This page explains how to find records of a merchant seafarer on crew lists of British registered vessels for the period 1861 to 1913.
NB! This means finding the whereabouts of the original documents, so you can buy copies. The documents are scattered over many archives and few of them have been filmed or digitised. At present, only a tiny percentage of the crew list documents for 1861 to 1913 can be viewed online or downloaded.
To trace a crew list which records a seafarer, you will need to know, or find out:
It may also be helpful to know the ship's port of registry.
DON'T PANIC (YET)! This page explains how to find any information that you don't have, and what terms like 'official number' mean.
If the answer is no, then PANIC (A LITTLE).
You will need to try searching the indexes which list seafarer's names.
Then come back to this point.
If you do know the ship's name, the next task is to find her official number. This is important, because most of the large repositories which hold crew lists use official numbers, rather than names, as a reference.
Shipping Registers, Official Numbers and Appropriation Books
Details of all British merchant ships are entered into Shipping Registers at a local Port of Registry. From 1855, British ships were given an unique Official Number when they were first registered. The number stayed with the ship throughout her life, even if she was re-registered or the ship’s name was changed.
The official numbers were allocated by the Registrar General of Shipping. Each port of registry in the United Kingdom and British colonies was allocated runs of numbers as necessary. At these ports, the numbers were recorded in the shipping registers and also in an Appropriation Book for that port. Copies of registers were sent to the Registrar General of Shipping who maintained the central Appropriation Books, which are the single complete definitive list of British registered vessels and their official numbers.
These central Appropriation Books are held at the current Registry of Shipping and Seamen (RSS) at Cardiff. CLIP has made images of the six volumes and data from them forms the basis of the CLIP name/official number index.
For more detail on the records of British ships, please see our information page
The simplest way is to use the CLIP finding aids.
Enter the ship's name, or a part of it, into the CLIP search page and it will provide you with a list of the ships whose name matches, with their official number. The advanced search allows you to input a range of dates and port of registry.
For each ship, the results page will provide you with links to our data on holdings of crew lists, and to the Maritime History Archive (MHA) list.
Once you know the basic information about the seafarer's ship, the next step is to track down the crew lists for that ship. We provide more detail below, but the most direct way is to use our finding aid:
Alternatively, you could use MHA's Crew List Index - see below.
The lists are held at many different places - nearly 50 archives around the world have holdings.
As the diagram shows, TNA took a 10% random sample, then NMM took the remainder of 1861 and 1862 and years ending in '5'. Local archives were offered the records for their ports and what remained was shipped to MHA in Canada. As a result:
10% are at over forty local record offices (ROs) or archives,
10% are at the National Maritime Museum (NMM), Greenwich
10% are at The National Archives (TNA (formerly PRO)), Kew
70% are at the Maritime History Archive (MHA) in Newfoundland
The records for one ship could be at any or all of these places.
10% of the lists are in over forty local archives or record offices (ROs) in the UK and at the National Archives of the Republic of Ireland. Holdings at archives vary from sparse samples to almost complete runs for individual ships.
You can use CLIP data to look for holdings of crew lists, by archive or by port.
The data for archives and ports also shows holdings of shipping registers.
You can also use MHA's Crew List Index (see below), though not all local archive holdings are included.
All the archives for coastal counties of England and Wales, except Norfolk, have at least a sample of the lists for the ports in their area. The Irish Republic, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man have most of their lists.
Unfortunately, (or fortunately, because they would have been destroyed otherwise) the crew lists for London, all Scottish ports and the remaining lists for other ports are at the Maritime History Archive - see below.
Only a small number of crew lists for 'colonial' ports are to be found in the collections at TNA and NMM. Crew lists for Newfoundland ports are at the Maritime History Archive and some Australian archives have documents.
The lists and agreements for 1861, 1862 and for the years ending in “5” are at the National Maritime Museum (NMM) in Greenwich. 1985 and 1995 are out-stored. You will need to register with their online ordering system and use the crew list order form. You can order in advance of a visit and up to three documents at a time. Alternatively, you can order copies or digital images via the same form. Though they are slowly working on it, forty years after they took the documents, the self-styled "most extensive library of maritime history in the world" still does not have a catalogue of their crew list holdings.
A random 10% sample of the documents is held at The National Archives (TNA) in Kew, in BT 99 with others in BT 100, BT 144 and BT 165.
BT 99 is indexed by official number, originally in loose-leaf files at TNA. There is no index by ship’s name.
In collaboration with TNA, CLIP has transferred this paper index to electronic format. If you know the ship's official number, the index is now available at TNA.
The data is also part of the larger CLIP crew list index, so it's much easier to use this link, which will also show holdings elsewhere for that ship.
BT 100 holds the documents for famous ships, such as the Great Eastern, Terra Nova and the Lusitania.
BT 144 holds a 10% sample of the records for fishing vessels under 80 tons, starting at 1884.
BT 165 holds samples of the official log books, extracted from the main runs of documents for the period 1902 to 1919.
The remaining 70%+ of lists are at the Maritime History Archive (MHA) in St John’s, Newfoundland, who took in these documents when they were threatened with destruction in the 1970s.
You can search their index on-line on the MHA web site (again by official number only) and order copies of crew lists.
Their index also shows holdings of crew lists at most local archives in Britain.
The MHA data is also included in the CLIP crew list index, so it may be easier to use that as it will also show holdings elsewhere for that ship.
The MHA NL Crews Database contains over 30,000 entries taken from the crew lists of Newfoundland and Labrador registered vessels for 1915 to 1942. You can search the index on-line and view the images.
MHA are also gradually digitising their holdings of crew lists for 1881. They are well over half way through with 376,500 entries. As with the NL Crews Database, you can search the index on-line and view the images.
This is a significant and welcome development. The image quality is excellent and the system provides a first glimpse of what could be available in the future.
The CLIP index of crew list holdings for the period 1961 to 1913 contains over 1 million ship-year entries, and covers between 80% and 90% of the documents which survive.
There are several reasons why you may not be able to find the crew lists for a particular ship for a particular year:
In many cases, it will be clear which port(s) the ship was registered at. An email to the local archives for that port would be a good place to start in looking for a missing list.
From 1835, details of seafarers were recorded in registers by the Register Office for Merchant Seamen, later the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen, using information from the crew lists. The registers survive at TNA in BT 120, BT 112, BT 113, BT 114, BT 116 and BT 119. They have been digitised by FindMyPast so it is possible to find records of individual seafarers. Though interpreting the registers is not easy, it is possible use them to find further records of a seafarer in the crew lists, which have also survived and are all at TNA in BT 98.
This is The National Archives research guide to the records for this period, which includes some help with the difficult task of deciphering the registers.
All the crew lists for British registered ships prior to 1861 are held at TNA in the series BT98. How they are arranged depends on the period:
All the crew lists for ships from British ports for the period 1857 to 1860 are at TNA in BT98. 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.
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 (but only at a LDS Family History Centre unless you are a member of the LDS Church).
The catalogue page for the 1857-1860 crew lists is here. Scroll down their catalogue page to see the list of the films.
All the crew lists for ships from British ports prior to 1857 are at TNA in BT98, together with some boxes of records from colonial ports. 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. Each box has a reference so, 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.
Apart from the Family History Indexes transcripts for 1851 (below), no further indexing is available for BT 98, so to find a crew list you will have to visit TNA, or engage a researcher to do so, and work through the boxes. If you do not know the name of the ship, you will have to be guided by the port rotation numbers on the crew lists, which may be in ascending order.
It may be possible to get an image by ordering via the TNA catalogue page, but you would probably need to know the name of the ships, so that only one box has to be searched. We have no experience of this.
Family History Indexes have crew name indexes for many of the records for 1851, particularly Irish, Scottish and Welsh ports. These are available on CD-ROM (£) or online via The Genealogist (£). The search tool above highlights the records they have available.
The LDS Church has filmed these records and the images are available online (but only at a LDS Family History Centre unless you are a member of the LDS Church). The catalogue page for the pre-1857 crew lists is here. Scroll down their catalogue page to see the list of films.
After 1913, registers of seafarers were kept and have been digitised so this makes finding records of individual seafarers much simpler, at least in theory. The crew lists for this period have also survived and finding them is described below. This is The National Archives research guide to the records for this period.
The system of registration for seafarers re-introduced in 1913 included record cards, 'tickets', for individual seafarers, recording their service at sea. The card has brief details of the seafarer, with sometimes a photograph. The back of the ticket shows the ships they worked on as a list of official numbers and dates. The CLIP official number index can be used to find the ships's name and where the crew lists are held, should you wish to obtain copies.
findmypast has digitised these records.
The so-called 'seamen's pouches' for the period from 1913 to 1972 are in BT 372 and contain documents relating to individual seafarers. You can search this part of The National Archives catalogue on line by seafarer's name.
You may wish to use our toolkit for BT 372. Enter the seafarer's name and (optionally) initials, date of birth and birthplace, then click the search button for BT372. This will open TNA's catalogue and submit your search. The result will be shown in a new tab or window.Records of merchant seamen who served in Royal Navy ships during World War 2 are in BT 390. You can search using the link above, or the toolkit also provides a search for BT 390. Records of merchant seamen engaged in the liberation of Europe (6 June 1944 to 8 May 1945) are in BT 391 and can be searched in the same way.
The documents for the period 1913 to 1939 are all at MHA, TNA and NMM, distributed in the same way as described above except that there are no crew list documents at local archives for this period, save for a few strays.
For the years of World War II (1939 to 1946), all the documents are held at TNA in BT 380 and BT 381.
The CLIP databases provide details of the archives' holdings of crew lists as far forward as 1939, with some data for 1939-1945.