British Merchant Marine
A merchant mariner worked aboard commercial or merchant vessels. You may want to search merchant shipping records if you find one of the following terms in records about your ancestor: captain, mariner, seaman, mate, boatswain (bosun), or super cargo.
The Board of Trade (BT), Registrar of Shipping and Seamen (RGSS) and the Register Office of Merchant Seamen kept merchant marine records. Some are discussed here. The National Archives classification numbers are added for convenience. For more detail on availability and accessibility of merchant maritime records and their indexes, go to this article on Using British Merchant Marine Records.
Ship’s Muster Rolls and Agreements and Crew Lists (BT 98). The ship master had to carry a written agreement with every crew member stating his wages, the capacity in which he was serving, and the nature of the voyage. These records were kept from 1747 to 1860. Pre-1854 records are arranged by port and ship number. Post-1854 records are arranged by ship number. Lloyd’s Marine Collection can provide the ship number.
Lloyd’s Marine Collection. This collection contains several types of records, including captains’ registers, 1869–1947. These show the captain’s birth date and place, certificate number, examination date and place, the vessels on which he served, and death date. More information about this collection is in:
Hall, Christopher A. A Guide to the Lloyd’s Marine Collection at the Guildhall Library. London, England: Guildhall Library, 1985. (FHL book 942.1/L1 A3hc.)
Register of Seamen (BT 112, 119, 120). These registers contain copies of the certificates issued to individuals authorizing them to serve on a ship. The registers exist for the years 1835 to 1856 and give the man’s age, birthplace, date of first going to sea, rank, service record, and the ship’s name. Those from 1844 to 1856 give a physical description of the man. The registers for some years are indexed.
Births, Deaths, and Marriages Occurring On Board British Merchant Vessels (BT 158–60). Shipboard events were recorded in a ship’s log. They cover the years 1854 to 1890. Some of these records are indexed.
Surname Index to the 1861 Census Returns of Ships. This is an alphabetical list (FHL fiche 6025598, eight fiche) of all people who were on board naval, merchant, and smaller vessels when the 1861 census was taken. These ships are not emigrant ships. The few passengers listed are usually family members of the crew. The information includes name, age, occupation, birthplace, name of the ship, and reference numbers for finding the records either in the Family Record Centre (see England Archives and Libraries for the address) or in the Family History Library.
Census returns for other years include lists of persons on board ships. They are filed with the returns of the port city where the ship was docked.
Trinity House Petitions. These appeals for relief from poverty-stricken merchant seamen or their widows exist for 1609 to 1950 and often include birth, marriage, and death information. There are several Trinity Houses in Great Britain. Some of the records are indexed. For an index to the petitions for the London hospital, see:
The Trinity House Petitions. London, England: Society of Genealogists, 1987. (FHL book 942 U3tr).
To view some of the records available at the Family History Library, see the Family History Library Catalog.
Certificates of Competency and Service: Masters, Mates, and Engineers (BT 121–27, 139–42). If a man wanted to become a master or mate, he had to take an examination. A certificate showing the name, the date and place of birth, and the date and place the certificate was issued was given to the man after the examination. Registers were kept of these certificates. They start in 1845, but few were kept until compulsory registration in 1850.
Two valuable pamphlets on researching merchant marine records are:
Records of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen. London, England: Public Record Office, 1983. (FHL book 942.1/L1 A3pa no. 5.) Discusses records available at The National archives.
Watts, Christopher T., and Michael J. Watts. My Ancestor was a Merchant Seaman: How can I find out more about Him? London, England: Society of Genealogists, 1986. (FHL book 942 U37w.) This guide explains contents of a variety of records as they relate to the merchant seaman, including Lloyd’s Marine Collection.
Deaths at sea. For Marine deaths see BT or Board of Trade registers 158-160 (above); other records indicating records of seaman who died at sea are available in the United Kingdom and at the Family History Library. The place where the seaman came from is often included. Additional records are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog and are found under:
GREAT BRITAIN - CIVIL REGISTRATION
For indexes, also see--
GREAT BRITAIN - CIVIL REGISTRATION - INDEXES
How to Find Records in the Family History Library
The Family History Library has copies of the captains’ registers, Trinity House petitions, and all Board of Trade records discussed here except the Certificates of Competency and Service. The Board of Trade records are now housed in the The National Archives. Lloyd’s Marine Collection is in the Guildhall Library. The merchant marine records in the Family History Library are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under one of the following:
ENGLAND - MERCHANT MARINE
GREAT BRITAIN - MERCHANT MARINE
The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU. Tel: +44 (0) 20 8876 3444
- Researching the mariners and ships of the merchant marine and the world's navies.
- Scroll for 1861 Census Ships at Sea Index
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission
- Seamen's Wills at TNA
- Indexes to Merchant Seamens' Names 1860-1867 (BT154) at TNA