British merchant shipping was governed by many Acts of Parliament and regulations made under their provisions. This page provides a
summary of the main Acts from 1786 up to 1906 with links to copies of the Act. If we have missed any significant Acts, please let us know using the contact details at the top of this page.
Current legislation is available here:
However, most legislation prior to the early 20th century has been superceded and images of it have previously been strangely difficult to find online. However, this has now been put right and the links below come from these extremely useful sites -
The Statutes Project
- with our grateful thanks.
A summary of the legislation up to 1862 can be found in D Maclachlan, Treatise on the Law of Merchant Shipping, London, 1862, here:
Treatise on the Law of Merchant Shipping, 1862
The 1880 edition is here:
Treatise on the Law of Merchant Shipping, 1880
A C Boyd, The Merchant Shipping Acts,London, 1876, provides a summary up to 1876:
The Merchant Shipping Acts
The following thesis on the effects of the legislation on seafarers includes many useful tables and an extensive bibliography: C D Dixon, Seamen and the Law: An examination of the impact of legislation on the British merchant seaman's lot, 1588-1918, PhD Thesis, University College London, 1981.
Seamen and the Law
Acts of Parliament
An Act for the Further Increase and Encouragement of Shipping and Navigation, 1786 (26 Geo 3 c 60)
- Introduced the compulsory registration of all ships of more than fifteen tons gross with a deck.
- Established the post of Registrar General of Shipping under the Board of Customs.
Merchant Seamen's Act, 1823 (4 Geo 4 c 25)
- Masters of ships of more than 80 tons were required to carry apprentices.
An Act for the registering of Vessels, 1823 (4 Geo 4 c 41)
- The ownership of a vessel with more than one owner to be divided into sixty-four shares, recorded on the reverse of the Certificate of Registry and in the Shipping Register.
- No more than thirty two people to be owners of shares at the same time.
- Section 15 specifies the measurement of tonnage.
- The runs of shipping registers now held in Record Offices frequently start in the 1820s.
An Act for the registering of British Vessels, 1825 (6 Geo 4 c 110)
- Section 17 specifies the measurement of tonnage.
An Act for the Encouragement of British Shipping and Navigation, 1833 (3 & 4 Will 4 c 54)
An Act for the registering of British Vessels, 1833 (3 & 4 Will 4 c 55)
- Section 15 specifies the measurement of tonnage, but unfortunately, pages 526 and 527 are missing from this copy.
The Merchant Seamen Act, 1835 (5 & 6 Will 4 c 19)
- Established the General Register Office of Merchant Seamen and the
post of Registrar General of Seamen.
- Masters were required to return Agreements and Crew Lists to the General
Register Office of Merchant Seamen.
- From the agreements and crew lists, the Registrar General of Seamen
compiled registers of seamen which were intended to allow the Admiralty to select the men needed in time of war rather
than using the press gang.
The schedules under the act specify the format and wording
of lists and agreements.
The register did not include fishermen.
Apprentice indentures were filed either with local Customs or with the Registrar General of Seamen.
An Act for regulating the Carriage of Passengers in Merchant Vessels, 1842 (5 & 6 Vict c 107)
- Amended legislation relating to passengers, including numbers of passengers and requiring masters to make a list of passengers.
The Merchant Seamen Act, 1844 (7 & 8 Vict c 112)
- Amended and consolidated legislation relating to merchant seamen.
An Act to exempt Ships carrying Passengers to North America from the Obligation of having on board a Physician, [...], 1845 (8 & 9 Vict c 14)
- Removed the obligation for ships carrying passengers to North America to carry a Physician.
Wrecks and Salvage Act, 1846 (9 & 10 Vict c 99)
- Amended and consolidated legislation relating to wrecks and salvage.
Steam Navigation Act, 1846 (9 & 10 Vict c 100)
- Regulated the construction of steam vessels.
- Required steam vessels to carry boats.
An Act to make further Provision for One Year, [...], for the Carriage of Passengers by Sea to North America, 1848 (11 & 12 Vict c 6)
An Act for regulating the Carriage of Passengers in Merchant Vessel, 1849 (12 & 13 Vict c 33)
Mercantile Marine Act, 1850 (13 & 14 Vict c 93)
- Transferred all functions related to merchant shipping to the Board of Trade.
- Established local shipping offices.
- Made examination or certification compulsory for masters and mates.
An Act to amend the Passengers Act of 1849, 1851 (14 Vict c 1)
The Seamen's Fund Winding-up Act, 1851 (14 & 15 Vict c 102)
- Wound up the previous arrangements and made provision for the payment of pensions to masters and seamen.
- Required masters to hand to the Shipping Master the wages and effects of all seamen who had died during the voyage.
- Registers of deceased seamen were maintained by the Registrar of Seamen.
The Passengers Act, 1852 (15 & 16 Vict c 44)
Legislation in relation to the carriage of passengers on ships, including the number of passengers and requirement for compilation of lists of passengers.
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1854 (17 & 18 Vict c 104)
- Transferred all matters relating to merchant ships to the Board of Trade.
- Customs officers were required to transmit an annual list of ships to the Registrar General of Shipping.
- Introduced Official Numbers for all registered ships, which became the main means of reference for a ship.
- Masters and seamen were required to sign a Certificate of Discharge and Character.
- Masters were required to deposit official logs with the Board of Trade.
The Merchant Shipping Repeal Act, 1854 (17 & 18 Vict c 120)
- Repealed legislation which was replaced by the Merchant Shipping Act, 1854 and came into force at the same time.
The Passengers Act, 1855 (18 & 19 Vict c 119)
Made regulations for passenger ships, including the requirement for a passenger list.
The Seamen's Savings Bank Act, 1856 (19 & 20 Vict c 41)
Made the Board of Trade through shipping offices responsible for the running of a Savings Bank for seamen.
Merchant Shipping Act Amendment Act, 1862 (25 & 26 Vict c 63)
- Steamships were required to carry certificated engineers.
Table C in the Schedule contains the regulations for the avoidance of collision at sea.
The Sea Fisheries Act, 1868 (31 & 32 Vict c 45)
Provided for the registration of sea fishing boats, including the requirement for
port letters and numbers to be marked on the vessel.
Some registers of fishing boats predate this act. The letters and numbers identify the boat,
for example BS 109 refers to entry 109 in the fishing boat register for
Beaumaris. The numbers are not unique - they were re-used in later registers
if the previous vessel was no longer fishing at that port. However, they can
be used to identify a vessel from a photograph if its approximate date is known.
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1871 (34 & 35 Vict c 110)
It was a criminal offence for seamen to refuse to go to sea once they had signed on to a ship.
- Section 7 sets out the procedure under which the crew could refuse to sail on account of the unseaworthiness of the ship.
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1872 (35 & 36 Vict c 73)
- Established the post of Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen, combining the roles of the Registrars of Shipping and of Seamen.
The Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1874 (37 & 38 Vict c 88)
- Under section 37, Masters were required to report all births and deaths on board to the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen.
- Crew list and agreement forms include a section to record this information.
- The Fourth Schedule shows the details that masters
were required to record.
- The RGSS reported periodically to the Registrars General of Births Deaths and Marriages in England and Wales, Scotland or Ireland.
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1875 (38 & 39 Vict c 88)
- Made further provision for stopping unseaworthy ships.
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1876 (39 & 40 Vict c 80)
- Made load line marks (the Plimsoll line) on vessels compulsory. However, the position of the line was not stipulated until 1890.
The legislation was prompted by the casualties - between 1867 and 1882, loss
of life in British vessels alone (and excluding fishing vessels) totalled 33,427 seafarers
and 5,987 passengers. 16,393 ships were lost.
The Canal Boats Act, 1877 (40 & 41 Vict c 60)
- Made provision for the registration and regulation of canal boats used as dwellings.
Merchant Seamen (Payment of Wages and Rating) Act, 1880 (43 & 44 Vict c 16)
Sea Fisheries Act, 1883 (46 & 47 Vict c 22)
Merchant Shipping (Fishing Boats) Act, 1883 (46 & 47 Vict c 41)
- Included information relating to fishermen and fishing boats into the general
run of shipping records.
- Skippers of fishing boats were required to enter agreements with every
- Special arrangements made for fishing boats under 80 tons and their
Agreements and Crew Lists are filed separately.
- Extended the competency examinations to the skippers and mates of
- From 1884 the agreements and crew lists for fishing boats were completed
on different forms from the main run of crew lists.
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1890 (53 & 54 Vict c 9)
- Amended the previous legislation to specify where the load line should be placed.
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1894 (57 & 58 Vict c 60)
- Extended the system for apprentices to those on fishing boats. Copies of the indentures were sent to the RGSS.
- Included a large section relating to seamen's wages.
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1906 (6 Edw 7 c 48)
- Section 27 established the registration of cooks which started in 1908.