How to look for records of... Merchant seamen serving 1858-1917

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

View online

How many are online?

  • None
  • Some
  • All

Order copies

We can either copy our records onto paper or deliver them to you digitally

Visit us in Kew

Visit us in Kew to see original documents or view online records for free

Pay for research

This is a brief guide to researching records of merchant seamen serving between 1858 and 1917. It is very difficult to find information about a particular merchant seaman between these dates as the Merchant Navy did not register its seaman during this period. If you know the name of the ship you might be able to find the person on a crew list.

What do I need to know before I start?

There was no official registration of merchant seaman between 1857 and 1913. The Merchant Navy began to register its seamen again in 1913, in the central indexed register, or Fourth Register of Seamen. However, the entries for 1913 to 1917 have not survived.

Before you search for a seaman, try to find out:

  • the name of the ship on which the seaman served
  • the port where it was registered
  • the ship’s official number (obtainable from the Crew List Index Project)

What records can I see online?

Index of First World War Mercantile Marine Medals and British War Medal (1914-1925)

Search and download cards recording the award of campaign medals to merchant seamen in the First World War (BT 351/1/1, BT 351/1/2 and MT 9/1404) (£). These cards record the award of the British War Medal, Mercantile Marine Medal and Silver War Badge.

Indexes of apprentices registered in the Merchant Navy (1824-1910)

Search by name indexes of apprentices registered in the Merchant Navy between 1824 and 1910 (BT 150/1-53) on Ancestry (£).

These index the original indentures in BT 151 and BT 152. Please note only a sample of the original indentures survive – for further information see below.

First World War Roll of Honour

Search by name the Shipping and Seamen First World War Roll of Honour (BT 339) on Ancestry (£). The Roll of Honour lists merchant seamen who died in service during the war or who were declared ‘missing, presumed dead’. The information in these records usually includes:

  • rank or rating
  • name of ship
  • date of death or presumed death

What records can I find at The National Archives at Kew?

Agreements and crew lists (1861-1994)

The National Archives holds a 10% sample of agreements and crew lists for 1861 to 1938.

Search the agreements and crew lists in BT 99 by the ship’s official number for the period 1861 to 1934.

If you are looking for a seaman who served in 1915 you are able to search the 1915 crew lists by seaman’s name. Further details are available on our 1915 project page. Please note, your search results will include records held at the National Maritime Museum – please check the ‘held by’ information on your search results.

Merchant Navy apprentices (1824-1953)

Browse the indexes of apprentices registered in the merchant navy in BT 150. Please note the indexes for 1824-1910 are available online (see above).

These are indexes to the apprentices’ indentures in BT 151 and BT 152. Browse BT 151 and BT 152 by date and by port. Please note only a sample survive (a two month sample for every five years).

To access these records you will either need to visit us, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy £).

What records can I find in other archives and organisations?

Agreements and crew lists (1861-1994)

Look at the websites of other archives and organisations which hold agreements and crew lists, including the Maritime History Archive in Newfoundland, the National Maritime Museum, the National Records of Scotland, the National Archives of Ireland, and local archives.

What other resources will help me find information?


Consult the Crew List Index Project (CLIP) website, which has information about merchant seamen on British registered ships from 1861 to 1913.

Search indexes to crew lists from 1861 to 1913 by name on findmypast (£).


Search The National Archives’ bookshop to see whether any of the publications below may be available to buy. Alternatively, look in The National Archives’ library catalogue to see what is available to consult at Kew.

Christopher and Michael Watts, My ancestor was a merchant seaman (Society of Genealogists, 2002)