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Research guide C13: The Merchant Navy: Tracing merchant seamen: Sources of information in the National Maritime Museum
This Research guide should be used in conjunction with Research guides C1 and C2. It gives further details of records in the National Maritime Museum relating to merchant seamen, useful to genealogists or family historians.
You can search the Library and manuscripts collections via our online catalogue.
The majority of records relating to merchant seamen are with The National Archives, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU. These include the First, Second and Third Registers of Merchant Seamen's service, 1835–1856. There are no registers between 1856 and 1914.
The Fourth Register covers the period 1914–1940 and is on microfiche. Southampton City Archives hold the original records of the Central Index Register of Merchant Seamen 1918–1941, and crew lists 1863–1913. Registers 1941–1972 are with The National Archives; 1999–2002 are with the Registry of Shipping and Seamen. Records for individual seamen were not kept between 1973–1999.
However the National Maritime Museum has records that will be of use to the family historian, although it is worth bearing in mind that, apart from the Marine Society archive (see below), the Museum has no records relating to merchant seamen before 1860. We hold crew lists for the following years only: 1861, 1862, 1865, 1875, 1885, 1895, 1905, 1915, 1925, 1935, 1955, 1965, 1975, 1985, and 1995.
The National Archives
Surrey TW9 4DU
Tel: +44 (0)20 8876 3444
Registry of Shipping and Seamen
Cardiff CF24 5JW
Tel: +44 (0)29 20448800
Fax: 029 20448820
Marine Society, 18th–20th centuries
The Marine Society was founded in 1756 by Jonas Hanway to provide poor or destitute boys willing to go to sea, with clothing and a place on board a ship. Boys entered both the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy. From 1786 boys were prepared for sea aboard a training ship; in 1862, the Warspite, a third-rate built in 1807 was obtained from the Admiralty and although she has been replaced by other vessels, the name was retained. The Marine Society is still in existence today and their records are on loan to this museum.
The records include Registers of Apprentices sent to Merchant Ships 1772–1950. The information contained in these includes name of boy, age and height, former employment, and the name of the master and ship to which the boy was sent.
These are covered more fully in guide C1.The museum holds crew lists of British registered merchant ships for voyages undertaken in the years 1861–1862, then for the years ending in 'five', the most recent being 1995. Information relating to 19th century merchant seamen included in these crew lists, is age of crew member, country of origin, rank and the names of previous ships served on. The logbooks of the ships may also give details of the fate of crew members such as death, disappearance or desertion. The logbook and crew list are filed together, although not all logbooks have survived.
Cooks' Certificate Registers, 1915–1958
These are arranged in order of certificate number, and give information on a persons' name, place of birth, when they gained the certificate, any awards received, cause of death if applicable, and sometimes other miscellaneous comments. Please note that the Museum does not hold the actual certificates.
Registers of Engineers' Certificates of Passing and Renewals, 1905–1930
The Registers are lists of engineers who were awarded certficates or had their certificates renewed between 1905–1930. The lists are arranged in order of certificate number, not alphabetically by surname. Therefore an engineer cannot be traced in these registers without knowing his certificate number.
Returns of Deaths, 1914–1919
The Returns actually cover births as well as deaths, giving details supplied by the ship's master of the member of crew or passenger concerned, and the event, plus a transcript of the relevant entry from the logbook. These are filed in separate folders, each covering the returns for one month. Within each folder, the Returns are in alphabetical order by name of the ship. The Returns were discontinued for a time after 1919, being succeeded by the Lists, Casualties and Deaths 1920–1938, divided into two sequences for merchant ships and fishing vessels.
Returns of Deaths of Seamen, 1920–1938
These Returns consist of two boxes of printed returns which were published monthly from the Registrar General's information. The information is listed alphabetically by deceased's surname. Also listed are ship name, official number, date, place and cause of death.
Deaths of Crewmen, January 1914–1960s
These contain forms giving personal details of the crewman and circumstances of his death, which sometimes include a Coroner's Report. Correspondence from UK consulates may also be included if a death occurred overseas.
Death by Enemy Action, 1939–1945
A card index arranged alphabetically by name of seaman, containing a person's address, rank, date, place and cause or supposed cause of death; ship's name and official number.
Death by Natural Causes, 1939–1945
A card index arranged alphabetically by name of seaman, which gives a person's birthplace, rank, date and place of death, and cause if known, together with the ship's name and official number.
Record of Merchant Navy Reserve Pool for WWII
In 1940, a Merchant Navy Reserve Pool of labour was set up to reduce delays in ships sailing. This offered seamen continuous, instead of casual employment. The records consist of lists of seamen arranged alphabetically, containing surname, date of birth, last ship and rank, nearest relative and date of acceptance into the reserve pool. The records contain some applications for identity cards, some of which may have a passport size photograph of the seaman attached.
In addition, the museum holds the archives of many shipping companies, some of which include personnel records. Listed below are the company records we hold, which include personnel records:
British India Steam Navigation Company
Records of commanders, officers, engineers, cadets and stewards 1868–1957 are contained in 40 volumes.
Officers' records of service covering masters, mates, officers, cadets, chief stewards and engineers 1942–1969, plus records of staff serving in HM Forces c.1939–1950
War Honours 1939–1945 to members of staff ashore and afloat.
Devitt and Moore
Records relating to officers and cadets including lists of ships' officers and cadets 1864–1916, Registers of Apprentices 1868–1899, 1902–03, 1906–1917 and Registers of Midshipmen 1897–1917.
General Steam Navigation Company
Employee Record of Service book, containing entries on date of commencement, advances, monies paid etc., in respect of all staff, sea-going and shore based c.1850–1914.
Staff records include: officers' registers 1849–1957; engineers' registers, 1845–1957; stewards' registers 1891–1940 and petty officer' registers, 1900–1949. Apart from giving details of individuals' entry into the company and listing their subsequent appointments, these registers will usually contain a reference to a man's ability and conduct. There is also a 'Death Book' which records the deaths of P&O sea staff with the cause of death, 1848–1922.
New Zealand Shipping Company
Registers of Captains 1897–1956, Registers of Officers and Engineers 1901–1923, 1923–1933. Register of Engineers 1929–1938, Register of Stewards in Charge 1912–1950, Surgeons Register 1919–1947.
Orient Steam Navigation Company
Stewards–Report on Character (no index) 1884–1926, War records, POW's etc 1939–1945 and Lists of Officers and Engineers of the Fleet 1927–1937.
Please note that the majority of these records are not on-site but are stored at an out-station. Please contact our Manuscript Section in advance if you wish to view.
- My Ancestor was a Merchant Seaman, C. Watts and M. J. Watts (Society of Genealogists, 1998) 930.233.1 (422.1)
- Sailors: English Merchant Seamen, 1650–1775, Peter Earle (Methuen, 1998) 656.61.071.22 (A social and economic history of the lives of English merchant seamen in the 17th and 18th centuries)
- A New History of British Shipping, R. Hope (J Murray, 1990) 656.61(42) (A history of British merchant shipping.)
- Seedies List of Awards to the Merchant Navy for WWII (Ripley Registers, 1997) 355.134: 656.61
The National Archives
Surrey TW9 4DU
Tel: 020 8876 3444
London EC2P 2EJ
Tel: 020 7606 3030
The Registry of Shipping and Seamen
Cardiff CF24 5JW
Tel: 02920 448800
Fax: 029 20448820
The Maritime History Archive
Memorial University of Newfoundland
Newfoundland A1C 5S7
For general research help see:
- Research guide A2: Principal records for maritime research at the National Maritime Museum
- Research guide A3: Tracing family history from maritime records
- Research guide A5: Picture research at the National Maritime Museum
Although care has been taken 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 2001. All rights reserved.
Last updated April 2006
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF
Tel: +44 (0)20 8858 4422 ~ Fax: +44 (0)20 8312 6632