Research guide C2: The Merchant Navy: Tracing people: Master-mariners, mates and engineers

This research guide outlines the surviving records of the careers of master-mariners, mates, engineers, skippers and mates of fishing boats, and cooks in the British merchant navy.

Master-Mariners

A master-mariner is a man judged to be qualified to be in charge of a vessel, and is frequently referred to in non-official sources as a captain. Master-mariners were issued with a certificate, many of which have survived, but it must be stressed that these records:

  • Are not complete
  • Only cover service between 1845 and 1927

Pre-1845

There was no system of examination or qualification to become a master-mariner, and therefore there are no separate records for masters before this date.

1845–1854

Examinations were introduced in 1845, but did not become compulsory for the foreign trade until 1850, and the home trade (i.e. those trading in UK coastal waters and with north European ports) until 1854. Records for this period are therefore partial.

1854–1927

All master-mariners operating during this period would have been required to hold a certificate, of which many have survived and are now in the care of the National Maritime Museum.

1928–date

Certificates from 1928 onwards have not survived, but there are some registers of certificates applied for and issued at the National Archives.

Content of the records

Certificates record the mariner’s name, the date of examinations were passed, and the mariner’s signature.

Smith's certificate as Extra Master - frontCertificate of competency as Extra Master for Edward Smith (of the Titanic)

However, in many cases, the original application forms to be examined have been preserved with the certificates. For example, the applications and certificates from Captain Smith as Second Mate and Extra Master. These can provide more personal details, such as his date and place of birth, home address, whether he already held a certificate, whether previous applications for a certificate had failed and why, and details of voyages. In the majority of cases, applications provide a record of every ship on which the applicant had previously served.

Accessing master-mariners’ records

All master-mariners’ certificates were filed by the Board of Trade by certificate number, not by name, and this is still true. In order to find a certificate, it is first necessary to locate the mariner’s number. This can be done from a variety of sources:

  • Registers of Certificates of Competency and Service at the National Archives. These registers (catalogue references: BT 122 – BT 128) are the most reliable and comprehensive source of mariners’ numbers. They must be consulted in person at the National Archives.
  • Lloyd's Captains’ Registers, 1851–1947. These printed and manuscript registers, listing masters alphabetically, were compiled by Lloyd’s and are held at the Guildhall Library. The Guildhall Library has added partial Indexes to the Registers to its website, providing certificate numbers and the years in which service is recorded. The National Maritime Museum also holds microfilm copies, but the quality is variable and sometimes difficult to read. It was begun in 1869 and only masters still active at that date are listed for the preceding years.
  • The Mercantile Navy List, published by the Board of Trade, lists masters alphabetically and by certificate number between 1857 and 1864. The Archive and Library at the National Maritime Museum holds copies.

Once a number has been found, certificates can be consulted in the Caird Library Reading Room at the National Maritime Museum free of charge, or copied for a fee.

To order a certificate to view in the reading room, please order online.

Points to be stressed

  • Because a man is officially registered as a master-mariner, and because a number can be found, does not guarantee that a certificate has survived. Many were removed from the records to be replaced or destroyed for a variety of reasons before they were deposited at the National Maritime Museum.
  • Many mariners declare themselves as masters on census forms and other official records such as marriage or birth certificates without officially holding qualifications.

Further details

The Registers at the National Archives are divided between Certificates of Competency and of Service. In the earlier years of the certification, men who already had proof of their experience as masters were issued with a Certificate of Service, and were excused sitting the examinations. Certificates of Competency were issued to those mariners who passed the examination.

First and Second Mates

First and Second Mates were subject to a similar system of certification by the Board of Trade. The records themselves are similar in content to those for Masters, and again applications listing the ships on which a mate previously served often survive.

A Second Mate could then progress to First Mate, Only Mate (able to take control of a vessel should the master be incapacitated) and Master. Frequently, if a man passed through these stages, he kept one number, and all applications and certificates will be found under the same reference. However, sometimes one man will have held several numbers, and in such cases multiple searches must be made.

Accessing mates’ records

The date ranges for surviving records are the same as for master-mariners above, so that mates’ certificates and applications will only be found for service between 1845 and 1927.

If a man did not progress beyond first or second mate, then the arrangements for access are similar to those for master-mariners above. Certificates are again arranged by mate’s number and these numbers can be found from:

  • The Mercantile Navy List, published by the Board of Trade, lists mates alphabetically and by certificate number between 1857 and 1864. The Archive and Library at the National Maritime Museum holds copies.

Outside of this date range, the Archive and Library have no means of assisting in locating a mate's number, and the only registers available are the:

  • Registers of Certificates of Competency and Service at the National Archives (catalogue references: BT 122 – BT 128)

Engineers

The system of engineers’ certificates is similar to that for mates and masters (see above). However, records are only available between 1862 and 1921.

Accessing engineers’ records

Certificates and surviving applications are again organised by mariner’s number and not name. The only way to identify an engineer’s number is by the official registers at the National Archives:

  • Registers of Certificates of Competency: Engineers (1861–1921) National Archives (catalogue references: BT139 – BT142).

Skippers of Fishing Vessels

The museum's archive also contains some certificates for skippers of fishing vessels, which were issued in a separate series. These are again organised by certificate number, and the only means of identifying a man’s number is by consulting an official register at the National Archives:

  • Registers of Certificates of Competency: Skippers and Mates of Fishing Boats (1884–1921). National Archives catalogue reference number: BT129 – BT130.

Cooks

From 1908, the Board of Trade required a similar system of certification and registration for cooks. However, none of the certificates have survived. The museum's archive does, however, hold a set of registers of certified cooks that can be consulted on request. It should be noted that these are arranged only by number, which in practice means that they are in chronological order, but there is no available index.

Researchers must therefore browse through the volumes, and this is only practical where there is already strong evidence of the approximate date of certification.

For further advice:

Email: manuscripts@rmg.co.uk
Tel: 020 8312 6516.

Where a cook can be located in these registers, only basic information will be supplied, typically the man’s full name, place and date of birth and his certificate number.

Colonial records

British colonial ports were responsible for issuing certificates to mates, masters, and engineers, and used their own numbering sequence. To the best of our knowledge, none of these certificates have survived, although researchers are advised to contact archives in the relevant countries. However, the Caird Library does hold partial registers (Item ID: PBN8617) to certificates issued in:

  • Bengal (1876–1929)
  • Bombay (1876–1929)
  • Canada (1871–1931)
  • Hong Kong (1884–1931)
  • Malta (1875–1916)
  • Mauritius (1891–1914)
  • Newfoundland (1877–1931)
  • New South Wales (1872–1917)

These registers are in the form of periodic printed reports from the Board of Trade, bound in a single volume. They are arranged in purely chronological order for each territory, as one continuous list for all classes of certificate. The information provided is restricted to full name, place and date of birth, and place and date of the certificate’s issue. These can be consulted in the Caird Library Reading Room, but it is strongly advised to check availability before undertaking a trip to the Museum.

Useful addresses

National Archives, Kew
Ruskin Avenue
Kew
Surrey TW9 4DU
Tel: 020 8876 3444
Website: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Guildhall Library
Aldermanbury
London EC2P 2EJ
Tel: 020 7332 1863/70
Website: www.history.ac.uk/gh

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.

Last updated May 2010

© National Maritime Museum 1998. All rights reserved

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF
Tel: +44 (0)20 8858 4422 ~ Fax: +44 (0)20 8312 6632