a while as his grandfather was also an agricultural labourer.

From the information gleaned from the 1851 Census I was able to track and order a copy of Edwards civil registration birth certificate2:

28 June 1848 Prickwillow, Ely Trinity

Edward, Boy

Father: George Parker, Labourer (the mark of)

Mother: Mary Parker (nee Hart)

Registered: 6 August 1848

George Cole Registrar.

Ely Trinity has an interesting history in itself. The Parish Church was Holy Trinity, formerly the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. It is a beautiful piece of architecture, consisting of five cathedral bays. It was started in 1321 and finished in 1349. Its unusual position is due to the public road which crosses the east end of the cathedral. It is suggested that if this was not the case Ely Cathedral would be the longest in the world. Kelly’s Directory for 1900 states ‘ a superb vaulting above intricately groined, and studded with bosses, illustrating the history of the Virgin, and other subjects’.

Taking the information from the birth certificate of Edward PARKER we can trace the marriage of his parents George and Mary3.

Marriage Certificate

19 September 1847, Parish Church, Holy Trinity Parish, Ely, Cambridgeshire

George and Mary

Mary a minor (under 21 years) actually 20 years

The mark of George and Mary

Having obtained the marriage certificate we can use the information detailed to find the birth of either the bride or the groom. In the case of George and Mary their baptisms should be recorded in the relevant Parish Registers. This is because civil registration in England doesn’t begin until 1837.

Ely Trinity

Ely Trinity

The Malster

If we return to the census we find Edward listed in the 1861 Census. Edward is listed with Thomas and Sarah Parker, and father George (in Stow, Ipswich) as a malster. The malster prepared the malt from grain, usually to a brewer’s specifications. It was a different occupation to that of a brewer who turned the malt into beer4.

George his father is listed as unmarried. Mary his wife (you’ll remember Mary as the mother of Edward) died in 1850 when Edward was just 2 years of age. Focusing my research on George I note that he is rather unlucky in marriage. On the 25 October 1851 George (age: 29) marries Ann Boulton, a spinster aged 19 in Stowmarket5. Ann passes away in 1857. George then marries his third wife on 7 April 1862, giving his age as 35 (he was actually 39)6. He is still a Malster, residing in Chelmondiston, Suffolk. His new wife Elizabeth Ann Driver (age 21 and spinster) bears him 4 children.


Edward is missing

I return to the census after this small diversion, with a goal of finding Edward PARKER on the 1871 census. No luck! I try the 1881 Census – No luck! Then the 1891 and 1901 Census – No luck! What has happened to Edward; has he passed away, immigrated, or not been enumerated? With faint hope I check the 1911 Census, and after a few false starts I identify Edward in Colchester, Essex.

Listed with Wife Mary Ann (married for 35 years)

Occupation: Mariner (Able Seaman)

With one son.

I know this is Edward as he lists his birthplace as Prickwillow, Cambridgeshire.

The 1911 census publication was greeted with great excitement in 2011 as the schedules published were those our ancestors (generally the Head of Household) completed. This gives us an indication of literacy level, and we can see our ancestors writing – perhaps for the first (and sometimes only) time. The census also contains the ‘fertility’ questions asked (due to concerns over the falling birth rate):

+ how long married

+ how many children they had had

+ how many children survived

In Edward’s case:

Married 35 years

Total children born alive 9

Children still living 8

Children who have died 1

The Mariner

To gain further insight into Edward and his career we can consult the Maritime History Archive7. This archive collects and preserves documents relating to the history of maritime activities in Newfoundland and Labrador and throughout the North Atlantic world. The archive is located at The Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador and the database contains the names of over 118,200 seamen8.


Born 1848, Colchester (not a match)

Voyage Year: 1881

Vessel Name: Exact

Official No.: 28128

Now I believe I have the right Edward PARKER. The date of birth is correct, but the place indicated incorrect. I can check civil registration indexes for births in Colchester, in 1848 and there are no registrations for Edward Parker that year9.

I can also find out more about the vessel Edward is sailing with in 1881, the Exact. Accessing the Mercantile Navy List (compiled by the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen) initially from 1849 to 1855. It is then published annually thereafter from 1857 until 1976 (excluding 1941 to 1946)10:

Reg Number: 28128

Name: Exact; Colchester

Rig: Bge (barge)

Built: Colchester 1859

Reg. Tonnage: 43

Owner: Benjamin Beckwith, Hythe, Colchester

So I have quite an interesting family story. Edward Parker, born 1848 in Prickwillow, Cambridgeshire. Becomes a malster and finally a mariner, sailing barges from Colchester. What else might I be able to find…

To discover more of Edward’s story book me for my talk titled ‘The Lopsided Barge‘.

Robert Parker is a Genealogist and Trainer, based in Cambridgeshire. He delivers courses, coaching, talks, and research services for those interested in tracing their ancestors. See for further details. Contact Robert to discuss your requirements without obligation. What stories could your ancestors tell?

1 Source: Census 1851: 80 Violet Hill, HO 107 / 1794

2 Source: birth certificate Sept 1848, Parker, Edward, Ely, Vol 14, page 59;

3 Source: marriage certificate Sept 1847, Parker, George, Ely, Vol 14, page 93:

4 Source:; accessed June 2015

5 Source: marriage certificate Dec 1851, Parker, George, Stow, Vol 12, page 883:

6 Source: marriage certificate Jun 1862, Parker, George, Ipswich, Vol 4a, page 811:

7 Source:

8 Source:; accessed June 2015

9 Source:; accessed June 2015

10 Source: