In Search of Uncle Fred

A Google search soon turned up images of the steamship Tuinai.
A Google search soon turned up images of the steamship Tuinai (see links below). I’m guessing that Fred and Heather didn’t enjoy the opulent surroundings of the First Saloon.

WHATEVER HAPPENED to great uncle Fred?

Last summer, I found a 1901 census record for my great grandad, George Swift, his second wife Sarah Ann and their youngest son, my grandad, Maurice, then aged 24, living at 198, Hanover Street, Sheffield. Just as I’d expected; but I’d never heard any mention of their son Frederick James Swift, aged 36, also recorded on the form, who was then working as a ‘Stock Brokers Clerk CC’.

Time to phone someone who’d be sure to know;

‘Mum, you remember your Uncle Frederick? . . .’

What Uncle Frederick? I never had an Uncle Frederick. There was a George and a John . . .’

We’ve been puzzling over this mysterious missing uncle ever since. Taking census records as our starting point, we requested copies of the his certificate (19 October 1864), his marriage certificate (to Heather May Harrison, 30 April 1903) but after that he disappears. Reports of his death in 1914 proved to be exaggerated; it just happened that a Frederick Swift of the same age died in the same town in December of that year.

Swifts on Migration

Maurice Swift's note on the back of a photographLuckily, flipping over a photograph in an album, I discovered in a caption written by my grandad Maurice recording that ‘Fred Swift’ died on 8 July 1948, aged 84.

Having drawn a blank searching for death certificates in the British records, it dawned on us that we should try checking passenger lists. Within minutes on we discovered that Fred, then aged 61, and Heather, 52, had boarded the steam passenger ship Tainui at Southampton on 8 October 1926 and set sail for a new life in Wellington, New Zealand.

As a young girl, my mum remembers talk of an uncle who emigrated to New Zealand but she always assumed that this was her uncle John. Why were her uncle Fred and auntie Heather in New Zealand never mentioned?

I hope that I can find out a little more about their retirement in New Zealand. Perhaps Fred or Heather worked there for a while in Wellington when they arrived. Perhaps Heather had family out there already. Was my mum right after all and did great uncle John join them out there?

So why have we heard so little of great uncle John? Or John Bellman Thomson Swift, to give him his full name. I’ve requested his birth certificate and marriage certificate (to Lydia Coupland) which will hopefully provide some clues.


The steamship Tuinai was rescued from the breakers’ yard during the second world war and had a second incarnation as the Empire Trader. Falling behind in a trans-Atlantic convoy she was torpedoed by the U-boat Adof Oelrich.

In Sheffield Fred’s stepmother’s (my grandma’s) house received a direct hit in the Sheffield Blitz and she moved in with my grandad and grandma and my mum. I’m afraid that I’d have been with uncle Fred, setting sail for New Zealand as Europe started heading towards the next world war. But that’s with the benefit of hindsight. It was a big decision to make and I’d like to know more about how things turned out for Heather and Fred.

Tainui passenger list 1921Links; My thanks to the people who took the trouble to make postcards, poster and passenger lists for the Tuinai available online. It brings a previously unknown episode in my family history vividly to life.

Sources: Early Days in Kerikeri, Shaw Savill Line – Ocean Liners, Tainui passenger list 1921 (left), Shaw, Savill & Albion poster 1926-27 and the sinking of the Empire Trader., both of which have links to, which, as the name suggests you can use without a subscription.

Join the Conversation


  1. This is fascinating. To be able to find that amount of information so far, plus the fact your relatives had moved to NZ. Hope you find out more, do tell. You mention Findmypast, but wonder what they charge for this information once you sign up and start delving?

    1. I started off by using find my past and for free in the library. I found find my past easiest to use, so I’ve gone for a full year’s subscription to it, but others tell me that once you get into it you can access more records in ancestry. However find my past certainly lived up to it’s name on this occasion. I’m hoping by putting it online that someone in New Zealand might spot it and give me a further lead.

  2. Heather May Harrison is my great great aunt! Before she and Frederick emigrated they lived at Wellcar Road and Burcot Road. The death date for Fred is wrong, he died 7/4/1948 at Petone, Lower Hutt, NZ, Heather died 17/2/1951 at Cashmere, Christchurch, NZ. Heather had two sisters who had emigrated to NZ which I presume is why she and Frederick went.

    Would be interested to know if you have any photos of Heather or any others of Frederick.

    1. It’s great to hear from you and to have some additional information about my great uncle Fred and great aunt Heather May.
      We’re taking my mum out for a tapas at the local Italian today, to celebrate her 96th birthday tomorrow, so I’ll print out your message for her. We’ve been making progress with the family of Frederick’s step-mum Sarah Ann, so it’s good to have made a little breakthrough with Fred and Heather as we’d got stuck on them.
      Unfortunately we don’t seem to have any photographs of Heather. There are a number of unnamed characters in our family album, so perhaps if you’ve got photographs of her sisters we’d be able to spot a family resemblance. It’s only because of the (inaccurate) note that my granddad had written on the back of the photograph that we knew the photograph was Frederick, since my mum never met him in fact, other than the rather vague impression that one of her uncles had emigrated to New Zealand, she has no recollection of any mention of Frederick.
      As far as I can see we don’t have a photograph of Frederick as a young man, or of George’s first wife, Frederick’s mum, which is a contrast to his second wife Sarah Ann, of whom we are lucky enough have several photographs and an oil painting (and even a chatty and rather cheeky postcard she wrote from the Isle of Man).

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