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Shipping registers
Notes for the CLIP indexes to shipping registers
This page details:
How to use the CLIP shipping register data
CLIP has made a complete transcript and indexes which provide access to the data in three ways: Each of these finding aids links to a complete transcript for that folio by clicking the link at the right hand side of the entry. You can also browse through the transcripts for each register by using navigation buttons at the top of each transcript.
To search the finding aids, click on the 'Document list', 'Vessel search' or 'Name search' links on the strip at the head and/or foot of each page.
When using the search facility, it is wise to search by part of a name to allow for the inevitable spelling differences in the original. For example, rather than search for the surname QUINE using an exact search, we'd suggest that you search for 'begins with QUI' or 'includes UIN' or 'ends with INE' as a first attempt. You will need to enter at least three letters for these fuzzy searches.
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 registration was carried by port officials at statutory Ports of Registration around Britain, Ireland and the British Colonies, with copies being sent to central government. The names of the organisations and officials involved have changed over the years, and we have not tried to untangle the detailed terminology: we have referred to the local officers as the port officials and the central government body as the Registry of Shipping and Seamen (RSS).
The information recorded is described below and this was written on a numbered Certificate of Registry which was given to the owners. A copy of the information was recorded in the local shipping register 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. British registration is now run centrally by the Registry of Shipping and Seamen (RSS) in Cardiff, which is part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
Closed registers were transfered to RSS and in the 1990s all remaining records were computerised. The shipping registers were then returned to the local record offices or archives nearest to the original port of registry, where they remain. The CLIP list of these holdings is here.
Those for London are at The National Archives (TNA) in class CUST 130.
For ports in Scotland, most are at archives close to the port. The remainder are at the National Archives of Scotland. All are included in the CLIP list of register holdings..
Only a few registers for Irish ports seem to have survived and are held at the National Archives of Ireland.
The Maritime History Archive (MHA) in St John's, Newfoundland has microfilm of records for many ports including Canadian ones.
The situation for Crown Dependencies such as the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey, which are not part of the UK, is different. It is likely that most will have retained their registers, as the Isle of Man has.
The copies of the certificates of registration (transcripts) which were held by the Registry of Shipping and Seamen are now at TNA in the following classes:
TNA referenceTitleYears
BT 107Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Transcripts and Transactions, Series I 1786-1854
BT 108Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Transcripts and Transactions, Series II, Transcripts1855-1889
BT 109Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Transcripts and Transactions, Series III, Transactions1890-1998
BT 110Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Transcripts and Transactions, Series IV, Closed Registries 1855-1889
BT 111Registry of Shipping and Seamen: Transcripts and Transactions, Indexes to Transcripts1786-1907

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What is in the shipping registers?
The shipping registers contain information about: The registers themselves are large bound volumes, containing up to two hundred or so pages (referred to as folios) and covering several years of registration and transactions. The records are set out one vessel to a folio with further records for that ship added in later folios.
Initial registration
When a new ship was first registered, official measurement of the ship was made by the 'Tide Surveyor', and the owners and builder provided information, so the register shows:
  • the name of the ship
  • the owners' names, occupations and addresses
  • the master's name
  • the date and place of building
  • type of vessel (sail or steam and in the case of steam, whether paddle or screw)
  • number of masts and the rig
  • for steam vessels, description and measurements of the engines
  • measurements of length and breadth and depth of hold
  • tonnage
  • a description of the hull, including the figurehead
A glance at one of our transcripts or, if possible, the registers themselves will help to clarify this.
The register entries were numbered, starting afresh each year, which gives a reference to the vessel of the form: Douglas 12/1832, meaning the 12th new entry in the Douglas registers for 1832. Because ships were often re-registered, each ship could have several different references of this sort.
From 1855 the registers also record the vessel's official number, which was a unique number between 1 and 200,000. It was allocated to all ships afloat at that date at whichever port they first called, and reported back to her home port. Ships registered subsequently were allocated a number at the time of registration. The number was carved into a substantial part of the ships, such as the main bulkhead, and stayed with her throughout her life.
Ships were registered if they were over fifteen tons and had a deck.
Measurements were made in feet as specified by the regulations. On early registers, the fractions were in inches but after 1836 in tenths of a foot.
The vessel's tonnage was calculated from the measurements using officially laid-down formulae. In early registers, the tonnages include odd fractions such as 1/94 and later 1/3500: still later ones use decimal fractions. The most important distinction is between gross tonnage and net or register tonnage which included an allowance for the volume occupied by the engine room on steamships. The registered tonnage is the lower figure.
The system of measurement changed several times, so register pages often record several different tonnages. We have recorded what appears to be the earliest, to the whole ton.
Ownership of the ship was divided into 64 shares, but with a limit to the total number of owners. Ownership was described as shares, for example 8 shares, meaning 8/64ths of the ownership. Shares were often owned jointly. They were sold, mortgaged, bequeathed etc as described below under 'transactions'. Apart from the amount of mortgages, the sums involved in transactions are rarely shown.
Though the overall pattern of the registers remained substantially the same over the century, changes in legislation and regulations resulted in variations in the format of the registers and the information entered. Changes include:

Closing the register
The register was closed when the ship came to the end of her life, was sold on, or there was a change in subscribing owner. There was no specific place allocated for closure on the registration forms and it was usually written across the form in red ink. In some cases there are full details of the closure, including the date, place and reasons for the vessel's demise: in other cases, there is just a brief note that the vessel sank years ago, or no closure details at all.
The entry could also be closed if the registration was transferred to another port or the vessel was re-registered de novo at the same port (for example after extensive modifications or change of ownership). The entries for re-registrations usually show a cross-reference for the previous registration.
Over the years, the changes of ownership of the vessel were recorded as transactions, with the first few on the same page as the registration details and subsequent ones on fresh pages for that vessel, cross-referenced to the previous and subsequent ones. Once the register volume was full, additional transactions were recorded in a separate volume devoted just to transactions.
The owners disposing of their shares are shown, with the names, addresses and occupations of the new owners. Against this, the new overall ownership of the ship is recorded.
Other entries
The registers also record changes of the vessel's name, and the previous name if the change was made on re-registration. Thus the same vessel could have several different names and port references, so Annie, Bristol 4/1832 and Bessie, Beaumaris 12/1835 could well be the same vessel - only a check with one or both registers would tell. Of course, after the 1850s, the ship would have an official number which would not change on re-registration.
The most common form of transaction is a Bill of Sale formalising the sale of shares by one or more of the owners. Other transactions include the granting and release of mortgages and the execution of wills or letters of administration in the case of deaths. Prior to the Married Women's Property Act of 1882, they include the transfer of a woman's shares to her husband on marriage. There are also examples of the seizure of shares under court orders and their subsequent sale.
Other documents
The records of a port of registry commonly include:  
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CLIP transcription and indexes
Images were made of all the shipping registers using a digital SLR camera under ambient lighting in the searchroom of MNH and stored as .tiff files, using two separate images for each folio. Apart from the improved quality of using two images, this allowed us to deal with some of the earlier volumes where the entries for a ship are on the front and back of the same folio, rather than on facing pages as in the later registers.
Copies of the images have been compressed in .jpg format and written to a single DVD. It is hoped to publish this as soon as possible
The register entries were transcribed onto a custom MS-Access database, with both the image and the database on the computer screen at the same time. The database has a single front-end, but separate data files for each register. The database system will work for the registers of any port, and we'd be happy to discuss licensing it with anyone who would be interested in using it elsewhere.
Transcription was carried out according to the same protocols that have been used for all CLIP transcription. These include: Quality
Both main transcribers have long experience of transcription from documents of this period, particularly maritime documents. However, it should be noted we do not have a native's knowledge of Manx surnames and place names, though we had previously transcribed extensively from crew lists of Manx vessels. Our checking procedures included: Experience in using these procedures with similar databases has produced assessed error rates of less than 0.1% for individual data items and we have no reason to think that this data is different.
That means that there are still likely to be some errors in the data, for which we apologise, but which we would be glad to be informed of, so that we can correct them.
The data on this site is a union of the data from all of the shipping registers, with index files for surnames and ship's names.
The data shown in the transcripts and indexes is essentially 'as transcribed' particularly in relation to information about people's names and the ships details. However, to improve the presentation, we have added small amounts of text which is generated within the database. In describing the transaction types, for example, we have used standard text such as 'Died, leaving xxx shares to " which is close to, but not necessarily a transcript of, the phrases the registrars used. Where other notes are added, these will usually be direct quotes, as described above. In the few rare cases where we have added our own notes of explanation, [these are in square brackets].
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This page was last modified
Copyright this format © Peter Owens 2008
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