This guide gives details of crew agreements for British-registered merchant ships, crew lists or muster-rolls and official ships' logs.
They are of particular interest to genealogists and people tracing family history, and to anyone researching specific ships or seafaring generally.
Crew lists, originally termed muster-rolls or muster-books, began in the 18th century and were initially kept in order to collect a levy from seamen's wages for a relief fund, and as a record of the names, ratings, dates of entry and final discharge for all men serving on board a ship. The 1835 Merchant Shipping Act and its successors were intended to create central registers of all seamen who might be called on to support the Royal Navy in time of war.
This central registration stopped in 1857 and only began again in 1914 with the start of the First World War.
Crew agreements, detailed contracts between a seaman and his employer, carried on beyond 1857, and provide greater information about the crew, apprentices, ships and voyages.
For ships engaged in the Home trade (operating in UK coastal waters, or from UK to North European and Baltic ports) records of agreements were submitted twice a year and usually include a list of all sailings and arrivals for the half-year.
Agreements for vessels in the foreign trade were submitted at the end of each voyage and do not include this information, just a general voyage description with dates.
Official logs of British merchant ships also have some details of crew members but they are not, as many people assume, a daily diary of a ship's movements. They are more a 'parish register' for the ship, noting vital information about the crew and passengers, and only had to be kept if there were relevant entries to record. These include new arrivals on board (such as births or the signing on of a new crew member); departures (death, disappearance, desertion, or signing-off of a crew member at an intermediary port before the end of the voyage); marriages, illness, and any disciplinary action taken against a crew member.
The log will usually give the ship's position at the time of any birth or death, but may have no other reference to the ship's movements. Sailing and arrival dates are sometimes noted but were not required. The crew agreement, which provides at minimum the date and place of the beginning and end of the voyage, is often more informative in this respect.
Where to find records for...
All surviving muster rolls and crew agreements for British-registered merchant ships up to and including 1860 are held by The National Archives. Muster rolls exist for 1747–1851, but prior to 1800 only those for Bristol, Dartmouth, Liverpool, Plymouth, Shields and Scarborough have survived. Crew Agreements are available from 1835.
Up to 1854 records are arranged by port and registry number; subsequently by ship's official number. These and other valuable sources are described in The National Archives' Merchant shipping: Crew Lists and Agreements, 1747–1860.
After 1860, crew agreements have been divided between a number of repositories.
A 10% specimen group of crew agreements for each year, taken at random (every tenth box of papers) together with those for famous vessels (with some exceptions, such as those for the Cutty Sark and Great Britain), is in The National Archives. The remaining 90% for 1861, 1862, and years ending in '5', are held by the National Maritime Museum. To request a crew list to view in the reading room, please order online. For other years, some crew agreements were taken by local record offices. Information on holdings at The National Archives and local record offices are described in The National Archives' Merchant Seamen: Agreements and Crew Lists after 1861.
All those remaining (about 70% of the total) are now in the care of the Maritime History Research Collection, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John's, Newfoundland, A1B 3Y1, Canada. The Collection offers a research service and will provide copies of documents for a fee based on cost recovery. Crew agreements for foreign-going vessels were submitted to the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen at the end of the voyage (replacing the copy deposited with the port authorities before departure) and it is this date that determines the year in which an agreement is filed. Coasters and fishing vessels submitted crew agreements bi-annually.
All surviving agreements and crew lists with their logbooks are held by The National Archives, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU. Information on the holdings of The National Archives are decribed in The National Archives' Merchant Seamen: Agreements and Crew Lists after 1861.
A 10% specimen group of all crew agreements is in The National Archives; the remaining 90% for years ending in '5', up until 1995, have been deposited with the National Maritime Museum. The Museum currently, therefore, has 90% of the crew agreements for 1955, 1965, 1975, 1985 and 1995. All remaining papers up to 1976 have been transferred to the Maritime History Archive in Canada (detailed above). However, from 1977, all crew agreements not deposited in the National Archives or in the National Maritime Museum (i.e. 90% of all years not ending in '5)have been destroyed. Any enquiries about the deposit of recent crew lists should be addressed to the Registry of Shipping and Seamen.
No indexes by ship's name or by names of crewmen have yet been compiled for the agreements held in the four main repositories, although some local record offices have indexes by ship's name to their holdings.
All agreements held at the National Archives can be located by official number through their online catalogue. The Maritime History Archive in Canada has also produced an excellent online search facility (by official number only) for its holdings of agreements, which also indexes many in British archives and record offices .
Official ship's number
This can be found by consulting the Mercantile Navy List or post-1872–73, Lloyd's Register of Shipping. For muster rolls and agreements before 1854, the ship's port and registry number can be found through the indexes to ship registrations, 1786–1854, in The National Archives.
British merchant ships were first required to keep an official log under the Merchant Shipping Act of 1850 and logs start to appear among official records from 1852 onwards. Many were later discarded, with only those recording a birth or death on board normally being retained. The survival rate is about 20%, except during the First and Second World Wars, for which all logs containing any entries were preserved.
Surviving logs are always to be found with the appropriate crew agreement, except between 1905–12 and 1914–18. For those years most are kept separately, at The National Archives, in class BT 165. The indexes to the Maritime History Archive's holdings of crew agreements indicate whether or not a log is available with the crew agreement. Copies of deck logs or journals survive only in rare instances and are not among official records.
Other guides in the series which may be useful for researching merchant ships' crews are:
- Research guide C2: The Merchant Navy: Tracing people: Master mariners, mates and engineers
- Research guide C4: The Merchant Navy: Sources for enquiries
- Research guide C5: The Merchant Navy: Sources for ship histories
- Research guide C6: The Merchant Navy: The Mercantile Navy List
- Research guide C8: The Merchant Navy: Wrecks, losses and casualties
- 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 C12: The Merchant Navy: Ship registration and Custom House records
- Research guide E1: World War Two: Papers in the National Maritime Museum
- Research guide E2: World War Two: The Dunkirk List
- Research guide H3: Lloyd's: Lloyd's Captains' registers
- Research guide H5: Lloyd's: Registers held at the National Maritime Museum
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
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.
Last updated June 2011
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