Registration of shipping

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A centralised system of registration for British ships began with the Act for the Further Increase and Encouragement of Shipping and Navigation of 1786 and has continued to this day. For a summary of the legislation which governed British shipping, see: Legislation

The registration was carried out by port officials at statutory Ports of Registration around Britain, Ireland and the British Colonies, with copies being sent to central government. The names of the organisations and officials involved have changed over the years, and we have not tried to untangle the detailed terminology: we have referred to the local officers as the port officials and the central government body as the Registry of Shipping and Seamen (RSS).

The information recorded is described below and this was written on a numbered Certificate of Registry which was given to the owners. A copy of the information was recorded in the local shipping register and a transcript of that sent to the RSS. The process continued essentially unchanged until the 1960s when the registers were computerised.

British registration is now run centrally by the Registry of Shipping and Seamen (RSS) Registry of Shipping and Seamen in Cardiff, which is part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Closed registers were transferred from the ports to the RSS and in the 1990s all remaining records were computerised. The shipping registers were then returned to the local record offices or archives nearest to the original port of registry, where they remain.

Key dates

1660 Registration of trading vessels by local Collectors of Customs began.

1786 General registration began under the Act for the Further Increase and Encouragement of Shipping and Navigation. Act  All British ships of more than 15 tons and with a deck were required to be registered with Customs officers in their home port. Registration of shipping was thus based on a network of Ports of Registry around Britain and throughout what were then colonies.

1823 The Act for Registering British Vessels Act  required that ownership of vessels be divided into sixty-fourth shares. Ownership and transfers of ownership ('Transactions') were to be noted in the registration documents.

1854 The huge Merchant Shipping Act Act  consolidated many matters relating to merchant shipping. It transferred overall responsibility to the Board of Trade and introduced the system of official numbers for vessels. To deal with these, central ledgers or 'Appropriation Books' were kept.

By the 1950s, the official numbers were approaching 200,000. Numbers over 200,000 had already been used for American shipping, so the next run of British official numbers began at 300,000. They were recorded initially in a further set of six ledgers and are now recorded digitally.

  Register contents

Fig 1: Shipping register entry for the Ellen & Ann, registered Douglas, 2/1891, ON 20853

The shipping registers contain information about:

  • the ship, such as dimensions, tonnage and rig;
  • changes to the ship, such as change of name, dimensions, rig;
  • the people involved with the ship, such as the owners, builders and masters;
  • changes of ownership together with transactions such as mortgages and inheritance;
  • the ship's ultimate fate, re-registry or sale abroad.

The registers themselves are large bound volumes, containing up to two hundred or so pages (referred to as folios) and covering several years of registration and transactions. The records are set out one vessel to a folio with further records for that ship added in later folios or registers. In early registers, the entries are on the front and back of one page: on later records, the entry covers facing pages. Both styles are referred to, and numbered, as folios.

Registers do not show

  • Any financial information, except mortgages.
  • Details of voyages, cargo or crew, except the names of masters in earlier registers.
  • Full construction details.
  • Much detail about the builder.

Initial registration

When a new ship was first registered, official measurement of the ship was made by the 'Tide Surveyor', and the owners and builder provided information, so the register shows:

  • the name of the ship
  • the owners' names, occupations and addresses
  • the master's name
  • the date and place of building
  • type of ship (sail or steam and, in the case of steam, whether paddle or screw)
  • number of masts and the rig
  • for steam ships, description and measurements of the engines
  • measurements of length and breadth and depth of hold
  • tonnage
  • a description of the hull, including the figurehead

A glance at Figure 1 above or, if possible, the registers themselves will help to clarify this.

The register entries were numbered, starting afresh each year, which gives a reference to the ship of the form: Douglas 2/1891, meaning the 2nd new entry in the Douglas registers for 1891. Because ships were often re-registered, each ship could have several different references of this sort.


Ships were registered if they were over fifteen tons gross and had a deck.

Measurements were made in feet as specified by the regulations. On early registers, the fractions were in inches but after 1836 in tenths of a foot.

The vessel's tonnage was calculated from the dimensions of the ship using officially laid-down formulae, rather than being weighed directly. Register tonnage is essentially a measurement of what the ship could carry in enclosed space - ie under a deck. 100 cu ft roughly corresponded to one ton. In early registers, the tonnages include odd fractions such as 1/94 and later 1/3500: still later ones use decimal fractions. The most important distinction is between gross tonnage and net or register tonnage which included an allowance for the volume occupied by the engine room on steamships. The registered tonnage is the lower figure. For more information, see this article.

The system of measurement changed several times, so register pages often record several different tonnages. In CLIP transcriptions from shipping registers, we have recorded what appears to be the earliest, to the whole ton.

Official numbers

From 1855 the registers record the ship's official number (eg 20853 in Figure 1), which was a unique number between 1 and 200,000. Official numbers were allocated to all ships afloat at that date at whichever port they first called, and reported back to her home port. The number was carved into a substantial part of the ship, such as the main bulkhead, and stayed with her throughout her life, regardless of changes of name or ownership.

For ships which had been registered prior to 1855, the official number was usually endorsed at the top of the register entry, often with details of where and when it had been allocated.

Ships newly registered after 1855 were allocated an official number at their home port at the time of registration.


Ownership of the ship was divided into 64 shares, but with a limit to the total number of owners. Ownership was described as shares, for example 8 shares, meaning 8/64ths of the ownership. Shares were often owned jointly. They were sold, mortgaged, bequeathed etc as described below under 'Transactions'. Apart from the amount of mortgages, the sums involved in transactions are rarely shown.

Though the overall pattern of the registers remained substantially the same over the century, changes in legislation and regulations resulted in variations in the format of the registers and the information entered. Changes include:

Closing the register and re-registry

The register was closed when the ship came to the end of her life, was sold on, or there was a change in subscribing owner. There was no specific place allocated for closure on the registration forms and it was usually written across the form in red ink. In some cases there are full details of the closure, including the date, place and reasons for the ship's demise: in other cases, there is just a brief note that the ship sank years ago, or no closure details at all.

The entry could also be closed if the registration was transferred to another port or the ship was re-registered de novo at the same port (for example after extensive modifications or change of ownership). The entries for re-registrations usually show a cross-reference for the previous registration.


Over the years, the changes of ownership of the ship were recorded as transactions, with the first few on the same page as the registration details and subsequent ones on fresh pages for that ship, cross-referenced to the previous and subsequent ones. Once the register volume was full, additional transactions were recorded in a separate volume devoted just to transactions.

The owners disposing of their shares are shown, with the names, addresses and occupations of the new owners. Against this, the new overall ownership of the ship is recorded.

Types of transaction

The most common form of transaction is a Bill of Sale formalising the sale of shares by one or more of the owners. Other transactions include the granting and release of mortgages and the execution of wills or letters of administration in the case of deaths. Prior to the Married Women's Property Act of 1882, they include the transfer of a woman's shares to her husband on marriage. There are also examples of the seizure of shares under court orders and their subsequent sale.

Other entries

The registers also record changes of the ship's name, and the previous name if the change was made on re-registration. Thus the same ship could have several different names and port references, so Annie, Bristol 4/1832 and Bessie, Beaumaris 12/1835 could well be the same vessel - only a check with one or both registers would tell. Of course, after the 1850s, the ship would have an official number which would not change on re-registration.

However, before 1855, there is little record of the names of ships being changed and it is not clear whether this is because it did not often happen, or because it was not recorded.

Later, changes of name were authorised by the RSS and register entry shows the new name with a reference to the RSS authorisation.

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  Finding registers

Registers at national archives

Colonies and Crown Dependencies

Register transcripts at TNA

The copies of the certificates of registration (transcripts) which were held by the RSS are now at TNA in the record series shown below. BT 111 is useful in compiling lists of ship registries but is harder to use than BT 162. It can be downloaded for free. For more information, see TNA's help file.

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  Fishing boat registers

These registers detail the fishing boats licensed at each port, and the port letter and fishing number allocated to them (eg BS 123). Fishing numbers are usually in the range 1 to 1500 and were re-used when a ship's licence ended. Fishing boats were classified as first, second or third class. Some of the fishing vessels listed were larger ships which also appear in the shipping registers. For more detail, see this link:

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  Other documents

The records of a port of registry commonly include:

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  Isle of Man shipping registers

CLIP made images and detailed transcripts of the shipping registers for the Isle of Man ports. For more details about these registers and the project please follow this link:

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