This page explains how to find the records of masters and mates of British registered ships, with details of the system of examinations and certificates of their qualifications. It also explains the certificates for engineers and, perhaps surprisingly, cooks.
This is The National Archives (TNA) research guide to the records of Merchant Navy Officers: TNA guide - Merchant Navy Officers and this is the corresponding National Maritime Museum (NMM) guide: NMM guide - Merchant Navy Officers
Prior to 1845, masters and mates were recorded on crew lists and agreements but there were no separate records of them.
From 1845 a system of examinations was introduced for masters and mates, conducted by local Marine Boards at the larger ports under the overall supervision of the Board of Trade. Initially the system was voluntary and applied only to masters and mates of foreign-going ships. Successful candidates were given a 'Certificate of Competency'. A copy was retained by the Registrar of Seamen, and various registers were compiled as described below.
Under the Merchant Marine Act, 1850 (13 & 14 Vict c 93) Act the examinations were made compulsory for masters and mates of foreign-going ships. Alternatively, experienced masters and mates could be granted a 'Certificate of Service' if they could provide evidence of substantial experience.
The system was extended to masters and mates in the Home Trade under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1854 (17 & 18 Vict c 104) Act . However, it appears from crew lists that the masters of home trade ships, especially smaller ones, often did not have a certificate. Mariners were frequently described (by themselves and others) as a 'Master Mariner', for example in civil records such as registers of marriages. However, at least some of them did not actually hold a master's certificate, and so will not be found in the various registers.
Ships which sailed mostly in the home trade, but made occasional short voyages to foreign ports (for example, the Baltic), would sometimes engage a master who held a certificate for the foreign-going part of the voyage, with the original (un-certificated) master signing the crew agreement as 'Bosun'.
As well as the certificate itself, the records relating to a master's certificate may include examination applications, and other documents. The details are likely to include:
The history of service may provide a way to access the crew lists and agreements for the voyages listed, which in turn may provide many extra details, especially if they include log books.
Not all copies of certificates prior to 1854 have survived; those that have are at the National Maritime Museum (NMM).
Surviving certificates from 1854 to 1927 are held at NMM, sometimes accompanied by application forms. They have been digitised by Ancestry (£) and are available online: Ancestry (£)
From 1928 onwards the certificates have not survived. The NMM guide indicates that there are some registers of certificate applications and issues at The National Archives (TNA) but there does not appear to be a reference number for them in TNA's catalogue.
Documents held at NMM are filed by certificate number so to find any not covered by the Ancestry digitisation, it is necessary to find the certificate number, from sources at TNA and elsewhere, as described below.
The certificate numbers for masters and mates were frequently shown against their names on crew lists, as shown in Figure 1. The master's certificate number is also shown on the header of the document - see Figure 2. As mentioned above, not all masters had certificates and Figure 3 illustrates this point.
The CLIP transcription from crew lists included records of the master of the ship. We did not include certificate numbers but they can be found from the documents or images as described above.
The search page is here: Masters named on crew lists
Lloyd's Register listed certificated masters and mates from 1846 to 1852. The online images for 1850 lack the relevant pages. The editions of 1851 and 1852 have a list of certificate numbers after the alphabetic lists of names.Lloyd's register 1846 Lloyd's register 1847 Lloyd's register 1848 Lloyd's register 1849 Lloyd's register 1851 Lloyd's register 1852
From 1845 to 1854 the London Gazette published details of the officers who had passed the voluntary examination, but unfortunately the details do not show the certificate number: London Gazette
Certificated masters and mates were listed alphabetically in the Mercantile Navy List (MNL), foreign-trade first, followed by home trade. The alphabetic lists are followed by lists of cancelled certificate numbers.
MNL 1862 is available online via the Australian National Maritime Museum web site (Select 1862 and masters and mates certificates begin at page 154: MNL 1862
Certificates of service for masters in the foreign trade from 1851 are listed in BT 124 at TNA, which has been indexed by CLIP and available on this site: Masters names from BT 124
Lloyd's Captains Registers record the careers of all certificated masters and mates from 1863. Copies are held at the London Metropolitan Archives which has an index to most of the registers for the period 1863 to 1911. Scroll down their page to find the indexes. Lloyd's Captains Registers
TNA hold a number of registers of certificates in series BT 122 to BT 126. They are indexed in BT 127. None of these indexes have been digitised, so the only way to consult them is in person at TNA.
A detailed list of the indexes is in TNA's research guide to the records of Merchant Navy Officers: TNA guide - Merchant Navy Officers
As mentioned above, the master is named on crew lists. The CLIP index of the ones we have transcribed is here: Masters named on crew lists
Newspapers carried copious news of shipping movements. The master's surname was used as a means of identifying the ship - for example, 'Mary Jane, Jones' is the ship Mary Jane, master Jones. Newspapers online are fully indexed and so provide a way of tracking down the careers of masters - at least those with less common surnames. We have more information about using newspapers, here: Newspapers
Lloyd's Register of Ships gives the master's surname. As the images are in .pdf format, they can be searched by name, though that is only likely to work well for uncommon surnames and has to be done one year at a time. Also, it is not clear how promptly changes of master were amended. Lloyd's Register is here: Lloyd's Register of Ships
The Merchant Shipping Act Amendment Act, 1862 (23 & 24 Vict c 63) Act required both foreign-going and home-trade British steam ships to have an engineer with a certificate of competency gained by examination or of service based on experience. The certificates were either First Class Engineer or Second Class Engineer. The certificates were recorded in registers with a certificate number which provide a link to other records which show the seafarer's previous experience.
All would-be marine engineers served an initial period with a marine engineering company ashore, gaining the knowledge and experience they would need on board ship. Partly as a result of this previous experience ashore and partly because of their importance to the ship, the engineer officers (and their engine-room workers) were a distinct part of the crew. The chief engineer had a status on-board which was second only to that of the master. From 1889, the Institute of Marine Engineers promoted professional standards. Though not a legal requirement for marine engineers, the institute's original bye-laws show what was required for membership: Institute of Marine Engineers
The number of engineers' certificates can be found against their names on crew lists as shown in Figure 4 - these are certificates of competency.
An alternative route to finding an engineer's certificate number is to use the registers at TNA which are unfortunately not online. They are:
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1906 (6 Edw 7 c 48), Section 27 established the registration of cooks which started in 1908. Act
Ships of over 1000 tons were required to carry a cook who held a certificate of competence in cooking.
The cooks's certificate number was annotated on the crew lists in the same way as for masters, mates and engineers as shown in Figure 5.
No copies of these certificates have survived in the major archives.
TNA has indexes of the registers of certificates in BT 319, see: BT 319
NMM holds the registers of certificates as follows:
RSS/CO/1, 1915-1922 5001-10000
RSS/CO/2, 1922-1930 10001-15000
RSS/CO/3, 1930-1940 150001-19760
RSS/CO/4, 1940-1944 19761-24935
RSS/CO/5, 1951-1955 30906-31094
RSS/CO/6, 1949-1958 35000-41021They have not been digitised or indexed so have to be browsed in person, which is likely to be laborious. In any case, they provide only basic details such as the person's name, place and date of birth and certificate number.