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Crew lists
Crew lists
Crew lists are the records of the crew serving on a ship for a certain period - usually a voyage or half-year. The documents are more properly called Crew Lists and Agreements - the differences are explained below.
The masters of British registered ships were (and still are) required by law to keep records of their crew and return them to the authorities (in the late nineteenth century, the Board of Trade of the British Government). Failure to make returns promptly could result in delays to the ship and fines for the master, and compliance with the regulations seems to have been good.
As a result, the Board of Trade accumulated a large volume of documents (possibly numbering into millions), most of which have survived to the present. Unfortunately, the volume for the period after 1861 became so embarrassingly large that the documents were eventually dispersed to nearly fifty different repositories. This can make it cumbersome to access records for individual ships. The absence of a national index of seafarers makes it even trickier to find details about individuals.
However, the documents can provide detailed information on the comings and goings of all ranks of seafarers.
(We use the term seafarer rather than seaman because the crew of a ship could include women - as stewardesses for example.)
A typical document contains this information and often more:
About the ship
Name, Official number, Port and date of registry, Owner’s name and address, Master’s name and address, Tonnage.
About each crew member
Full Name, Age or Date of Birth, Place of birth, Date of signing on and off, Capacity in which employed, Ship in which previously served.
About the voyage(s)
List of voyages with dates and sometimes the ship's cargo.
The most interesting item of information in the entry for a seafarer is likely to be "Ship in which previously served". In theory, this allows you to trace back the career of a seafarer step by step through a series of crew lists until you come to the entry that says "First ship".
Oh, if life were that simple!  In practice, the chain is likely to break down sooner rather than later. Nevertheless, it should be possible to trace back a few ships.
Crew lists and Agreements
Ships which were sailing in British coastal waters filled in crew lists every six months, recording all the crew who had sailed on the ship during that time. Some of these lists were made up from temporary records which were held on the ship.
Ships which made any voyage outside British coastal waters completed an agreement for that voyage only. Seafarers signed on at the start of the voyage and also on or off (or deserted) at ports where the ship touched. Entries in these documents were usually signed by the seafarers themselves.
Where a vessel sailed mostly in British waters but made occasional foreign-going trips, there may be both lists and agreements for the same period.
Other related documents
Agreements for foreign-going ships included sections to record disciplinary matters - for example, where seafarers deserted or were dismissed. There are also official logs which record similar details and also events such as accidents and wrecks. These official logs do not include day-to-day journals of the working of the ship and they do not survive (if they ever existed) for many voyages - presumably the uneventful ones. However, since the events that are recorded are sometimes dramatic and are described at the time in the master’s own words, where they exist they make fascinating reading.
On signing off from a ship, a seafarer would be given discharge papers recording the voyage and comments on their work and behaviour. A small number of these documents survive, as family heirlooms, in record offices and occasionally amongst bundles of crew lists.
Crew lists | About CLIP | Seafarers on crew lists | Indexes of seafarers
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This page was last modified 09 March 2015
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