This page gives details of the Appropriation Books which were the central record of the official numbers allocated to British ships in the period from 1855 to the 1950s.
It also provides details of the CLIP images of the documents and the indexes made from them.
Under the great Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, the system of registration of British shipping was re-organised in 1855 so that each vessel was given an unique official number. For details of the legislation, see: Legislation
One purpose of this system was to distinguish between vessels which had the same name. The official number remained with the ship throughout her life, even if her name or port changed, or if she was sold abroad and then re-registered. It was carved into, or welded onto, the main structure of the vessel.
The numbers were allotted centrally, in batches, to the hundreds of ports of registry throughout Britain and the British Colonies and then allocated to vessels by the port officials.
The initial allotments of numbers up to 40000 covered all ports, including colonial ports, and depended on the size of the port. So, 1 to 1000 were allotted to London, 1001 to 2000 to Liverpool, the next 500s to Shields and Sunderland, and so on. Allocation to vessels began at all ports on 16 April 1855 or soon after. Details of this initial allocation are here: Initial allocation
To deal with the thousands of ships which were already registered at that date, vessels were allocated an official number when they first touched at a port of registry, even if that was not her home port. Thus official number 1 was allocated at London to a ship registered at Goole. A vessel's official number was added to her registration certificate and at some later date added to her entry in the shipping registers at her home port. This catching-up process was mostly completed by early in 1856, but continued into the 1860s.
Newly registered vessels were similarly allocated an official number on initial registration at their home port. Again, this was written prominently at the top of the new style shipping registers that were introduced at this time.
At each port, its allotted official numbers and vessel names were recorded in port Appropriation Books. These books can sometimes be found with the shipping registers for the port, at local archives or via the Australian National Archives. A list of those we know about is here: Local Appropriation Books
Once a port's allotment of numbers was used up, further allotments were made as needed. Especially in the first year, allotments which had not been fully used were re-allocated to other ports.
The ports of registry made returns of vessel registration (register transcripts and annual returns) to the Board of Trade and these were then used to make up the central Appropriation Books. These ledgers contain a list of all the official numbers in order, with the vessel name against each, together with a few other details such as tonnage and port of registry. So far as we are aware, they contain the only single list of all the official numbers and the vessels to which they were allocated. These ledgers are at present held at the Registry of Shipping and Seamen in Cardiff, see Figure 1.The British registry was digitised from the 1960s, but there are six further volumes at RSS covering the later official numbers from 300,001 (the Americans having appropriated the numbers beyond 200,000).
The volumes are numbered 1 to 6 and cover these official numbers:
Within the volumes, the records are arranged 50 entries to a page in columns with these headings:
The first three volumes also have two further columns:
Especially in the first volume, there are frequent margin notes against the entries which (if you can decipher them) can provide information on the ultimate fate of the ship. Typical entries are 'Lost as per cert[ificate] 20/6/58' or 'Sold foreigners per advice 8/4/67'.
Beware - it is sometimes not easy to see which entry the note refers to.
However, these notes may be a useful quick alternative to consulting the original Shipping Registers.
There are also margin notes at both the side and the top of pages, showing the allocation of official numbers to ports.
The entries in the Appropriation Books are all hand-written. If you are used to reading the writing in Victorian documents, you will know that there were a few handwriting quirks that wouldn’t be used now. For example, double-s was often written as fs.
The letter t is frequently not crossed and letters m, n, u and w are often hard to distinguish - we think these are 'James Landels' and 'Luna'.
For more details and examples, see: Reading the writing
Some of the colonial ports have names which are identical to ports in the British Isles, just followed by letters, such as NS (for Nova Scotia). For example, the Merseyside port of Liverpool has a Canadian counterpart - Liverpool, Nova Scotia, as shown here. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Amongst entries for Canadian ports, there are some for Liverpool (just that) that we think refer to the Nova Scotia port, not the Merseyside one. There are also instances where 'Ditto' was used down a column and it is not clear which port is being referred to.
The clerks who entered the data in the Appropriation Books had a few quirks of their own. In some cases, they entered details out of order, and then put things right by re-numbering the entries, or even by adding a cross to show the records should be swapped. Trojan is number 4, not number 3.
Not all the official numbers were used. There are gaps, totalling over 2000 numbers in all. From entries in the Mercantile Navy List, it appears that some of these blank numbers were in fact used. Also, the last five hundred numbers were allocated to Penang - we don't know whether they were used.
With the kind permission of the Registry of Shipping and Seamen, CLIP made images of the Appropriation Books which are now available on this site - you can search by official number by following the link to the right. If you do not know the ships official number, you can search for possible matches using the 'Ships by name' or 'Ships by port' search forms.
CLIP volunteers transcribed the main details from each record, (Name, Official Number, Vessel Type and Year of Registration).
Data for port number and tonnages was added later. This data now forms part of the CLIP ships database and you can search by ship's name or port, using the links to the right.
The Appropriation Books were hand written, sometimes not well, and derived from sources such as port returns which were themselves sometimes not well-written. Data derived from them, such as the Mercantile Navy List, shows evidence of further discrepancies, which sometimes propagated through many annual editions of MNL.
The aim in making the database is not to standardise the data, or to try to decide what is the 'correct' name for a ship - there are pedants who specialise in that. We are content to have several versions of the name for one official number, on the basis that researchers could encounter any of them in the ship's documents.
The transcribers were asked to enter the details 'as seen', so you will need to bear this in mind when using the indexes. For example, both 'May Flower' and 'Mayflower' turn up. The best way to catch both of these versions is to make a search for vessel names that include the text 'flower', which will return both of the above (as well as a few other unwanted hits).
However, there are a few modifications which we have added to the simple 'as seen' rule, to aid indexing.
CLIP transcribers made two completely separate transcriptions of all the data, and we compared the data sets to catch discrepancies. We corrected the discrepancies against the images and for any which could not be resolved we used other sources, such as the Mercantile Navy List, to give us a clue. We made other internal checks - for example, to catch the instances where records were written out of order. Where possible, we have also systematically cross-checked our data against other data, including ten different editions of the Mercantile Navy List. We continue to amend the data when new datasets show discrepancies. We are satisfied that while the error rate in the CLIP data is not zero, it is substantially less than the variation in the documents themselves and the data they were derived from.
These are the initial allocations of ranges of official numbers (ONs) to ports of registry. They are shown in the Appropriation Books as pencil notes at the top of the page where the allocation starts.
Beware! This table does not mean that these numbers were allocated only to ships which were registered at that port.
On the contrary, in the first few years of the operation of the system, ONs were allocated at the first British port of registry that a ship called at, even if that was not her own port of registry. The allocation was notified to the ship's port of registry and noted in the register of shipping on that ship's page.
For example, ONs 1 to 1000 were allocated to London. ON 1 was allocated to the ship Blessing, which was registered at Goole and which just happened to be in the port of London on 16 April 1855.
Once the backlog had been cleared (by about 1860), ONs were allocated to new ships at their port of registry when they were first registered.
A second allotment was made starting from ON 22201, allocated to Inverness, with the first allocation from the second allotment being made there on 5 May 1855.
At several ports, the allotments were only used slowly. In these cases, the unused allotment was transferred to other ports. For example, Westport was initially allocated ONs from 21301 to 21400, but unused ONs from 21313 were re-allocated in 1858.
Subsequently, allocations were made to the colonial ports, and further allocations and re-allocations made as necessary. These allocations are noted in pencil in the Appropriation Books, either in the left-hand margin or at the top of the page.