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England Seamen Records (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Seamen[edit | edit source]

The Records Officer for the Registry of Shipping and Seamen (formerly the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen) has provided an excellent summary of their holdings of modern records as well as the historic ones transferred to the TNA and elsewhere (Staples). TNA leaflets have been produced for the many records now at Kew:

D93 Merchant Seamen: Officers Service records 1845-1965

D111 Merchant Seamen: Interpreting Voyage Details in the Register of Officer’s Services

D89 Merchant Seamen: Registers of Service, 1835-1857

D90 Merchant Seamen: Registers of Service 1913-1972

D113 Merchant Seamen: Interpreting Voyage Details in the Registers of Seamen, Series II

D92 Merchant Seamen: Crew Lists and Agreements, 1747-1860

D91 Merchant Seamen: Crew Lists and Agreements after 1861

Consult Smith, Watts and Watts for specific details and examples of all the following TNA records.

Registers of Seamen[edit | edit source]

These are the records that will provide the most information quickly about ordinary seamen. The first successful continuous registration scheme for seamen came through the Merchant Seamen Act of 1835 that established the General Register Office of Merchant Seamen. This was headed by the Registrar General of Seamen in the London Customs House and under the Admiralty. The register encompassed all merchant sailors except fishermen, and was primarily intended to provide a source of navy recruits for wartime. Later in the 19th century the registration of ships and seamen were combined under the Board of Trade.

The registers of seamen in BT 112-114, 116, 119-120 are for the years 1835-1857 and include copies of the certificates issued to sailors authorizing their service on ships. Name, age, birthplace, date of first going to sea, rank, service number and ship’s name are included. From 1844 a physical description, exact date of birth, usual abode when not at sea, date of entrance into merchant service and in what capacity, whether able to write, his ticket number, age and date when ticketed or registered, present capacity, and whether he had seen previous service in the Royal Navy are also given. The groupings and indexes are shown below:

CHART: Registers of Seamen 1835-1972

Names Dates Class #of Film and
Starting #
Series I 1835-1836 BT 120 5 films- FHL film 1483219
Series II 1835-1844 BT 112
Index BT 119
Not yet
Register of
Seamen's Tickets
1845-1854 BT 113
Index BT 114
113 films- FHL film 1482502
10 films-FHL film 1502069
Series III 1853-1857 BT 116 79 flims- FHL film 1562727
Central Index
1913-1940 BT 348-350
index BT 364
Not yet
Central Register of
1941-1972 Not yet at
TNA, still at
Not yet

There was no central register of seamen from 1857 until 1913 so musters and crew lists for individual ships must be searched instead. In order to start a search a date of service in at least one named ship needs to be known.

The Central Index Register for the years 1918-1941 have been hived off from the TNA to Southampton City Record Office (Naish), and the 1,250,000 cards (and photographs for 1918-1921) can be accessed through them.

Agreements, Crew Lists and Muster Rolls[edit | edit source]

The master of each ship had to carry a written agreement with every crew member that stated his wages, the nature of his work and of the voyage. The records are in BT 98 and cover 1747-1860 and they are microfilmed as follows:

Serious weeding of the records after 1861 has taken place to reduce their volume for storage purposes. What survives has been dispersed as follows:

  • 10% of crew lists 1861-1938 and 1951-1980 are at the TNA in class BT 99. They also hold logbooks and agreements from famous ships such as the Titanic and the Great Britain in BT 100, and World War I in BT 144.
  • National Maritime Museum (NMM), Greenwich holds the remaining 90% of crew lists for 1861-1862 and all the years ending in 5 except 1945 and up to 1965.
  • Registry of Shipping and Seamen holds all crew lists 1939-1950 and from 1990 onwards.
  • Maritime History Archive (MHA), at University of Newfoundland took those crew lists 1863-1972 not taken by other institutions.
  • Various county archives and libraries hold some 1863-1912 crew lists for their areas not at TNA or NMM; there is a list of which port records are in which repositories in Appendix 2 of Smith, Watts and Watts, and the Registry of Shipping and Seamen can assist in case of difficulty.

Each of these institutions publishes guides to their holdings.

Log Books[edit | edit source]

Masters of merchant vessels were required to keep an Official Log from 1850, in which they recorded births, illnesses and deaths aboard, and misconduct, desertion and punishments, as well as a description of each man’s conduct. These were turned in within 48 hours of arrival after a foreign trip, and half-yearly for home trade ships. Unfortunately many have been destroyed; those surviving are usually with the Agreements and Crew Lists, except for 1902-1919 which are in BT 165.

Pensions[edit | edit source]

There were few provisions for disabled and elderly seamen except from the East India Company and Greenwich Hospital until 1851 when pensions were available to seamen and masters, their widows and children in certain circumstances. These provisions were strengthened in 1911, 1918 and 1931 for all those with long service (Smith, Watts and Watts). There is no central collection of pension records; they are scattered in various classes of documents:

  • Board of Trade pension applications are in MT 4, theMarine Out Letters, and indexed there or in MT 5. The War Office was responsible for payment so they come under that heading.
  • War Office Royal Hospital Chelsea class WO 22 has several miscellaneous merchant marine papers.
  • Paymaster General’s Office has registers in PMG 56.
  • Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance has records formerly at the Ministry of Health as well as its own in PIN 22 and PIN 15.

East India Company Merchant Records[edit | edit source]

HEIC owned or chartered many merchant ships for its trading activities and there are many records of them, their voyages, officers and occasional crew lists. They are listed in the EIC directories, under the Bengal, Bombay and Madras Marine Establishments respectively, and in Lloyd’s Register from 1778-1833, and their movements can be found in Lloyd’s List. The East India Company also had warships; these were known as the Bombay Marine until 1830 when the name changed to Indian Navy until it was abolished in 1863. In 1877 a new Indian Marine came into being which was renamed the Royal Indian Navy in 1935. Herber has a brief summary and recommends Baxter (1990) for full details of the HEIC’s records. There are 36 listings for HEIC on the FamilySearch Catalog under GREAT BRITAIN - MERCHANT MARINE.

A few examples include:

  • Bengal marine civil and marine casualties 1824-1864.
  • Bengal Pilot Service Papers 1796-1880.
  • Bombay marine appointments birth and baptism certificates 1822-1832.
  • Bombay Marine Officers 1863-1877.
  • East India Company cadet appointments to the marine department 1794-1830.
  • East India Company list of surgeons 1801-1833.
  • East India Company marine petitions for relief 1795-1798, 1801-1803.
  • East India Company merchant marine pensions 1828-1834.
  • Indian Navy deserters 1841-1863.
  • Indian Navy estates records 1820-1862.
  • Poplar Pension Fund papers 1788-1858. This provided pensions for officers and seamen of the EIC mercantile marine and their families.
  • Vessels and officers of the Bombay marine 1870-1882.

Passenger Lists[edit | edit source]

Very few passenger lists before 1890 have survived in England, but everything extant is at the Public Record Office in three classes:

  • BT 26 Inwards Passengers Lists 1878-1960 give the age, occupation, address in the UK and date of entering the country by sea from ports outside Europe and the Mediterranean, arranged by port of arrival.
  • BT 27 Outwards Passenger Lists 1890-1960 contain names of passengers leaving the UK, arranged under the port of departure.
  • BT 32 Registers of Passenger Lists is the finding aid for BT 26 and 27. Before 1908 only three ports are available—Southampton, Bristol and Weymouth. w Reference should be made to TNA leaflet D56 Ships’ Passenger Lists 1878-1960.

Miscellaneous Records[edit | edit source]

Smith, Watts and Watts gives details of the many other kinds of records at the TNA; just a few are mentioned here. Although merchant seamen contributed their sixpences to the Greenwich Hospital, they don’t seem to have benefitted from the facilities, naturally a cause for resentment.

Registers of Protection from being press-ganged into the navy record those fishermen, merchant seamen and others who were exempted. They cover the period 1702-1828 and are in ADM 7 at the TNA.

Letters of Marque were the authorities granted by the Admiralty to merchant ships to arm themselves in times of war to act as privateers and harass enemy shipping. Most surviving records cover the period of the Napoleonic Wars, but the range is 1549-1815. The information mainly concerns details of the ships, but masters’ names are given.

Awards. Many merchant seamen were awarded the Albert Medal for gallantry at sea and a register of these awards from 1866-1913 is in class BT 97. Other awards are in BT 261.

On the FamilySearch Catalog under GREAT BRITAIN - OCCUPATIONS can be found Colonial Office Register of Surgeons’ Appointments to Ships 1851-1894 on FHL film 1483380*. Starting in the late 17th century many wills of merchant seamen were probated in the Commissary Court of London. The PCC (Prerogative Court of Canterbury) is also a favourite court of probate as mentioned under naval wills.

Historical accounts of seafaring life are not hard to find in a good public library, everything from Hornblower and Robinson Crusoe to Dana’s classic Two Year’s Before the Mast. Family history magazines frequently have articles on researching mariners, for example Silvester (Merchant Navy Records at Guildhall Library. Family Tree Magazine Vol 11 #11, page 53) has an interesting article about researching a mariner who trained in the navy but worked mainly in the merchant fleet. Smith, Watts and Watts (Records of Merchant Shipping and Seamen.) have a section on wages and conditions for seamen. Hurley (The Mariner in The Book of Trades or Library of Useful Arts. 1811 , 1991) has a description of the trade of mariner.

Illustrating Your Seaman’s History[edit | edit source]

The most complete source of photographs of merchant ships and maritime subjects is the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich but a less expensive alternative is to contact the World Ship Society which holds photos of 53,000 ships; please note that an SAE is definitely required as this is a voluntary organization. The other maritime museums mentioned herein also have extensive collections, not only of ships’ pictures, but many other aspects of seafaring life.

Shire books publish a number of plentifully illustrated booklets such as East Coast Shipping by Hedges, Scottish Fishing Boats by Tanner,Sailing Barges by Hazell, Old Docks by Ritchie-Noakes, The Victorian Sailor by Marcombe and West Coast Shipping, Steamboats, and Tugs and Towage by Stammers.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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