Death solves a mystery

Searching for John Brustad Nielson

My grandfather, Brinley Powell Neilson, was the youngest but one child of John Brustad Nielson. He was brought up to attend St Thomas’s Church (then part of the Cof E – now part of the Church in Wales). All this changed in 1922 when he married my grandmother Florence Eaton, her family were Primitive Methodists.

My grandparents married in Pell Street Primitive Methodist Chapel, Swansea. My grandfather then became a Methodist. Pell Street was bombed in 1941 and not rebuilt. The congregation continued to meet in rented accommodation until the early 1950s. At that time Swansea and Gower was 3 circuits – the Prim Circuit, the Wesleyan Circuit in Swansea and the Wesleyan Circuit in Gower. The circuits then merged and the Pell Street congregation dispersed to various other Methodist Churches in Swansea. I suppose you could say that my grandfather saw the light!!!! All the descendants of my grandparents who are Christians are active members of the Methodist Church.

Norwegian mystery

Brinley’s father was Norwegian. In Swansea he was known as JOHN BRUSTAD NIELSEN (various spellings). On June 27th, 1886 he married MARY ELIZABETH POWELL at St. Mary’s Church, Swansea. The details on the marriage certificate state that he was 30 years of age and she was 28. They both lived in St. Thomas. He was a sail maker. Their parents were Zechariah Nielsen (deceased), who had been a farmer and Thomas Powell (deceased), engineer.

The family knew nothing else about his life before he settled in Swansea apart from “family tales”. We knew he was born in Norway………but where? One tale was that he was born in Bergen and another that he was born on the island of Hitra. When was he born? It would appear from the marriage certificate that he was born in 1855/6 and his father was Zechariah.

In the 1984, before the days of computers, one of my father’s cousins paid for research to be done in Norway, but no JOHN BRUSTAD NIELSEN could be found anywhere! However, the researcher found the following information:-



Sakarias Nielsen(BRUSTAD)Farmer, self-owner62 yearsYtteroyMay 9th 1804May 20th 1804
Bereth SivertsdtrHis wife56 yearsInderoy
Sivert SakariassenTheir son27 yearsYtteroyAugust 11th 1838September 23rd 1838
Niels SakariassenTheir son18 yearsYtteroySept 1st 1848 Nov 9th 1848
Iver SakariassenTheir son14 yearsYtteroyNov 3rd 1852Jan 9th 1853
Bereth Martha SakariasdtrTheir daughter29 yearsYtteroyApril 15th 1836June 5th 1836
Cecelia SakariasdtrTheir daughter11 yearsYtteroyJanuary 3rd 1855Feb 25th 1855
Johan Bernt HansenFoster son3 yearsYtteroyApril 9th 1863June 6th 1863

A copy of this information was given to me as I planned to visit Norway sometime in the future. In 1996 I saw a holiday which included a few days in Bergen, so I booked my first holiday to Norway. Before I left Swansea I wrote to the archives service in Bergen and arranged an appointment.

To cut a long story short I found nothing in Bergen. The above information was put away, but not forgotten about, for many years.

Jump forward to 2009, when I decided that it was about time I made a concerted effort to “find” my Norwegian great grandfather. Before this my father had made every effort to ascertain when he became a British citizen, because that should have told us where and when he was born, but to no avail. I decided to write to a family history magazine with my query. I was advised to try a few websites and one of them gave me a wealth of information about the people listed above…….

I then wrote to the archives in Trondheim, as the island of Ytteroy, where the family seemed to originate from, was north of the city. The archives passed my letter to a local historian. By this time (2011) I had booked a holiday to Trondheim and Oslo. My idea was to be in Trondheim on May 17th, which is Norway’s national day. I was contacted by Ketil of the Trondheim Family History Society. When I arrived in Trondheim he met me in my hotel to tell me the arrangements he had made to take me to Ytteroy the following day. He and other members of the group had been busy researching my family on the island.

A couple of months before I was due to go to Norway, I was contacted by one of my father’s cousins. She and her husband were moving and wanted to give me documents which they had found which might be relevant to my research. When I saw these documents I knew I had struck gold………..
The documents confirmed all the names of the family listed above in the Norwegian family Bible, plus letters written in English from various parts of the world (JBN was a Merchant seaman).

A week before I was due to go to Norway I had another phone call from my father’s cousin. By this time they had moved to Cardiff, but they had found more letters, this time written in Norwegian. I drove to Cardiff to collect them but as I don’t read nor understand Norwegian there was not much I could do before I left for Norway. I didn’t want to take them with me in case I lost or damaged them, so they stayed at home.

By this time, I had jumped to the conclusion that, as my great grandfather was known in Swansea as JOHN BRUSTAD NEILSON and the foster child listed above was JOHAN BERNT HANSEN i.e. both Christian names started with the same letters, then this was my great grandfather. Later in my research this “idea”  taught me a salutary lesson……..never jump to conclusions when researching your family’s history! But more of that later.

My visit to Ytteroy went extremely well, apart from the weather! I visited the house where my great great grandparents and family had lived, saw farm land which had belonged to the family and the house where my great great grandfather lived as a “widower and a hermit” at the end of his life……..
I also met a distant cousin who lives in Trondheim.

Mystery solved

When I returned home I scanned the letters I had received just before my holiday and e-mailed them to Malfrid, who lives on the island of Ytteroy. After reading them she solved the mystery of J B Neilson…… AT LAST! The letters were written to Iver (listed above), from one of his brothers, congratulating him on the birth of a second daughter. Strangely enough J B Neilson and his wife’s first two children were daughters. So IVER SAKARIASSEN (BRUSTAD = FAMILY FARM NAME) had changed his name when he settled in Swansea to JOHN BRUSTAD NEILSON. If he hadn’t kept the family farm name as his middle name I think I would still be searching for him now. I was disappointed that all this happened after my father died.

J B N did not settle in Swansea straight after leaving Norway. His log book shows that he changed his birth date from 03/11/1852 to 03/11/1855. Why he did that I do not know. By 08/08/1876 he was in Trondheim. His voyages included Arendal to Rotterdam, Toulon, Bristol and Gloucester. There are no more entries after October 1883. Sometime between 1883 and 1886 he settled in Swansea. When he wasn’t at sea, he was a crane driver in the docks.

Tragic death

On 7th February, 1915, the Swansea-registered S S Tangisten, left Swansea with a cargo of patent fuel and coal, for Algiers, where she took on iron ore for Middlesborough.

At 12.30am on March 9th, as she steamed north, past Scarborough, the German submarine U 12 struck. S S Tangistan sank in the North Sea 9 miles north of Flamborough Head. The crew consisted of 38 hands all of whom were lost except one.

“The Secretary of the Admiralty makes the following announcement:-

The British steamer “TANGISTAN”, 3738 tons (owned by Messers F C Strick and Co. London) was sunk by a torpedo off Scarborough at 12.30am on March 9. The crew consisted of 38 hands. Only one survivor is at present known to have been picked up”.

The announcement goes on to list two other ships lost that day, the BLACKWOOD and the VICTORIA. Such was the outrage that one of the local newspapers described the submarines as pirates. For Tangistan and her crew the end was all over in four minutes.

The survivor, Joseph O’Toole, a 26 year old Irishman, who lived in Pier Street, Swansea, said that it seemed that Tangistan was early for the tide at Middlesborough and was going slow at 0.30am when she was suddenly brought up with a great shock. There had been a terrible explosion amidships. Everyone below rushed on deck and found the vessel settling quickly. He put on a lifebelt and made for a boat on the port side. Two other men got in and they lowered away, but as the boat touched water, Tangistan gave a heave and sank.
“None of the boats could have got away and must have been drawn under”, he told the South Wales Daily Post. O’Toole said he was still holding on to a line and was being dragged down. He let go, surfaced and managed to cling to a box. A number of Arab members of the crew were calling out, but couldn’t understand his advice to get hold of large pieces of wreckage. Two ships passed too far away to hear their cries for help. After two hours the steamer Woodville arrived and picked up O’Toole. By that time the Arabs had disappeared and a search failed to find any other survivor.

Sources on the Woodville believed that Tangistan signalled to the coast guard station as she passed Flamborough Head and her lights were picked up by U12, which might have known she had a cargo of ore and followed her up the coast. It would seem that Tangistan was the first vessel to be torpedoed off the Yorkshire coast by a German U boat.

The captain of the ship was David Edmunds, aged 45, from Burry Port. Capt Edmunds is commemorated with a plaque in St. Mary’s Church, Kidwelly. D J Rosser, the chief engineer, lived in Skewen. L Jenkins, the third engineer, was a former rugby player and was also from Skewen. Other members of the crew included N C Olsen (Swansea), H Podesta (Brynmill), E Pauleson (Bowen or Bohun Street, Hafod) and James Simmonds (The Strand).

John Brustad Neilson was the ship’s carpenter and he had also been a sail maker. He left a widow and eight children – Bertha, Alpha, Thomas, Wilfred, Gilbert, Annie, Brinley and Grenville. The elder daughters were teachers and three of the sons worked on the railway.

A problem for Mary

However, he also left behind a big problem. Because he was still a Norwegian citizen, when he married, his wife automatically became a Norwegian citizen. This meant that she and the children could have been imprisoned or even deported as they could be seen to be “enemies of the state”.
I would imagine that his wife would have been totally unaware of this problem, after all, she was born near Haverfordwest and had never set foot outside Wales, let alone travelled to Norway. I have a document headed – Certificate of registration of an Alien (Swansea Boro Police)…..

Mary E Nielsen of 30, Morris Lane, Swansea, age 57, has been registered at the registration office named below……….Norwegian subject by marriage, English born.

The document is dated 26th May, 1915 and is signed on behalf of the Chief Constable. On the back is a box for the person’s left thumb print, but the box is empty. At the bottom of the certificate it says – “This certificate should be carried by the Alien for production when required; if it is lost, notice should immediately be given to the Police”.

But this is not the end of the problem because Mary Elizabeth Nielsen had to reclaim her British citizenship. Another document I have is entitled CERTIFICATE OF NATURALIZATION. On 20th day of September, 1915, having applied to the Home Office, she was granted her certificate, having taken “the Oath of Allegiance within the time and in the manner required by the regulations made in that behalf she shall, subject to the provisions of the said Act, be entitled to all political and other rights powers and privileges, and be subject to all obligations duties and liabilities, to which a natural-born British citizen is entitled or subject, and have to all intents and purposes the status of a natural-born British subject”.
On the back of the document she has signed:-
“I, Mary Elizabeth Nielsen swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty, King George the Fifth, His Heirs and Successors, according to law”.

I wonder how frightened or even terrified she was when she discovered that she was not a British citizen, because of her marriage, and she had to go through all the rigmarole mentioned above!

John Brustad Nielsen was awarded the Mercantile Marine War Medal, but I do not know whether his widow received it, as it is not among items in the family archive. His name is recorded on the Mercantile Monument at Tower Hill in London and on the Cenotaph in Swansea.

Because the Tangistan was sunk at the beginning of WW1, censorship of news of such incidents had not really started. I suppose you could say this is the only fortunate thing about the tragedy, that a fairly detailed account was available when my father started his research.

Members of the Neilson family living in Swansea and beyond are very proud of JOHN BRUSTAD NIELSEN, who gave his life for his adopted country. I feel privileged to have visited his birthplace and discovered his “hidden” identity. But one question remains. Why did he change his name? If he set out to “disappear” intentionally, by changing his identity, thinking he would never be traced, he had not reckoned on modern technology eventually tracking him down. So, JOHN BRUSTAD NIELSEN or IVER SAKARISSEN (BRUSTAD), I have found you and I salute you.

More recently I discovered a web site . On this site are more details about the wreck of the Tangistan. She was built in 1906 for the Anglo-Algerian SS Company (1896) Ltd (Strick), Swansea. She was launched on 19th September, 1906. Her official number was 124358. She was made from steel and her engine was a triple expansion steam engine. Her power was 341 nhp and her speed 11 knots. Today the wreck is “a large fairly intact wreck sitting upright on an even keel, carrying a great deal of iron ore stacked up to the gunnels. The triple expansion engine and boilers are located amidships with the boilers still partially decked over. Several 9 in brass-backed port holes were seen around the boiler area. Also, a plate with THE STRICK LINE name and emblem was recovered. Some wreckage and debris is lying on the seabed on the starboard side just forward of the boilers and there is some damage to the hull around this area. The bows are to the north. Gordon Wadsworth reports a big wreck over 300 feet long with iron ore and electric lights. Possible super heated boilers. Cargo, size and position all suggest TANGISTAN”. (Carl Racey & Crew 09/03/2010).” The wreck is not protected and is not classified as a war grave. In 2011 the wreck is described as well broken up.

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