Research guide C4: The Merchant Navy: Sources for enquiries


There are many sources, both printed and manuscript, that can assist with research into aspects of the merchant navy. Which of these is most useful, in any particular case, will depend on the research being undertaken, e.g.

  • Merchant ships and shipping companies
  • Merchant navy officers and seamen
  • Merchant navy activities in the First and Second World Wars

The National Maritime Museum holds a range of material that may assist and is especially strong in its collection of published works. Details of these, together with archive material, may be found from the Library catalogue and the Archive catalogue. Researchers may also find it useful to consult the Prints and Drawings Catalogue.

Further guidance on material in the Archive and Library collections at the National Maritime Museum, categorised by subject, is to be found in the range of Research Guides. A list of the most relevant is below under 'Next Steps'.

Despite the depth and breadth of its collection, the material held by the National Maritime Museum will probably need to be supplemented by material held elsewhere. This guide lists places which, like the National Maritime Museum, have records and information that will help you research various aspects of mercantile history:

Boats and barges that plied the inland waterways did not fall within the scope of the legislation controlling merchant shipping and so researchers should not expect to find records of them there. The best starting point for research into those topics is The Waterways Archive.

County and local record offices

Many county record offices and local archives in the UK hold material related to shipping in their area. Amongst this may be found local ship registration documents maintained by Customs officials. Some also hold agreements, crew lists, and official log books related to ships registered in their area (1863–1913) other than those held by The National Archives and the National Maritime Museum. A list of those record offices holding crew lists is to be found in the National Archive’s Research Guide Merchant Seamen: Log books, Agreements and Crew Lists after 1861. More detailed listings are to be found on the website of the Crew List Index Project. Contact details (as at 2005) for many local archives can be found using English Record Offices and Archives or Google.

British Library
Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections
(Formerly Oriental and India Office Collections)
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB
Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7873
Fax: 020 7412 7641
Holds the surviving archives of the East India Company and related manuscript and printed material.

British Library
Newspaper Library
Colindale Avenue
London NW9 5HE
Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7353
Fax: 020 7412 7379
Note: The Newspaper Library will gradually be moving out of Colindale between 2009 and 2012: check their website for details.
The Library holds national and provincial newspapers, maritime and trade papers.

Bristol Record Office
'B' Bond Warehouse
Smeaton Road
Bristol BS1 6XN
Tel: +44 (0)117 922 4224
Fax: +44 (0)117 922 4236
Holds material related to the port of Bristol, ship registration documents for Bristol (1824–1886) and agreements, crew lists and official log books for Bristol-registered ships (1863–1913) other than those held by The National Archives and the National Maritime Museum.

Guildhall Library
London EC2V 7HH
Tel: +44 (0)20 7332 1868/1870 (printed books) or +44 (0)20 7332 1863/3803 (manuscripts)
E-mail: (printed books) or (manuscripts)
Holds the Lloyd's Marine Collection, providing a wide range of information on the shipping movements and casualties and the Lloyd's Captains' Registers, which also provide an index to some categories of Masters certificates, (Guildhall Ms. 18567 – Ms 18571); also archives of Trinity House and the Watermen and Lightermen's Company; and many other valuable historical sources.

Maritime History Archive
Memorial University of Newfoundland
St John's
A1C 5S7
Holds between 70% and 80% of agreements, crews and logs for British merchant ships between 1863–1938, and 1951–1976. Details of their holdings are to found on their website and on that of the Crew List Index Project.

Maritime Archives and Library
Merseyside Maritime Museum
Albert Dock
Liverpool L3 4AA
Tel: +44 (0)151 478 4499
Holds records of Liverpool and area shipping, trade and emigration, but not passenger lists; also Customs Bills of Entry.

National Archives of Scotland
H M Register House
2 Princes Street
Edinburgh EH1 3YY
Tel: +44 (0)131 535 1314
Holds a wide range of shipping records related to Scotland.

Registry of Shipping and Seamen
Maritime and Coastguard Agency
Anchor Court
Ocean Way
Cardiff CF24 5JW
Tel: +44 (0)2920 448800
Fax: +44 (0)2920 448820
Holds the Register of Merchant Seamen (but no service details) from 1973; Register of Officers’ Certificates from 1966; Agreements, crew lists, and official log books from 1995; ship registration details from 1994; register of births and deaths at sea from 1965.

Society of Genealogists
14 Charterhouse Buildings
Goswell Road
London EC1M 7BA
Tel: +44 (0)20 7251 8799
Fax: +44 (0)20 7250 1800
Holds a microfilm copy of Trinity House Petitions 1780–1890 having transferred the originals to the Guildhall Library.

The National Archives
Ruskin Avenue
Surrey TW9 4DU
Tel: +44 (0)20 8876 3444
E-mail: via online contact form
Holds apprenticeship records from 1824–1953; registers of seamen's service 1835–1857, and 1913–1972; registers of certificates of competency and service of officers from 1845–1921; all surviving muster rolls from 1747 onwards; and crew agreements for British merchant ships 1835-60 and 10% for all years 1861–1938 and 1951–1994; with much other unique material. They have a wide range of Research Guides that may assist.

The Waterways Archive
Llanthony Warehouse
The Docks
Gloucester GL1 2EH
Tel: 01452 318225
Fax: 01452 318225
E-mail: via contact form on website
Holds records relating to inland waterways, the boats that used them and their owners.

The National Waterways Museum (Ellesmere Port) formerly known as the Boat Museum
South Pier Road
Ellesmere Port
Cheshire CH65 4FW
Tel: 0151 355 5017
Fax: 0151 355 4079

Next steps

Other guides in the series which may be useful for researching merchant ships' crews are:

For general research help see:

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 1998. All rights reserved
Last updated May 2009
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF
Tel: +44 (0)20 8858 4422 ~ Fax: +44 (0)20 8312 6632

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