Records of masters and mates in BT124 at The National Archives

BT 124 is a series of documents at The National Archives (TNA). It is part of a group of records of the masters and mates of British registered ships.

In 1845 the Board of Trade set up a system of voluntary examinations of competency for masters and mates of foreign-going British merchant ships. In 1850, this was made compulsory and was later extended to masters and mates in the home trade.

There was provision for masters and mates who had long service prior to 1851 and who were considered by the examiners to have sufficient experience to be eligible without formal examination for certificates of service. These certificates were recorded in a series of ledgers which are now held at TNA in the series BT 124. Images of this series are available online.

CLIP has transcribed the data from BT 124 to produce an index of 57,000 entries which provides links to the images which detail the seafarer's career.

This page explains how to use the database, interpret the information and use it to find out more. The page can be followed step-by-step or you can use the links.

The data was transcribed by a small team of transcribers and we are glad to acknowledge their help and offer our thanks Acknowledgements

For general information on the records of masters and mates, please see Masters, mates, engineers and cooks

  How to search for masters and mates in BT 124

The search form for BT 124 is here Records of masters and mates in BT 124

Use the form to enter the master's surname or part of the surname, entering at least three letters. Do not use wild-cards, such as '?', '%'.

Choose whether to search for an 'Exact match' or search for the surname which 'Starts with this', 'Includes this' or 'Ends with this' (often a good idea if there are different spellings for the name). If you wish, you can add a forename and a year of birth (the search covers 5 years either side).

Then click

The results are displayed in a table, sorted by Surname, Forename and Year of birth as shown in Figure 1 below. You can move through the pages using the page-select bar above the results.

Against each entry, we show its source in BT 124 and provide links to TNA's site or our own image viewer so that you can see the entry.

The icon links to the TNA web site so that you see their original images. On TNA's catalogue page, choose the link 'Preview an image of this record' and use the page number and row information from our page to find the image quickly.

The icon links to the CLIP image viewer, which will show you the page, but at a lower resolution.

Beware! The images show the man's career and this is sometimes continued on the images after the one which records his details, and in some cases, we suspect, the images before that one. It is not always easy to see which men an image relates to, and a small number appear to be out of order. This applies to BT 124/2, BT 124/4, BT 124/6, BT 124/8, BT 124/9. BT 124/11, BT 124/13, BT 124/15 onwards but not BT 124/23. There are also occasional blank pages in all the volumes.

In these notes, we've used the example of Edward Lewis of Aberystwyth from BT 124/6, page 460. Figure 1 shows the results of a search for him.

Fig 1: CLIP data for Edward Lewis from BT 124

Using the TNA images

Click the icon on the results table or the TNA link on the image viewer. The TNA catalogue page opens in a new window (Figure 2). You can download the whole piece from here at no charge. Alternatively, you can click on the 'Preview an image of this record' link (arrowed in green). This opens TNA's image viewer so that you can scan through the images (Figure 3).

Fig 2: Discovery catalogue page for BT 124/6
Fig 3: TNA image viewer for BT 124

To find the right page, use the information from our transcription (page 460 in this case) and enter that into the page selector at the bottom of the viewer. This is the original image so the quality is good and the viewer has the usual controls to zoom in or out.

As you can see from the image, the data we have transcribed is in the left hand column, and in the middle, there is a year-by-year record of the officer's career. We explain below how to interpret that and use it to find more information.

Using the CLIP image viewer

Click the icon to open the CLIP image viewer (Figure 4).

Fig 4: CLIP image viewer

On the top right hand side of the viewer are controls to zoom in or out on the image, two tools to help interpret the image, as described below, and a link to TNA's site for better quality images.

Navigation up arrow

  How to interpret the data

Figure 5 is the record for Edward Lewis from BT 124/6 page 460 showing part of his career as a master.

Fig 5: Record for Edward Lewis in BT 124/6
The entries in the left-hand column record brief details about Edward Lewis:

For many seafarers there is more than one record: one showing voyages up to 1860, the other for later voyages.

The right hand columns show a record of the seafarer's voyages. We explain below how to decipher them.

As in this case, the records frequently show when an officer retired or died.

Royal Naval officers who had passed equivalent examinations were also eligible for merchant masters' tickets. Some of these are recorded in BT 124/23 for dates after 1900, including some which are thought to be for naval officers who had left the Royal Navy under a cloud but were still considered suitable for the merchant service. In a different category are records of some of the officers of Scott's Antarctic expeditions, including Scott himself. Though the Antarctic expeditions ran on naval discipline, the ships (Discovery and Terra Nova) were merchant vessels and so the officers presumably needed merchant master's tickets. See: Robert Falcon Scott

Navigation up arrow

  Tracing ships and voyages

The ships and voyages entries all used a port number code for the port at which the ship was registered and the same code was used for the ports of departure and arrival. For details, please see: Port numbers

The way in which the ship was entered changed after 1856 when the system of official numbers was introduced. For details, see: Official numbers

Prior to that, ships were allocated a port rotation number. CLIP has recently discovered the lost key to these numbers and worked with an Australia-based researcher, Peter Hamersley to make an index of them. For details, see: Port rotation numbers

Tracing ships and voyages after 1856

The main columns shown in Figure 5 record Edward Lewis' career from 1861 to his death in 1866. This is how to decipher the records covering the period after 1856.

The most useful parts, and the easiest to untangle, are the names and official numbers of the ships of which he was the master (as shown by C for Captain against the ship's details).

Official numbers (ONs) were given to all British registered ships from 1855 and were used in BT 124 from 1857. They were unique, and stayed with the ship throughout her life. CLIP has a database of all these numbers, which can be used to check the number against the name, and vice-versa. The official number tool on the right hand side of the image viewer gives a basic check. Here is a working copy of it - enter the number, and click 'GO'.

Using that, we can check that Edward Lewis was the master of:

  • George, 16932 in 1861
  • Credo, 32854 in 1862
  • Mary, 44732 from 1863 to 1865 and then
  • Credo, 32854 in 1866 until his death.

 CLIP official number tool

ON:  Lookup ship  Ship:    

The Search iconicon leads to other records which show that these ships were all registered at Aberystwyth and the Mary and the Credo were owned by Thomas Jones of Mount Pleasant, Aberystwyth.

The names and ONs of the ships will enable you to find out much more, particularly from the crew lists which detail the crew and voyages, as explained below.

Reading the voyage entries

Fig 6: Edward Lewis' voyages in 1866

The main columns of the page record voyages, but are sometimes tricky to untangle and may need to be checked against crew lists to be certain.

Figure 6 is a magnification of the image for Edward Lewis' voyages in 1866.

Voyage entries make use of codes for British ports. For example, the 2 in these records stands for the port of Aberystwyth. You can check these port numbers by using the port number tool on the CLIP image viewer. Here is a working copy of it - enter the port number and click 'GO'.

 CLIP port number tool

Port number:   Lookup port  Port:  

The voyages show the date (day and month, with sometimes the year), the port of departure and the destination. The first voyage of the Credo in 1866 (1.5.2 Quebec) shows the vessel leaving on the 1st of May from Aberystwyth (port number 2) for Quebec.

The full record is:

  • 1 May : Aberystwyth to Quebec
  • 10 August: Quebec to Aberystwyth
  • 21 August: Aberystwyth to Quebec
  • 26 December: Quebec to Aberystwyth, Edward Lewis having died at St John, New Brunswick on 4 November 1866.

The voyages from Quebec were probably carrying timber, the outward voyages may well have carried emigrants.

More research would show Edward Lewis' place in larger pictures of the history of Aberystwyth, of Wales, of Britain and the then British colonies.

His own story, though, had come to an end in New Brunswick and finding the crew lists for that voyage would be likely to provide more detail of what happened. We explain how to find them below.

Voyages 1856 to 1860

Records of Edward Lewis' earlier career are shown in Figure 7 below. You will see that the entries for 1856 to 1860 use a similar format to the ones described above, using official numbers. Edward Lewis was the master of the Credo and then the George. The voyage records show the year as well as the day and month. We are not exactly sure what the codes A and C against the voyages stand for but it appears that A marks the start of a voyage and C the end. Crew list form A was the agreement signed before the voyage and List C was returned when the ship arrived back at a British port at the end of the voyage.

There is a gap in the records for 1855. It is not uncommon for the records for 1855 and 1856 to be missing from BT 124 - it may be to do with the changes to the systems at that time.

The crew lists for this period are at TNA in BT 98 and are filed by official number. We explain how to find them below.

Voyages before 1856

This is the entry for Edward Lewis from BT 124/7, page 57.

Fig 7: Edward Lewis' voyages before 1861

Prior to 1855, the vessel name was not shown and instead a three figure code was used - for example, the column for 1851 is headed 348.2.7.

This code is a reference to the crew list document from which the data was extracted and which is now at TNA in BT 98. The code is written on the matching crew list document, so confirming that it is the correct one, when you find it. It works like this:

The CLIP search page for port rotation numbers identifies the ship and helps to find the crew lists by providing a list of the TNA references for BT 98 and links for FamilySearch images. Figures 8 and 9 show how it works.

Fig 8: Entering port rotation number data in the CLIP search page
Fig 9: The search returns the name of the ship, likely BT 98 references and FamilySearch images for crew lists for that ship
Navigation up arrow

  Finding out more

You can find out more about the man's career using:

Original certificates

Once you have the man's certificate number, you will be able to enquire about a copy of the original certificate. These are held at NMM and this is their guide to the records they hold: Masters and mates certificates at NMM

The officer's application form for the examination, or to be granted a certificate of service, is often filed with the certificate and contains records of his previous service.

Using crew lists and agreements

Crew lists and agreements show the record of a voyage or, for home trade ships, the voyages in a half-year.

A crew list shows all the crew, with their date of birth or age, birthplace, previous ship, capacity in which engaged, wages and date and place of signing on and off. They may also show records of incidents and illness affecting the crew, and later lists are often accompanied by a log book which records disciplinary incidents in more detail. Masters were required to lodge the ship's papers with the British consul in foreign ports at which the ship touched, so voyages can be traced in detail from the consular stamps which record the visit. The only item which is not usually detailed is the cargo, though this can often be inferred from the ports visited - for example, timber in Quebec.

One of the most useful items of data for each man is that his previous ship is recorded and (in theory) this gives a way of tracing back his previous career, ship by ship.

Finding a crew list depends on the date.

From 1861 onwards

The crew lists are scattered across over 40 archives, including TNA, NMM, the Maritime History Archive (MHA) in Canada and many local archives around the British Isles. There is an example below to show how that works.

See Crew lists 1861 to 1913 for more details.

Before 1861

See Crew lists pre-1861 for more details.

Crew lists from 1861 onwards

Some of the crew lists for Edward Lewis' ships from 1861 onwards, including his last voyage, are held at NLW in Aberystwyth. Figure 10 shows the results of a search for their holdings for the Credo. The documents for 1866 include a log book which gives details of his illness and death.

Fig 10: NLW catalogue with search results for Edward Lewis' last ship - Credo, 32854

Crew lists before 1861 in BT 98 at TNA

All the crew lists for British registered ships for the period before 1861 are held at TNA in BT 98 - there are none elsewhere. They are stored in thousands of boxes (pieces), each holding dozens of documents.

From 1857 onwards, the crew lists are boxed by year and the ship's official number; for earlier lists the sorting is by port, year and then the ship's name.

This is TNA's research guide for their holdings of crew lists and their catalogue for BT 98.

You can order copies of a document from TNA, working from the BT 98 catalogue. However, we provide some tools below which will make it easy to identify the reference to the box you want, with a link to the correct place in TNA's catalogue.

Be aware Bear in mind that there is no guarantee that documents for a particular ship are actually in the box they would be expected to be in - the documents may never have existed, or they may have been lost, destroyed, or simply mis-filed (it happens, often) in the years since 1860.

There is an alternative, and perhaps more convenient, way to access these documents. FamilySearch filmed the records back in the 1970s and the images are available online The snag is that they are only available at a FamilySearch Centre or a FamilySearch Affilate Library unless you are a member of the LDS Church.

Our general guide to how to find FamilySearch Centres and FamilySearch Affiliate Libraries and use the films is here: Finding FamilySearch films

We explain below how to link to the FamilySearch films. The documents for 1857-1860 are filed in a different way to the earlier ones.

Crew lists from 1857 to 1860

The crew lists for the period 1857 to 1860 are boxed by year, then by official number. Documents for an official number may be in more than one box. Each box has a reference number and the catalogue shows the range of official numbers in each box so, for example, the crew lists for 1858 for the vessel Albion, with official number 1000 is likely to be in BT 98/5107, which holds official numbers 991 to 1050.

To find the appropriate reference number, you can consult TNA's catalogue, or (simpler) use the CLIP crew list tool in this section.

To obtain a copy of a document, you will have to visit TNA, employ a researcher to do so, or order a copy via TNA's catalogue page. Alternatively, you can use the FamilySearch films.

The catalogue page for the FamilySearch of the 1857-1860 crew lists is here: FamilySearch films of BT 98 . Scroll down their page to see the list of films.

An image of the crew list for Edward Lewis' voyage in 1858 is shown in Figure 11.

 Crew lists in BT 98, 1857-1860

Please enter an official number and click GO.

ON:   Lookup crew lists in BT 98

Fig 11: Crew list for the Credo (see Fig 6 above) departing Aberystwyth on 14 April 1858. BT 98/5487

Crew lists from 1845 to 1856

The crew lists are boxed by year, then by port of registry, and then in alphabetic order. There may be several boxes for one year and port, covering a range of ships names. For example, Aberystwyth ships with names starting D-H for 1851 are in BT 98/2382.

To find the appropriate reference number, you can consult TNA's catalogue, or (simpler) use the CLIP crew list tool in this section.

If you have found an entry for a seafarer in the registers of seamen as described above, you can find details of the ship from the records of voyages. The ship may be named. If not, it involves cracking the port rotation number/port codes using the CLIP search page as described above. If that is successful in finding the ship, it will also provide you with the BT 98 reference and a link to the LDS images (if you are able to access them).

It may be possible to get an image by ordering via the TNA catalogue page, though you would need to bear in mind that the foreign-going lists in BT 98 often involve many documents for just one voyage. We have no experience of ordering documents in this way.

The FamilySearch catalogue page for the pre-1857 crew lists is here: FamilySearch films of BT 98 . Scroll down the page to see the list of films.

The example below shows images of the header of crew lists for Edward Lewis' ship, the Eliza Charles.

The main body of the document gives details of the crew.

Crew lists for British ports in BT 98, 1845-1856

Please choose a port number or port, and the year.

Port number :   

Port :    

Year :     

From the the records of Edward Lewis' voyages and port rotation numbers data (Figure 6 above), we can find the crew lists for the Eliza Charles using FamilySearch. The first one, (Figure 12), shows Edward Lewis as the master on her maiden voyage, leaving Shields on 27 October 1851 heading for Cadiz and then South America.

The crew list was endorsed by British consuls in Cadiz and, as Figure 13 shows, in Buenos Ayres in June 1852.

Another document shows the ship arriving back in Liverpool on 31 August 1852.

Fig 12: Crew list for the Eliza Charles leaving Shields on her maiden voyage 27 October 1851. BT 98/2823
Fig 13: Endorsements by the British consul in Buenos Ayres. BT 98/2823

The second voyage shown in Edward Lewis' record was again to Buenos Ayres, leaving Liverpool on 26 October 1852 as shown in Figure 14.

The crew signed on at the magnificent just-brand-new Liverpool Sailors' Home which also housed the Shipping Office (see top right of the form). Liverpool Sailor's Home

The consul's endorsements in Monte Video are shown in Figure 15.

Fig 14: Crew list for the Eliza Charles on her second voyage 26 October 1852. BT 98/3238
Fig 15: Endorsements by the British consul in Monte Video in April 1853. BT 98/3238

Using newspaper advertisements and shipping news

Newspapers are a useful source for information about the ships and their masters.

For example, Figure 16 shows an advertisement for the voyage shown in Figure 14 above.

Figure 17 shows a typical item of the shipping intelligence carried by many newspapers. The master's name was usually appended to the ship's name and this makes a convenient target for searches (eg Search for "Eliza Charles" Lewis Shipping).

For more details of using newspapers to search for ships, please see: Newspapers

Fig 16: Advertisement for the Eliza Charles. Gore's Liverpool General Advertiser, 14 October 1852
Fig 17: Shipping news showing the Eliza Charles, Lewis arriving in Monte Video. Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 18 March 1853

More about the records of masters and mates

For general information on the records of masters and mates, please see Masters, mates, engineers and cooks

Navigation up arrow

  Making the CLIP index for BT 124

The CLIP index is made from the images of the BT 124 documents which TNA publish, as detailed above.

We set up a transcription site using these images and CLIP transcribers used custom input forms on our site. We used double‑keying - ie each record was entered independently by two different transcribers and we then cross-checked their inputs. Experience shows that this will produce a likely error-rate of well under 1% on individual data items.

However, the BT 124 records are handwritten and occasionally difficult to read. This applies particularly to the seamen's ticket number in the top right of the entry for each man. As always, our transcribers were told to 'transcribe as seen' and not to try to interpret the data so, for example, Liverpool may be recorded as Liverpool, Lpool or occasionally Lpl and that is what will appear in our transcription.

As each volume was completed, the data was transferred to our public database. We completed the project in 2016.

We are most grateful for the hard work of the small group of CLIP transcribers who have populated this database and whose names are recorded amongst our list of Acknowledgements . Thank you all.

Navigation up arrow