The quickest way to find details of a ship is to use the CLIP search page - you can enter the name of the ship and the results will show a summary of the records of that ship, with links to images and further data. Ships by name Advanced search
Alternatively, you can use sources such as the Mercantile Navy List to find ships by name and follow the records of a ship from one year to the next. Mercantile Navy List
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 British registered ships.The information concentrates on the period from 1855 to the 1950s and details which help researchers to identify a ship and particularly her official number, because that is important in locating crew documents.
However, the CLIP site also provides basic data about ships registered prior to 1855 as explained below.
We concentrate as much as possible on primary or contemporary sources, rather than secondary sources such as books and websites.
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: Registration tonnages . For a summary of the legislation which governed British shipping, see: Legislation .
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.
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 closest to the port, or to the National Records of Scotland or to the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). Only a few Irish registers survive at the National Archives of Ireland. The registers for London are held at The National Archives (TNA) in their series 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 entries in the shipping registers at a port of registry were numbered in sequence, starting again at 1 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.
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 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.
These searches use the CLIP ships database, which has data from the Appropriation Books and other records gathered during the CLIP project and currently contains over 794,000 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 (in many cases, by looking at an image of the original 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.
The annual Mercantile Navy List (MNL) was first published in 1849. From 1857 it 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.
MNL is by far the most useful record of British registered shipping, because it is comprehensive - it includes all British registered ships, of any tonnage over 15 tons.
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.
After 1871, MNL was split into two sections: Steam and Sail. In 1921, a section for Motor vessels was added.
For a list of the abbreviations used in MNL for sailing vessels, see the first page of the sail section of each year. For more details and links, see our page, here: Types of sailing ships
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.
The Digital Archives Initiative (DAI) 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, 1940 and 1947.
The editions of MNL on the DAI site are useful because they are searchable pdfs and so can be searched for any data, such as the owner's name.
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.
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 the Bartlett Library at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth. Some archives and large reference libraries have copies, but not complete runs.
Lloyd's Register of Shipping is the annual list of ships classified at Lloyd's of London. It included official numbers from 1872 and continues to the present. To find official numbers, Lloyd's Register is far less useful than MNL for several reasons - it is not comprehensive: only larger ships (over 100 tons or so) are included, so most 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 without it.
Lloyd's Register also shows only the ship's port of registry, without the year and register number, so cross-checking to the shipping registers may not be easy.
However, for the years prior to 1855, Lloyd's Register is the single most useful source of basic information about larger ships.
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.
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.
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 Peter Searle's 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. Images of many editions of Olsen's are now available on the CLIP site.
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:
The Appendix to Registry of Nova Scotia Shipping lists vessel registered at Nova Scotia ports from 1 Oct 1865 to 31 Mar 1867.
American registers of ships list many ships which were, or had been, British registered. Similarly many ships built or registered in America came into British registry, especially in maritime Canada.
Some of the American registers are referred to as American Lloyds and in general all the registers contain details similar to those in the British Lloyd's register. They include official numbers, which (unsurprisingly) often are American official numbers, not British official numbers, so that information has to be treated with great care.
Several sites provide access to the American registers of ships.
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:
Be aware! 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 out for variants such as St/Saint, and/&, No/Number and Roman numerals used to distinguish ships of the same name.
You may not be able to find an official number for foreign ships which were given British registry. For example, enemy ships which were seized after World War I were registered as British ships. They were given an official number and usually a British name. The original name was not recorded in official records.
Remember that CLIP data covers only the period from 1855 to the 1950s. Official numbers were introduced in 1855 and a new series, beginning 300001 started in the 1950s.
Crew documents do exist for ships with no official number, for example, some pilot boats. 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.
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.
Beware! 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.
The shipping registers themselves and the copies that were sent to the Board of Trade usually contain some record of when the ship's registration was closed, and the reason, although there was no specific place on the register for it, so the closure details were often just scrawled across the page diagonally.
The copies of the registers at TNA are held in BT 107 - BT 111. Separated register pages are held in BT 110 - 'Closed registries'. They are catalogued online (with many obvious errors, unfortunately) showing the date when the register was closed and we have included the data in the CLIP ships index.
The Mercantile Navy List can be used to trace the career of a ship by skipping through the records from year to year until the records of that ship disappear. The CLIP image viewer provides the facilities to do this easily.
From 1875 to 1904, the Mercantile Navy List had a section at the end which recorded some of the registrations which had been closed during that year, giving a brief reason. We have included the data in the CLIP ships index.
The Appropriation Books (especially the first two volumes, up to about 1870) have marginal annotations which show changes to the registration of some ships. They are sometimes not easy to decipher, and it is not always clear which entry they refer to. Because of these difficulties, we have not attempted to transcribe them, but the CLIP image viewer provides access to images of the Appropriation Books, indexed by official number.
The Crew Lists and Agreements often provide clues as to the final fate of the ship, if only by finding the last date of the run of lists. Examining the final documents may provide confirmation that this was indeed the end of the ship's life, and perhaps more detail of her final fate.
The Royal Commission on Unseaworthy Ships (1874) was set up in response to public concern, led by Samuel Plimsoll, about the cynical and murderous activities of some ship-owners in sending rotten, overloaded and over-insured ships to sea, with no regard for the lives of their crews. One of the Appendices (from page 536) to the report includes a list of several thousand ships which were lost in the period from 1850 to 1870.
The report is available online courtesy of the Hathi Trust. The CLIP ships index contains data from these appendices.
Copies of these reports covering the years from 1876 to 1980 are held at Southampton City Library. They have been digitised and are available on the Library site. The CLIP ships index contains links to these reports.
The Merchant Shipping (Losses) is a parliamentary report which provides a list and brief details of merchant ships lost during World War I. Unfortunately it does not include official numbers but there is an alphabetic index. It is available online at the Digital Archives Initiative site:
The List of Merchant Ships Wrecked, Broken up or Sold Foreign is part of the Board of Trade records at TNA in BT 167/55. It covers the period 1908 to 1918 and is not available online.
The Lloyd's Register Casualty Returns are quarterly returns of ships totally lost. The ships listed are only those over 100 tons and the ships' official numbers are not shown: instead there is a link to the relevant edition of Lloyd's Register. The documents from 1890 to 2000 have been published online by the Lloyd's Register Foundation. Bear in mind that there are four sections, one for each quarter of the year.
The Dictionary of Disasters at Sea During the Age of Steam, Charles Hocking, (1969) is published by Lloyd's Register of Shipping. This is a secondary source, derived from other sources such as the Board of Trade reports and the Lloyd's Register Casualty Returns. It details the demise of larger naval and merchant vessels of all nations in the period 1824-1962.
Many websites provide the history of individual ships, including their ultimate fate. Sites concentrating on wrecks, such as The Wreck Site and Irish Shipwrecks are likely to be particularly useful, as are newspaper archives and sites which detail the ships built in a particular area. Search engines are always worth a try.
Many records of ships are available for the period before the introduction of official numbers in 1855.
The series BT 111 at TNA contains indexes of the register transcripts (see above) now held at TNA in series BT 107 to BT 110. There are several versions of the index, some of which contain colonial records and one which contains an index for London registered ships, 1824 - 1856. The lists contain similar data to BT 162 (see below) but are generally harder to use. Images of the indexes be downloaded from TNA for free:
CLIP has transcribed the data from some sections of BT 111, covering all the British ports from 1820 to 1856 and also London, 1824 to 1856. The data from these transcripts is included in our search pages for ships:
The series BT 162 at TNA contains annual returns of shipping covering the colonial ports (referred to as the 'Plantation') from the early 1800s up to 1865 and then five-yearly up to 1880. The returns provide only basic information: register number and year; ship's name; tonnage; master's name, together with a note of the closure of the register. Images of the returns can be downloaded from TNA for free:
By working through the returns, year by year, it would be possible to compile a bare-bones reconstruction of early colonial registers which probably no longer exist.
BT 162 also contains annual returns for ships registered in British ports for 1786 to 1792. There are also returns for 1850 which include all British ports except London.
CLIP has transcribed the returns for 1850 - the British ports in BT 162/19 and a selection of Canadian ports in BT 162/20. The data from these transcripts is included in our search pages for ships:
Lloyd's Register of Ships is an important source which provides data back to 1764. However, for this period it includes only ships insured with Lloyd's and therefore few ships under 100 tons are shown. Some ships from colonial ports are included. There are more details here:
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. Many newspapers are now easily available online (see below) and with a little patience, they make a useful way of gathering information and helping to solve research problems.
Searching is best done using any advanced search which the web 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 use-able 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.
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.
The record shown in Figure 4 is for James Tooth, an apprentice. It shows 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 ship's 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. That number is written on the crew list, but (until recently - see below) there was no index, so it does not tell you the ship's name nor which of the three or four TNA document boxes for each year that have to be searched to find it. 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, see Figure 5.
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.
Post-script. Since this was written, CLIP has discovered how the port rotation numbers work and an index of them is now available on this site - see here: Port Rotation Numbers Newspapers are still useful though.
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!
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 269,000 vessels world wide (not just British registered) with over 646,000 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.
These sites (amongst others) have databases of vessels which include official numbers (and in some cases, images):