Records of British Ships

This page explains how to find records of British registered ships, concentrating on the period 1861 to 1913 and on details which will assist researchers to identify a ship and particularly her official number, because that is important in locating crew documents.

This page details:

Registration of Shipping

A centralised system of registration for British ships began with the 'Act for the Further Increase and Encouragement of Shipping and Navigation' of 1786 and has continued to this day. The system has been modified by various Acts of Parliament, but remained essentially the same until the 1960s. It applied to all ships of more than 15 tons with a deck.

The registration was carried out by port officials at statutory Ports of Registry around Britain, Ireland and the (then) British Colonies. Details of the ship and her ownership were recorded on a numbered Certificate of Registry which was given to the owners. A copy of the information was recorded in the local Shipping Registers (sometimes called Customs Registers) at the port and a transcript of that sent to the Registry of Shipping and Seamen. The process continued essentially unchanged until the 1960s when the registers were computerised.

Click the link to the right for more detail on the registration of shipping together with information on how to locate the registration documents.

Most of the registers were eventually held at the Registry of Shipping and Seamen in Cardiff, but they have now mostly been returned to the local archive or record office closest to the port, or to the National Archives in Scotland or PRONI in the case of Northern Ireland. Only a few Irish registers survive at the National Archives of Ireland. The registers for London are held at TNA in CUST 130.

You can use CLIP data to look for holdings of shipping registers, listed either by archive or by port. The data also shows holdings of crew lists.

The copies of registers which were sent to the Board of Trade are now at TNA in BT 107 - BT 111.

The pages (folios) in the shipping registers at the ports of registry were numbered in sequence, starting again each year, and that could be used to clarify which ship was being referred to. For example, there would have been many ships named Elizabeth, but a particular ship might be referred to as 'Elizabeth, Bristol, 34/1841' meaning that this ship was the 34th ship registered at the port of Bristol in 1841.

Unfortunately, ships were frequently re-registered, for example if they were sold to new owners, perhaps at another port, and were sometimes renamed, so that the 'Margaret, Cardiff, 23/1851' could well be the same ship as the Elizabeth mentioned above. An examination of the shipping registers of Bristol and/or Cardiff would be needed to clarify this. This difficulty was dealt with by the introduction of 'Official Numbers' for each ship.

Shipping register entry for the Ellen & Ann, registered Douglas, 2/1891, ON 20853
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Official numbers

From 1855, British ships were given an unique official number when they were first registered. The number stayed with the ship throughout her life, even if she was re-registered or the ship’s name was changed. It was frequently carved or welded onto a substantial part of the ship’s structure.

The official numbers were allocated by the Registrar General of Shipping. Each Port of Registry was allocated runs of numbers as necessary. At these ports, the numbers were recorded in the Shipping Registers and also in the Appropriation Book for that port. Copies of register entries were sent to the Registrar General of Shipping who maintained the central Appropriation Books, which formed the single complete definitive list of British registered vessels and their official numbers.

These central Appropriation Books are held at the current Registry of Shipping and Seamen (RSS) at Cardiff. CLIP has made images of the six volumes and data from them forms the basis of the CLIP official number index.

The Appropriation Books
The first entries in the Appropriation Books

How to find a ship's official number

The simplest way to find a ship's official number is to use the CLIP finding aids on this site - the most powerful vessel search site, by a long way.

Enter the ship's name, or a part of it, into the CLIP ship search page and it will provide you with a list of the ships whose name matches, with their official number. The advanced search allows you to input a range of dates and port of registry

These searches use the CLIP ship database, which has data from the Appropriation Books and other records gathered during the CLIP project and currently contains over 670,000 records of ships' names and official numbers. It is the only database with complete coverage of British registered ships of the period, with all official numbers from 1 to 200,000 and covering 1855 to the 1950s. It provides a range of other facilities to aid your search - for example, direct links to other sites which might have data for the name you are searching for.

We are also careful to show the source of each item of data, so that you can check it for yourself (increasingly, by looking at an image of the document). Remember that these are historical records, many of which are hand-written and even printed ones are derived from hand-written sources. Any transcription (even CLIP) is as prone to error as all human activity. You need to CHECK!

To check your data, the sources below are the most important, particularly the Mercantile Navy List, which was the only comprehensive printed reference available during the 19th century.

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The Mercantile Navy List

First published in 1849, from 1857 the annual Mercantile Navy List (MNL) lists the official number of every British registered ship afloat at that date, giving details of registry and ownership, and physical details of the ship. It continued until 1977, with a gap during the Second World War.

It is by far the most useful record of British registered shipping, because it is comprehensive - it includes all ships, of any tonnage over 15 tons, whether registered with an insurance company or not. From 1857 to 1872, it is the only printed source of official numbers - Lloyd's Register only began to include them from 1872 onwards.

The data was drawn from the copies of the shipping registers returned to the Board of Trade and returns made by the ports of registry. These sources were themselves sometimes out of date, so an entry in MNL may not be a good indication of whether a ship was still extant at that date. However, used with care, the entries can provide useful clues as to the fate of a ship and changes such as re-registry and changes of name.

Though MNL is a printed source, remember that it is drawn from hand-written entries and as prone to typos as any other source, for example official numbers with digits transposed.

Mercantile Navy List 1870. The Belgium (ON 3) was still afloat

Finding copies of the Mercantile Navy List (MNL)

Unfortunately, MNL is not easy to find. Nearly complete runs of MNL can only be found at the National Maritime Museum (NMM), The National Archives (TNA), Southampton City Library and Falmouth Maritime Museum. Some record offices and large reference libraries have copies, but not complete runs. The PortCities Southampton site has an incomplete list of where the Mercantile Navy List can be found.

It is becoming increasingly easy to find images of MNL online. CLIP provides two links into these images - the CLIP vessel search pages provide assisted access to images of MNL, and the CLIP image viewer is designed to simplify direct access to images of MNL,as described below.

The Mercantile Navy List (MNL) online

The CLIP image viewer provides indexed access to images of more than 40 editions of MNL drawn from several sites including those below and our own images, so that you can easily search and browse from one edition of MNL to another.

MNL on other online sites

Google books have scanned a few copies of the MNL and other shipping registers, as follows:

The Digital Archives Initiative at Memorial University (home of MHA) has digital images of MNL for the following years: 1868, 1875, 1876, 1878, 1880, 1882, 1891, 1892, 1896, 1899, 1904, 1907, 1911, 1913, 1918, 1919, 1921, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938.

Other editions of MNL have been made available online by the Vaughan Evans Library at the Australian National Maritime Museum digital archive. Their image viewer for MNL is here. The years covered are: 1862, 1883, 1888, 1889, 1892, 1893, 1895, 1896, 1897, 1898, 1904, 1907, 1911, 1917 and 1920.

The same site has images of The Register of Australian and New Zealand Shipping, which shows official numbers and includes the following years: 1874, 1876, 1893, 1902, 1906, 1915, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1924, 1925.

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Lloyd's Register of Shipping

Lloyd's Register of Shipping is the annual list of ships insured at Lloyd's of London. It included official numbers from 1872 and continues to the present. Lloyd's Register is less useful than MNL for several reasons - it is not comprehensive: only ships registered with Lloyd's are included, so many smaller ships are not there; there are many foreign vessels, with other numbers entered against them, and some ships which undoubtedly did have an official number are shown but without one.

Note also that Lloyd's Registers run from July to June, not calendar years, and that Lloyd's Register is not the same as Lloyd's List which was (and is) a newspaper covering shipping news on a daily basis.

Finding copies of Lloyd's Register of Shipping

Lloyd's Register of Shipping is more widely available than MNL - as well as the large maritime libraries, many large reference libraries have copies, or facsimilies.

The PortCities Southampton site has a list of where Lloyd's Register can be found.

Lloyd's Register of Shipping online

Google books appears to be working steadily through copies of Lloyd’s Register from 1800 onwards and have currently reached 1868. As noted above, the first year which shows official numbers is 1872.

However, the Open Library have copies of some later editions of Lloyd’s Register (which, strangely, carry the Google Books foreword). The following show official numbers:

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Records of a ship's ultimate fate

Ships were removed from the British shipping records for a variety of reasons. The obvious one is that the ship had met with some catastrophe - had foundered, been stranded, had sunk as a result of collision, had gone on fire or exploded, or (poignantly) was 'supposed lost'. Other ships might have been sold abroad, left to rot, used as a hulk, used for river work or simply broken up - sometimes for firewood.

It may be important to know when the ship ceased to be registered, for example so that a ship can be ruled out of a list of possible ships that a seafarer sailed on. No central systematic records were kept, but several different sources can be used to discover how and when the ship's service ended.

These records need to be used with a little care.

Ships that foundered in shallow water were sometimes declared as 'total wrecks' and removed from the records, only to be raised, repaired and many continued to sail for years afterwards.

In shipping registers, closures were not always reported promptly, if at all, especially for smaller ships. There were also inevitable delays in moving data to publications such as MNL, which might continue to list a ship which had been sunk for some time.

The names of ships were sometimes changed (though the official number would remain the same) so a ship may seem to disappear from the records when it is just that the name had been changed.

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Other databases online

Many other sites have lists of vessels which show official numbers. Bear in mind that the source of the data is not usually made clear. CHECK!

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