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Seafarers on crew lists
Finding seafarers on crew lists
This page explains how to find records of a merchant seafarer on crew lists of British registered vessels for the period 1861 to 1913.
 
NB! This means finding the whereabouts of the original documents, so you can order copies. Few of the documents have been filmed or digitised. At present, only a tiny percentage of the crew list documents for 1861 to 1913 can be viewed online or downloaded (see the note below about MHA's site).

What do you need to know to find a crew list?
To trace a crew list which records a seafarer, you will need to know, or find out: It may also be helpful to know the ship's port of registry.
 
DON'T PANIC (YET)! This page explains how to find any information that you don't have, and what terms like 'official number' mean.
 
Don't know the name of the ship the seafarer was on?
PANIC, A LITTLE. If you don't know the ship's name, you will need to try the indexes which list seamen's names. Then come back to this point.
 
Know the ship's name?
The next task is to find the ship's official number. This is important, because most of the large repositories which hold crew lists use official numbers, rather than names, as a reference.
 
Official numbers, shipping registers and appropriation books
From 1855, British ships were given an unique official number when they were first registered. The number stayed with the ship throughout her life, even if she was re-registered or the ship’s name was changed.
 
The official numbers were allocated by the Registrar General of Shipping. Each Port of Registry (see below) in the United Kingdom and British colonies was allocated runs of numbers as necessary. At these ports, the numbers were recorded in the Shipping Registers and also in the Appropriation Book for that port. Copies of registers were sent to the Registrar General of Shipping who maintained the central Appropriation Books, which are the single complete definitive list of British registered vessels and their official numbers.
 
These central Appropriation Books are held at the current Registry of Shipping and Seamen (RSS) at Cardiff. CLIP has made images of the six volumes and data from them forms the basis of the CLIP official number index.

How to find a ship's official number
The simplest way is to use the finding aids on this site - the most powerful vessel search site, by far. Enter the ship's name, or a part of it, into our search page and it will provide you with a list of the ships whose name matches, with their official number.
 
The CLIP vessel database has data from the appropriation books and other records gathered during the CLIP project and currently contain over 670,000 records of ships' names and official numbers. It is the only database with complete coverage of British registered ships of the period, with all official numbers from 1 to 200,000 and covering 1855 to the 1950s.
 
The finding aid has facilities for a fuzzy search which helps you to find possible vessel names from entries on crew lists which are hard to decipher. It also gives the ship's port(s) of registry (see below), dates of registry and vessel type, which can help to sort out cases where several ships had the same name. Over a five year period, more than 10% of vessels ceased to exist, or had been re-registered at another port and vessel names were also sometimes changed. Our database includes records from several sources so that can find data closest to the time period you are interested in.
 
The CLIP finding aid also links to other sites to search for more details of a ship either by looking up images or accessing databases. To assist your search, we provide deep-links where possible - ie the links go to the specific page for your search, rather than the site's main page.
 
We also careful to show the source of each item of data on the CLIP database, so that you can check it for yourself (increasingly, by looking at the document image for yourself). Remember that these are historical records, many of which are hand-written and even printed ones are derived from hand-written sources. Any transcription (even CLIP) is as prone to error as all human activity. You need to CHECK! The sources below are the most important.
 
The Mercantile Navy List and Lloyd's Register of Shipping
You can look up official numbers and other details in the Mercantile Navy List (from 1857) or Lloyd’s Register of Shipping (from 1872). The Mercantile Navy List lists the official number of every British registered ship afloat at that date.
 
Lloyd's Register is much less comprehensive: only ships registered with Lloyd's are included, so many smaller ships are not there; there are many foreign vessels, with other numbers entered against them, and some ships which undoubtedly did have an official number are shown but without one. Note also that Lloyd's Registers run from July to June, not calendar years, and that Lloyd's Register is not the same as Lloyd's List which was (and is) a newspaper covering shipping news on a daily basis.
 
Both registers contain errors, for example, transposing digits in official numbers. Though they are printed sources, they are just as prone to typos and other errors as anything else.

Physical copies of MNL and Lloyd's can be found at NMM, The National Archives and some record offices and large reference libraries. The PortCities Southampton site has (incomplete) lists of where the Mercantile Navy List and Lloyd’s Register of Shipping can be found.
 
It is becoming increasingly easy to find images of MNL and Lloyd's online. CLIP provides two links into these images - the CLIP vessel search pages provide assisted access to many of the image sources, as described above, and the CLIP image viewer is designed to simplify direct access to images of MNL,as described below.
 
Mercantile Navy List (MNL) online
The CLIP MNL image viewer, provides indexed access to images of MNL drawn from several sites, so that you can easily search and browse from one edition of MNL to another. It's by far the simplest way to search MNL for details of a vessel.
 
Google books have scanned a few copies of the MNL and other shipping registers, as follows:
The Digital Archives Initiative at Memorial University (home of MHA) has digital images of MNL for the following years: 1868, 1875, 1876, 1878, 1880, 1882, 1891, 1892, 1896, 1899, 1904, 1907, 1911, 1913, 1918, 1919, 1921, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938.
 
Other editions of MNL can be found at the Australian National Maritime Museum digital archive. They currently have the following years available: 1862, 1883, 1888, 1889, 1892, 1893, 1895, 1896, 1897, 1898, 1904, 1907, 1911, 1917 and 1920. You may have to be a little patient with their image viewer.
 
The same site has images of The Register of Australian and New Zealand Shipping, which shows official numbers and includes the following years: 1874, 1876, 1893, 1902, 1906, 1915, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925.
 
Lloyd's Register of Shipping online
Google books appears to be working steadily through copies of Lloyd’s Register from 1800 onwards and have currently reached 1868. As noted above, the first year which shows official numbers is 1872.
 
However, the Open Library have copies of some later editions of Lloyd’s Register (which, strangely, carry the Google Books foreword). The following show official numbers:  
Other sites and databases
Many other sites have lists of vessels which show official numbers. The CLIP list of other sites concentrates on sites which provide information about individual ships and the most useful ones are shown below.
 
The Miramar index is a subscription site with records of over 260,000 vessels world wide with over 580,000 entries. The vessels included are merchant powered ships (not sailing vessels) of over 100 tons and smaller naval vessels.
 
A large number of American Lloyd's Registers and other registers are available on the Mystic Seaport web site, and show records of some British registered vessels. Useful, with care.
 
The PortCities project scanned images of Lloyd's Register for the period 1930 to 1945 and these are available on the Plimsoll ShipData web site.
 
These sites have databases of vessels which include official numbers (and in some cases, images) :
New Zealand Maritime Index
Library and Archives Canada
Fleetwood Online Archive of Trawlers (FLOAT)
Milford Trawlers
Great Lakes Vessels Online Image Database
 
Ports of Registry
British ships were registered at one of over two hundred statutory Ports of Registry, and this is the port under which their crew lists were filed. Ships were sometimes re-registered at a different port. In this case, the crew lists are sometimes to be found with those for the new port; sometimes with those for the old.
 
Shipping Registers
The surviving Shipping Registers for each port are now usually held at the local archives nearest to that port, sometimes with the port Appropriation Book. The CLIP list of the archives which hold shipping registers is here. It includes a list of the registers they hold and, in some cases, indexes of the vessels, transcripts and links to images of the documents.

Know the ship's name and official number?
Once you know the basic information about the seafarer's ship, the next step is to track down the crew lists for that ship. The lists are held at many different places:
 
10% are at local record offices (ROs) or archives
10% are at the National Maritime Museum (NMM), Greenwich
10% are at The National Archives (TNA (formerly PRO)), Kew
70% are at the Maritime History Archive (MHA) in Newfoundland
 
The records for one ship could be at any or all of these places.
 
Crew lists at record offices
10% of the lists are in over forty local record offices (ROs) in the UK and at the National Archives of the Republic of Ireland. Holdings at ROs vary from sparse samples to almost complete runs for individual ships.
 
Which ports are covered?
All the record offices for coastal counties of England and Wales, except Norfolk, have at least a sample of the lists for their ports. The Irish Republic and Northern Ireland have most of their lists.
 
Unfortunately, (or fortunately, because they would have been destroyed otherwise) the crew lists for London, all Scottish ports and the remaining lists for other ports are at the Maritime History Archive - see below.

The CLIP list of record offices holding crew lists is the most complete available.
 
If you know the ship’s port of registry and the crew lists are held at a record office, then that is probably the best place to start.
 
To find which crew lists are held at ROs, you can search on-line (by official number only) on the same MHA web site which lists the MHA holdings (see below). Not all record office holdings are included.
 
There is a microfiche/printed version of this database:
 
"A guide to the Crew Agreements and Official Logbooks, 1863 - 1913, held at the County Record Offices of the British Isles", Maritime History Archive, Newfoundland.
 
Again, this lists ships by official number only, and some ROs which hold crew lists are not included. This is available at the National Maritime Museum (NMM), The National Archives (TNA) and some record offices and reference libraries.
 
Crew Lists at the National Maritime Museum
The lists and agreements for 1861, 1862 and for the years ending in “5” are at the National Maritime Museum (NMM) in Greenwich. 1985 and 1995 are out-stored. You will need to register with their online ordering system and use the crew list order form. You can order in advance of a visit and up to three documents at a time. Alternatively, you can order copies or digital images via the same form. Forty years after they took the documents, the world's largest maritime museum still does not have a catalogue of their crew list holdings of any sort.
 
Crew Lists at The National Archives
A random 10% sample of the documents is held at the The National Archives (TNA) in Kew, in BT 99 with others in BT 100, BT 144 and BT 165.
 
BT 99 is indexed by official number, originally in loose-leaf files at TNA. There is no index by ship’s name. In collaboration with TNA, CLIP has transferred this paper index to electronic format. It is now available on this site and via the TNA catalogue.
 
Crew Lists at the Maritime History Archive
The remaining 70% of lists are at the Maritime History Archive (MHA) in St John’s, Newfoundland. You can search on-line on the MHA web site (again by official number only) and order copies of crew lists. MHA has, at long last, set up a secure system for payments.
 
The MHA NL Crews Database contains over 30,000 entries taken from the crew lists of Newfoundland and Labrador registered vessels for 1915 to 1942. You can search the index on-line and view the images.
 
MHA are also gradually digitising their holdings of crew lists for 1881. There are currently about half way through with 160,000 entries and they will be adding to the index each month. As with the NL Crews Database, you can search the index on-line and view the images.
 
This is a significant and welcome development, especially as work is continuing. The image quality is excellent and the system provides a first glimpse of what could be available in the future.
 
A list of MHA holdings (by official number only) is provided by:
 
Guide to the Agreements and Crew Lists: Series II (BT 99),1863 - 1912 Maritime History Archive, Newfoundland.
 
This guide is on fiche or printed and is available at NMM, TNA and some record offices and libraries.
 
More details and other records
For more detail and for other periods, records of ships, Royal Naval Reserve etc, the best reference book is:
 
Records of Merchant Shipping and Seamen, Smith, Watts and Watts, PRO, (ISBN: 1 873 162 49 9).
 
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This page was last modified 02 April 2014
 
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