If you know the ship's official number, the quickest way is to use the CLIP search page - you can enter the official number and the results will show a list of where the documents for the ship are held, with links to archive sites where possible. Crew lists by official number
Once you have found the ship, the CLIP search pages will link you directly to the archive holdings for the ship.
If you don't know the ship's name, it is more complicated; read more on this page.
The links on this page give full details of the available sources and the search pages all have a notes section to explain how to use them.
This page explains how to find records of a merchant seafarer on crew lists of British registered vessels for the period 1861 to 1913.
Be aware This means finding the whereabouts of the original documents, so you can buy copies. The documents are scattered over many archives and few of them 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.
The flowchart in Figure 1 shows how it works and we explain in more detail below. CLIP provides many finding aids which will assist your search.
Beware! These notes apply only to the period 1861 to 1913. Before this period, the crew lists are at The National Archives and there are registers of seafarers names. After 1913 there are also registers of seafarers and the crew documents are in just three archives. Follow these links for the earlier or later periods.
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.
If the answer is no, then PANIC (A LITTLE).
You will need to try searching the indexes which list seafarer's names.
Then come back to this point.
If you do know the ship's name, the next task is to find her official number. This is important, because most of the large repositories which hold crew lists use official numbers, rather than names, as a reference.
Shipping Registers, Official Numbers and Appropriation Books
Details of all British merchant ships are entered into Shipping Registers at a local Port of Registry. 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 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 an 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 name/official number index.
For more detail on the records of British ships, please see our information page
The simplest way is to use the CLIP finding aids.
Enter the ship's name, or a part of it, into the CLIP search page and it will provide you with a list of the ships whose name matches, with their official number. The advanced search allows you to input a range of dates and port of registry.
For each ship, the results page will provide you with links to our data on holdings of crew lists, and to the Maritime History Archive (MHA) list.
If you know the ship's name and official number, the next step is to track down the crew lists for that ship. The lists are scattered and we provide more detail below, but the most direct way is to use our finding aid:
Alternatively, you could use MHA's Crew List Index - see below.
The lists are held at many different places - nearly 50 archives around the world have holdings.
As the diagram shows, TNA took a 10% random sample, then NMM took the remainder of 1861 and 1862 and years ending in '5'. Local archives were offered the records for their ports and what remained was shipped to MHA in Canada. As a result:
10% are at over forty local archives around Britain ,
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.
10% of the lists are in over forty local archives or record offices (ROs) in the UK and at the National Archives of the Republic of Ireland. Holdings at archives vary from sparse samples to almost complete runs for individual ships.
The archives holdings are, in general, only for ships registered at ports local to the archive, not the ships that sailed from the port. There may also be documents relating to ships registered at other ports, for example if the registry of a ship was transferred.
You can use CLIP data to look for holdings of crew lists, by archive or by port.
The data for archives and ports also shows holdings of shipping registers.
You can also use MHA's Crew List Index (see below), though not all local archive holdings are included.
All the archives for coastal counties of England and Wales, except Norfolk, have at least a sample of the lists for the ports in their area. The Irish Republic, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man 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.
Only a small number of crew lists for 'colonial' ports are to be found in the collections at TNA and NMM. Crew lists for Newfoundland ports are at the Maritime History Archive and some Australian archives have documents.
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 incomprehensible online ordering system to order documents for a visit or to order copies. All we can say is 'Good luck'.
Though they are slowly working on it, forty years after they took the documents, the self-styled "most extensive library of maritime history in the world" still does not have a catalogue of their crew list holdings.
A random 10% sample of the documents is held at 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. If you know the ship's official number, the index is now available at TNA.
The data is also part of the larger CLIP crew list index, so it's much easier to use this link, which will also show holdings elsewhere for that ship.
BT 100 holds the documents for famous ships, such as the Great Eastern, Terra Nova and the Lusitania.
BT 144 holds a 10% sample of the records for fishing vessels under 80 tons, starting at 1884.
BT 165 holds samples of the official log books, extracted from the main runs of documents for the period 1902 to 1919.
The remaining 70%+ of lists are at the Maritime History Archive (MHA) in St John’s, Newfoundland, who took in these documents when they were threatened with destruction in the 1970s.
You can search their index on-line on the MHA web site (again by official number only) and order copies of crew lists.
Their index also shows holdings of crew lists at most local archives in Britain.
The MHA data is also included in the CLIP crew list index, so it may be easier to use that as it will also show holdings elsewhere for that ship.
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. They are well over half way through with 376,500 entries. As with the NL Crews Database, you can search the index on-line and view the images.
This is a significant and welcome development. The image quality is excellent and the system provides a first glimpse of what could be available in the future.
The item of information which you are likely to find most interesting is the seafarer's previous vessel because it provides the key to tracing their career back in time. We explain how that works on our crew list page.
The MHA web site, More than a list of crew will tell you all that you could want to know about the details of crew documents. The format remained essentially unchanged from the 1830s to the 1950s and so the information on the various other document formats is easy to follow, working from the example documents that they describe.
The CLIP index of crew list holdings for the period 1861 to 1913 contains over 1 million entries, and covers between 80% and 90% of the documents which survive.
There are several reasons why you may not be able to find the crew lists for a particular ship for a particular year:
In many cases, it will be clear which port(s) the ship was registered at. An email to the local archives for that port would be a good place to start in looking for a missing list.
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).