1. Early musters
No systematic records of the crew of merchant ships was kept until 1747. Until that date, the researcher must rely upon the chance survival of material amongst records kept for other purposes, especially State Papers and those of the Colonial Office, the Treasury, High Court of Admiralty and High Court of Delegates. Most of these records are not indexed in a way which will assist a search for a specific ship or seaman. Details of available sources are described in My Ancestor Was a Merchant Seaman by Christopher T and Michael J Watts (Society of Genealogists, second edition with addendum, 2004) and Records of Merchant Shipping and Seamen by K Smith, CT and MJ Watts.
2. Musters: 1747-1834
From 1747, masters or owners of merchant ships were required to keep and file a Muster Roll giving details of the number of crewmen and the ship's voyages. These lists, which were kept as a result of the Act for the Relief of Disabled Seamen, 1747 and were filed with the Seamen's Fund Receivers at the ports of arrival. The musters are found in BT 98, piece numbers 1-139. They cover a number of ports and various dates from 1747 to 1853.
There is no index to the ships' or crew's names' and they are arranged by year and port of filing. Sometimes they include a full list of the crew's names, but more commonly name only the owner and master and give the number of crew members. The early lists are more likely to show the crews names and against each the amount of money to be invested in the fund. This is calculated on a pro rata basis at 6d per month. There must have been calculation tables but none of these are thought to survive.
3. Agreements and Crew List: 1835-1860
Following the 1835 Merchant Shipping Act, Crew Lists and other documents were filed with the Register Office of Merchant Seamen (the forerunner of the Registrar-General of Shipping and Seamen (RGSS)) and these, up to 1860, now form part of Agreements and Crew List, Series I BT 98.
During this period two main types of Crew List are to be found.
- Schedule C, Crew List (Foreign), was made by the master of each ship undertaking a foreign voyage, and was to be filed within 48 hours of the ship's return to a UK port. The term 'Foreign Going Ship' means 'every ship employed in trading or going between some place or places in the United Kingdom and some place or places situate beyond the following limits, the Coasts of the United Kingdom, the Islands of Guernsey, Jersey, Sark, Alderney and Man and the Continent of Europe between the River Elbe and Brest inclusive'.
- Schedule D, Account of Voyages and Crew for Home Trade Ship (Half Yearly Return), was made by the master of a ship engaged in the coastal or fishing trade, giving the voyages and crew for the preceding half year, and was to be filed within 21 days of the end of June or December. These two types of list contain similar information, but an appreciation of the different filing rules will assist in understanding the entries to be found in the various seamen's registers.
The Crew Lists for the whole period 1835-1844 are filed by ship's Port of Registry; for each port the lists are grouped by the initial letter of ships' names into boxes, but within each box the lists are randomly arranged. At this date, the Crew List will give brief details about the ship, its master and voyages together with, for each crew member:
- First and Surnames
- Place of birth
- Ship in which last served
- Date and place of joining ship
- Time and place of death or leaving ship
- How disposed of
From 1845 onwards further types of list were introduced, and three key ones are found in addition to the Schedules C and D already mentioned. Schedules A, B, C and D all give information which is very similar to that quoted above.
- Schedule A, Agreement for Foreign Trade, (commonly called 'Articles') was an agreement between master and crew, and was to be filed within 24 hours of the ship's return to a UK port.
- Schedule B, Agreement for Home Trade, was the equivalent for the coastal and fishing trade and was to be filed within 30 days of the end of June or December.
- Schedule G, Names and Register Tickets of Crew (Foreign Trade), was a list of crew, with their Register Ticket numbers, to be filed for a foreign-going ship on sailing.
During this period the Crew Lists are arranged in BT 98 by the year, the port of registry and are then grouped into boxes according to the initial letter of the ship's name. To locate the crew list of a ship on which an individual seaman sailed, it is necessary to determine its name - this is not given in the registers of seamen's service until 1854. A search of all the available crew lists is only practical for small ports.
From 1857 onwards, the records are arranged in BT 98 by ships' Official Number (ON). The ON was allocated on registration and was retained for the life of the ship, and was not reused. ONs may be found from the Mercantile Navy List or Lloyds Register, copies of which are available at The National Archives.
4. Log Books 1852 onwards
The Mercantile Marine Act of 1850 required masters to keep a ship's Official Log recording illnesses, births and deaths on board, misconduct, desertion and punishment, and a description of each man's conduct. They were to be deposited after each foreign voyage, or half-yearly for home trade ships. They begin to appear amongst the records from 1852 onwards, many have been destroyed; usually only those recording a birth or death have survived.
Except for the period 1902-1919, where there is a separate series in BT 165, the surviving logs are to be found with the Agreements and Crew Lists in BT 99. During the 20th century changes in form design meant that the log book and the crew list were combined in the one document.
Often all that the Official Log will record about a man will be VG (Very Good) under the two headings of 'General Conduct' and 'Ability in Seamanship'. Sometimes though other details may be found. One should not expect to find any detailed accounts of day-to-day life or the activities of individuals, whether crew or passengers; they limit themselves to information on the ports of call, any disciplinary matters and births, deaths or marriages aboard.
5. Discharge certificates
Following the 1854 Merchant Shipping Act, both the master and seaman had to sign a Certificate of Discharge and Character (E-1) on termination of a voyage. These had to be signed before the relevant port official or the Shipping Master in a colonial port.
These documents were given to the seaman and may sometimes be found amongst his personal papers. Very few seem to have been preserved amongst official archives in the UK, although occasionally a Release (List M) for the whole crew may be found with the crew lists in BT 98.
6. Further reading
Christopher T and Michael J Watts, My ancestor was a merchant seaman (Society of Genealogists, second edition with addendum, 2004)
K Smith, CT and MJ Watts, Records of merchant shipping and seamen, PRO Readers' Guide No 20