Case study 4: Port Rotation Numbers

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Peter Hamersley, a Family History researcher from Australia, had been searching for records of his ancestor, William Henry Hamersley, who was at sea in the 1840s.

Peter ran into snags produced by the codes used in the records of seamen during this period - a long-standing problem for maritime researchers. He contacted CLIP suggesting an index for the codes and we worked together on a joint project - the Port Rotation Number Project.

This project has been highly successful. It produced ground-breaking results, and found the underlying key to one of the codes, the port rotation numbers. The results are now available to everyone on this site.

This case-study is Peter's account of his researches into the career of his ancestor and how he has made use of the results of our joint project.

Thank you, Peter


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

Starting the search Finding a seafarer's voyages Using port rotation numbers Reading the crew lists William Hamersely's voyages

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


  Starting the search

By Peter Hamersley

My three times great-grandfather, William Henry Hamersley (1815-1889), was a mariner. He spent his entire working life at sea. Although he served in the Royal Navy, most of William’s career was spent in the Merchant Navy. He was apprenticed at age 14 and died aboard a ship in 1889 at the age of 73.

Plenty of information can be found about William through the records of the Board of Trade held at The National Archives (TNA). While the records held are vast in number, they have not all been digitised.

Following the Merchant Shipping Act of 1835, several attempts were made to create and maintain a ticketing system for merchant seamen. However, each attempt was thwarted due to the overwhelming amount of work required to maintain the records. The Register of Seaman’s Tickets (1845-1854) was probably the most comprehensive of these records and is a treasure trove for family historians and merchant navy enthusiasts alike.

The original records can be found in series BT 113 at TNA. They are also available online at Findmypast and FamilySearch. In the nine-year period this system ran, over 546,000 tickets were issued, and a record is available for each of them.

Fig 1: Record for William Henry Hamersley #350103 in BT 113

BT 113 typically includes biographical and physical information for individual seafarers, plus reported voyages arranged by yearly columns. Searching by name through these records using Findmypast, I was able to obtain the record for William. From this, I could see he was originally given ticket number 107,682 in January 1845. This ticket was cancelled after being lost in a wreck. He was then issued ticket 350,103 in January 1847 (Figure 1).

Although these two records differ slightly, they show William’s place and date of birth. He was 5’ 5” tall, with dark hair and grey eyes. He was literate, and did not admit to having served in the Royal Navy. Despite some errors and omissions (William was actually born one year earlier and had served four years in the Royal Navy), BT 113 is an invaluable source of information.

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  Finding a seafarer's voyages


Fig 2: Voyages in 1851


To the right-hand side of BT 113, is a list of yearly columns giving details of “Reported Voyages”.

A list of some of William’s voyages for 1851 (Figure 2) is shown under columns headed “Out” and “Home”. Voyages were classified as Home Trade (ships sailing in waters around Britain) and Foreign Trade (ships sailing outside British waters).

As a simple and quick guide to these codes:

  • Home Trade entries span two columns, have two numbers on the first row (6156-64) and cover a half-year (half-year ending 12-51).
  • Foreign Trade entries use both columns (Out and Home), have three numbers in the first row (2139-64-2) and the second row shows the port of departure or arrival and the date (day and month). The records for 1847 (Figure 1) are for a foreign-going voyage.

For both types of voyage, the ship is always identified by the first number on the first line. This number is referred to as the Port Rotation Number, and it can be used to identify the ship at its port of registry. All ships had a port of registry number (again, another code!), and this is always the second number on the first line. The numbers on the bottom line are dates and will help me find the exact set of crew lists at a later stage. Whereas all the numbers have a meaning, to find any ship, I initially needed only focus on the first two numbers on the top line, regardless of Home or Foreign Trade.

These numbers allowed me to track down the crew lists for the ships. Merchant Navy crew lists, in themselves, are a great source of social history and can greatly enhance our understanding of the lives our ancestors lived. The documents have survived and are in BT 98 at TNA. However, between 1845 and 1854, finding a ship’s name is essential to locating its crew list.

No key to the Port Rotation Numbers code has ever been found linking them to the ships' names. Until recently, it was thought to be unintelligible. However, thanks to our Port Rotation Numbers Project, I can now find the majority of these ships’ names by simply entering the codes into a search page on this site.


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  Using Port Rotation Numbers

Armed with this information and using the CLIP Ships by Port Rotation Number search form Port rotation numbers search form I have been able to discover most of William’s voyages for 1851.

One example of this is the voyage reference 6156-64 in 1851. The first number is the port rotation number for the ship, 6156. The second number is the port number, 64. I entered these numbers to find the ship’s name as shown in Figure 3. The port of registry is automatically revealed immediately upon entering the port number (in this case, 64 which equals London). By selecting Search, I can then discover the ship’s name as shown in Figure 4.

Fig 3: Entering the port rotation number and port number on the CLIP search form
Fig 4: Search results

The search revealed the ship as the Iberia, which was registered in London, 52/1851. The search also shows a host of other links for details on the Iberia. One of these is a link to TNA reference BT 98/2609, which will give me access to the crew lists at TNA in person (though not online). Further down the page, I can find online locations for crew lists (Figure 5).

Fig 5: Crew lists for the Iberia in BT 98

From this, I can see crew lists for the Iberia in 1851 are found on FamilySearch film number 8458269.

Crew lists are filed alphabetically in series BT 98 and can be seen either in person at TNA in London or online at any FamilySearch Centre or FamilySearch Affiliate Library, so this is the next step.

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  Reading the crew lists

The crew lists are in a group of schedules that will be either bundled together in a box at TNA or scanned over a series of images on a film viewable on FamilySearch. Each of the documents is identified by a unique number, normally handwritten on the first page of the bundle. This will be the complete number matching the record in BT 113, e.g., in this case, both lines for this ship, 6156-64 and 12-51. Home Trade voyages are arranged half-yearly for each ship. Therefore, all voyages up to June 1851 are under 6-51, and those for December are under 12-51.

Armed with this information, I headed off to a FamilySearch Affiliate Library to search film# 8458269, looking for the Iberia 6156-64 dated December 1851 (12-51).

It is important when searching through these films to keep in mind that a ship may appear more than once on the film. Also, there may be more than one ship with the same name. These can be identified by the registry number written by the master in the relevant position on each schedule. Typically, a film will consist of more than 500 images, and the ships will not necessarily be in strict alphabetical order. On FamilySearch, these schedules were scanned in the 1970s, and so they are not as sophisticated as if they had been filmed recently. However, they are as good as we can currently get, and they are perfectly usable. The images can sometimes appear repetitive. This is because the schedules were rather large and needed several scanned images to complete a whole page.

Film# 8458269 was 867 images long. I searched the whole film to ensure I saw all images of the Iberia. There are several other ships named Iberia on this film, and they covered the first 270 images! Eventually I found the schedule numbered 6156-64 : 12-51 and downloaded all the images of it. Figure 6 shows the top part of the Schedule D for the Iberia. This is confirmed by the faintly written numbers in the bottom right of the image.

Fig 6: Schedule D for the Iberia 6156-64 : 12-51 TNA BT 98/2609, film# 8458269

This schedule shows the Iberia was registered in London with the number 52/1851. It had a burden (tonnage) of 174 tons, and James Thomas was its Master (although this changed on later schedules). A list of voyages for the six months ending in December 1851 was also given. The lower half of this schedule gave me an account of the Crew (Figure 7).

Fig 7: Lower part of the Schedule D for the Iberia 6156-64 : 12-51 TNA BT 98/2609, film# 8458269

From this, I can see William’s details, confirming he was 28 years old, born in London, and had ticket number 350,103. I can also see he joined the Iberia on 30 July 1851, and was discharged on 22 October at London. His previous ship was the John Fox of Stockton. This is a vital piece of information as it allows me to trace William’s career backwards, ship by ship. Additionally, I can see he was employed in the capacity of a Seaman.

Further pages reveal much more fascinating information. The Schedule B list (Figure 8) allowed me to see details of the voyages “from London to... ports in the North… and to deliver the cargo... and discharge the ballast as expressed by the Master”. The ship was now sailing under a new Master, William Williams (James Thomas was now its Mate). Additionally, the daily provisions are shown, simply stated as “sufficient of every thing”.

Fig 8: Schedule B for the Iberia 6156-64 : 12-51 TNA BT 98/2609, film# 8458269


Fig 9: Lower part of Schedule B for the Iberia 6156-64 : 12-51 TNA BT 98/2609, film# 8458269

The lower part of this schedule (Figure 9) gives further information about the crew, including their pay. Typically, each voyage has been separated by a line drawn underneath the last name. Some information is repeated, such as age, place of birth, and previous ship, for example.

However, I can now see William was paid £2 for his first voyage. Although this was initially less than other crew members, further information lower down the page reveals he received £9 in total for his three voyages between July and October. According to the Bank of England inflation calculator, Bank of England Inflation Calculator the £9 he earned in 1851 is worth £1,033 as of June 2023. Discovering his earnings gives a perspective on his financial situation at this stage in life. I know in 1851, William was married with a wife and child and living at Shadwell, London, when not at sea.

Although the example shown here was for a Home Trade voyage, the exact same principles apply to finding a Foreign Trade ship. Foreign Trade codes can be entered in the same manner by using just the first number of the code for the ship and the second number of the code for the port. The Crew Lists will be identified by finding images on the resultant film (or a bundle of papers) with the exact numerical code written on them (e.g., 2139-64-2). Foreign Trade papers were filed per individual voyage.

Further information tracking the Iberia’s movements can be obtained from contemporary newspapers using the ship’s name and the master's name as search terms. Lloyd’s List and the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette are excellent sources, and both are online at the British Newspaper Archive (also accessible on Findmypast). In addition to arrivals and departures, newspapers often provide varied and interesting stories in regards to ships, such as reports of wrecks or collisions.

Many of our seafarers have voyage details recorded on BT 113. William’s record for his two tickets shows at least thirteen reported voyages. Not all voyages were recorded, however, and there are gaps in his record. These can be filled as much as possible by tracing back through previous ships names. Using the techniques demonstrated in this case study, I have been able to discover almost twenty-five ships William sailed on between 1844 and 1854 alone. This has allowed me to plot his movements around the country (or wider) on given dates, plus learn of his earnings and possible state of living. I have even discovered what he was eating on different days of the week! A list of William's voyages is shown below.

I sincerely hope readers will find this case study useful and that your quest to discover more about your seafarer is greatly advanced by using the Port Rotation Number Index on this site.

My thanks to Jan and Pete Owens of CLIP for all the work they did in making the project happen, to Bruno Pappalardo at TNA for his support and to the transcribers who helped us to gather the data.

Peter Hamersley

July 2023

More information about records of British seafarers pre-1861...

For full details of the records of British seafarers and the port rotation numbers, see our main information pages.

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  William Hamersley's Voyages

Ship:Elvira of Newcastle, 83/1832
From:14 Jun 1845 to 25 Sep 1845
Ship:Eston Nab of Stockton, 43/1840
From:1 Sep 1845 to 31 Dec 1845
3 voyages Middlesbro-London-Middlesbro
Ship:Eston Nab of Stockton, 43/1840
From:14 Jan 1846 to 5 Feb 1846
Ship:Conservator of Whitby, 31/1839
From:16 Mar 1846 to 17 Apr 1846
Ship:Mercury of Newcastle, 2/1846
From:7 May 1846 to 1 Jun 1846
Voyages:2 voyages Newcastle-London-Newcastle
Ship:Mercury of Newcastle, 2/1846
From:2 Jul 1846 to 17 Aug 1846
Voyages:3 voyages Newcastle-London-Newcastle
Ship:Cholmley of Newcastle, 101/1840
From:6 Nov 1846 to 20 Dec 1846
Voyages:2 voyages Newcastle-Gravesend-Newcastle
Ship:Supply of Newcastle, 182/1834
From:27 Jan 1847 to 12 Mar 1847
Voyages:Newcastle-London-North Shields
Ship:Thomas & Robert of Newcastle, 15/1828
From:15 Mar 1847 to 22 April 1847
Ship:Witton Castle of London, 62/1844
From:8 May 1847 to 13 May 1847
Voyages:London-Newcastle (Shields)
Capacity:Cook & Seaman
Ship:Prince Rupert of London, 158/1841
From:31 May 1847 to 29 Oct 1847
Voyages:London-Hudson Bay-London
Capacity:Able seaman
Ship:Boyne of London, 411/1849
From:18 Jan 1851 to 10 Feb 1851
Ship:Harriet of North Shields, 105/1848
From:22 Feb 1851 to 1 Jun 1851
Ship:Fortuna of Whitby, 67/1847
From:11 Jun 1851 to 11 Jul 1851
Ship:Iberia of London, 52/1851
From:5 Aug 1851 to 22 Oct 1851
Voyages:2 voyages Hartlepool-London-Hartlepool,
Ship:Dapper of London, 240/1845
From:1 Oct 1851 to 31 Dec 1851
Voyages:3 voyages London-Hartlepool-London
Capacity:Seaman then Mate
Ship:Dapper of London, 240/1845
From:17 Jan 1852 to 30 Jun 1852
Voyages:5 voyages London-Hartlepool-London
Ship:Dapper of London, 240/1845
From:1 Jul 1852 to 31 Dec 1852
Voyages:6 voyages London-Hartlepool-London
Ship:Dapper of London, 240/1845
From:1 Jan 1853 to 16 Mar 1853
Voyages:2 voyages London-Hartlepool-London
Ship:John Cock of London, 309/1853
From:May 1853 to 10 Apr 1854
Voyages:4 voyages London-NE England-London
Ship:Juno of London, 239/1844
From:22 Apr 1854 to 2 Aug 1855
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