This page explains how to find records of merchant seafarers sailing on British registered vessels for the period after 1913.After 1913, registers of seafarers were kept and have been digitised so this makes finding records of individual seafarers much simpler, at least in theory. The crew lists for this period have also survived and finding them is described below.
This is the National Archives research guide to the records for this period. The National Archives research guide
Be aware. These notes apply only to the period 1913 onwards.
From 1861 to 1913 there are no central records of seafarers and the crew lists and agreements are scattered over more than 40 archives. Before 1861, there are registers of seafarers and the crew documents are all at the National Archives (TNA). Follow these links for more detail.
The system of registration for seafarers re-introduced in 1913 included record cards, 'tickets', for individual seafarers, recording their service at sea. These records continued up to 1941.
The card has brief details of the seafarer, sometimes with a photograph. The back of the ticket shows the ships they worked on as a list of official numbers and dates.
Figure 1 shows a CR10 record card for Magnus Coutts from Shetland, who was an OS (Ordinary Seaman).
The official numbers to the left of his picture show that he was employed on a ship with official number 72650 on a voyage which ended on 11 May 1920.
Using the CLIP index to ships by official number (link below) shows that this was the Newhailes, a steam ship of 905 tons registered in Leith in 1888, previously the Triton of West Hartlepool. Crew lists for her for 1920 are held at the Maritime History Archive (MHA).
The second ship was the Horden (ON 133583), a steam ship of 1607 tons, registered in Newcastle, 9/1916. Again the crew lists are held at MHA.
The CLIP official number index can be used to find the ships's name and where the crew lists are held, should you wish to obtain copies.
Findmypast has digitised these records.
Be aware This means finding the whereabouts of the original documents, so you can buy copies. At present, none of the crew list documents after 1913 can be viewed online or downloaded. Fortunately the documents are in one of only three places - the Maritime History Archive (MHA), the National Archives (TNA) and the National Maritime Museum (NMM). There are no crew list documents at local archives for this period, save for a few strays.
TNA took a 10% sample of the documents - every tenth box. They are mostly in BT 99 and are sorted by the ship's official number.
NMM has all the documents for the years ending in 5 up to 1995, except for 1945 which is at TNA in BT 380 and BT 381.
The documents for 1939 to 1945 are all at TNA, in BT 380 and BT 381 (see below).
The remaining documents up to 1972 are at MHA.
Apart from the 10% samples at TNA and NMM, no crew lists were retained after 1972.
The CLIP databases provide details of the archives' holdings of crew lists as far forward as 1939, with some data for 1939-1945. If you know the ship's official number (for example, from record cards) you can enter it here:
For the years of World War II (1939 to 1945), all the documents are held at TNA in BT 380 and BT 381.
The CLIP index of archives holdings (link above) includes the documents in BT 381, but not those for BT 380.
The movements of merchant ships during WWII were recorded and the record cards can be downloaded from TNA for free.
The Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill records 36070 casualties from WWI and WWII who have no grave but the sea. The Commonwealth War Graves site records all their names and details.
It becomes increasingly difficult to find records of seafarers after 1945 and extremely difficult after 1972. It is actually easier to find details of someone who was at sea in the 1920s than from the 1970s onward.
If you are searching for old ship-mates, you may be able to make contact via the various Merchant Navy online forums. For example:
Various on-line guides refer researchers to the Registry of Shipping and Seamen in Cardiff. This is a link to their site, for what it's worth. All we can say is "Good luck with that".
You should find it fairly easy to track down pictures of ships, using any search engine.
Sorry, we are not able to help further. If you have any useful information, do please let us know so we can pass it on.
The National Archives have a large number of online information pages about the documents they hold. The ones which cover the records of merchant seafarers are here:
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).