Research guide C12: The Merchant Navy: Ship registration and Custom House records

This guide outlines the history of ship registration in Britain, from the mid 17th century until 1857, when the official Mercantile Navy List was first published. It also explains where to find transcripts of ship registers from Custom Houses throughout the British Isles.

Ship registration

Before 1786, there were no central government records of ship registration, although ships began to be registered around the middle of the 17th century.

  • 1661: Foreign-built ships were required to register with Custom Houses in order to obtain the same trading privileges as British-built ships.
  • 1695: British-built ships also had to register before trading to or from the colonies. This was later extended to ships importing wool from Ireland.
  • 1786: The Merchant Shipping Act (1786) required all British ships of more than 15 tons to register with Customs in their home port. A copy, known as a transcript of each entry was sent to the Custom House in London or Edinburgh.
  • 1814: Fire in the London Custom House destroyed all the early transcripts sent from other ports. However, registration books for the Port of London itself survive, as do some local records kept by Custom Houses at other ports (see below).
  • 1835: The official method of calculating tonnage was revised; for steamships, engine-room space was deducted.
  • 1854: The Merchant Shipping Act (1854) introduced official numbers for all newly-registered ships and further revised calculations of tonnage.
  • 1855: New measurement became compulsory for any ship re-registered or transferred to a different registry.
  • 1857: The first generally-available Mercantile Navy List was published, covering all ships registered in Britain or at Empire (subsequently Commonwealth) ports, and was issued each year until 1976.

Custom House ship registers

England and Wales (A–H)  | England and Wales (I–W)  | Rest of UK

Transcripts of ship registers made at every Custom House in Britain, 1814 onwards, should be found at The National Archives (see London, below); these include transcripts from Custom Houses in the South of Ireland until 1922. A list of Custom Houses for England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, along with the dates for which they have ship registration records, is given below:

England and Wales (A–H)

Aberystwyth (1824–1925)
Ceredigion Archives, Swyddfa'r Sir, Marine Terrace, Aberystwyth, SY23 2DE
Tel: 01970 633697/8
Website: Ceredigion Archives.

Aldeburgh (1824–1845)
(see Ipswich)

Appledore (1786–1908)
(see Barnstaple)

Arundel (1824–1855)
(see Chichester)

Barnstaple (1824–1906)
North Devon Record Office, Barnstaple Library & Record Office, Tuly Street, Barnstaple, EX31 1EL
Tel: 01271 388607/8
Fax: 01271 388608
Website: North Devon Record Office.

Barrow (1868–1925)
Cumbria Record Office and Local Studies Library, 140 Duke Street, Barrow in Furness, Cumbria, LA14 1XW
Tel: 01229 894377
Fax: 01229 894364
Website: Cumbria Record Office and Local Studies Library.

Berwick (1824–1910)
Berwick-upon-Tweed Record Office, Borough Council Offices, Wallace Green, Berwick-upon-Tweed, TD15 1ED
Tel: 01289 301865
Fax: 01289 330540
Website: Berwick-upon-Tweed Record Office.

Bideford (1786– )
(see Bristol (1786–1831))
(see Barnstaple (1831– ))

Blyth (1897– )
Northumberland Record Office, Melton Park, North Gosforth, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE3 5QX
Tel: 0191 236 2680
Fax: 01289 330540
Website: Northumberland Record Office.

Boston (1827– )
Lincolnshire Archives, St Rumbold Street, Lincoln, LN2 5AB
Tel: (+44) 01522 525158
Fax: 01522 530047
Website: Lincolnshire Archives.

Bridgwater (1786–1906)
Somerset Archive and Record Office, Obridge Road, Taunton, TA2 7PU
Tel: +44 (0)1823 278805
Fax: 01823 325402
Website: Somerset Archive and Record Office.

Bridport (1832–1880)
(see Lyme Regis)

Bristol (1824– )
Bristol Record Office, 'B' Bond Warehouse, Smeaton Road, Bristol, BS1 6XN
Tel: 0117 922 4224
Fax: 0117 922 4236
Website: Bristol Record Office.

Brixham (1864–1905)
(see Exeter)

Caernarfon (1840– )
Caernarfon Record Office, County Offices, Caernarfon, LL55 1SH
Tel: 01286 679095
Fax: 01286 679637
Website: Caernarfon Record Office.

Cardiff (1824–1932)
Glamorgan Record Office, The Glamorgan Building, King Edward VII Avenue, Cathays Park, Cardiff, CF1 3NE
Tel: +44 (0)2920 780282
Website: Glamorgan Record Office.

Cardigan (1824– )
Pembrokeshire Record Office, The Castle, Haverfordwest, SA61 2EF
Tel: +44 (0)1437 763707
Fax: 01437 768539
Website: Pembrokeshire Record Office.

Carlisle (1786–1886)
Cumbria Record Office, The Castle, Carlisle, CA3 8UR
Tel: 01228 607285
Fax: 01228 707274
Website: Cumbria Record Office and Local Studies Library.

Carmarthen (1839–1849)
Carmarthenshire Archives Service, Parc Myrddin, Richmond Terrace, Carmarthen, SA31 1DS
Tel: 01267 228232
Fax: 01267 228237
Website: Carmarthenshire Archives Service.

Chepstow (1786–1881)
(see Gloucester)

Chichester (1837–1852)
West Sussex Record Office, County Hall, West Street, Chichester, PO19 1RN
Tel: +44 (0)1243 753600
Fax: 01243 533959
Website: West Sussex Record Office.

Cley (1839–1853)
(see King's Lynn)

Colchester (1786–1849)
Essex Record Office, Wharf Road, Chelmsford, Essex
Tel: +44 (0)1245 244644
Fax: 01245 244644
Website: Essex Record Office.

Cowes (1786– )
Isle of Wight County Record Office, 26 Hillside, Newport, Isle of Wight, PO30 2EB
Tel: +44 (0)1983 823820
Fax: 01983 823820
Website: Isle of Wight Record Office

Dartmouth (1824–1900)
(see Exeter)

Deal (1824– )
Centre for Kentish Studies, Sessions House, County Hall, Maidstone, ME14 1QX
Tel: (+44) 01622 694363
Fax: 01622 694379
Website: Centre for Kentish Studies.

Dover (1824– )
(see Deal)

Exeter (1786–1934)
Devon Record Office, Great Moor House, Bittern Road, Sowton, Exeter, EX2 7NL
Tel: +44 (0)1392 384253
Website: Devon Record Office.

Falmouth (1842– )
(see Truro)

Faversham (1824– )
(see Deal)

Fleetwood (1897– )
(see Preston)

Folkestone (1855– )
(see Deal)

Fowey (1786– )
(see Truro)

Gloucester (1824– )
Gloucester Archives, Clarence Row, Alvin Street, Gloucester, GL1 3DW
Tel: +44 (0)1452 425295
Website: Gloucester Archives.

Goole (1828– )
East Riding of Yorkshire Archive Service, County Hall, Beverley, East Riding of Yorkshire, HU17 9BA
Tel: 01482 393939
Fax: 01482 393375
Website: East Riding of Yorkshire Archive Service.

Grimsby (1824–1918)
(see Boston)

Hartlepool (1845– )
(see Middlesbrough)

Hartlepool West (1860– )
(see Middlesborough)

Harwich (1824–1884)
(see Colchester)

Hull (1804–1902)
Hull City Archives, 79 Lowgate, Kingston-Upon-Hull, HU1 1HN
Tel: 01482 615102/110
Website: Hull City Archives.

England and Wales (I–W)

Ilfracombe (1824–1837)
(see Barnstaple)

Ipswich (1824– )
Suffolk Record Office, Gatacre Road, Ipswich, IP1 2LQ
Tel: 01473 584541
Fax: 01473 584533
Website: Suffolk Record Office.

King's Lynn (1836–1922)
Norfolk Record Office, The Archive Centre, Martineau Lane, Norwich, NR1 2DQ
Tel: (0)1603 222599
Fax: (0)1603 761885
Website: Norfolk Record Office.

Lancaster (1786–1905)
(see Barrow)

Littlehampton (1855– )
(see Chichester)

Liverpool (1739–1890)
Merseyside Maritime Museum, Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AA
Tel: +44 (0)151 478 4499
Website: Merseyside Maritime Museum.

(see Carmarthen)

London (1786– )
The National Archives, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, TW9 4DU
Tel: +44 (0)20 8876 3444
Website: The National Archives.

Lowestoft (1852–1946)
Suffolk Record Office, Clapham Road, Lowestoft, NR32 1DR
Tel: 01502 405357
Fax: 01502 405350
Website: Suffolk Record Office.

Lyme Regis (1786–1880)
Dorset County Record Office, Bridport Road, Dorchester, DT1 1RP
Tel: +44 (0)1305 250550
Fax: 01305 257184
Website: Dorset History Centre.

Malden (1786–1920)
Essex Record Office, Wharf Road, Chelmsford, CM2 6YT
Tel: +44 (0)1245 244644
Website: Essex Record Office.

Manchester (1894– )
Manchester Archives and Local Studies, Central Library, St Peter's Square, Manchester, M2 5PD
Tel: +44 (0)161 234 1979
Fax: 0161 234 1927
Website: Manchester Archives and Local Studies.

Maryport (1838– )
(see Carlisle)

Middlesbrough (1861– )
Teesside Archives, Exchange House, 6 Marton Road, Middlesbrough, TS1 1DB
Tel: +44 (0)1642 248321
Fax: 01642 248391
Website: Teesside Archives.

Milford Haven (1827– )
(see Cardigan)

Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1786–1872)
Tyne & Wear Archives Service, Blandford House, Blandford Square, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE1 4JA
Tel: +44 (0)191 277 2248
Fax: 0191 230 2614
Website: Tyne & Wear Archives Service.

Newhaven (1856–1895)
East Sussex Record Office, The Maltings, Castle Precincts, Lewes, BN17 1YT
Tel: 01273 482349
Fax: 01273 482341
Website: East Sussex Record Office.

Newport (1824– )
Gwent Archives, Steelworks Road, Ebbw Vale, Blaenau Gwent, NP23 6DN
Tel: 01495 353362
Website: Gwent Archives

Padstow (1824– )
(see Truro)

Penzance (1786– )
(see Truro)

Plymouth (1824–1920)
Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, Unit 3 Clare Place, Plymouth, PL4 0JW
Tel: (+44) 01752 305940
Website: Plymouth and West Devon Record Office.

Poole (1855–1893)
(see Lyme Regis)

Portsmouth (1824– )
Hampshire Record Office, Sussex Street, Winchester, Hampshire, SO23 8TH
Tel: +44 (0)1962 846154
Website: Hampshire Record Office.

Port Talbot (1917– )
(see Swansea)

Preston (1786– )
Lancashire Record Office, Bow Lane, Preston, Lancashire, PR1 2RE
Tel: +44 (0)1722 263039
Fax: 01772 533050
Website: Lancashire Record Office.

Pwlheli (1840–1851)
(see Caernarfon)

Ramsgate (1850– )
(see Deal)

Rochester (1824– )
(see Deal)

Runcorn (1862– )
Cheshire and Chester Archives and Local Studies Service, Cheshire Record Office, Duke Street, Chester, Cheshire, CH1 1RL
Tel: +44 (0)1244 602574
Website: Cheshire and Chester Archives and Local Studies Service.

Rye (1855–1946)
(see Newhaven)

St Ives (1786– )
(see Truro)

Salcombe (1867–1918)
(see Exeter)

Sandwich (1786–1849)
(see Deal)

Scarborough (1781– )
North Yorkshire County Record Office, County Hall, Malpas Road, Northallerton, DL7 8AF
Tel: +44 (0)1609 777585
Fax: 01609 777078
Website: North Yorkshire County Record Office.

Scilly (1786– )
(see Truro)

Shields, North (1866–1931)
(see Newcastle upon Tyne)

Shields, South (1859–1891
(see Newcastle upon Tyne)

Shoreham (1821– )
(see Littlehampton)

Southampton (1855– )
(see Portsmouth)

Stockton (1838– )
(see Middlesborough)

Sunderland (1786–1915)
(see Newcastle upon Tyne)

Swansea (1824– )
West Glamorgan Archive Service, County Hall, Oystermouth Road, Swansea, SA1 3SN
Tel: +44 (0)1792 636589
Website: West Glamorgan Archive Service.

Teignmouth (1853–1939)
(see Exeter)

Truro (1824– )
Cornwall Record Office, County Hall, Truro, TR1 3AY
Tel: (+44) 01872 323127
Fax: 01872 322292
Website: Cornwall Record Office.

Wells (1832–1859)
(see King's Lynn)

Weymouth (1786–1913)
(see Lyme Regis)

Whitby (1786– )
(see Scarborough)

Whitehaven (1786– )
(see Carlisle)

Wisbech (1836–1854)
(see King's Lynn)

Woodbridge (1786–1880)
(see Ipswich)

Workington (1839– )
(see Carlisle)

Yarmouth (1834–1886)
(see King's Lynn)

Rest of the UK


Registers should have been transferred to Scottish regional record offices, but some volumes are held by local history societies. The regional record office should be able to advise on the current location for any Custom House in its area. Any queries regarding Registers of Shipping should be directed to:

The West Search Room
National Archives of Scotland
West Register House
Charlotte Square
EH12 4DF
Tel: +44 (0)131 535 1400
Fax: 0131 535 1430


Dublin ship registers were destroyed in 1920, but transcripts of these and other ship registers for the South of Ireland until 1922 are held by the National Archives (see London, above). Ship registers for Northern Ireland are held by:

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
66 Balmoral Avenue
Tel: +44 (0)28 9025 5905
Fax: 028 9025 5999

Transcripts are available in:

The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum
BT18 0EU
Tel: +44 (0)28 9042 8428

Isle of Man

Ship registers are held by:

The Manx Museum
Kingswood Grove
Isle of Man
Tel: +44 (0)1624 648000

The Caird Library holds registers for the following Isle of Man ports:

  • Douglas, 1824–1908
  • Derbyhaven, 1824–1853
  • Castletown, 1824–1947
  • Ramsey, 1824–1900 (except 1856–1876)
  • Peel, 1824–1953 (except for the period 1850–1863)

Channel Islands


Ship registers 1803 to the present day are held at:

The Registry Office
Jersey Harbour Department
Maritime House
La Route du Port Elizabeth
St Helier


A number of the original Register ledgers from 1895–1922 are missing. Registers after 1922 are held at:

The States of Guernsey Registry of British Ships
Registry of British Ships
P.O. Box 631
St Julian's Emplacement
St Peter Port
GY1 3DL.

Tel: 01481 720229
Fax: 01481 705824 / 714177

Next steps

Other guides in the series which may be useful for researching the Merchant Navy are:

For general research help see:

Although care has been taking in preparing the information contained in this document, anyone using it shall be deemed to indemnify the National Maritime Museum from any and all injury or damage arising from such use.

© National Maritime Museum 1998. All rights reserved.

Last updated November 2007

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