How to look for records of... Merchant seamen of the First World War

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 guide to finding records of merchant seamen who served during the First World War. It is very difficult to find information about an individual merchant seaman during the war as the registers that were kept to record service have not survived.

What do I need to know before I start?

The missing registers

The Merchant Navy began to register its seamen again, after decades of not doing so, in 1913. Names and other details were entered into the Central Indexed Register, also known as the Fourth Register of Seamen. However, the entries for 1913 to 1917 and all but the last two months of 1918 were destroyed, so for the war years you are left with medal records and the agreements and crew lists – unless your seaman was an apprentice or died in service in which case there may be a separate record.

How to trace a ship

Sometimes the only way to track down a record of a seaman is to trace the records of the ships he served on. You can use the CLIP (Crew List Index Project) website to trace a ship by the:

  • ship’s name
  • ship’s port of registration
  • ship’s official number

How to interpret abbreviations in the records

See our guide to Abbreviations in merchant seamen records for further help interpreting information in these records.

Online records

First World War medals

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.

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

Records available only at The National Archives in Kew

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 £).

Agreements and crew lists, 1861-1994

The National Archives holds a 10% sample of agreements and crew lists for 1861 to 1938 (see below for other archives that hold agreements and crew lists).

Use the box below to search the agreements and crew lists in BT 99 by ship’s official number for the period 1861 to 1934. You can search for a ship’s official number at the Crew List Index Project website (CLIP) or the Miramar Ship Index (£).

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.

For more information read Crew lists, agreements and log books of merchant ships after 1861.

Merchant Navy apprentices, 1824-1953

Browse the indexes of apprentices registered in the merchant navy in BT 150BT 150/54 covers 1911-1917, and BT 150/55 covers the period 1918-1928.

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).

Records in other archives and organisations

Agreements and crew lists, 1861-1994

Most agreements and crew lists for this period are held in repositories other than The National Archives. Search at the following:

  • Maritime History Archive in Newfoundland holds approximately 70% of the crew lists and agreements for the years 1861-1938 and 1951-1976. You can search these by ship’s official number.
  • National Maritime Museum in London holds 10% of agreements and crew lists for the periods 1861-1938 and 1951-1976. In general, the records held are for years ending with five (1865, 1875, and so on) however they do hold some other years too. Contact them directly to find out more.
  • National Records of Scotland
  • National Archives of Ireland

Other resources

Books

Christopher and Michael Watts, My Ancestor was a Merchant Seaman (Society of Genealogists, 2002)

Search The National Archives’ bookshop and the The National Archives’ library catalogue for other publications.