Records of masters and mates in BT124 at The National Archives

This data is transcribed from images of the BT124 series of documents held at The National Archives (TNA). These are the registers of certificates of service awarded to masters and mates of foreign-going British registered vessels in respect of long service as master or mate. The certificates were awarded during the early 1850s and record the officer's voyages during the 1850s and 1860s and later. There is more detail about BT124 below.

This page will:

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

How to search the CLIP data

Enter the man's surname and choose how to match your data - exactly or based on part of his name (often a good idea if there are different spellings for the name).

You can also add in his forename or an initial letter, and his year of birth, but these are optional.

Then click the 'Search' button. The results will be displayed in a table. The results are shown with 20 entries to a page and you can move through the pages using the page-select bar above the results.

Against each entry, we show where it came from in BT124 and provide links to TNA's site or our own image viewer so that you can see the entry.

The icon links to the CLIP image viewer. The icon links to the TNA web site so that you can use their original images.

In these instructions, we've used the example of Edward Lewis of Aberystwyth from BT124/6, page 462.

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 what men an image relates to, and a small number appear to be out of order. This applies to BT124/2, BT124/4, BT124/6, BT122/8, BT124/9. BT124/11, BT124/13, BT124/15 onwards but not BT124/23. There are also occasional blank pages in all the volumes.

To follow a man's career, you may need to look at images either side of the main entry, and interpret them with care.

Using the CLIP image viewer

Click the icon to open the CLIP image viewer.

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.

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

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. This is the Discovery catalogue page for BT124/6. Click on the 'Show images' button. This opens TNA's image viewer and downloads the complete image set for that piece of BT124. This may take some time if your internet connection is not very fast. To find the right page, use the information from our transcription (page 462 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 better and the viewer has the usual controls to zoom in or out.

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Interpreting the information shown in the documents

This is the record for Edward Lewis from BT124/6 page 462 showing part of his career as a master. The entries in the left-hand column record brief details about Edward Lewis:

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

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 the National Maritime Museum (NMM) and their guide to the records they hold is available via the link

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.

Tracing ships and voyages post-1856

The main columns record Edward Lewis' career from 1861 to his death in 1866 and illustrate how to decipher records covering the period after 1856.

Reading the ship entries

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 BT124 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:    

Other records show that these ships were all registered at Aberystwyth and the Mary and the Credo were owned by Thomas Jones of Mount Pleasant, Aberystwyth.

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

Reading the voyage entries

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.

The image is a magnification of 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.

Tracing voyages pre-1856

For Edward Lewis' earlier career, we need to look at the second BT124 record for him in BT124/7, and we can use it to illustrate how to read these earlier records. They are trickier to decipher, because they do not use official numbers or name the ships.

This is the entry for Edward Lewis from BT124/7, page 57.

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 sure what the codes A and C against the voyages stand for - they may be the document type of the crew agreements and lists for those voyages.

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

Prior to 1855, the records are harder to decipher. The vessel name is 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 second digit, 2, is the port number - Aberystwyth in this case. The first number, 348, is the 'Port rotation number'. No index to these numbers has been found anywhere, so it does not immediately identify the ship, but it is written on the matching crew list document, so confirming that it is the correct one. We suspect that the third number, 7, is the number of the original box in which the documents were stored at the Board of Trade (probably not its present box at TNA).

So this code shows that the document for the voyage is number 348 for Aberystwyth in 1851. To find out the ship and more about the voyages means a physical search for that document at TNA in BT 98. This is possible, but may be a long task. In the case of the records of large ports like Liverpool or London, it may be a very long task indeed. We explain how to go about it in the next section.

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Finding out more

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

Using crew lists

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.

Crew lists from 1861 onwards

As an example of how crew lists can help, some of the crew lists for Edward Lewis' ships from 1861 onwards, including his last voyage, are held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. This image is of the NLW catalogue with search results for Edward Lewis' last ship - Credo, 32854.

The documents for 1866 include a log book which gives details of his illness and death.

Crew lists in BT 98 at TNA from 1857 to 1860

All the crew lists for ships from British ports for the period 1857 to 1860 are at TNA in BT98. The crew lists are boxed by year, then by official number. One 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.

Bear in mind that there may not be documents for every official number in the range, so there is no guarantee that documents for a particular ship are actually in that box - they may never have existed, or they may have been lost, destroyed, or simply mis-filed (it happens, often) in the years since 1858.

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, or employ a researcher to do so, or order a copy via TNA's catalogue page.

The LDS Church has filmed these records and the images are available online (but only at a LDS Family History Centre unless you are a member of the LDS Church).

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

 Crew lists in BT 98, 1857-1860

Please enter an official number and click GO.

ON:   Lookup crew lists in BT 98

Crew lists in BT 98 at TNA before 1857

All the crew lists for ships from British ports prior to 1857 are at TNA in BT98, together with some boxes of records from colonial ports. 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. Each box has a reference so, 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.

Apart from the Family History Indexes transcripts for 1851 (below), no further indexing is available for BT 98, so to find a crew list you will have to visit TNA, or engage a researcher to do so, and work through the boxes. If you do not know the name of the ship, you will have to be guided by the port rotation numbers on the crew lists, which may be in ascending order.

It may be possible to get an image by ordering via the TNA catalogue page, but you would probably need to know the name of the ships, so that only one box has to be searched. We have no experience of this.

Family History Indexes have crew name indexes for many of the records for 1851, particularly Irish, Scottish and Welsh ports. These are available on CD-ROM (£) or online via The Genealogist (£). The search tool above highlights the records they have available.

The LDS Church has filmed these records and the images are available online (but only at a LDS Family History Centre unless you are a member of the LDS Church). The catalogue page for the pre-1857 crew lists is here. Scroll down their catalogue page to see the list of films.

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

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

Port number :   

Port :    

Year :     

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Background information

Masters and mates certificates

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. Under the Mercantile Marine Act of 1850 this was made compulsory and was later extended to masters and mates in the home trade (defined as the coast of Great Britain, which then included Ireland, and the near continent between the Elbe and Brest).

The regulations for the examination can be seen in the Mercantile Navy List (MNL), for example in the first, 1849, edition. One of the reasons for establishing MNL was probably to publicise the improvements in the regulation of merchant shipping of which the 1845 act was part and to provide a convenient list of qualified masters and mates.

The examinations were held at the larger ports around the British Isles (there are details in MNL, for example here) and masters and mates who passed the examination were issued with a certificate of competency. These were recorded in the annual edition of the MNL, for example this one from 1853

There was provision for masters and mates who had long service prior to 1851 and were considered by the examiners to have sufficient experience to be eligible, without formal examination, for certificates of service and it is these that are recorded in BT 124.

The awards of certificates were also recorded in the London Gazette from 1845 to 1850, for example this page from 1848, here.

The certificates were recorded at the Board of Trade in documents which are now held at TNA in the BT series of records. BT124 is thus the register for the foreign-going masters and mates certificates and records of their service during the 1850s and 1860s.

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 the Scott's Antarctic expeditions, including Scott himself. Though the expeditions ran on naval discipline, the ships (Discovery and Terra Nova) were merchant vessels and so the officers presumably needed merchant master's tickets.

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 is 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 BT124 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 created this database and whose names are recorded amongst our list of acknowledgements. Thank you all.

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Other sources of information

Lloyd's Captain's register

The original copies of Lloyd's Captain's Registers are held at London Metropolitan Archives. The volumes have been indexed and some are available online.

There is an information leaflet about the registers here: Information leaflet

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