Monday, September 03, 2012

Lewis Rosser, Master Mariner

        “I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
       And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by…”

                                                                        John Masefield

Lewis Rosser, Master Mariner
When I was first married thirty years ago, I often heard my husband (Lewis W. Elford) and his father (Lewis A. Elford) talk about how much they loved the sea -- the smell of the ocean, the feel of the wind in their faces, the sound of a sail as it whipped in the breeze -- and I wondered about that because they were both born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, not exactly on the seacoast.

I didn’t know much about the Elford family history so I began to ask questions… and there were few details that they could provide.  As is typical of many immigrant families, details about the “old world” were not passed on.  The only thing that my father-in-law and his sister, Winifred Elford Tesla, knew was that their father (Lewis Rosser Elford) came from Swansea in Wales to Pittsburgh about 1881 with his eight brothers and sisters and his parents, George Elford and his wife Elizabeth Rosser.

As a family genealogist for my own family, I was thrilled to have a new challenge and a new family to research and skip my own “brick walls” for a while. 

Since we were living in the D.C. area at the time, my husband and I started at the National Archives to research U.S. census records and ship records (in the days of microfilm).  When we traveled to Pittsburgh on family visits we spent several extra days at the Carnegie Library to look for additional details in local histories, newspapers, and anything else we could find.  The Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society ( is located in the Pennsylvania Department of the Carnegie Library and is an excellent resource.   I then took my first trip to Salt Lake City to spend a week at the Family History Center to look at English and Welsh records while continuing my research into my own families. 

Now we had lots of information and many names, but it was all difficult to sort.  However, as soon as I heard that my husband was going to Europe on a business trip, I knew the answer -- he had to stop in England on his way home.  He went to St. Catherine’s House on Kingsway in London and searched the huge and heavy Birth, Marriage, and Death Quarterly Indexes for Elfords and Rossers in Swansea.  It took him two intensive days of searching and writing down names and dates, but he ordered quite a few Birth/Marriage/Death certificates and had them mailed to us in the States.  They happened to arrive while his parents were visiting us for Thanksgiving in 1986, and we opened the package with great anticipation!  And there on the 1860 marriage certificate of George and Elizabeth I found my first clue to my husband’s love of the sea…. Elizabeth’s father was Lewis Rosser, Master Mariner! 

As the Internet made more and more records accessible, we continued to research both families.  But we knew that we really wanted to go to Swansea and, at long last, we were able to travel there in September 2009.  What a thrill! 

Swansea’s waterfront and nearby neighborhoods where the Elford and Rosser families had lived were destroyed by German bombers during World War II.  The whole area has been rebuilt and renamed the “Maritime Quarter” so we felt that we could still “walk in the family footsteps” even though none of their houses remains.  We found The National Maritime Museum ( and the Swansea Museum ( very interesting to visit; both are located in the Maritime Quarter and are marvelous resources as well for anyone researching this area.

The Swansea Civic Centre on Oystermouth Road contains the Swansea Central Library and the West Glamorgan Archive Service and Family History Centre (both listed in  The Library has a large collection of local newspapers on microfilm dating back to 1804, files of newspaper cuttings, and maps of Swansea and the Gower Peninsula.  The West Glamorgan Archives contain parish records, court records, estate and family records, maritime records, indexes to baptisms and marriages, indexes and transcripts of gravestone inscriptions, and indexes to wills.

It was only by going to Swansea that we were able to learn that Lewis Rosser (my husband’s 2nd great grandfather) had followed his father, grandfather and several uncles as a merchant captain.  Several of Lewis Rosser’s brothers, cousins and nephews also became Master Mariners and were recorded in Lloyd’s List of Master Mariners as traveling to South America, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and even around the continent of Africa.  And his twin brother, William Rosser, was the Swansea lighthouse keeper for over 50 years!

One of our favorite mementos from our trip is this announcement we found in the Bristol Mercury [England] newspaper of May 16, 1835:


“May 2, at Illogan [in Cornwall], Captain Lewis Rosser, master of the brig “Dasher,” of Swansea, to Kitty, youngest daughter of Mr. Joseph Mortley, chief officer of the Preventive Service [Coast Guard], on the Portreath station.  Capt. Rosser acquitted himself nobly on the occasion, he not only feasted his own crew, but handsomely treated the respective crews of every vessel then lying in the harbour; the crews of the pilot, and other boats, also partook of his bounty.”

Now we know why there has been a “Lewis” in each generation since his time!

While researching maritime records in the West Glamorgan Archives, we discovered that the Rossers owned or were part owners of a variety of boats from the late 1700s to the early 1900s!  In addition to the merchant ships, the Rossers and several other families had provided the port of Swansea with pilot schooners and their pilots since 1793!  Until the port of Swansea was redesigned, it was wide open to the south and southeast and unprotected from strong southwestern winds that hurled the boats toward a narrow harbor entrance. The pilots had to guide ships in and out of the harbor and then they had to jump or climb into their tiny boats to return to land.   According to newspaper accounts of the time, these conditions could be terrifying and resulted in many injuries and some deaths.

Not only were there excellent repositories available, but many kind and generous people went out of their way to assist us in our search.  Several members of the Swansea Museum staff were responsible for gathering all the Rosser material they had in their possession and let us visit the collection where they were being held.  As a result, we were able to view and photograph a number of items that belonged to the Rosser family, including the two items below.
 Painted by Henry Birchall in the 1850s, this is the pilot boat “Tom Rosser” that was owned by Captain John Rosser, one of Lewis Rosser’s brothers.  It was in service from 1840 to 1860.  Although they were work boats, the pilot boats took part in the annual regatta held in Swansea.  In 1851, the “Tom Rosser” won the Harbour Trustees’ first prize. 
The “T R” plaque is the ornamental stern board and the only remaining item of the “Tom Rosser.”

Since we started our adventure of researching the Welsh roots of the Elford and Rosser families, my husband has been able to meet cousins he never knew he had.  We had dinner with a Rosser cousin and her mother in Swansea, and have become part of an Elford-Rosser family on the Internet that stretches from many states in the U.S. (Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Montana, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Florida) to England, Wales, and even Australia.  And there’s talk of a family reunion, hopefully in Swansea!

Carol Elford

©2012 International Society for British Genealogy and Family History

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