We’re very pleased to announce the launch today of Crew Lists of the British Merchant Navy – 1915, a collaborative project between the National Maritime Museum and the National Archives highlighting the contribution of the Merchant Navy in the First World War.
For the first time ever, all the surviving crew lists of the British Merchant Navy from the year 1915 have been transcribed and the information made available to search online for free. These crew lists contain the details for around 39,000 voyages, including the names and personal details of over 750,000 seamen. rmg.co.uk/1915crewlists #1915crewlists
A unique family history resource
The crew lists are of immeasurable value to family historians, as one of the few sources of information about the contribution of our seafaring ancestors active in 1915. If you had an ancestor in the British merchant navy in 1915 there is a high chance a crew list for one or more voyages survives. Even vessels that were sunk by enemy action sometimes appear in the lists, if there was time to evacuate the ship and save its documents.
Untold stories of forgotten fighters
As there are no records for individual merchant seamen from this period, these crew lists are also of national significance in highlighting the vital contribution made by the Merchant Navy during the First World War, showcasing the efforts of these somewhat forgotten fighters. In researching the documents, the volunteers and staff working on the project unearthed many untold stories highlighting the often overlooked bravery of the Merchant Navy during the First World War. These include the first person in the Mercantile Marine to be awarded the Victoria Cross, as well as awards of the Distinguished Service Cross and the Bronze Medal of the Royal Humane Society. We will be featuring these stories in future blog posts, alongside other accounts of courage and sacrifice uncovered in the crew lists.
What are crew lists - and who were the crews?
Crew lists (or ‘Agreements’) formed a contract between a seaman and his (or her) employer. Administered by the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen, each British-registered merchant vessel carried an agreement listing all the crew, their rank/rating, address, rate of pay and dates of joining and leaving. Vessels ranged from small fishing coasters, often crewed by father and son, to the largest passenger liners with whole departments of deck officers, seamen, engine room staff and stewards amounting to as many as 400 seafarers. Women often featured as stewardesses, nurses and matrons. British merchant vessels included crew members from all over the world, and on some vessels British nationals were in a minority.
For the years 1861–1938, a 10% specimen group of crew agreements for each year, taken at random (every tenth box of papers), is held in The National Archives. The remaining 90% for 1861, 1862, and years ending in '5' – including 1915 – are held by the National Maritime Museum. The year 1915 was of course chosen because of the First World War centenary commemorations.
Transcribing the data
Starting in 2012, the National Maritime Museum and the National Archives recruited over 400 ‘e-volunteers’ to transcribe the crew lists. The volunteers downloaded photographs of these lists and, using their home computer, transcribed the information they contain into an online catalogue. Some of the volunteers were former members of the Merchant Navy, and they will be sharing their experiences of working on the project in a forthcoming blog post. The project attracted the help of volunteers from as far afield as Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Canada, as well as locations a little closer to home in Italy, Ireland and the UK. This span demonstrates the international interest and significance of these documents in highlighting the vital contribution made by the Merchant Navy during the First World War. Search all the 1915 crew lists here.