Reply To: The Royal Navy and the Parish of Stepney

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Tony Beales

    Further to the information in John Harland’s post about births at sea being registered at Stepney, The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (London, 1868) refers to an old belief that all persons born at sea belong to Stepney, and quotes an old rhyme:
    ‘He who sails on the wide sea,
    Is a parishioner of Stepney.’

    The Port of London Authority handbook (1956) provides some more detail:
    ‘It is often inaccurately stated that every child born in a British ship at sea is a parishioner of Stepney. The facts of the case are that from 1538 onwards every parish priest was required to keep a register of baptisms. At that time the Bishop of London had jurisdiction over all chaplains of English ships, and to comply with the order they sent him details of baptism carried out at sea and these were entered into the register of St. Dunstan’s Church, Stepney. Nominally, therefore, these children are baptised (not born) at Stepney.
    ‘When civil registration for the United Kingdom became compulsory in 1874 a special clause in the Act required the General Register Offices to set up a Marine Register which was to include information about every birth in a British ship, obtained from the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen. Under the present Merchant Shipping Act the Master enters a birth at sea in the logbook which is sent to the Registrar after each voyage.’

    The belief seems to have caused considerable problems in the number of paupers sent to Stepney by magistrates from all over England. The Manchester Iris (26 October 1822) reported ongoing problems:
    ‘It is generally believed that all persons born at sea belong to the parish of Stepney ; so prevalent is this error, that the parish officers of Stepney were put to the greatest trouble and inconvenience, by the number of paupers which were passed to them by magistrates from all parts of the kingdom. About a year or two ago, to put a stop to this inconvenience, and the expense they were put to by it, they instituted legal proceedings against a magistrate in the north of England, and shortly after against another in Devonshire, for passing paupers to them who had been born at sea. The Court of King’s Bench declared, that the common opinion was wholly false and erroneous, and that the parish of Stepney was no more chargeable with them, than any other parish in the Kingdom. This judgment was inserted in all the provincial papers ; but the parish is still greatly troubled by similar applications, so firmly rooted is the prejudice. The notion is said to have originated from the Port of London being situated in the parish of Stepney.’