Family history research

Find out about your family history at sea using resources available in the National Maritime Museum's Library and Archive. 

Tracing people who served or travelled on ships can be a complex task and you may need to consult a range of different resources - our records can help you search:
  • members of the Merchant Navy and Royal Navy
  • vessels and voyages​

Visiting the Caird Library

Tracing your family history: Merchant Navy records

The Caird Library and Archive holds many useful resources for tracing people who were involved in the Merchant Navy. The materials we hold include:

Births, deaths and marriages at sea

  • Crew records

  • Officers' records

  • Shipowner records

Please note that systematic records about ships and people who served in the Merchant Navy before 1860 are rare. Lists of passengers pre-1890 are also limited and ceased to be kept centrally in 1960. Many lists are also held overseas. To succeed in your search, you will need to consult a lot of different records.

Crew Lists of the British Merchant Navy 1915

You can search the Crew Lists 1915 website to find seafaring relatives and loved ones in our database of approximately 39,000 crew lists, which includes digitised images of the original crew list documents.

Search Crew Lists 1915

Tracing your family history: Royal Navy records

Royal Navy personnel records are kept at the National Archives, some of which are available online. Resources available to start your research include:

  • Centralised records of naval rating, post-1853: Few centralised records of naval ratings (ie. those who were not commissioned officers or warrant officers) were kept before 1853

  • Muster roll and crew lists pre-1853: Notes where each seaman was before and after his service on a Royal Navy ship. You can track most people backwards and forwards from this point. You will need to know the name of a seaman's ship in order to look him up

  • Records of Greenwich Seamen's Hospital and other hospitals: Includes pensions and grants received, plus medals awarded up to the end of the 19th century

  • Records of commissioned officers, warrant officers, tradesmen: Records begin in the 18th century, however no systematic service records for individual officers were attempted before 1840

Royal Navy First World War Lives At Sea

This unique free resource derived mainly from transcriptions of service records lets you search for information about Royal Navy officers and ratings who served during the First World War. You can also find out more about the crews on different ships and at different battles during the war.

Search Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea

Resources available in the Caird Library and Archive

The Caird Library and Archive at the National Maritime Museum can advise on the location of Royal Navy records and help you find out more about the vessels on which seamen served.

We also hold many printed resources to assist your research, such as the Navy List and Naval Biographies. Our Maritime records can add considerable detail about the seafaring activities of an individual, adding depth to your understanding of their life experience.

Lieutenant's logs: Kept by the lieutenants of a ship in commission, includes records of weather, navigation and routine of the ship, plus incidents that occurred during the commission.

Steel's Navy List (editions from 1787-1816): Lists officers, ships and establishments including officers of Sea Fencibles before 1810. Miscellaneous intelligence reports, vessels captured and prize money awards.

Lean's Navy List (editions from 1878-1916): Information on officers alphabetically and by seniority. Provides date of birth information for officers and short biographies of their service and decorations. Gives lists of ships and establishments with serving officers.

Navy Lists (editions from 1814 to date): Records officers (retired and active) and ships, where ships were stationed, pay scales and uniform regulations.

Useful books

  • Biographia Navalis, by Charnock, J. 

  • Royal Naval Biography, by Marshall, J.

  • A Naval Biographical Dictionary, by O'Byrne, W. R. 

  • Naval Records for Genealogists, by Rodger, N. A. M. 

  • The Commissioned Sea Officers of the Royal Navy 1660-1815, by Syrett, David 

Maritime Memorials

Search our memorial database containing records of over 5000 church, cemetery and public memorials to seafarers and victims of maritime disasters.

Search Maritime Memorials

Research guides

These guides can help you get started on your research at the Caird Library and Archive at the National Maritime Museum. They will assist you in using maritime records to discover more about your ancestors, family history or famous people.

Explore our research guides

Royal Navy

Research guide B1: The Royal Navy - Tracing people

Research guide B3: The Royal Navy - Sources for enquiries

Research guide B6: The Royal Navy - Administrative records

Merchant Navy

Research guide C1: The Merchant Navy - Tracing people - Crew lists, agreements and official logs

Research guide C2: The Merchant Navy - Tracing people: Master mariners, mates and engineers

Research guide C4: The Merchant Navy - Sources for enquiries

Research guide C6: The Merchant Navy - The Mercantile Navy List

Research guide C9: The Merchant Navy - World War One

Research guide C10: The Merchant Navy - World War Two

Research guide C11: The Merchant Navy - The Handy Shipping Guide

Research guide C13: The Merchant Navy - Tracing merchant seamen: Sources of information in the National Maritime Museum

Tracing a passenger

Research guide G1: Passengers - Sources for enquiries

Research guide G3: Passengers - Ships sailing to Australia and New Zealand

Other useful research guides

Research guide A2: Principal records for maritime research at the National Maritime Museum

Research guide A3: Tracing family history from maritime records

Research guide E2: World War Two - The Dunkirk List

Research guide F1: Shipping Companies - Records held by The National Maritime Museum

Research guide G1: Sources for enquiries

Research guide H3: Lloyd's - Lloyd's Captains' registers

Using our collections for research

The Caird Library and Archive is the most extensive resource in the world for researching maritime history.  

Located at the National Maritime Museum in London, it holds manuscripts, books, periodicals, letters, diaries and journals. There are around 6,000 books and printed resources available to study on open access shelves. Find out more about how you can use our collections for research.

Find out how use our collections for research

Useful resources elsewhere

The National Archives

The Guildhall Library's Lloyd's Captains Registers

General Register Office of Ireland

Crew List Index Project

Mariners' mailing list

Ancestry

The Ships' List: Marriages at Sea

Findmypast.com

Family History Indexes

Guildhall Library

Guildhall Library Manuscripts

The London Gazette

Maritime History Archive

Database of Welsh mariners - masters, mates and engineers

Society of Australian Genealogists