Records of fishing vessels and their crews have been given less attention than the general run of shipping and crew records, despite the large number of boats and men involved and the vital importance of the industry for the fishing ports and indeed for the nation as a whole. Extensive records have survived, including large numbers of images of fishing boats, but in general the primary sources for fishing boats and crews are less easy to access than other maritime records. On the positive side, many heritage groups have worked hard to record and preserve the history of their local port. Locating such groups, on-line or via the local museum, library or archives, may well reveal a wealth of information for a particular area.
This page explains how to find records of British fishing vessels and their crews, giving details of:
Up to 1894, British fishing vessels of more than 15 tons net and with a deck were registered in the same way as other vessels and appear in the shipping registers for the ports of registry and in the copies from them which were transmitted to the Board of Trade and which are now held at The National Archives (TNA) in BT 108, BT 109 and BT 110.
The Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 required that all British vessels used for commercial fishing, regardless of size, should have official papers and be recorded in separate fishing boat registers kept at the local port of registry. Fishing vessels larger than 15 tons continued to be registered in the main shipping registers, as well as in the fishing register.
Fishing vessels were allocated a letter and number, which were to be painted prominently on the hull of the boat. The letter or letters denoted the port of registry, a list of which is shown below. For a summary of the legislation which governed British shipping, see here.
The fishing number was allocated sequentially from the local register. When a fishing boat was transferred to another port or was scrapped, the fishing number was re-used, so, over time, the same fishing number may refer to several different vessels from the same port. To be clear, the fishing number was not the same as the official number which larger vessels also had and which was not transferred to other ships.
The image shows a typical fishing register - this case the entry for the fishing boat True Lover, of Peel. Her fishing letter and number were PL71. As can be seen, she was large enough to be entered into the main shipping register for Peel as 1/1914 and had official number 67865.
The fishing boat registers were in several different formats, but most showed more than one vessel to a folio. Vessels were classified as First, Second or Third Class, depending on their size. As can be seen, the register recorded basic details of the boat, her ownership and changes of owner, and her skipper. Annual checks on her certificate were entered.
Few, if any, of the registers held at local archives have been systematically digitised or indexed, so the only way to access them is in person at the archives. They are included with the other shipping registers in the CLIP lists of archives' holdings. However, various other sources provide data on boats and fishing numbers, as described below.
The ports of registry made annual returns of fishing vessel registrations to the Board of Trade, showing a list of the vessels by register number, with cross-references to the shipping register, and showing the vessel's official number. These returns are now in the series BT 145 at TNA. The returns form a single source of reference for the names and fishing numbers of fishing boats, but unfortunately have not been digitised and are only available at TNA.
Indexes of fishing vessels and their numbers are available online for some ports, especially the major ones. The source of the information may not be shown, and if this is the case, the data should be used with care. This is a list of some indexes:
Beware! In identifying a ship from her port and number, bear in mind that:
Continental ports used the alphabetic system too, so the letter A was used for Aberdeen, but also for Aalborg and Antwerp. You need to know that you are looking at an image of a British ship.
Unlike official numbers, fishing numbers were re-issued, so you need to know the approximate date of the image to be sure of the identification.
Prior to 1884, the crews of fishing boats over 15 tons were recorded on agreements and crew lists in the same way as for other vessels and surviving documents are usually found amongst the main runs of documents. In addition, holdings may include agreements for smaller vessels, which are usually filed by the boats name. In general though, only records for larger boats with official numbers have survived.
After 1884, special agreements were introduced for fishing boats under 80 tons, which included monthly returns of the crew. The details on fishing boat documents are generally simpler than other crew documents; places of birth are often vague and previous vessels are not shown. The names for the capacities of the crew include such terms as Skipper, Second Hand, Third Hand, Fourth Hand, and Engineer. The volume of these records for a particular port can be large.
The documents are now dispersed following the same pattern as the other crew documents with samples at TNA and NMM, some large holdings at local archives and the remainder at the Maritime History Archive. At local archives, the documents are sometimes filed amongst the other crew lists. Where the volume is large, they are often filed as a separate collection. The 10% sample held at TNA are in BT 144, arranged by the ships' official numbers, but the pieces are only catalogued by the range of official numbers included, so there is no guarantee that the documents for a specific boat are present.To find the records of a particular ship or seafarer, the procedure is the same as for other crew documents and details of fishing boats and their crews are included in our resources. It is worth noting however that the extensive records for the major ports of Hull and Grimsby retained at Hull History Centre and NE Lincolnshire Archives have been catalogued and indexed by crew names, at least down to Fourth Hand. The data is currently only accessible via the archives' web sites and they may be tricky to use. Records for Fleetwood are currently being processed by Lancashire Archives.
From 1894, the existing arrangements for apprentices on ships was extended to fishing boats. Copies of their indentures were sent to the Board of Trade and five yearly specimens of the documents are at TNA in BT 152. NE Lincolnshire Archives have an index of the Grimsby sea fishing apprentices for 1880 to 1937. The story of the fishing apprentices is not a happy one - see David Boswell's book and also Marc Jones' account which is available as an e-book..
Olsen's Fisherman's Nautical Almanack was the ubiquitous reference for the fishing industry from its first publication in 1876 until the last edition in 2000. It was published by ETW Dennis Ltd of Scarborough, one of whose other product lines was saucy seaside postcards. Olsen's included tide information, ready-reckoners, navigation directions and, what is now of most interest, various directories of fishing vessels, as shown in the image above. The ships included are mostly larger vessels, which hence had official numbers.
Copies of Olsen's are not easy to access. No images or transcripts are available online. Many archives and some reference libraries and museums near fishing ports have runs from the end of the 20th century, but editions from the inter-war years are not easy to find and only a few large repositories have editions prior to World War I. The earliest surviving editions date from the 1880s and are held at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, Cambridge University Library and the National Library of Scotland. A list of the libraries and archives which we know have holdings of Olsen's is here.
Images of some editions of Olsen's are available on this site, here:
We will be adding to the image set as more become available. If you have any editions of Olsen's(especially pre-WWII copies) and would be willing to make images of them available, or if you can assist or advise in any way, do please get in touch with us. Our contact details are linked on the top menu.
These are the port letters for ports around the coasts of Britain and Ireland. They were painted prominently on the ship with her fishing number and can be used as an aid to identifying the ship from photographs.
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