How to look for records of... Officers in the Merchant Navy: further research

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you to find and interpret merchant officers’ service records from 1845 to 1965.

You may want to read our guide on Officers in the Merchant Navy first.

2. Essential information

How do I access the records?

Some records are available to view online. The majority of the records are available to view on microfilm or as original documents at The National Archives.

What type of records will I be consulting?

Depending on the date and rank, the main types of records for merchant officers you will be consulting are either:

  • registers of service
  • voluntary examination certificates
  • registers of certificates of competency (issued as a result of passing an examination)
  • registers certificates of service (for long service, exempt from examination)

Records before 1845

No system of registration for merchant officers exists before 1845.

Before 1845, officers (particularly masters of vessels) may be mentioned in crew lists and agreements in BT 98 if they survive. For information read Crew lists, agreements and log books of merchant ships 1747-1860.

3. Alphabetical Register of Masters, BT 115 (1845-1854)

Search and download (£) the Alphabetical registers of masters (BT 115) for the period from 1845 to 1854 on

The registers in BT 115 follow a similar format to Registers of Seamen Tickets in BT 113. Read Merchant seamen up to 1857: further research for information about how to interpret the records.

4. Voluntary examinations (1845-1850)

From 1845 onwards a system of examinations was introduced for masters and mates. At first it was voluntary and applied only to foreign-going vessels.

Records of masters and mates passing the voluntary examination are in series BT 143 and in BT 6/218-219. There is an index to names in BT 143 .

Details of masters and mates who have voluntarily passed an examination appear in the appendix ‘An Alphabetical List of all the Masters and Mates in the Merchant Service…’ in the Lloyd’s Register of Shipping. Copies are available at The National Archives.

The list of masters and mates who passed an examination can be accessed online via The Gazette (ZJ1).

5. Overview of certificates of competency and service (1845-1921)

5.1 What are they?

Various certificates of competency and service from 1845 to 1921 were created for:

  • masters
  • mates
  • fishing officers
  • engineers
  • cooks

The voluntary system of examination, introduced for masters and mates of foreign-going vessels in 1845, was extended and gradually made compulsory from 1850.

5.2 How do I search?

Each register of certificate type has an index which you will need to consult to obtain a certificate number. The certificates in various series are arranged by certificate number.

When searching the indexes you will find that names beginning with Mc or Mac are usually to be found under the letter following that prefix. For example, MacDonald will not appear under the letter ‘M’ but under ‘D’.

5.3 What information do they contain?

Up to 1888 the various certificate registers give:

  • the name
  • date and place of certification
  • place and year of birth
  • certificate number and grade
  • record of voyages (in abbreviated form – see below)

A certificate number is allocated to the merchant officer when he is granted his first certificate. A new number will only be assigned if a replacement certificate was issued following the loss of the original.

Up to 1888 details of the voyages undertaken by each officer are recorded in an abbreviated form. Read section 5.4 for more information about what the abbreviations mean.

After 1888 certificates are more like summary volumes. Details of loss and replacement of certificates (and sometimes a date of death) may be given. Details of voyages are no longer given.

5.4 Record of voyages

The voyage details which appear on the certificates are in abbreviated form.

Use the images below in conjunction with our guide Abbreviations in merchant seamen’s records to interpret the following records:

Bear in mind that the clerks were trying to record details of the filing of crew lists at the end of one or a series of voyages, during which the individual had been on the relevant ship.

The dates given are the dates on which the various schedules were filed and are not arrival dates. Find out dates or departure and arrival by consulting:

In general two types of entry will be found, under the heading:

  • repeated voyages (reported voyages) namely those recording a home trade voyage (or engaged on a particular ship in the home trade)
  • foreign trade voyage (engaged on a particular ship in foreign trade)

Examples of both are given below.

5.4.1 Home trade voyages

These entries do not simply record a single voyage, but a half year (January to June or July to December) during which the seaman was engaged on a particular ship.

During that period the ship may have been on several voyages, and he may have been engaged for some or all of the period.

An entry for home trade is shown in the first example below, taken from Part 1 of the series.

5.4.2 Foreign trade voyages

These entries record a single voyage during which the seaman was engaged on a particular ship. See an example in the second image below.

Example of home trade voyage from BT 126

Example of home trade voyage from BT 126

Example taken from BT 124

Example taken from BT 124

6. Certificates for masters and mates (1844-1927)

How to find the records?

Use the consolidated index in BT 127 to locate the certificate number of the record. Once you have obtained a certificate number, consult the table below to find out which series (that is, BT 122) contains the certificate you are seeking.

Certificate No Certificate type Trade Series starts Series* Reference
1-34,999 Competency Master or Mate Foreign 1 Jan 1851 BT 122
35,000-54,999 Service Master Foreign Dec 1850 BT 124
55,000-69,999 Service Mate Foreign Dec 1850 BT 124
70,000-78,999 Service Master Foreign April 1851 BT 124
79,000-80,999 Service Mate Foreign May 1852 BT 124
81,000-99,999 Competency Master or Mate Foreign Oct 1868 BT 122
100,000-119,000 Competency Master or Mate Home March 1855 BT 125
120,000-134,999 Service Master Home April 1855 BT 126
135,000-150,000 Service Mate Home April 1855 BT 126
01-0500 Yacht Master
0501-045,000 Competency Master or Mate Foreign July 1875 BT 122
001-0021,000 Master or Mate Foreign, steam April 1881 BT 123
21,001 – Master or Mate Foreign, steam May 1927
* Most of these series are continued in BT 352.

Certificate numbers with a letter(s) prefix – NWS – were issued in the colonies. Consult series BT 128 for details.

Other sources

For an alphabetical list of masters and mates from 1845 to 1862 consult The Mercantile Navy List for 1863. It also provides a list those certificates which had been cancelled between 1857 and 1863.

Consult the Parliamentary papers for a return of the names of certificated masters of the mercantile marine who passed the examination ‘steam and compass deviation’ between 1 January 1870 to 1st July 1875.

7. Certificates for fishing officers (1884-1921)

What are they?

The records are:

  • the registers of certificates of competency in BT 129
  • the registers of certificates of Service in BT 130

Numbers were allocated to the certificate of service in BT 130 are as follows:

Certificate number Certificate type Series begins
01-03000 Skippers, English December 1883
03001-04888 Second Hands, English December 1883
05001-05765 Skippers, English January 1884
05800-05999 Skippers, Scottish May 1907
06000-07561 Second Hands, English July 1887
07600-07881 Second Hands, Scottish May 1907
08000-08180 Skippers, Scottish May 1907

How do I search these records?

BT 129 and BT 130 are arranged by certificate number. Use the index in BT 138 to locate the certificate number.
Once you have obtained the certificate number consult either:

  • BT 129 which covers certificates numbered 1 to 15,509 and cover the years 1880 to 1921
  • BT 130 which covers certificates numbered numbers 01 to 05999 and also numbers 08000 to 08999 (or numbers with an ‘0’ prefix)

8. Certificates for Engineers (1862-1921)

What are they?

Details of certificates can be found in:

  • registers of certificates of competency in BT 139 (1861-1921)
  • registers of certificates of service of engineers examined in the colonies in BT 140 (1870-1921)
  • registers of certificates of service in BT 142 (1862-1921)

How do I search?

BT 139 , BT 140 and BT 142 are arranged by certificate number. Use the index in BT 141 to locate the certificate number.

The certificate number obtained from the index indicates:

Certificate number Certificate type Series starts Date
1-400 Service 1st class Engineer 1862
401-3,000 Service 2nd class Engineer 1862
3,001-5,000 Service 1st class Engineer
5,001-5,999 Service 2nd class Engineer March 1930
6,000 upwards Competency Engineer 1862

Certificate numbers with a letter(s) prefix – NWS – were issued in the colonies. Consult series BT 140 for details.

Read section ‘Records in other archives’ to see what is held elsewhere.

9. Certificates for cooks (1908-1956)

We hold indexes to registers of cooks certificates of competence and service 1913 to 1956 in BT 319.

See section ‘Records in other archives’ for details about certificate registers for cooks.

10. Later records (c1910-1930)

10.1. Card indexes (BT 352)

A combined self-indexing register in BT 352 replaced separate indexes for certificates from 1910 onwards for:

  • masters
  • mates
  • engineers
  • skippers
  • mates of fishing boards

It covers home and foreign trade and each card gives:

  • name
  • certificate number
  • date of passing examination
  • date and place of birth
  • port of examination

The cards are of different colours depending on the type of qualification:

  • white cards are for masters and mates
  • pink cards are for engineers
  • green for skippers and mates of fishing boats

10.2 Registers of the issue or reissue of certificates:

These registers give brief details of the issue of certificates:

  • Registers of Masters and Mates Certificates Passings and Renewal in BT 317 (1917-1977)
  • Registers of Examinations for Certificates of Masters, Mates and Engineers, Returns of Passings and Failures in BT 318 (1928-1981)
  • Registers of Passes and Renewals of Certificates of Competency for Fishing Officers (skippers and 2nd hands) in BT 396 (1883-1959)
  • Register of Engineers Passes and Renewals in BT 320 (1913-1935) (in process of transfer from National Maritime Museum under references RSS/ENG/5-6)

The entries are arranged in date order and give:

  • date received
  • first and last name
  • examination date
  • certificate number
  • grade
  • port sent to
  • port of examination

11. Lloyd’s Captains’ Registers (1851-1947)

11.1 What are they?

The Lloyd Captains’ Registers were compiled from the records of certificates issued to foreign-going masters.

Lloyd’s Captains’ Registers extend the date and amount of information available after 1913, for masters.

These records cover masters with foreign trade certificates sailing either as masters or mates.

11.2 What information do they contain?

An incomplete set of captains’ registers can be seen on microfilm and contain the following information:

  • name
  • place and year of birth
  • date, number and place of issue of the master’s certificate obtained
  • any other special qualification, including the ‘steam’ certificate from 1874
  • name and number (taken from the Mercantile Navy Lists) of each ship (date of engagement and discharge as master or mate and the destination of each voyage)
  • any casualties endured
  • any special awards (for example, war service)
  • pasted-in summaries of the qualifications and service from 1851 of masters who were still active in 1869

12. Records in other archives

12.1 Certificate applications by masters, mates, engineers and fishing officers

You can search for National Maritime Museum’s records of master and mate certificates (1850-1927) on (£). Contact the National Maritime Museum for other records of successful certificate applications.

12.2 Application for certificates made in the colonies

Contact the appropriate state or national archive.

12.3 Certificate registers for engineers

The National Maritime Museum holds certificate registers for the following (these may have been expected to be found in series BT 139):

  • RSS/ENG/1 1902-1905 39000-43999
  • RSS/ENG/2 1905-1909 44000-48999
  • RSS/ENG/3 1909-1913 49000-53999
  • RSS/ENG/4 1913-1918 54000-58999

12.4 Certificate registers for cooks 1915-1958

The National Maritime Museum holds the registers, bearing numbers 5001-41021 (reference RSS/CO/1-6).

13. Further reading

Some or all of the publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives’ bookshop. Alternatively, search The National Archives’ library catalogue to see what is available to consult at Kew.

Christopher T and Michael J Watts, My ancestor was a merchant seaman (Society of Genealogists, 2nd edition with addendum, 2004)

Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 93