The Helmsman


My great grandfather Helgi Julius Jónsson was a man of the ocean, just as his father and countless generations before him were. He was an Icelander and they were bred tough, especially in the region where he was born – the Westfjörds, one of the most remote and rugged regions of Iceland.

Helgi was a born and bred fisherman.  He knew that the ocean was something to respect and give thanks for. It gave life with the sustenance of fish and fed hungry families, and yet it could snatch life away in the blink of an eye. One mistake or a sudden turn of the weather could mean never returning to the embrace of loved ones.

In 1924, Helgi graduated from the Stýrimannaskóla in Reykjavík, which gave Helgi the ability to work in the position of Helmsman, and Ship´s Captain on a ship.  Wikipedia states “The Helmsman was responsible  for maintaining a steady course, properly executing all rudder orders, and communicating to the officer on the bridge using navigational terms relating to ship’s heading and steering.”

Helgi Julius Jonsson

Helgi Július Jónsson  ( 1899 -1996)

Helgi worked on a ship named Max Pemperton RE278 for fourteen years as a helmsman. This was an English ship, manufactured by Cochrane and Sons Ltd in Selby England in 1917, however by 1935 the ship was owned by h/f Reykjavík.

In January 1944, nearing the end of the World War 2, 44 year old Helgi was due to set sail with Max Pemperton, and would be heading out to sea shortly, but his hand broke out in a bad rash and was so swollen that he had to see a doctor. The doctor told him to remain behind from this trip so that they could investigate this reaction further. He was given leave from this journey and another man was called to take his place on the ship.
No sooner than the ship had left the harbor, the swelling in Helgi´s hand disappeared. It was such an odd occurrence, but how could Helgi have known then that, that would be the last time that the ship Max Pemperton was ever seen again.

The ship perished with all 29 men on board. It was believed to have sunk at Malarifi at Snæfellsnesi on the 11th of January, on the north west coast. The ship may have been subject to military aggravation, but bad weather may have also played a hand in its demise.

Helgi lived to be 97 years old. He was married twice and had four children to his first wife Þorbjörg (Thorbjorg) Kristjánsdóttir. His oldest daughter Elín Helgadóttir was my grandmother.

Helgi sailed all through the war years to England with fish. From 1948 he was the number one helmsman on the ship Ísborg from Ísafirðir (Isafirdir) in the north west and from 1956 he worked for a net manufacturing company called Hampiðjunni in Reykjavík. He retired from working life in 1987 at the age of 88 years.

Max Pemperton RE 278.

Max Pemperton RE278

Photo by Guðbjartur Ásgeirsson.
Courtesy of Website


Where it all started

I first got started in family history at the age of 17.  That was 14 years ago.  I have always had a love of history, but when I was presented with the story of my maternal grandfather, who was first fostered out to the only grandparents my mother knew and later adopted, I was left with a persistent desire to know who his real parents were and why he was adopted.  This is what started me on my family history journey.

With the help of my parents who are both born and bred Icelanders, I wrote up a list of questions to ask.  This list of questions,  I found in a book about finding your ancestors and I mailed these off to my grandparents in Iceland.  They answered to the best of their ability, but there were many gaps.  I was surprised to learn that my grandfather knew who his birth parents were and also, most of his birth siblings, as he listed their names on the questionnaire with all their dates of birth and some death dates.  So it was interesting, especially for my mother, to know that her father, who never spoke of his birth family, when she was a young girl, knew about his birth family.  With the help of my father I took the liberty to search for these siblings, and found that some of his younger siblings were still alive and living in Iceland.  I was able to find their address details and send them this same family history questionnaire, with my details, email, postal address and why I was chasing this information.

A few weeks later I was pleasantly surprised when I received an email, and it was from an Icelandic cousin, I had never heard of.  He was a man in his forties, writing on behalf of his mother, who was my grandfathers birth sister.  He said that his mother had been so excited to hear from me and she and her other sisters had always wondered about their older brother and what he looked like and was doing now.  From this cousin, who was himself an avid genealogist, like a large majority of Icelanders, I was sent through all the information he had collated on my grandfathers birth parents and siblings as well as photos of them.  To their delight and with the permission of my grandfather, I sent them some photos of my grandfather, who they had never met or seen .  He also connected me with Islendingbók, which is Iceland´s genealogical database, and I was suddenly bombarded with information and my own family tree, which dated back to characters from the Icelandic Sagas, in 850 AD.  I was told to take some of this information with a grain of salt, as the accuracy was not necessarily there, being such a long time ago.

Suddenly I had too much information, but it was this simple curiosity of mine that led to the reunion of my grandfather and his sisters, who finally met for the first time a few months later.  I wish I could have been there to witness this, but I was still in high school, and had to suffice with photos of the event.  I love to imagine that it was their mother and father, my great grandparents, now long gone from this earth, that somehow, aided me on this journey to reunite their children.  It was meant to happen.

And this was where it all started…..


Kristján Albertsson and Guðrún Þórðardóttir (Gudrun Thorthardottir).  Two names.  Two individuals who came together, to create a family.  But what´s the story behind these two names, these people of the past, my ancestors, my great-great grandparents.  I don´t want to just know their names, and dates of birth and death.  I want to know more.  Who were these people?  What was life like for them?  What were their hopes?  What obstacles did they have to face?  I am a curious person.  Our generation take for granted so much in life, so I want to know what it took to survive, what our forefathers had to endure for us to get to where we are today.

Come with me on a journey of the imagination.  Let’s go back 135 years to a place and time so vastly different from the world we live in today.  Let’s leave this modern world of fast paced people and mind boggling technology for a simpler time.  This place is nestled at the base of a snow capped mountain and the formidable sea, in a place almost forgotten, a place so remote and rugged that it is a wonder that people survived there at all.  But they did and still do.

It is 1883 and this place is in such a remote part of Iceland that the only access to the place is by boat, via the sea. No roads have been built, no tunnels through the mountains, like today.  The Westfjords of Iceland, are my focus, and more specifically, Súgandafjordur  Turf houses are the accomodation, mode of travel is by foot, boat or horse.  Staple diet is fish.

It is a day in mid autumn, and a young couple join in matrimony amongst family and friends.  This is the bridegroom´s second marriage.  At 32 he has already seen much heartache and sorrow in his life, but no more than others in his community, for he knows like everyone else that life gives as it does takes, and that is just the way of life.  He looks upon his beautiful brown eyed bride, who is 9 years younger than he, but as the first registered midwife of her district, knows he has found a capable and resilient woman.

They go on to have 14 children, 11 of whom survive to adulthood, but mostly what I have is dates and names of places.  I want to dig deeper and find this family’s story.

My goal is to find out more about their life and piece together their story using resources from Icelandic books and records about the family and region and using social history to fill in the blanks.  This blog will hopefully journal my discoveries along the way.

My home is in Australia, so wanting to discover the world of my ancestors on the other side of the globe in Iceland presents a few obstacles, but this blog will hopefully be enjoyed by immediate and extended family who want to find out more about our common ancestors and anyone interested in family history.  I am by no means a professional genealogist.  I just have a love for family history and culture and have always desired to write.