Case study 1: Starting from nothing

Finding Frederick Gifford

Fig 1: Frederick and Emily Gifford

The man in the picture is Frederick Gifford, Peter's great-grandfather, who ran away to sea from Kent sometime around 1870.

He landed one day in Dartmouth, met and married Emily, and they raised a large family.

As the picture shows, he was clearly a seafarer, but what ships did he sail on? There were a few family tales, for example that he had seen Vesuvius and sailed to Greece, but nothing definite.

That was the challenge he unwittingly left for his descendants and which started us out on CLIP.

This case study explains step-by-step how we found out more about his life at sea.

Using this case study

The case study can be followed step by step, or you can jump to a step by following one of these links:

Indexes of crew lists Indexes of ships Indexes of holdings of crew lists Ordering copies of crew lists Working back to the previous list The CLIP index of ships Finding out more Where does it end?

Some of the steps have a 'More information' panel which you can open by clicking on the panel.

If some of the screen shots are too small, from a keyboard you can enlarge the page using Ctrl + (Ctrl 0 resets it).


The challenge

You know that someone was at sea, but you don't know the name of any ship they sailed on, or when.

Between 1861 and 1913, there was no central register of seafarers, so the only records are the crew lists and agreements. They were filled in for every voyage, or every six months. Millions of them have survived, though scattered in fifty archives. Hardly any of them have been digitised.

Your seafarer is in there somewhere. Where do you start to find the documents?

Use the indexes of crew lists...

Indexes of crew lists

We started looking for Frederick Gifford's story in the days before the internet, when family history and maritime research was done using paper records, film readers and microfiche. Any record indexes were on hand-written paper slips, collated in shoe-boxes. Then some whiz-kids used computers to make little booklets of data, then it was data-CDs, then the 1881 census was indexed in a massive collaborative effort, then the internet arrived and genealogy really took off.

There were still no indexes of the crew lists. Nobody thought it feasible until Aubrey Brown single-handedly indexed the records for Bridgwater ships held at Somerset Record Office, and showed it could be done. Others, including CLIP, followed his lead. Now there are many indexes and they provide some hope of finding at least one record of a seafarer.

Fortunately, Frederick Gifford had been enumerated in the 1881 census, which had just been indexed when we started searching.

The crews of ships were included in censuses, but only if they were in port on the night of the census.

Frederick was part of the crew of the ship Fawn which was in Portland harbour, so we picked him up from the 1881 census index, giving us the vital first record of his work at sea.

Figure 2 shows the census record for the Fawn:

Fig 2: 1881 census enumeration return for the Fawn

So we now knew the name of a ship that he worked on, but nothing more about her.

In particular, the original 1881 census transcription did not show the ship's official number - an important piece of information (see below).

Images from Findmypast do not show these crucial pages of the census, though those from Ancestry and The Genealogist do as shown in Figure 3.

Fig 3: 1881 census vessel summary page

More information about indexes of crew lists...

We estimate that a few million entries from crew lists have been indexed by CLIP and by others. Given that many seafarers worked at sea for several years, there is a reasonable chance of finding at least one hit for a seafarer, perhaps better than a 20% chance for someone who was at sea for ten years. Not good, but better than the 0% when CLIP started out.

There are full details about indexes of crew lists and how to use them on our main information pages.

The link opens a new browser page or tab and we suggest that you keep this page open and return to it to follow the case study.

The next step

You know the name of a ship the seafarer worked on, so where do you go next?

Many ships had the same name and sometimes the name is the only information shown on a document or an index.

How do you find out more about a ship and her official number?


The registers and indexes of ships show these details...

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Indexes of ships

British ships have been legally required to be registered since the late 18th century and there are extensive official records. The registration was recorded in the shipping registers at the local port of registry, with copies sent to the Board of Trade. From 1855, ships were allocated a unique official number which is a vital key to finding records of the ship. The most useful source of information is the annual Mercantile Navy List (MNL), which recorded all the British registered ships afloat at that time.

Copies of MNL are only to be found in large maritime libraries. When we started searching for Frederick Gifford, the only way to use them was to visit one of those libraries. Most of the editions of MNL have now been digitised by archives and by CLIP, and images are available with an index on this site.

Searching the Mercantile Navy List on the CLIP site

From the menu bar, choose  Data  and then  Mercantile Navy List , which will open a search form.

Enter the ship's name, choose the year and whether the ship was steam, sail or, later on, motor.

As with all CLIP forms, clicking on the 'Notes' button top-right will provide hints on how to use this form.

Click  Search  and the CLIP image viewer will display the correct page of MNL for that ship and year.

Fig 4: Using the CLIP site to search the Mercantile Navy List
Fig 5: Mercantile Navy List for 1881 - the left hand column shows official numbers

As the image of MNL shows, there were several ships named Fawn at that time, so it is a case of choosing which one. If you have the official number, there is no problem. In our case, knowing Frederick Gifford's connection to Dartmouth and the fact that some of the crew were from there helped us to decide that the one we wanted was the one registered at Dartmouth, with official number 51350.

Knowing the official number is really important because most archives use that as a way of cataloguing their documents. They don't use the ship's name, because that may have been changed, whereas the official number was unique and remained with the ship throughout her life.

So the next step was to find the crew list for the Fawn (ON 51350) of Dartmouth for 1881.

It could be at any one of several archives.

More information about indexes of ships...

The CLIP site provides access to images of MNL and other sources and several finding aids to help you find a ship, either by name, official number or port of registry. The CLIP ships database contains records of every British registered vessel from 1855 to the 1950s.

For full details of the records of British shipping and how to use them, see our main information pages.

The link opens a new browser page or tab and we suggest that you keep this page open and return to it to follow the case study.

The next step

You know the name, official number and port of registry of a ship the seafarer worked on in a particular year, so how do you find out more.?

You need to find the crew lists for the ship for that year, but the documents could be at any of fifty archives and hardly any are online. So how do you track them down so that you can buy a copy?


CLIP and the Maritime History Archive have indexes of holdings of crew lists...

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Indexes of holdings of crew lists

Back in the day, finding where crew lists were held was not easy. Neither the National Archives (TNA), nor the National Maritime Museum, nor the local archives had any catalogue of the 10% samples they hold. Fortunately, when the Maritime History Archive (MHA) took in the remaining 70% of documents, they produced a catalogue on microfiche of their holdings and also a microfiche index of the 10% of holdings at local archives. It was not impossible to find where the documents were held, just difficult.

The MHA data is now online and CLIP assisted TNA to digitise their finding aids. We have also compiled data from as many local archive catalogues as possible. CLIP has collated the information to make a composite online index that can be searched by official number, as shown below. The chances of finding the crew list holdings for a vessel are high but not 100%, as we explain in the 'More information...' panel below.

To use the CLIP crew list finder:

From the menu bar, choose  Data and then   Crew lists by ship , which opens a search form.

Enter the ship's official number.

Click  Search  and CLIP will display a list of known holdings for that ship, by year.

Fig 6: Using the CLIP index to search for holdings of crew lists
Fig 7: The CLIP index shows that the documents for 1881 are at The National Archives (TNA) in BT 99/1309

So the crew lists for the Fawn for 1881 are in the 10% sample that TNA hold.

Crew list documents at TNA are in thousands of archive boxes, each holding a hundred or so documents. They are referred to as 'pieces' and the document we want is in piece BT 99/1309. CLIP has now transcribed this crew list (and all for 1881) and the transcript can be seen in the TNA catalogue. However, there are still no images online, so to see the original document the next step is to buy a copy.

More information about holdings of crew lists...

The CLIP database of holdings contains records of more than 1 million ship-years (archives often only note the years for which they have holdings, not the individual documents)

For the period 1861 to 1913, we estimate it includes more than 80% of the documents in local and national archives.

There are full details about how to find crew list holdings on the CLIP information pages, which include reasons why you may not be able to find a crew list.

The link opens a new browser page or tab and we suggest that you keep this page open and return to it to follow the case study.

The next step

Only a small percentage of documents have been digitised with a transcription or images online, so you will probably need to buy a copy from the archive that holds the document.

You know where the document is held, so how do you order a copy?


Contact the archive concerned to order a copy of a crew list , either by email or using an online form...

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Ordering copies of a crew list

The large archives such as The National Archives (TNA), the National Maritime Museum (NMM) and the Maritime History Archive (MHA) have standard online systems that you can use to order copies of documents. For other archives, you will need to contact them by email.

When you contact the archive, you may be asked to pay a search fee up-front. They will make a search and let you know whether they have found the document, if it can be copied and how much it will cost. When you pay that, they will email you images of the document. You should expect to pay £15 or more and quite a lot more for documents from MHA. You can generally pay by card online.

We have used TNA as an example of how this works.

Linking from the CLIP crew list holdings index

The CLIP site provides short-cut links that will take you to the right page for TNA and MHA.

From the Crew list holdings page (the one shown above) click the button against the year you want - in this case   BT 99/1309 .

This will link directly to TNA's catalogue with the correct data.

There may be more than one document. Choose the one you want so that it is highlighted and then click on it to open a page just for that document.

On the right of the next page is a link Request a copy to the copy ordering service. Follow the instructions there to request a document check.

To search TNA's catalogue without using the CLIP shortcut, you can go to their advanced search page TNA advanced search page

The official number would go in the 'all of these words' field and the piece reference, BT 99/1309, would go in one of the reference fields.

Fig 8: The National Archives catalogue showing the entry for the Fawn ON 51350
Fig 9: The exact reference for the Fawn, showing the transcript - the Request a copy button links to the copy ordering service
Fig 10: TNA copy ordering information

The document has now been transcribed by CLIP volunteers as part of a project on the 1881 and 1891 holdings at TNA. TNA include the transcription in their catalogue entry. If you look closely at the second TNA image, you can see the transcription with Frederick Gifford shown.

However, a copy of the original document is good to have and the result is shown.

Fig 11: Part of the crew list for the Fawn, showing Frederick Gifford

The copy is useful for several reasons. One is that the signature on the left hand column is almost certainly his. It also shows how much he was paid and the back page of the document shows the voyages the ship undertook in the six months that it covers. There were many voyages from the north-east to Dartmouth and Channel ports. Frederick was bringing coals from Newcastle.

One highly useful piece of information is shown: the previous vessel is shown as 'this ship, 1880' meaning that Frederick had also sailed on the Fawn in 1880.

That information begins a chain of crew agreements that, all being well, would allow us to search back to his first ship.

The next step

You know the previous ship that your seafarer worked on, so how do you work back from that?


The crew list should show the previous ship's name and official number, though unfortunately the official number is often left out.

You'll need to use the Mercantile Navy List, or the CLIP index of ships, to work back to the previous list...

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Working back to the previous list

This is an easy one because Frederick's previous vessel is 'same ship', so the official number is the same. We just need to find out where the crew lists are held. This is the same process as above, but this time we'll show how a transcript can help.

As you can see from the CLIP list of holdings for the Fawn (ON 51350) below, the documents for 1880 are held at Devon Archives and Local Studies and, better still, they have been transcribed by CLIP volunteers. The transcript gives us enough information to trace his career back without having to get a copy of the document, though of course that will always provide a better record of the voyages.

Fig 12: The CLIP index of crew list holdings showing where documents for 1880 are held
Fig 13: The transcript for the second half-year of 1880 - Frederick previously worked on the ship Bonnie Dunkeld

So the Bonnie Dunkeld of Dartmouth is the next ship and crew list to search for.

The writing on crew lists is sometimes poor. Often, it is not at all clear what the name of the previous vessel is. The entry for the Bonnie Dunkeld was, in fact, clear enough but we'll show how you would deal with the situation where, for example, you could only make out that it ends with 'keld'.

The next step

You can see some part of the 'previous vessel' but not enough to be able to search the Mercantile Navy List, for example if only the last part of the ship's name is shown. How can you search for the ship?


The CLIP index of ships has a fuzzy search facility that will allow searches by part of the name...

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The CLIP index of ships

The CLIP index of ships contains data from several sources, including the Appropriation Books, which are the central record of British ships showing their official numbers. It also includes a transcript of the Mercantile Navy List for all the years ending in 10, to help to track ships whose name was changed. It can be searched by ship, official number, or port of registry.

Searching for a ship using the CLIP index

From the menu bar, choose  Data  and then  Ships by name , which will open a search form.

Enter the ship's name and choose the type of search, in this case, 'Ends with this'.

Click  Search  to display a list of ships whose name ends with the search text.

Fig 14: Using the CLIP ship index to make a fuzzy search by name
Fig 15: The search returns a list of the ships whose name ends in 'keld'

Once you know what the possibilities are, it is often easier to read the rest of the text.

Click on a likely name and details of all ships of that name will be displayed.

Fig 16: A list of the ships named Bonnie Dunkeld - there was only one

There was only one ship of that name, so we don't have to choose from a list. Her official number was 63078. The port of registry is Dartmouth, which looks likely.

On the right hand side of the ships data page is a link   CLIP   which will take you to the CLIP documents index for that ship.

Fig 17: Crew lists for the Bonnie Dunkeld (ON 63078)

Luckily, there is also a transcript for the documents, so we can go straight to that.

That confirms that Frederick was working on the Bonnie Dunkeld in 1878.

In fact, one of the later voyages in 1878 could easily have been his last voyage ever. We explain why below.


Fig 18: Transcript of one of the crew lists for the Bonnie Dunkeld for 1878

The next step

You are beginning to gather details about your seafarer's life at sea. So how do you find more about the ship, the crew and the voyages?


Other sources such as Board of Trade inquiries, Meteorological Office data, newspapers and the crew lists themselves can help you to find out more...

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Finding out more

By researching your seafarer ancestor, you are already going far beyond the basic Births, Marriages and Deaths of family history research and gaining a picture of your seafarer's life, sometimes almost day by day. With some luck, the maritime records can add even more details and background to a list of ships and voyages.

We'll illustrate that with one example, using the CLIP indexes and Frederick Gifford's brush with death.

Finding more about a ship

The CLIP data also contains links relating to a particular ship, for example any other names for the ship and also links to Board of Trade inquiries into sinking and other incidents.

To look at the details for just one ship, you can search by official number in two ways:


From the menu bar, choose  Data  and then  Ships by official number , which will open a search form, enter the official number and click  Search ,


Link from the ship index page (Figure 16) using the  More...  button (the grey arrow).

Either way, this is what it shows for the Bonnie Dunkeld:

Fig 19: Ship details for ON 63078

You'll see that there was a Board of Trade inquiry into an explosion which occurred on the Bonnie Dunkeld on 20th September 1878, in which Frederick Gifford was injured.

Southampton City Library have images of these reports online and if you click the link on our site, it will take you to an image of the report.

Fig 20: Extract from the report of the Board of Trade inquiry into the explosion on the Bonnie Dunkeld

You'll see that Frederick was lucky to survive. He was ashore for some weeks afterwards, but perhaps recovered quite quickly because it was during that time that Peter's grandmother was conceived. Finding that report definitely gave rise to a 'What if...?' question.

More information about other resources...

The CLIP site provides a variety of basic resources and data to assist you in finding out more.

We also have a long list of links to external sites providing a wealth of resources.

These links open a new browser page or tab and we suggest that you keep this page open and return to it to follow the case study.

Where does it end?

You have followed the search trail back through each 'previous vessel' in turn. Where does it end?


It ends either in a dead end or with the first ship your mariner sailed on...

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Where does it end?

In theory, you should be able to trace the career of a seafarer back, ship by ship, until you come to the one where the 'previous ship' entry shows 'First ship' or 'First time to sea' or suchlike.

Life is not always that simple, and the chain can break down.

That is what had happened to our search for Frederick Gifford. A crew list for the ship Stroud Packet of Gloucester showed him on board, and also showed 'Same ship' as his previous vessel. We were able to find the document for the previous voyage, but no sign of Frederick. He was not shown on any earlier documents either.

So that was where the search ended.

Except that it wasn't...

Some years later, as part of CLIP, we made images and an index of all the crew lists held at Devon Archives and Local Studies. There are many of them and they include a large batch of photocopies for Devon ships from documents held at the Maritime History Archive. We nearly didn't bother with the photocopies, because they were awkward to deal with.

We were glad that we did.

There was Frederick Gifford on the ship Victoria on an earlier voyage and we were able to trace his career back to find him starting his career as an apprentice in 1872 on the Margaret Jane Swift of Faversham confirmed by an entry in the index of apprentices in BT 150 as shown in Figure 21.

Fig 21: Entry in BT 150 recording Frederick's apprentice indenture.

Yes, he had sailed to Greece and yes, he had seen Vesuvius (or perhaps it was Etna).

In 1875, he was a member of the crew of the Maiden Bower, of Scilly, and Figure 22 shows the back page of the crew agreement for a voyage which went as far as Gallipoli, calling at Grigenti on the south coast of Sicily on the way there and at Candia in Crete on the way back.

So that was where the search ended.

Except that we have a blue glass rolling-pin, with a drawing on it of the ship Effort of Whitstable, and inscribed to Mary Gifford, Frederick's mother. We wonder where that fits in...

Also, Frederick was probably at sea for some years after 1881 when we first found his records. We wonder where he sailed...

Fig 22: Consular stamps on the back page of the Maiden Bower's crew agreement
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