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.

From 1835, the masters of British registered merchant ships were (and still are) required by law to keep records of the names 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 (numbering into millions), most of which have survived to the present. Unfortunately, the volume for the period after 1861 became so embarrassingly large that in the 1970s the documents were dispersed to over forty different repositories. This can make it cumbersome to access records for individual ships. At this period, there was no national index of seafarers, which 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.)

  What information can you find on a crew list?

A typical document contains this information and often more:

About the ship

Name; Official number (from 1855); Port and date of registry; Owner’s name and address; Master’s name and address; Tonnage.

About each crew member

Name; Age or Date of birth; Place of birth; Date of signing on and off; Capacity in which employed; Ship in which previously served; Wages.

Some documents after 1900 may show the seafarer's shore address. Crew names may also be mentioned in the section on some lists related to discipline (see below).

About the voyage(s)

For home-trade ships, there is usually a list of voyages with dates, though sometimes there is only a bald statement like 'In the coasting trade'.

For foreign-going ships, the front page of the agreement usually had a catch-all description of the voyage which should not be taken literally. Better indications are the places where crew signed off and on, especially any consular stamps and endorsements for ports where the ship touched.

Crew lists do not show

A day-to-day log of the ship's progress, the ship’s cargo or a full list of the owners.

Official number

The official number shown after 1855 is a vital item of information, because it identifies the ship uniquely and is used by most modern-day archives as a means of cataloguing the documents.

Crew member details

The crew member names are shown as forename then surname, though sometimes as initials and then surname. On agreement forms such as A and Eng1, the crew members who could write would often fill in their own name. Those who could not write made their mark over their name. At the right hand side of the entry, there will usually be a second chance to read the name when the seafarer signed off.

The seafarer's age or date of birth is shown next. Be careful - the first two digits of a date of birth are sometimes omitted or replaced by a /, as we realised when we looked at an 1891 crew list with what looked to be an entire crew of sixty-year olds (/67, /65 etc). The accuracy of the age/DOB entry is far from perfect - tally charts of ages of seafarers show distinct peaks at 20, 30, 40, 50 years old.

The seafarer's birthplace is shown, though how precise this is varies a great deal and it may not be helpful (eg John Jones born in Wales). Where it is more precise, it is likely to be accurate, especially if the seafarer wrote their own name. The combined details may sometimes be definite enough to unlock genealogical puzzles, for example by allowing researchers to trace a birth record in a distant part of the country.

The capacity in which the seafarer was employed is shown and also their wages. A list of some of the jobs which seafarers did is shown here: Capacities - seafarer's jobs

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! There are indeed many snags, but it can be done as we explain in more detail below.

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  Using previous vessel information

When seafarers signed on for a voyage, an entry was made relating to the previous vessel in which they had worked, consisting of:

It is also useful to note the exact date and place of signing on, which is shown as part of the entry.

You can then start to find the official number of the ship and so trace her crew lists.

The name of the ship may be difficult to decipher. You may find our page on reading the writing to be helpful: Reading the writing

Even if the writing is legible, you will need to bear in mind that the seafarer's recollection of the name may have been phonetic. If you can make out even part of the name, you can enter it into our vessel search page, using 'Starts with' etc to find a list of possible ships. Our basic search page is here: Search for ships by name

Where a seafarer was signing on again on the same ship, that was often entered as 'Same ship', 'Same', 'Continues' and so on. For foreign-going ships, that is likely to be reliable, but for Home-trade half-yearly returns it is often not, as we explain below.

Beware! 'Same' means 'previously served on this ship'; it does not mean 'Ditto', 'Do' etc (which has its normal meaning - ie 'same as the line above'). There are sometimes snags where a long column of dittos will have one entry over-written with the name of another ship and it is not easy to see what the rest of the dittos refer to - the earlier entry, or the added one. You'll need to consider both possibilities. In transcribing from crew lists, CLIP transcribers worked to a careful protocol to deal with snags of this sort as reliably as possible.

The ship's port of registry is often written under the name of the ship (but check carefully which ship is actually being referred to). It is often abbreviated and not always clearly, so Liverpool (Lpl, Lpool, Lvpl...), London (Ldn, Ld, Ldon...), Hartlepool (Hpl, Hpool ....), Sunderland (S'lnd, Slnd, Sund ...), Glasgow (G'gow, Ggw ...) give plenty of cause for confusion. Look out also for NS, Nfdlnd, showing Canadian ports.

The half-yearly returns for Home-trade ships, particularly List D, are less reliable. These lists were made up at the end of the half-year, from the forms such as B, which the seafarers were supposed to have signed when they joined or left the ship, often in the middle of the half-year. We have not made a detailed examination of the evidence, but we suspect that this process did not always work as intended and is occasionally close to fiction. Seafarers are often erroneously shown as 'Continuing'. Sometimes List D and B both survive and this is likely to be more reliable because you can cross-check.

Knowing exactly when and where the seafarer signed on may provide an additional route to identifying the ship using newspapers. Once the crew had been signed off from their previous voyage, they often began to drink their wages. When that process was complete, they would look for a new ship, usually in the same port. So you can work back from the date of signing on and find out which ships had arrived in the week or so previously. This is often possible using the contemporary newspapers, both local ones and the national maritime press such as Lloyd's List and the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette. We have described how to do that, here: Newspapers .

If the ship's name is not a common one, it should be possible to narrow the list down to one or two contenders. However, for really common names like Elizabeth or Margaret, quiet despair is probable the only option.

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  Finding crew lists

Unfortunately, the crew lists are scattered, particularly in the period from 1861 to 1913 during which time there was no central register. Nevertheless, with patience, it is possible to track down the documents and begin to trace the career of a seafarer.

These links explain how to do that with a case study to show how it works.

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  Crew lists and agreements - what's the difference?

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. These documents are often headed account of crew. At least some of these lists were made up from temporary records which were held on the ship. They were not usually signed by the crew members.

Ships which made any voyage outside British coastal waters completed a crew agreement for that voyage only. This was a legal agreement between the seafarer and the ship’s owners. 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.

We mostly use the term 'Crew List' because it is shorter and clearer, it irritates pedants, and would mess up CLIP's acronym if we didn't.

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  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 (except for some pre-1861) 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 archives and occasionally amongst bundles of crew lists.

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  More about crew lists and agreements

A large percentage of all the documents are now stored at the Maritime History Archive (MHA) in Newfoundland. They have a superb site More than a list of crew which is highly recommended. It would be superfluous for us to try to emulate it here - it will tell you all you want to know.

Should you wish to know more about the legislation which governed the mercantile marine, this is a summary Legislation with links to images of the Acts of Parliament.

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