Crew lists and records of seafarers pre-1861

  In brief - records pre-1861

The quickest way to find details of a seafarer pre-1861 is to use Findmypast's index drawn from the registers of seafarers. Findmypast (£)

The registers of seafarers use a code called the port rotation number to show which ship the seafarer sailed on. The CLIP index to these codes is here: Port rotation number index

Once you know the name of the ship, you can search for the crew list for the ship using the CLIP search page. This provides links to the TNA Discovery catalogue and to the FamilySearch films of the documents. Crew lists at TNA pre-1861

The links on this page give full details of the available sources and the search pages all have a notes section to explain how to use them.


This page explains how to find records of merchant seafarers on British registered vessels for the period before 1861.

From 1837, central registers of seafarers were kept. These have survived, are available online and provide a good chance of finding records of individual seafarers.

Many of the crew list and agreements have also survived and are at the National Archives in their class BT 98. They were filmed by the LDS Church in the 1970s and the images are available online on FamilySearch (though only at FamilySearch Centres or FamilySearch Affiliate Libraries).

The connection between the registers of seamen and the crew list is via a two-part numerical code, made up of the port rotation number, which identified the ship, and the port number which identified the ship's port of registry.

Further details are available from other sites, including the The National Archives information pages

Be aware. The notes on this page apply only to the period before 1861.

For the period 1861 to 1913, the crew lists are the only records of most seafarers and the documents are scattered over more than 40 archives. This is the period that CLIP concentrates on.

After 1913, central indexes of seafarers were kept and are available online. The crew lists and agreements are in just three archives, but have not been digitised.

  Registers of seafarers 1835 to 1856

Central records of seafarers on British registered ships began in 1835 under the Merchant Seamen Act, 1835 (5 & 6 Will 4 c 19) Act mainly motivated by the need to man the Navy in times of war.

The records were compiled by the Register Office of Merchant Seamen. Over the years, this office went through several changes of name and function. The present manifestation is the Registry of Shipping and Seamen (RSS) and we generally use that abbreviation to cover all the earlier entities.

From 1835 to 1856, the RSS compiled various registers of seamen, drawing information from the crew lists which were returned at the end of a voyage or every six months. The main registers show the man's name, age, birthplace, the capacity in which he was engaged, and sometimes a description such as height and complexion.

The registers which include details of the voyages, especially those from 1845 to 1854, use a code (the ship's port rotation number and the port number of her port of registry). This code can be used to track down the crew documents for the voyage, see below: Port Rotation Numbers

The registers are all at The National Archives (TNA) and can be accessed there. Most have also been digitised by Findmypast and are available on their site: Findmypast (£)

These are the various series of documents at TNA:

Register of Seamen, Series I, BT 120, 1835-1836. TNA Discovery, BT 120

Register of Seamen, Series II, BT 112, 1835-1844. TNA Discovery, BT 112

There are two sections, one for the home trade (coastal and fishing) and another for the foreign trade. The home trade entries in BT 112 are indexed by the Alphabetic Index to Seamen (BT 119) TNA Discovery, BT 119

The records of seafarer's voyages include a code to identify the ship (which is different from the port rotation numbers used later). In any case, the ship is often named so that can be used in tracing the crew lists.

Register of Seamen’s Tickets, BT 113, 1845–1854. TNA Discovery, BT 113

The entries in BT 113 are indexed by the Alphabetical Index of Registers of Seamen’s Tickets (BT 114). TNA Discovery, BT 114

The entries in the registers in BT 113 show the number of the seaman's ticket, which also appears on the crew list, so helping to make a match between the two entries.

These registers use the port rotation number codes in the records of voyages, as explained below.

Register of Seamen, Series III, BT 116, 1853-1857. TNA Discovery, BT 116

Alphabetical Register of Masters, BT 115, 1845-1854. TNA Discovery, BT 115

Registers of Certificates of Service, Masters and Mates, Foreign Trade, BT 124, 1850-1922. TNA Discovery, BT 124

Images of BT 124 records are available for download from TNA (see the link above). CLIP has indexed the records and they can be searched on this site: BT 124

Family History Indexes have crew name indexes for many of the records for 1851, particularly Irish, Scottish and Welsh ports. These are available online via The Genealogist (£) . The CLIP search tool Crew list for British ports in BT 98, 1845-1856 (below) highlights any of the records that Family History Indexes have available.

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  Crew lists prior to 1861

All the crew lists for British registered ships prior to 1861 are held at TNA in the series BT 98.

All the documents have been filmed by the LDS Church and are available on FamilySearch.

How the documents are arranged in BT 98 depends on the period:

Crew lists in BT 98, mostly prior to 1835, BT 98/1 to BT 98/139.

This first section of BT 98 contains early records (dating back to 1747 for some northern ports) and also miscellaneous records, in some cases extending to 1850. It has not been catalogued and might not be easy to search.

Crew lists in BT 98 from 1835 to 1844, BT 98/140 to BT 98/563.

The crew lists for this period are filed by the ship's port of registry and then by the initial letter of the ship's name. To find the appropriate reference number, consult TNA's catalogue.

Crew lists in BT 98 from 1845 to 1856, BT 98/564 to BT 98/4758

The crew lists are boxed by year, then by port of registry, and then in alphabetic order. There may be several boxes for one year and port, covering a range of ships names. For example, Aberystwyth ships with names starting D-H for 1851 are in BT 98/2382.

To find the appropriate reference number, you can consult TNA's catalogue, or (simpler) use the CLIP crew list tool in this section.

If you have found an entry for a seafarer in the registers of seamen as described above, you can find the name of the ship involved from the records of voyages. The ship may be named: if not, it involves cracking the port rotation number/port codes that were used. We explain how this works below.

It may be possible to get an image by ordering via the TNA catalogue page, and you would need to bear in mind that the foreign-going lists in BT 98 often involve many documents for just one voyage. We have no experience of ordering documents in this way.

However, there is an alternative route. The LDS Church has filmed these records and the images are available online on FamilySearch (but only at a FamilySearch Centre or an Affiliate Library unless you are a member of the LDS Church). The catalogue page for the pre-1857 crew lists is here: FamilySearch films of BT 98 . Scroll down their catalogue page to see the list of films.

Our general guide to how to find FamilySearch Centres and Affiliate Libraries and use the films is here: Finding FamilySearch films .

Be aware There is no guarantee that documents for a particular ship are actually in the box - they may never have existed, or they may have been lost, destroyed, or simply mis-filed (it happens, often) in the years since 1857.

Crew lists for British ports in BT 98, 1845-1856

Please choose a port number or port, and the year.

Port number :   

Port :    

Year :     

Crew lists in BT 98 from 1857 to 1860, BT 98/4759 to BT 98/6944

The crew lists are boxed by year, then by official number. One official number may be in more than one box. Each box has a reference number and the catalogue shows the range of official numbers in each box so, for example, the crew lists for 1858 for the vessel Albion, with official number 1000 is likely to be in BT 98/5107, which holds official numbers 991 to 1050.

Be aware The box may not contain documents for every official number in the range covered - they may never have existed, or they may have been lost, destroyed, or simply mis-filed at the time or in the years since 1861.

To find the appropriate reference number, you can consult TNA's catalogue, or (simpler) use the CLIP crew list tool in this section.

To obtain a copy of a document, you will have to visit TNA, or employ a researcher to do so, or order a copy via TNA's catalogue page.

The LDS Church has filmed these records and the images are available online on FamilySearch (but only at a FamilySearch Centre or a FamilySearch Affiliate Library unless you are a member of the LDS Church).

The catalogue page for the 1857-1860 crew lists is here FamilySearch films of BT 98 . Scroll down their catalogue page to see the list of the films.

Our general guide on finding FamilySearch Centres and FamilySearch Affiliate Libraries and using the films is here: Finding FamilySearch films .

 Crew lists in BT 98, 1857-1860

Please enter an official number and click GO.

ON:   Lookup crew lists in BT 98

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  Port Rotation Numbers

In the period 1845 to 1854, port rotation numbers were part of a code, together with port numbers, which was used to identify the ship which the seafarer was employed on. This provided the connection between the indexes of seafarers and the crew documents.

The list of port numbers has always been known, but the key to the port rotation number part of the code had been lost. In the last two years, CLIP has cracked the code in collaboration with an Australian based researcher, Peter Hamersley. This has enabled us to make an index to the port rotation numbers, linking them to the names of the ships. The index covers more than 50% of all the port rotation numbers and well over 90% for the years 1845-1851.

This is our picture of the process of dealing with the crew documents when they arrived in London:

At the Registry of Shipping and Seamen, the registration returns from the shipping registers for each port were used to compile a list of ships for that port and each new registration was allocated a number - the port rotation number. That number remained with the ship unless it was re-registered or no longer afloat. The port rotation numbers went in sequence with the register entries for each year. Unfortunately, this list of the port rotation numbers has never been found and probably no longer exists.

When crew documents were returned from the ports to the officials in London, the clerks looked up the ship on the list for that port and scrawled a numerical code on the document, showing the port and the ship's port rotation number - for example, 86.104 - 86 was the code for the ship and 104 for the port (Whitby in this case).

The crew documents were passed to the clerks who compiled the registers of seafarers. They worked through the pile of crew documents, identifying each crew member in turn and adding the information to the seafarer's record, using the code written on the crew document. A long slow job!

Here is an example:

Figure 1 shows an Account of Crew for a Whitby ship, with the port number and port rotation number annotated by the clerks using the list of ships for Whitby. The code is 86.104.1 in this case.

One of the apprentices on board the Concord was John Breckon as shown in Figure 2. His seaman's ticket number was 414237.

The clerks who compiled the registers of seafarers added the code from the crew lists to John Breckon's record in the Register of Seamen's Tickets (BT 113), as shown in Figure 3. You can see that his ticket number (414237) could have been used to confirm the correct entry. The port rotation number (86) and port number (104) appear in the entries recording his voyages in 1851.

Fig 1: Crew agreement for the Concord of Whitby in 1851 - port rotation number (86) and port number (104) written on the right
Fig 2: John Breckon is shown as one of the apprentices
Fig 3: Entry for John Breckon in the Register of Seamen's Tickets, BT 113/208

The problem for modern researchers is to go the other way - from the port rotation number to the crew list. Without knowing what ship the port rotation number 86 stands for, researchers would have to go through the ten boxes or films of crew documents for Whitby for 1851, looking through each of the dozens of documents for John Breckon.

The index that CLIP and Peter Hamersley have compiled solves this problem. The index is online and entering the port rotation number and port number will produce the name of the ship and details of the records for that ship in BT 98 and on FamilySearch films. This is shown below in Figures 4 and 5.

Fig 4: Entering port rotation number and port number into the search page
Fig 5: The index returns the name and details of the ship, a list of the BT 98 references for Whitby ships of that name, and also direct links to the online films on FamilySearch (if that is available)

More details of port rotation numbers

For more details about port rotation numbers, please see:

To search for ships by port rotation numbers, please see:

For details and a list of port numbers, please see:

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Further details

The National Archives have a large number of online information pages about the documents they hold. The ones which cover the records of merchant seafarers are here:

For more detail and for other periods, records of ships, Royal Naval Reserve etc, the best reference book is: Records of Merchant Shipping and Seamen, Smith, Watts and Watts, PRO, (ISBN: 1 873 162 49 9).

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