British merchant shipping was governed by many Acts of Parliament and regulations made under their provisions. This page provides a
summary of the main acts up to 1906 and (where possible) links to copies of the Act.
Current legislation is available at legislation.gov.uk.
However, most legislation prior to the early 20th century has been superceded and images of it are strangely difficult to find online.
The links below come from this extremely useful site - Alsatia - with our thanks.
An Act for the Further Increase and Encouragement of Shipping and Navigation, 1786 (26 Geo 3 c 60)
- Introduced the compulsory registration of all ships of more than fifteen tons gross with a deck
- Established the post of Registrar General of Shipping under the Board of Customs
Merchant Seamen's Act, 1823 (4 Geo c 25)
- Masters of ships of more than 80 tons were required to carry apprentices.
An act for the registering of Vessels, 1823 (4 Geo 4 c 41)
- The ownership of a vessel with more than one owner to be divided into sixty-four shares, recorded on the reverse of the Certificate of Registry and in the Shipping Register
- No more than thirty two people to be owners of shares at the same time
- Section 15 specifies the measurement of tonnage
- The runs of shipping registers now held in Record Offices frequently start in the 1820s.
An Act for the registering of British Vessels, 1825 (6 Geo 4 c 110)
- Section 17 specifies the measurement of tonnage
An Act for the Encouragement of British Shipping and Navigation, 1833 (3 & 4 Will 4 c 54)
An Act for the registering of British Vessels, 1833 (3 & 4 Will 4 c 55)
- Section 15 specifies the measurement of tonnage, but unfortunately, pages 526 and 527 are missing from this copy
The Merchant Seamen Act, 1835 (5 & 6 Will 4 c 19)
- Established the General Register Office of Merchant Seamen and the
post of Registrar General of Seamen
- Masters were required to return Agreements and Crew Lists to the General
Register Office of Merchant Seamen.
- From the agreements and crew lists, the Registrar General of Seamen
compiled registers of seamen which were intended to allow the Admiralty to select the men needed in time of war rather
than using the press gang.
The schedules under the act specify the format and wording
of lists and agreements.
The register did not include fishermen.
Apprentice indentures were filed either with local Customs or with the Registrar General of Seamen.
The Merchant Seamen Act, 1844 (7 & 8 Vict c 112)
- Amended and consolidated legislation relating to merchant seamen.
Wrecks and Salvage Act, 1846 (9 & 10 Vict c 99)
- Amended and consolidated legislation relating to wrecks and salvage.
Steam Navigation Act, 1846 (9 & 10 Vict c 100)
- Regulated the construction of steam vessels.
- Required steam vessels to carry boats.
The Seamen's Fund Winding-up Act, 1851 (14 & 15 Vict c 102)
- Wound up the previous arrangements and made provision for the payment of pensions to masters and seamen.
- Required masters to hand to the Shipping Master the wages and effects of all seamen who had died during the voyage.
- Registers of deceased seamen were maintained by the Registrar of Seamen.
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1854 (17 & 18 Vict c 104)
- Transferred all matters relating to merchant ships to the Board of Trade.
- Customs officers were required to transmit an annual list of ships to the Registrar General of Shipping.
- Introduced Official Numbers for all registered ships, which became the main means of reference for a ship.
- Master and seaman were required to sign a Certificate of Discharge and Character.
- Masters were required to deposit official logs with the Board of Trade.
The Merchant Shipping Repeal Act, 1854 (17 & 18 Vict c 120)
- Repealed legislation which was replaced by the Merchant Shipping Act, 1854 and came into force at the same time.
The Passengers Act, 1855 (18 & 19 Vict c 119)
Made regulations for passenger ships, including the requirement for a passenger list.
The Seamen's Savings Bank Act, 1856 (19 & 20 Vict c 41)
Made the Board of Trade through shipping offices responsible for the running of a Savings Bank for seamen.
Merchant Shipping Act Amendment Act, 1862 (25 & 26 Vict c 63)
- Steamships were required to carry certificated engineers.
Table C in the Schedule contains the regulations for the avoidance of collision at sea.
The Sea Fisheries Act, 1868 (31 & 32 Vict c 45)
Provided for the registration of sea fishing boats, including the requirement for
port letters and numbers to be marked on the vessel.
Some registers of fishing boats predate this act. The letters and numbers identify the boat,
for example BS 109 refers to entry 109 in the fishing boat register for
Beaumaris. The numbers are not unique - they were re-used in later registers
if the previous vessel was no longer fishing at that port. However, they can
be used to identify a vessel from a photograph if its approximate date is known.
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1871 (34 & 35 Vict c 110)
It was a criminal offence for seamen to refuse to go to sea once they had signed on to a ship.
- Section 7 sets out the procedure under which the crew could refuse to sail on account of the unseaworthiness of the ship.
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1872 (35 & 36 Vict c 73)
- Established the post of Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen, combining the roles of the Registrars of Shipping and of Seamen.
The Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1874 (37 & 38 Vict c 80)
- Under section 37, Masters were required to report all births and deaths on board to the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen.
- Crew list and agreement forms include a section to record this information.
- The Fourth Schedule shows the details that masters
were required to record.
- The RGSS reported periodically to the Registrars General of Births Deaths and Marriages in England and Wales, Scotland or Ireland.
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1875 (38 & 39 Vict c 80)
- Made further provision for stopping unseaworthy ships.
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1876 (39 & 40 Vict c 80)
- Made load line marks (the Plimsoll line) on vessels compulsory. However, the position of the line was not stipulated until 1894.
The legislation was prompted by the casualties - between 1867 and 1882, loss
of life in British vessels alone (and excluding fishing vessels) totalled 33,427 seafarers
and 5,987 passengers. 16,393 ships were lost.
Sea Fisheries Act, 1883 (46 & 47 Vict c 22)
- Included information relating to fishermen and fishing boats into the general
run of shipping records.
- Skippers of fishing boats were required to enter agreements with every
- Special arrangements made for fishing boats under 80 tons and their
Agreements and Crew Lists are filed separately.
- Extended the competency examinations to the skippers and mates of
- From 1884 the agreements and crew lists for fishing boats were completed
on different forms from the main run of crew lists.
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1890 (53 & 54 Vict c 9)
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1894 (57 & 58 Vict c 60)
- Extended the system for apprentices to those on fishing boats. Copies of the indentures were sent to the RGSS.
- Included a large section relating to seamen's wages.
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1906 (6 Edw 7 c 48)
- Section 27 established the registration of cooks which started in 1908.