Crew lists are the records of the crew serving on a ship for a certain period - usually a voyage or half-year. The documents are more properly called Crew Lists and Agreements - the differences are explained below.
From 1835, the masters of British registered merchant ships were (and still are) required by law to keep records of the names of their crew and return them to the authorities (in the late nineteenth century, the Board of Trade of the British Government). Failure to make returns promptly could result in delays to the ship and fines for the master, and compliance with the regulations seems to have been good.
As a result, the Board of Trade accumulated a large volume of documents (numbering into millions), most of which have survived to the present. Unfortunately, the volume for the period after 1861 became so embarrassingly large that in the 1970s the documents were dispersed to over forty different repositories. This can make it cumbersome to access records for individual ships. At this period, there was no national index of seafarers, which makes it even trickier to find details about individuals.
However, the documents can provide detailed information on the comings and goings of all ranks of seafarers.
(We use the term seafarer rather than seaman because the crew of a ship could include women - as stewardesses for example.)
A typical document contains this information and often more:
Name, Official number; Port and date of registry; Owner’s name and address; Master’s name and address; Tonnage.
Full Name; Age or Date of birth; Place of birth; Date of signing on and off; Capacity in which employed; Ship in which previously served; Wages.
List of voyages with dates, but sometimes only consular stamps at ports where the ship touched.
Some later documents show the seafarer's home address. There may be a section related to discipline (see below), but not a day-to-day log of the ship's progress. The documents rarely show the ship’s cargo.
The most interesting item of information in the entry for a seafarer is likely to be "Ship in which previously served". In theory, this allows you to trace back the career of a seafarer step by step through a series of crew lists until you come to the entry that says "First ship".
Oh, if life were that simple! In practice, the chain is likely to break down sooner rather than later. Nevertheless, it should be possible to trace back a few ships.
Ships which were sailing in British coastal waters filled in crew lists every six months, recording all the crew who had sailed on the ship during that time. These documents are often headed account of crew. At least some of these lists were made up from temporary records which were held on the ship. They were not usually signed by the crew members.
Ships which made any voyage outside British coastal waters completed a crew agreement for that voyage only. This was a legal agreement between the seafarer and the ship’s owners. Seafarers signed on at the start of the voyage and also on or off (or deserted) at ports where the ship touched. Entries in these documents were usually signed by the seafarers themselves.
Where a vessel sailed mostly in British waters but made occasional foreign-going trips, there may be both lists and agreements for the same period.
We mostly use the term 'Crew List' because it is shorter and clearer, it irritates pedants, and would mess up CLIP's acronym if we didn't.
Agreements for foreign-going ships included sections to record disciplinary matters - for example, where seafarers deserted or were dismissed. There are also official logs which record similar details and also events such as accidents and wrecks. These official logs do not include day-to-day journals of the working of the ship and they do not survive (if they ever existed) for many voyages - presumably the uneventful ones. However, since the events that are recorded are sometimes dramatic and are described at the time in the master’s own words, where they exist they make fascinating reading.
On signing off from a ship, a seafarer would be given discharge papers recording the voyage and comments on their work and behaviour. A small number of these documents survive, as family heirlooms, in record offices and occasionally amongst bundles of crew lists.
A large percentage of all the documents are now stored at the Maritime History Archive (MHA) in Newfoundland. They have a superb site, called More than a list of crew which is highly recommended. It would be superfluous for us to try to emulate it here - it will tell you all you want to know.
Should you wish to know more about the legislation which governed the mercantile marine, a summary of the legislation is here, with links to images of most of the Acts of Parliament.