How to look for... Crew lists and agreements and log books of merchant ships after 1861

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • None

1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide for advice on how to find British merchant shipping records known as crew lists and agreements, dating from 1861 to the 1990s. These records can provide brief details of ships, the voyages they took and their crew. Typically, if you can locate a seaman in a crew list you will find out his:

  • age at the time
  • place of birth
  • job on the ship
  • date and place of joining and leaving the ship
  • reason for departure from the ship, whether discharged, drowned or otherwise

Between 1858 and the First World War, when the Merchant Navy did not keep registers of its seamen, agreements and crew lists are the only records you are likely to find of an individual merchant seaman.

For advice on finding the same kinds of records prior to 1861 see our guide to crew lists and agreements 1747-1860.

2. What are crew lists and agreements and what do they tell us?

Crew lists and agreements were introduced in 1835. These are not two separate documents but one and the same thing; you may see them referred to simply as ‘crew lists’, or sometimes simply as ‘agreements’. The ‘agreement’ was effectively an employment contract between the ship’s master and each member of his crew, signed by both parties before the ship sailed. A list of the crew accompanied these agreements. Sometimes a log book, with details of the ship’s voyages (see section 6), was filed along with the agreements and crew lists.

Most types of crew lists and agreements give brief details about the ship, its master and voyages at the date of being filed together with the following information for each crew member:

  • first and last names
  • age
  • place of birth
  • ‘quality’ (the seaman’s job on the ship)
  • ship in which last served
  • date and place of joining ship
  • time and place of death or leaving ship
  • ‘how disposed of’ (the nature of the seaman’s departure from the ship, whether discharged, drowned or otherwise)

3. What proportion of the records have survived?

After 1861 only a sample of crew lists and agreements and log books are held at The National Archives. Many do not survive at all whilst significant proportions of those that do survive are held at other archives, most notably:

The National Archives holds the following proportions of surviving crew lists and agreements after 1861:

  • 1861-1938: 10%
  • 1939-1950: 100%
  • 1951-1994: 10%

Local archives took some of the records for the period 1863-1913 (see section 7).

4. How to search for crew lists and agreements

To find a crew list and agreement for a ship you will usually need to know the ship’s official number. To find a ship’s official number go to the Crew List Index Project (CLIP) website, which has information about merchant ships from 1861 to 1913, or the the Miramar Ship Index website (subscription required), a database listing some categories of merchant and naval ships.

You can, however, search for crew lists and agreements by the names of the seamen recorded on them for the following years:

  • 1915
  • 1891
  • 1881

4.1 Crew lists and agreements 1861-1938

Search for crew lists and agreements from 1861 to 1938 at:

  • The National Archives – search in BT 99 by seaman’s name or ship’s name for records from 1881, 1891 and 1915 and by ship’s number for all other years. We hold just 10% of the surviving records for this period. For records from 1915 you can also search from our dedicated 1915 crew lists page for online transcriptions of the records from that year – search results will include records held at the National Maritime Museum so check the ‘held by’ information on the page to find out where you can view the original document.
  • The National Maritime Museum – read the museum’s Merchant Navy research guide for advice on how to search for records there. Their 10% of the surviving records are, in general, for years ending with five (1865, 1875, and so on), though they do hold records for some other years too. Contact them directly to find out more.
  • The Maritime History Archive – search their Crew List Index by ship’s official number. They hold 70% of the surviving crew lists and agreements for this period

4.2 Crew lists and agreements 1939-1950

The National Archives holds all the surviving crew lists and agreements for the Second World War and the succeeding years up to 1950. Search by ship’s official number in:

There is also an index to Second World War log books, agreements and crew lists in BT 385.

Search in BT 387 for agreements and crew lists of allied foreign ships requisitioned or chartered by the British government in the Second World War.  The records contain details of UK merchant seamen who served on the ships. BT 387 is arranged by ranges of ships’ names therefore you will need to browse the series.

4.3 Crew lists and agreements 1951-1994

After 1972 only two 10% samples of crew lists and agreements have been preserved. One sample is held by The National Archives and the other by the National Maritime Museum. The rest, up to 1989, have been destroyed.

Search for crew lists and agreements from 1951 to 1994 at:

  • The National Archives – search our 10% sample by ship’s number in BT 99.
  • The National Maritime Museum – holds 10% of agreements and crew lists for 1951-1976. The records held are for years ending with five (1955, 1965, and so on).
  • Maritime History Archive – holds approximately 70% of the crew lists and agreements for 1951-1976, but the records have not yet been indexed so contact them directly for search advice.

4.4 Crew lists and agreements for celebrated ships 1835-1999

Search by name of ship in BT 100 for the agreements and crew lists of a selection of celebrated ships.

5. Asiatic agreements

Asiatic agreements are not usually included among the records held by The National Archives. See section 7 for guidance on finding information in local archives.

6. Ships’ logs

Agreements and crew lists from the 19th century are occasionally accompanied by ships’ logs and this becomes increasingly common for 20th century records. Logs were usually preserved from 1902-1912 where births, marriages or deaths took place on board ship. It is therefore possible, for example, to find records of deaths of soldiers and prisoners of war returning on ships from the Boer War. For the First World War (1914-1918) all surviving logs containing casualties are preserved.

Search by ship’s name or number in BT 165 for selected logs covering the periods 1857-1889, 1922-1938 and 1913-1972.

7. Agreements and crew lists held in other archives

Many local archives hold the records relating to their local ports. To identify records held in local archives, search our catalogue and refine your results using the filters. Try search terms such as “ship register” or “registrar general shipping and seamen”. Check the opening hours and contact details for local archives using Find an archive.

The National Records of Scotland holds agreements and crew lists under the reference BT 3, covering 1867-1913, for Scottish ships only. The ships are listed alphabetically by name in the paper catalogue. Official logs are found with the agreements and crew lists, where they survive.

The National Archives of Australia has a large number of record series concerning ships’ crews and the merchant navy. They include registers of engagement, articles of agreement, registers of discharge, registers of deserters, and employment history records. All these record series are indexed on the RecordSearch database.