Records of British Ships

This page explains how to find records of British registered ships, concentrating on the period 1861 to 1913 and on details which will assist researchers to identify a ship and particularly her official number, because that is important in locating crew documents. We have also concentrated on primary or contemporary sources where possible, rather than secondary sources such as books and websites.

This page details:

Registration of Shipping

A centralised system of registration for British ships began with the 'Act for the Further Increase and Encouragement of Shipping and Navigation' of 1786 and has continued to this day. The system has been modified by various Acts of Parliament, but remained essentially the same until the 1960s. It applied to all ships of more than 15 tons gross with a deck. For more information, see this article, and for a summary of the legislation which governed British shipping, see here.

The registration was carried out by port officials at statutory Ports of Registry around Britain, Ireland and the (then) British Colonies. Details of the ship and her ownership were recorded on a numbered Certificate of Registry which was given to the owners. A copy of the information was recorded in the local Shipping Registers (sometimes called Customs Registers) at the port and a transcript of that sent to the Registry of Shipping and Seamen. The process continued essentially unchanged until the 1960s when the registers were computerised.

Click the link to the right for more detail on the registration of shipping together with information on how to locate the registration documents.

Registers of shipping include records of fishing boats and the link provides more detail.

Most of the registers were eventually held at the Registry of Shipping and Seamen in Cardiff, but they have now mostly been returned to the local archive or record office closest to the port, or to the National Archives in Scotland or PRONI in the case of Northern Ireland. Only a few Irish registers survive at the National Archives of Ireland. The registers for London are held at TNA in CUST 130.

You can use CLIP data to look for holdings of shipping registers, listed either by archive or by port. The data also shows holdings of crew lists.

The copies of registers which were sent to the Board of Trade are now at TNA in BT 107 - BT 111.

The pages (folios) in the shipping registers at the ports of registry were numbered in sequence, starting again each year, and that could be used to clarify which ship was being referred to. For example, there would have been many ships named Elizabeth, but a particular ship might be referred to as 'Elizabeth, Bristol, 34/1841' meaning that this ship was the 34th ship registered at the port of Bristol in 1841.

Unfortunately, ships were frequently re-registered, for example if they were sold to new owners, perhaps at another port, and were sometimes renamed, so that the 'Margaret, Cardiff, 23/1851' could well be the same ship as the Elizabeth mentioned above. An examination of the shipping registers of Bristol and/or Cardiff would be needed to clarify this. This difficulty was dealt with by the introduction of 'Official Numbers' for each ship.

Shipping register entry for the Ellen & Ann, registered Douglas, 2/1891, ON 20853
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Official numbers

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. It was frequently carved or welded onto a substantial part of the ship’s structure.

The official numbers were allocated by the Registrar General of Shipping. Each Port of Registry 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 register entries were sent to the Registrar General of Shipping who maintained the central Appropriation Books, which formed 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.

The Appropriation Books
The first entries in the Appropriation Books

How to find a ship's official number

The simplest way to find a ship's official number is to use the CLIP finding aids on this site - the most powerful vessel search site, by a long way.

Enter the ship's name, or a part of it, into the CLIP ship 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

These searches use the CLIP ship database, which has data from the Appropriation Books and other records gathered during the CLIP project and currently contains 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. It provides a range of other facilities to aid your search - for example, direct links to other sites which might have data for the name you are searching for.

We are also careful to show the source of each item of data, so that you can check it for yourself (increasingly, by looking at an image of the document). 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!

To check your data, the sources below are the most important, particularly the Mercantile Navy List, which was the only comprehensive printed reference available during the 19th century.

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The Mercantile Navy List

First published in 1849, from 1857 the annual Mercantile Navy List (MNL) lists the official number of every British registered ship afloat at that date, giving details of registry and ownership, and physical details of the ship. It continued until 1977, with a gap during the Second World War.

It is by far the most useful record of British registered shipping, because it is comprehensive - it includes all ships, of any tonnage over 15 tons, whether registered with an insurance company or not. From 1857 to 1872, it is the only printed source of official numbers - Lloyd's Register only began to include them from 1872 onwards.

The data was drawn from the copies of the shipping registers returned to the Board of Trade and returns made by the ports of registry. These sources were themselves sometimes out of date, so an entry in MNL may not be a good indication of whether a ship was still extant at that date. However, used with care, the entries can provide useful clues as to the fate of a ship and changes such as re-registry and changes of name.

Though MNL is a printed source, remember that it is drawn from hand-written entries and as prone to typos as any other source, for example official numbers with digits transposed.

Mercantile Navy List 1870. The Belgium (ON 3) was still afloat

Finding copies of the Mercantile Navy List (MNL)

Unfortunately, MNL is not easy to find. Nearly complete runs of MNL can only be found at the National Maritime Museum (NMM), The National Archives (TNA), Southampton City Library and Falmouth Maritime Museum. Some record offices and large reference libraries have copies, but not complete runs. The PortCities Southampton site has an incomplete list of where the Mercantile Navy List can be found.

It is becoming increasingly easy to find images of MNL online. CLIP provides two links into these images - the CLIP vessel search pages provide assisted access to images of MNL for a particular ship, and the CLIP Mercantile Navy List page is designed to simplify direct access to images of MNL, as described below.

The Mercantile Navy List (MNL) online

CLIP resources include indexed images of the Mercantile Navy List giving easy access to images of 73 of the 84 editions of MNL for the period up to 1940. The images are linked from several sites (with their kind permission) and we have made our own image sets to fill the missing years, so that you can easily search and browse from one edition of MNL to another. We are slowly filling the last gaps in the runs of years.

MNL on other online sites

Google books have scanned a few copies of the MNL 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 have been made available online by the Vaughan Evans Library at the Australian National Maritime Museum digital archive. Their image viewer for MNL is here. The years covered are: 1862, 1883, 1888, 1889, 1892, 1893, 1895, 1896, 1897, 1898, 1904, 1907, 1911, 1917 and 1920.

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Lloyd's Register of Shipping

Lloyd's Register of Shipping is the annual list of ships insured at Lloyd's of London. It included official numbers from 1872 and continues to the present. Lloyd's Register is less useful than MNL for several reasons - it is not 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.

Finding copies of Lloyd's Register of Shipping

Lloyd's Register of Shipping is more widely available than MNL - as well as the large maritime libraries, many large reference libraries have copies, or facsimilies.

The PortCities Southampton site has a list of where Lloyd's Register can be found.

Lloyd's Register of Shipping online

Google books and the Internet Archive have copies of Lloyd’s Register from 1800 onwards. As noted above, the first year which shows official numbers is 1872. The following show official numbers:

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Other registers of ships

Several local registers of ships were compiled including those by insurance underwriters. Some contain official numbers and records of the ship's fate.

Christie's Register, 1858 shows East Coast and Scottish vessels.

Turnbull's Register, 1856 shows vessels from North-East ports, available on the Sunderland site.

Marwood's Directory, 1854 lists ships from Liverpool and other North of England ports. It is available as facsimile, published by the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, and online.

Olsen's Fisherman's Nautical Almanack ran from 1876 to 2000 and has lists of fishing vessels. It can be found in some maritime museums and libraries, but is not available online. For some time, we have been trying to establish who, if anyone, might claim copyright in the publications. If we can clarify the position, we'd consider publishing images of it.

The Mariner's Almanac and Tide Tables has lists of Scottish fishing boats, but unfortunately without official numbers.

Directories and almanacs for coastal towns are likely to have lists of local vessels. For example, Manson's Shetland Almanac, 1892 lists First-class Shetland Fishing Boats, 1891.

The Australian Shipmaster’s Guide, 1858 has a list of vessels registered in Victoria, as well as a large section relating to the Mercantile Shipping Acts - details which are not easy to find elsewhere on-line.

The ANMM site has images of The Register of Australian and New Zealand Shipping for the following years:

18741876-18771893-18941902-19031906-1907191519211922-19231923-19241924-19251925-19261927-19281928-1929

The Appendix to Registry of Nova Scotia Shipping lists vessel registered at Nova Scotia ports from 1 Oct 1865 to 31 Mar 1867

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Ships with no official number

Some ships did not have an official number.

If you are not able to find an official number for a ship, it may be because:

If you are using the CLIP site, or other search pages, remember to check variants of the ship's name and use any fuzzy search facilities which may be available.

Watch our for variants such as St/Saint, and/&, No/Number and Roman numerals used to distinguish ships of the same name.

Crew documents may exist for ships with no official number, but finding them is tricky because most archives use official numbers to catalogue their crew list holdings. CLIP does not include data on crew lists for these ships, for the same reason.

If you can track down an archive which may be holding the documents, you will then need to consult their catalogue, either online or via an enquiry. Archives often separate these documents from the other crew lists, in separate boxes, or in a separate series.

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Records of a ship's ultimate fate

Ships were removed from the British shipping records for a variety of reasons. The obvious one is that the ship had met with some catastrophe - had foundered, been stranded, had sunk as a result of collision, had gone on fire or exploded, or (poignantly) was 'supposed lost'. Other ships might have been sold abroad, left to rot, used as a hulk, used for river work or simply broken up - sometimes for firewood.

It may be important to know when the ship ceased to be registered, for example so that a ship can be ruled out of a list of possible ships that a seafarer sailed on. No central systematic records were kept, but several different sources can be used to discover how and when the ship's service ended.

These records need to be used with a little care.

Ships that foundered in shallow water were sometimes declared as 'total wrecks' and removed from the records, only to be raised, repaired and many continued to sail for years afterwards.

In shipping registers, closures were not always reported promptly, if at all, especially for smaller ships. There were also inevitable delays in moving data to publications such as MNL, which might continue to list a ship which had been sunk for some time.

The names of ships were sometimes changed (though the official number would remain the same) so a ship may seem to disappear from the records when it is just that the name had been changed.

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Newspapers

Victorian newspapers contained much news of shipping. Many papers, even those for places quite far from the sea, carried 'Shipping Intelligence' detailing the arrival or departure of ships at nearby ports. Ship launches and wrecks are often described and also sightings of ships on passage. With a little patience, they make a useful way of gathering information and helping to solve research problems.

Searching is best done using the advanced search which sites provide. We have found that searching for the name of the ship with tight date boundaries and including the word 'Shipping' in the search terms produces a useable number of hits.

The 'Shipping Intelligence' does not contain the ships's official number, nor her port of registry, but the master's name is usually given, for example: 'Mary Jane, Jones, Dublin' means the ship Mary Jane, whose master was Jones sailed for Dublin. Cargoes are sometimes mentioned - something that is usually not easy to find out. If the ship was of any size, reference to Lloyd's Register will help to confirm which ship is being referred to.

For example

Researchers often send CLIP questions. We do not do privately commissioned research, but we are always happy to deal with particular questions and usually learn something ourselves in the process.

Many questions stem from the seamens' registers pre-1855 and the daunting mass of numbers which show a seafarer's voyages.

This record for James Tooth, an apprentice, showed that he deserted at New Orleans on 20 April 1847. The question was, what ship was he sailing on and can the crew list be found? Any surviving crew lists will be at TNA in BT 98, but there is no index to that by ship, even if you knew the name.

Part of the seaman's record codes includes numbers for ports and this record shows three: 29 which is Cork, 77 is Penzance and 62 is Liverpool.

The top line of the codes show the ship - 430.29, so the ship was registered in Cork. The other number, 430 is the 'port rotation number', which is written on the crew list, but does not tell you the ship's name nor tell you which of the three or four TNA document boxes for each year that have to be searched to find it (though the number after the 29 may be a clue). Knowing the ship's name would make the search easier.

The second row of numbers show the ports where the voyages started and ended, and the dates, in port.dd.mm format. So for 1845, there was a voyage which started in Penzance on 29 May and ended in Cork on 30 August. Searching the Cornish and Irish newspapers around those dates produced a list of ships sailing from Penzance and a list of those arriving in Cork. There was one common factor - the ship Lockwoods. Checks via Lloyd's Register showed the Lockwoods was registered at Cork.

Turning to the voyage in 1847 which ended for James Tooth in New Orleans, it began in Liverpool (62) on 14 January 1847. A check on the newspapers turned up the sailings for Liverpool for 14 January 1847 and there was the Lockwoods, sailing for New Orleans.

So the ship he sailed on was the Lockwoods and so her crew lists for 1847 would be in BT98/1193. Our enquirer looked up the document at TNA and there he was. It turned out that he had been one of fourteen men who deserted at New Orleans.

Neat.

Seaman's record showing the codes for voyages
Shipping intelligence for Liverpool, including the Lockwoods
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Other databases online

Many other sites have lists of vessels which show official numbers. Bear in mind that these are secondary sources and the source of their data is not usually made clear. CHECK!

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