There are many different aspects to merchant navy history and considerable information survives about British merchant ships, which you can explore.
Merchant navy history is scattered through various sources in a number of libraries and archives, and what exists and the location of that information depends on the type of vessel, its history and the period.
This short guide can therefore, only give an introduction and general advice.
Early tax records from the 13th–19th centuries and ship registration records from the 18th century until 1994 are held at The National Archives and in other archives; but probably the best starting place is Lloyd's Register. Some early (17th century–1830) documents relating to the movement of ships in and out of Scottish ports, are to be found at the National Archives of Scotland.
Lloyd's Register was first published in 1760 (the earliest known surviving copy is dated 1764) and then annually since 1775. Apart from 1834–37 when all British vessels of 50 tons and over were listed; until 1875 Lloyd’s Register only included ships that they had surveyed. All merchant ships over 100 tons worldwide are listed from 1890-91. Some indexing to Lloyd’s Register has been undertaken at the Register of Ships.
This gives a variety of information which, like Lloyd's List (see below), becomes more comprehensive in the 19th century. Copies from 1764 to the present (excluding 1785, 1788 and 1817, for which there are no known surviving copies), are held at the National Maritime Museum, Guildhall Library, Merseyside Maritime Museum, British Library and some other large libraries and museums.
Once you know who owned a ship, you can find out whether any fleet or company history exists, which may provide a ready-made history of the ship. Some shipping company records and many published histories of the companies are in the National Maritime Museum library. See the online Library catalogue.
The Mercantile Navy List is the Board of Trade official list of all British-registered vessels, which started in 1850. Most annual volumes exist from 1857–1976 and are in the National Maritime Museum library.
The National Maritime Museum library also holds copies of:
- Lloyd’s Register of Yachts for the years 1879–1939, 1947–1996.
- Hunt's Universal Yacht List, 1866–1934 (an incomplete run with gaps: 1867–1871, 1873–75, 1893, 1910–12, 1915–1933).
- Olsen's Fisherman's Almanac, 1907–94 (an incomplete run with gaps: 1908, 1910, 1926–27, 1929, 1932–1942, 1944–46, 1949, 1951–54, 1956–57). This lists British fishing vessels over 15 tons.
The Registre Veritas is published by the French shipping registration agency Bureau Veritas, who are based in Paris. It can sometimes prove useful for 19th century British and American ships trading with the continent. The register is available on microfilm in the National Maritime Museum library for the period 1829–1985.
For more information, contact Bureau Veritas' UK offices:
Tower Bridge Court
224–226 Tower Bridge Road
London SE1 2TX
Tel: +44 (0)20 75508900
Fax: +44 (0)20 70897084
E-mail: via online contact form
The Record of American Shipping is the US record produced by the American Bureau of Shipping. The National Maritime Museum library holds copies for most years from 1879–1980. These are outstored and notice is required to consult them.
Lloyd's List gives information about the movements and casualties of ships engaged in both foreign and home trades. The earliest surviving issues date from 1741: a complete run is available from 1779. This has been published daily, excluding Sundays, since 1 July 1837. It gives details of arrivals and sailings port by port, and casualty reports.
Indexes to Lloyd's List can be found as follows:
- Pre-1838: the Guildhall Library has been working on an index to incidents and casualties, although this will not give a full index of every entry.
- 1838–1927: an annual index (Lloyd’s List Index) arranged by ship was compiled in manuscript and can be seen on microfilm at the National Maritime Museum (and a few other archives including the British Library Newspaper collection and the Merseyside Maritime Museum). From 1880 printed indexes were also produced, but these, although sometimes a useful shortcut, are not as comprehensive.
- 1927 onwards: the annual index was replaced by a card index system, the Voyage Record Cards. The index is until August 1974, and can be consulted by prior arrangement at Guildhall Library.
- Lloyd's List Weekly Summary and Shipping Gazette Weekly Summary, between them cover the period 1882–1932. They give summaries of the Lloyd's List movement and casualty entries (indexed) and contain detailed summaries of enquiries into shipping losses.
The following are outstored and need to be ordered in advance:
- Lloyd’s List, 1893–1973
- Lloyd’s Weekly Summary, 1884–89, 1891–1914, 1915, March 1917–December 1919, 1920–1930, 1937
- Lloyd’s Weekly Shipping Index, 1913–16.
Crew agreements (see below) can be useful for researching the movement of ships in the home trade, as these were submitted twice a year and usually listed all sailings and arrivals for the half-year. Vessels in the foreign trade only submitted agreements at the end of voyages, and gave only a general description of the voyage as originally intended with start and end dates (though some details can be noted from consular and other stamps added at different ports of call).
In 1939 the Admiralty issued an instruction to the Board of Trade that masters of merchant vessels were not, for reasons of security, to enter destinations or ports of call in the logs or on crew lists and agreements. But as it was still important to know and record the movements of merchant vessels, a series of movement cards was created. These are at The National Archives in series BT 389: information on World War Two Merchant Shipping Movement Cards is available on DocumentsOnline and cover the period 1939–1946. For the period 1939–1950, the Registry of Shipping and Seamen also kept an Index to Logbooks and Crew Agreements on which are recorded the filing of such documents. These often give some details of ship movements: they are at The National Archives in series BT 385.
Merchant ship crew records
Records begin with early crew lists, known as muster rolls, in the 18th century, drawn up for collecting a levy from seamen's wages for a relief fund. In the 19th century, the Merchant Shipping Act 1835 and following Acts were passed to create central registers of all seamen, to provide support of the Royal Navy in wartime. This registration was stopped between 1857 and the First World War. The registers of seamen’s service for 1835–1857 and 1918–1941 are in the process of digitization and will become available soon online. A subsequent register covers the period 1942–1972. All these records are held The National Archives.
Full details of merchant crew records are shown on separate Research Guides (see Next Steps, below) covering crew agreements, lists and official logs; certificates and records of master mariners, mates and engineers and others; and general guidelines for family historians tracing ancestors through maritime records. In brief:
- Crew agreements formed a detailed contract between the seaman and his employer. Copies are divided between several archives. The National Maritime Museum's holdings start at 1861, and only cover certain years. Currently these are outstored. For details of how to order in advance, see Research Guide C2.
- For agreements held in Canada and at county record offices, the National Maritime Museum has finding aids but to access these you will need to know a ship's official number. Assistance with determining a ship’s official number, together with finding the location of these records, can be found at the Crew List Index Project.
- Official logs for merchant ships were required to be kept from October 1851 onwards, and are are usually filed with crew agreements. These are not a daily diary of the ship's passage, as many researchers assume, their content being set out in statute. In the logs are recorded incidents such as collisions, disciplinary action against seamen and officers, and details of births, deaths and marriages. Entries were made if such events occurred.
The National Maritime Museum does not hold passenger lists.
There are very few records of passengers arriving in the UK before 1878. The National Archives holds lists of aliens arriving at British ports for the period August 1810 to May 1811 and 1826–1852. These will be available online shortly at www.ancestry.co.uk.
Before 1890 there was no requirement for ships to keep passenger lists in the UK. A few lists for vessels arriving here between 1878–1888 are available in The National Archives, but most lists surviving pre-1890 were handed in at a ship's destination overseas, and should be sought in archives and libraries at the ports of arrival.
Board of Trade Passenger Lists, Inwards, 1878–1888 and 1890–1960, list the names of people arriving in the United Kingdom from places outside Europe, but not within the Mediterranean Sea, unless the vessels sailed originally from outside Europe and picked up passengers in a European or Mediterranean port en route. The Board of Trade Passenger Lists, Inwards, have been digitised and are available at www.ancestry.co.uk. The alien arrival documents, 1826–1852, are in the process of being digitised and will become available on that website.
The Board of Trade Passenger Lists, Outward, 1890–1960, record the names of passengers on all ships leaving the United Kingdom for places outside Europe, but not within the Mediterranean Sea. The Board of Trade Passenger Lists, Outwards, have been digitised and are available at www.findmypast.com.
Numerous arrival and departure records survive for ports in other countries especially the United States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The national, state and provincial archives of the sites are a good starting point in locating these records.
Lloyd's Register and the Mercantile Navy List give names of ships' principal or managing owners. From 1825 however, ownership of all vessels was divided into 64 shares and could therefore be complex. For full details of ownership it is necessary to consult the ship registers (indexed 1786–1907) among the Board of Trade archives in The National Archives. The National Archives' Research Guide Merchant Shipping: Registration of Ships, 1786–1994 provides helpful details. Local Custom House copies of registration documents, sometimes predating surviving national registration documents, can often be found at a county or local record office for the area in which the port of registration fell.
From 1876–77, Lloyd's Register included a separate shipowners' section, and from 1886 Lloyd's Confidential Index gives more detailed information on the managing owners and their fleets. This is particularly useful up to 1920, but after that some categories of information were dropped. A complete set is in the Guildhall Library.
Some shipping company records are held by the National Maritime Museum. The National Register of Archives and Access to Archives maintained by The National Archives can often be useful in locating records of shipping companies.
Published histories exist for many companies, and the National Maritime Museum has bibliographies for the most famous shipping lines. Book lists for a number of other companies can be compiled on request from the Library catalogue and the Archive catalogue.
Useful information on individual companies can also be found in books about particular trades, such as trans-Atlantic shipping, emigration, ferries and so on. Fleet lists for many companies have also been published in the journal Sea Breezes which has a general index.
Final fates of ships
The last entry for a ship in Lloyd's Register may indicate briefly what became of her: 'wrecked', 'broken up, 'condemned', etc. If there is no such entry from 1876–77 onwards, you should check the index for changes-of-name for the following year.
If there is no entry there, search the annual indexes to Lloyd's List for the last entry relating to the vessel. Vessels wrecked or lost by war or marine causes are usually easily traced in this way: those which were broken up, hulked or sold foreign can be more difficult.
The journal Marine News includes from 1947 onwards, sales, transfers, renaming, casualties and demolitions, and has an annual index.
For ships on the British register, the monthly returns of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen (published under a variety of titles, but effectively forming a monthly supplement to the Mercantile Navy List), 1875–1946, should indicate the reason for a vessel's registry being closed.
Ship registration documents 1786–1994, are held by The National Archives: see their Research Guide Merchant Shipping: Registration of Ships, 1786–1994 for fuller details. More recent information can be obtained from the Registry of Shipping and Seamen.
Other sources which may be useful for particular periods, areas or classes of loss are available in the National Maritime Museum, such as books on shipwrecks in particular areas.
London EC2V 7HH
Tel: +44 (0)20 7332 1868/1870 (printed books) or +44 (0)20 7332 1863/3803 (manuscripts)
Maritime Archives and Library
Liverpool L3 4AA
Tel: +44 (0)151 478 4499
H M Register House
2 Princes Street
Edinburgh EH1 3YY
Tel: +44 (0)131 535 1314
Registry of Shipping and Seamen
Cardiff CF24 5JW
Tel: +44 (0)2920 448800
Fax: +44 (0)2920 448820
Surrey TW9 4DU
Tel: +44 (0)20 8876 3444
Email: via online contact form
Other guides which may be useful for researching the Merchant Navy are:
- Research guide C1: The Merchant Navy: Tracing people: Crew lists, agreements and official logs
- Research guide C2: The Merchant Navy: Tracing people: Master mariners, mates and engineers
- Research guide C4: The Merchant Navy: Sources for enquiries
- 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 C12: The Merchant Navy: Ship registration and Custom House records
- Research guide H1: Lloyd's: Lloyd's List: Brief history
- Research guide H3: Lloyd's: Lloyd's Captains' register
- Research guide H4: Lloyd's: Lloyd's List indexes
- Research guide H5: Lloyd's: Registers held at the National Maritime Museum
- Research guide H6: Lloyd's: Lloyd's Register survey reports
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.