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 Merchant Navy ships’ records: crew lists, musters and log books. More detailed listings are to be found on the website of the Crew List Index Project. Contact details for many local archives can be found at


British Library 

Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections

(Formerly Oriental and India Office Collections)

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7873


Holds the surviving archives of the East India Company and related manuscript and printed material.

British Library Newspaper Collections:

British Library Newspaper Archive is now provided online by the British Newspaper Archive.

Alternatively, you may contact the British Library directly for more information via the Newspaper Library link. 

The Library holds national and provincial newspapers, maritime and trade papers.


British Library address:

96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB
Tel: +44 (0)33 0333 1144 Main Switchboard

Bristol Archives
'B' Bond Warehouse
Smeaton Road
Bristol BS1 6XN
Tel: +44 (0)117 922 4224

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 

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 4AQ
Tel: +44 (0)151 478 4424

Holds records of Liverpool and area shipping, trade and emigration, but not passenger lists; also Customs Bills of Entry.

National Records of Scotland
3 West Register Street
Scotland EH1 3YT
Tel: +44 (0)131 202 0451 

Holds a wide range of shipping records related to Scotland.

Registry of Shipping and Seamen
Maritime and Coastguard Agency
Spring Place
105 Commercial Road
Southampton SO15 1EG
Tel: +44 (0)203 817 2000

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
Unit 2
40 Wharf Road
London N1 7GSTel: +44 (0)20 7251 8799

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
Email: 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.

National Waterways Museum Gloucester
Llanthony Warehouse
The Docks
Gloucester GL1 2EH
Tel: 01452 915676

Next steps

Other guides 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.