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. For a summary of the legislation which governed British shipping, see here

The registration was carried by port officials at statutory Ports of Registration around Britain, Ireland and the British Colonies, with copies being sent to central government. The names of the organisations and officials involved have changed over the years, and we have not tried to untangle the detailed terminology: we have referred to the local officers as the port officials and the central government body as the Registry of Shipping and Seamen (RSS).

The information recorded is described below and this was written on a numbered Certificate of Registry which was given to the owners. A copy of the information was recorded in the local shipping register 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.

British registration is now run centrally by the Registry of Shipping and Seamen (RSS) in Cardiff, which is part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Closed registers were transfered from the ports to RSS and in the 1990s all remaining records were computerised. The shipping registers were then returned to the local record offices or archives nearest to the original port of registry, where they remain.

Key dates

1660 Registration of trading vessels by local collectors of Customs began.

1786 General registration began under the Act for the Further Increase and Encouragement of Shipping and Navigation. All British ships of more than 15 tons and with a deck were required to be registered with Customs officers in their home port. Registration of shipping was thus based on a network of Ports of Registry around Britain and throughout her then colonies.

1825The Act for Registering British Vessels required that ownership of vessels be divided into sixty-fourth shares. Ownership and transfers of ownership ('Transactions') were to be noted in the registration documents.

1854 The huge Merchant Shipping Act consolidated many matters relating to merchant shipping. It transferred overall responsibility to the Board of Trade and introduced the system of official numbers for vessels. To deal with these, central ledgers or 'Appropriation Books' were kept.

By the 1960s, the official numbers were approaching 200,000. Numbers over 200,000 had already been used for American shipping, so the next run of British official numbers began at 300,000. They were recorded initially in a further set of six ledgers and are now recorded digitally.

Finding registers

You can search CLIP data for the present location of the registers either by port or by archive. Follow these links. The CLIP data also shows holdings of crew lists.

Those for London are at The National Archives (TNA) in class CUST 130.

For ports in Scotland, most registers are held at archives close to the port. The remainder are at the National Archives of Scotland.

Only a few registers for Irish ports seem to have survived and are held at the National Archives of Ireland.

The Canadian registers are held by Library and Archives Canada. They have all been digitised and are available online - see our page which provides links to the images.

The Maritime History Archive (MHA) in St John's, Newfoundland has microfilm of records for many ports including Canadian ones.

The Australian registers are held by the National Archives of Australia. They have all been digitised and are available online - see our page which provides links to the images.

The situation for Crown Dependencies such as the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey, which are not part of the UK, is different. It is likely that most will have retained their registers, as the Isle of Man has.

The copies of the certificates of registration (transcripts) which were held by the Registry of Shipping and Seamen are now at TNA in the following record series:

TNA reference Title Years
BT 107Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Transcripts and Transactions, Series I 1786-1854
BT 108Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Transcripts and Transactions, Series II, Transcripts1855-1889
BT 109Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Transcripts and Transactions, Series III, Transactions1890-1998
BT 110Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Transcripts and Transactions, Series IV, Closed Registries 1855-1889
BT 111Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Transcripts and Transactions, Indexes to Transcripts1786-1907

For more information, see TNA's help file

What is in the shipping registers?

The shipping registers contain information about:

The registers themselves are large bound volumes, containing up to two hundred or so pages (referred to as folios) and covering several years of registration and transactions. The records are set out one vessel to a folio with further records for that ship added in later folios. In early registers, the entries are on the front and back of one page: on later records, the entry covers facing pages. Both styles are referred to, and numbered, as folios.

Initial registration

When a new ship was first registered, official measurement of the ship was made by the 'Tide Surveyor', and the owners and builder provided information, so the register shows:

  • the name of the ship
  • the owners' names, occupations and addresses
  • the master's name
  • the date and place of building
  • type of ship (sail or steam and, in the case of steam, whether paddle or screw)
  • number of masts and the rig
  • for steam ships, description and measurements of the engines
  • measurements of length and breadth and depth of hold
  • tonnage
  • a description of the hull, including the figurehead

A glance at one of our transcripts or, if possible, the registers themselves will help to clarify this.

The register entries were numbered, starting afresh each year, which gives a reference to the ship of the form: Douglas 12/1832, meaning the 12th new entry in the Douglas registers for 1832. Because ships were often re-registered, each ship could have several different references of this sort.

From 1855 the registers also record the ship's official number, which was a unique number between 1 and 200,000. It was allocated to all ships afloat at that date at whichever port they first called, and reported back to her home port. Ships registered subsequently were allocated a number at the time of registration. The number was carved into a substantial part of the ships, such as the main bulkhead, and stayed with her throughout her life.


Ships were registered if they were over fifteen tons gross and had a deck.

Measurements were made in feet as specified by the regulations. On early registers, the fractions were in inches but after 1836 in tenths of a foot.

The vessel's tonnage was calculated from the measurements using officially laid-down formulae, rather than measured directly. Register tonnage is essentially a measurement of what the ship could carry in enclosed space - ie under a deck. In early registers, the tonnages include odd fractions such as 1/94 and later 1/3500: still later ones use decimal fractions. The most important distinction is between gross tonnage and net or register tonnage which included an allowance for the volume occupied by the engine room on steamships. The registered tonnage is the lower figure. For more information, see this article.

The system of measurement changed several times, so register pages often record several different tonnages. In CLIP transcriptions from shipping registers, we have recorded what appears to be the earliest, to the whole ton.


Ownership of the ship was divided into 64 shares, but with a limit to the total number of owners. Ownership was described as shares, for example 8 shares, meaning 8/64ths of the ownership. Shares were often owned jointly. They were sold, mortgaged, bequeathed etc as described below under 'transactions'. Apart from the amount of mortgages, the sums involved in transactions are rarely shown.

Though the overall pattern of the registers remained substantially the same over the century, changes in legislation and regulations resulted in variations in the format of the registers and the information entered. Changes include:

Closing the register

The register was closed when the ship came to the end of her life, was sold on, or there was a change in subscribing owner. There was no specific place allocated for closure on the registration forms and it was usually written across the form in red ink. In some cases there are full details of the closure, including the date, place and reasons for the ship's demise: in other cases, there is just a brief note that the ship sank years ago, or no closure details at all.

The entry could also be closed if the registration was transferred to another port or the ship was re-registered de novo at the same port (for example after extensive modifications or change of ownership). The entries for re-registrations usually show a cross-reference for the previous registration.


Over the years, the changes of ownership of the ship were recorded as transactions, with the first few on the same page as the registration details and subsequent ones on fresh pages for that ship, cross-referenced to the previous and subsequent ones. Once the register volume was full, additional transactions were recorded in a separate volume devoted just to transactions.

The owners disposing of their shares are shown, with the names, addresses and occupations of the new owners. Against this, the new overall ownership of the ship is recorded.

Types of transaction

The most common form of transaction is a Bill of Sale formalising the sale of shares by one or more of the owners. Other transactions include the granting and release of mortgages and the execution of wills or letters of administration in the case of deaths. Prior to the Married Women's Property Act of 1882, they include the transfer of a woman's shares to her husband on marriage. There are also examples of the seizure of shares under court orders and their subsequent sale.

Other entries

The registers also record changes of the ship's name, and the previous name if the change was made on re-registration. Thus the same ship could have several different names and port references, so Annie, Bristol 4/1832 and Bessie, Beaumaris 12/1835 could well be the same vessel - only a check with one or both registers would tell. Of course, after the 1850s, the ship would have an official number which would not change on re-registration.

For ships first registered before 1855, the register is likely to record the allocation of the ship's official number during the late 1850s. This may have taken place at another port, and notified to her port of registry. After this period, official numbers were allocated on first registration.

Fishing boat registers

These registers detail the fishing boats licensed at the port, and the port letter and fishing number allocated to them. Fishing numbers are usually in the range 1 to 1500 and were re-used when a ship's licence ended. Fishing boats were classified as first, second or third class. Some of the fishing vessels listed were larger ships which also appear in the shipping registers. For more detail, see this link:

Other documents

The records of a port of registry commonly include:

Isle of Man Shipping Registers

CLIP made images and transcripts of the shipping registers for the Isle of Man ports and there are further details about these registers and the project via the link to the right.

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