Research guide C9: The Merchant Navy: World War One

General information

This guide outlines the main sources for researching the activities of merchant ships and their crews during the First World War, 1914–18. There is a wide range of material both in printed and manuscript form. This is distributed across a number of libraries and archives and the researcher should be prepared to seek out material that addresses the particulars of the research problem.

The National Maritime Museum holds some key works that are likely to assist with most research problems, namely:

  • Lloyd's Register of Shipping and the Mercantile Navy List (British ships) for 1914–18 give basic information about merchant ships: owners, official number, port of registry, size, date and place of build, etc. But as they were published annually, some ships were too short-lived to be included. Some foreign-registered vessels were missed out because it was hard to gather information in wartime. Some indexing to Lloyd’s Register has been undertaken at the Register of Ships.
  • The Registre Veritas of the French shipping registration agency Bureau Veritas in Paris, is bi-lingual for the period.
  • The Record of American Shipping produced by the American Bureau of Shipping.

Merchant Ships used by the Government

Some British merchant ships were bought into the Royal Navy and commissioned as warships. Details of these can be found in:

  • Jane's Fighting Ships, an illustrated guide to classes of Royal Navy vessels, annual editions from 1898.
  • Ships of the Royal Navy, vols 1 and 2, by J J Colledge, (London: Greenhill Books, revised edition, 1987–89). 623.82(42)

Other ships were employed on Government service but not bought into the Royal Navy. These are shown in the Admiralty service lists:

  • Service List: List of Vessels Engaged for Naval, Military and Commercial Purposes, produced by the Shipping Intelligence Section of the Ministry of Shipping (London: HMSO, 1921). Owners, size, speed, cargo and nature of service are often given. A list of Q-ships is given as an appendix.
  • The History of the Military Sea Transport During the Great War, a collection of Admiralty documents, is held at the National Maritime Museum, but is not indexed.

Records of commissioned ships and naval operations involving merchant ships are at The National Archives. Their Research Guide Royal Navy: Operational Records First World War, 1914–1918 provides fuller details.

  • The Merchant Navy, 3 vols, by Archibald Hurd, (London: John Murray, 1921–29), the official history of the merchant navy in the Great War, has lots of useful information. 940.45.656.61

Shipping movements

Day-to-day movements of merchant ships were, for a while, recorded as in peace time in Lloyd's List, excluding troop ships and special operations. But once publication of such information in war time was seen as unwise, the movements and casualties section was removed from the List and printed separately as Overseas Shipping Intelligence (1 January 1917–15 November 1918), for restricted circulation.

Copies are held (with annual indexes 1838–1927) by the Guildhall and other libraries, as well as by the National Maritime Museum.

It should also be possible to determine some details of a ship’s movements by consulting its official log. See below.

Crews and gallantry awards

No registers of service exists for the crew of merchant ships for the period of the First World War. But there are records of the issue of seamen’s identity cards from 1918–1921 on microfiche, in series BT 350 at The National Archives; the originals are held by the Southampton Archives Service. These include passport-sized photographs of seamen and also give some voyage information. These records are in the process of digitization and will become available online.

The primary source for details of a merchant seamen’s service are agreements and crew lists. These are mostly unindexed and so it is necessary to know the ships on which a seaman served to be able to locate them.

Most crew agreements and official logs for British-registered merchant ships for the period 1914–18 are with the Maritime History Archive, Memorial University of Newfoundland, except for the following:

  • The National Archives hold 10% of crew agreements for each year, plus a small number of 'celebrated ships', and official logs for the whole period (NB. official logs are not a daily diary of ships' movements; that information was in deck logs, which rarely survive).
  • The National Maritime Museum has 90% of crew agreements for the year 1915 only.
  • Local record offices hold crew agreements for ships of special local interest.

The location of the records for a particular ship, if they are held at The National Archives or a County Record Office can most easily be located using the Crew List Index Project.

Records of merchant ships taken into service complete with their crews, under a T124 Agreement, are to be found in a separate series of documents at the Maritime History Archive, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Agreement and Account of Crew of Commissioned Chartered Ships, T124, 1914–1920.

Records of Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels should be found amongst those of the merchant navy described above. Sometimes though they may be amongst those for the Royal Navy.

Records of masters and mates, their certificates of competency and location of certificates, are outlined in Research Guide C2: The Merchant Navy: Tracing people: Master mariners, mates and engineers.

Many seafarers, both officers and ordinary seamen, saw service in the Royal Naval Reserve. Their records are to be found at The National Archives and details are to be found in the National Archives' Research Guide: Royal Naval Reserve.

Merchant Seamen were mostly entitled to the British War medal and the Mercantile Marine medal; records of the issue of these are to be found in series BT 351 on microfiche, at The National Archives.

The London Gazette reported all gallantry awards to merchant seamen and other British citizens, and is available (indexed) at the Guildhall Library.

Lloyd's Medals 1876–1989: A History of Medals Awarded by the Corporation of Lloyd's, by Jim Gawler (Toronto: Hart publishing Co., 1989) includes citations for many of the awards. 355.124.22.

Lloyd's Captains' Registers sometimes mention medals awarded to masters, and can be consulted at the National Maritime Museum and Guildhall Library. The National Archives' Research Guide Merchant Seamen: Medals and Honours provides more details on the subject.

Records of Q-ships (merchant ships with concealed weapons, designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks) are to be found at The National Archives. Log books are in series ADM 53; and some movement records in ADM 131 and ADM 137.

Ships sunk by war causes

There are a wide range of printed sources related to merchant shipping casualties during the First World War Records; these include:

  • Lloyd's War Losses: the First World War: Casualties to Shipping Through Enemy Causes 1914–1918 (Lloyd's of London Press Ltd, 1990). This covers British, Allied and neutral vessels including those missing, detained or sunk by mines after the war ended.
  • Merchant Shipping (Losses) House of Commons Paper 199, 1919 (London: HMSO, 1919), the official Admiralty list. Reprinted as British Vessels Lost at Sea 1914–1918, it was never revised and has some errors and omissions.
  • Foreign Vessels Sunk or Damaged (unpublished) was produced for official use only. Although not the best source, it also includes a unique list of vessels attacked but not sunk or damaged.
  • Government War Risks Insurance Scheme: List of Vessels Lost, Damaged or Missing (Board of Trade, c.1921). Vessels sunk by war causes came under the Government's war risks insurance scheme. Records relating to this, including cargo details, are held by the Department of Transport, Shipping Policy Emergencies Division.
  • Digest of Cases Decided in British Prize Courts, August 1914–November 1927, by Hubert Hull (London: HMSO, 1927). 341.362.12
  • Lloyd's Reports of Prize Cases Heard Before and Decided by the Right Honourable Sir Samuel Evans...during the European War Which Began in August 1914, edited by John Bridge Aspinall and Edward Louis De Harte, 7 vols, (London: Lloyd's,1915–21). 341.362.12
  • British Merchant Vessels Sunk by U-boats in the 1914–1918 War, by A J Tennent (Starling, 1990). A useful compilation that identifies the ship's owner and, where possible, the U-boat. 940.45.656.61
  • Der Krieg zur See: Der Handelskrieg mit U-Booten, by Arno Spindler, 5 vols, (Berlin: E.S.Mittler, 1932–1966). Gives a full account of the U-boat war from the German viewpoint, but only has indexes for the two final volumes, which were published later. The Admiralty commissioned a translation of the first three, titled The Submarine War Against Commerce, which are available at the National Maritime Museum. 940.45

The National Archives hold a range of manuscript material related to the loss of merchant vessels by enemy action. Many reports of sinkings are to be found, for the period 1916–18, in Admiralty: Historical Section: Records used for Official History (ADM 137) and the Catalogue often lists these under the ship’s name. Alternatively, reference to the appropriate file may be found in Admiralty: Digests and Indexes (ADM 12) under the name of the ship, and perhaps under the names of key individuals. Lists of British merchant vessels attacked by enemy submarines, with reports of actions and sinkings (1916–18), are also to be found in Admiralty: Station records: Plymouth Correspondence (ADM 131/113 to 118). Both these sets of files often name the casualties and those killed or lost as well as giving the circumstances.

Ships sunk by marine causes

Merchant vessels lost due to ordinary perils of the sea (i.e. by foundering, stranding, collision, fire, etc) do not appear in the published lists of war losses. They are, however, included in the Overseas Shipping Intelligence.

Lists of missing vessels whose fate was unknown are given in Lloyd's War Losses. Additional information can often be found in the manuscript Lloyd's Missing Vessels Books, available in the Guildhall Library.

A large number of vessels lost without trace, and fate unknown, were declared 'missing'. A Joint Arbitration Committee considered the evidence and assessed, for insurance purposes, whether a loss was likely to be due to war or marine causes.

Prisoners of War

Lists of merchant seamen captured and held as prisoners of war have not systematically been preserved. But some lists have survived amongst the Foreign Office (FO 383) and Colonial Office (CO 693) records at The National Archives.

Deaths of seamen

Many seamen died at sea either because of enemy action or the perils of their occupation. Those dying from enemy action should be recorded in the Debt of Honour database of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Records of death, whatever the reason, should be recorded in the ship’s official log: see above. Details would then have been copied into the registers of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen: series BT 334 at The National Archives. These should cover both deaths that actually occurred at sea as well as on board in port or in a local foreign hospital. Those where the death actually occurred at sea will then have been reported to the General Register Office for England and Wales, and where the seaman was Scottish or Irish, a copy sent to the General Register Offices in Edinburgh or Dublin. Each General Register Office maintains a Register of Marine Deaths with a separate index: most of these indexes are now online through several commercial organisations.

The National Maritime Museum library holds:

  • Alphabetical Returns of deaths of merchant seamen, July 1916–1989
    These consist of printed returns published monthly from the Registrar General's information. These returns, which refer to deaths caused by illness, accident or even occasionally murder, rather than by enemy action, are arranged by date (year and month) and then alphabetically by name of seaman. Also listed are ship name, official number, date, place and cause of death.
  • Returns of Deaths of Merchant Seamen arranged by name of ship 1914–1919
    These are transcripts from official logbooks recording deaths of crew, arranged by date (year and month) then alphabetically by vessel name. They Includes details of the circumstances that led to the death and sometimes include a surgeon’s or coroner’s report. They refer to deaths caused by illness, accident or even occasionally murder rather than by enemy action
  • Births and deaths of passengers, January–June 1915

Cargo

Brief information about the cargo carried by vessels sunk by war causes should be in Lloyd's War Losses: the First World War. Additional details may be found in reports in the Overseas Shipping Intelligence if salvage work was carried out at the time, or if wreckage was washed ashore.

Cargo manifests sometimes survive amongst the Custom House records at the vessel's last port of departure. These archives will now normally be at the County Record Office covering the area in which the port is to be found. The central file of Bills of Entry, now held by Merseyside Maritime Museum, may be more comprehensive. The British Library Newspaper Library has a file for London Bills of Entry only.

Miscellaneous sources

Shipping company archives may, in a few cases, include valuable information. The National Register of Archives  and Access to Archives maintained by The National Archives, can often be useful in locating records of shipping companies.

A few shipping companies (notably Clan Line, Royal Mail, and Union-Castle) commissioned special wartime histories of their ships, some detailing honours awarded and seamen who died. A company’s general or fleet history may also give information, either published separately or in journals such as Sea Breezes. In a few cases, books have been devoted to individual vessels, e.g. the Lusitania.

Useful addresses

British Library
Newspaper Library
Colindale Avenue
London NW9 5HE
Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7353
Fax: 020 7412 7379
E-mail: newspaper@bl.uk

Commonwealth War Graves Commission
2 Marlow Road
Maidenhead SL6 7DX
Tel: 01628 507200
E-mail: via website

County and local record offices

Contact details (as at 2005) for many local archives can be found using English Record Offices and Archives on the Web or Google.

General Register Offices

England and Wales

General Register Office
Smedley Hydro
Trafalgar Road
Southport
Merseyside PR8 2HH
Tel: +44 (0) 845 603 7788
E-mail: certificate.services@ips.gsi.gov.uk

Scotland

General Register Office for Scotland
New Register House
Edinburgh EH1 3YT
Tel: +44 (0)131 334 0380
E-mail: records@gro-scotland.gov.uk

Northern Ireland

General Register Office (Northern Ireland)
Oxford House
49-55 Chichester Street
Belfast BT1 4HL
Tel: +44(0)28 9025 2000
Fax: +44(0)28 9025 2120

Ireland

General Register Office of Ireland
Government Offices
Convent Road, Roscommon.
Republic of Ireland
Tel: +353 (0)90 6632900
Fax: +353 (0)90 6632999
E-mail: via website

Guildhall Library
Aldermanbury
London EC2V 7HH
Tel: +44 (0)20 7332 1868/1870 (printed books) or +44 (0)20 7332 1863/3803 (manuscripts)
E-mail: printedbooks.guildhall@cityoflondon.gov.uk (printed books) or manuscripts.guildhall@cityoflondon.gov.uk (manuscripts)

Maritime History Archive
Memorial University of Newfoundland
St John's
Newfoundland
A1C 5S7
Canada
E-mail: mha@mun.ca

Maritime Archives and Library
Merseyside Maritime Museum
Albert Dock
Liverpool L3 4AA
Tel: +44 (0)151 478 4499

Southampton Archives Service
Civic Centre
Southampton
SO14 7LY
Tel: +44 (0)23 8083 2251
Fax: +44 (0)23 8083 2156
E-mail: city.archives@southampton.gov.uk

The National Archives
Ruskin Avenue
Kew
Richmond
Surrey TW9 4DU
Tel: +44 (0)20 8876 3444
E-mail: via online contact form

Next steps

Others guides in the series which may be useful for researching the Merchant Navy 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

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