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
2.1 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.
2.2 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)
2.3 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 findmypast.co.uk.
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 London 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:
- fishing officers
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:
- Registers of certificates, Masters and Mates in BT 122 to BT 126 and BT 128
- Registers of certificates, Engineers in BT 139, BT 140 and BT 142
- Registers of certificates, Skippers and Mates of Fishing Boats in BT 129 and BT 130
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:
- the crew lists in BT 98
- the Lloyd Lists which are available at the Guildhall Library or the National Maritime Museum
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.
6. Certificates for masters and mates (1844-1927)
6.1 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 i.e. 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 i.e. NWS were issued in the colonies. Consult series BT 128 for details.
6.2 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)
7.1 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|
7.2 How do I search these records?
8. Certificates for Engineers (1862-1921)
8.1 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)
8.2 How do I search?
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|
Certificate numbers with a letter(s) prefix i.e. 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 (c. 1910-1930)
10.1. Card indexes (BT 352)
A combined self-indexing register in BT 352 replaced separate indexes for certificates from 1910 onwards for:
- mates of fishing boards
It covers home and foreign trade and each card gives:
- 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
- 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:
- 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 (e.g. 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 Ancestry.co.uk. 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
- 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 & Michael J Watts, My Ancestor Was a Merchant Seaman (Society of Genealogists, 2nd edition with addendum, 2004)