How to look for records of... High Court of Admiralty

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • None

1. Why use this guide?

This is a guide to finding records of the High Court of Admiralty c1450-1995 at The National Archives. These are predominantly records of:

  • civil trials heard by the court to establish whether or not a ship captured or seized in wartime had been lawfully taken, and what should happen to it and its contents – known as ‘prize jurisdiction’. This included captures of slave ships after 1807
  • civil trials held by the court covering commercial disputes, disputes over wages, collisions, pilotage, salvage and so on – known as ‘instance jurisdiction’
  • criminal trials heard by the court of seamen and personnel within the shipping industry accused of piracy, treason, murder, mutiny, desertion, sodomy, insurance fraud, rape, robbery and (after 1807) slaving

A glossary at the end of the guide will help you understand some of the specialist language of the court as well as some of the broader legal language you will need to be familiar with to make sense of these records. Until 1733, however, records of the proceedings in the court, as opposed to evidence gathered, are likely to be at least partly in Latin.

2. History of the court

The High Court of Admiralty emerged as a separate entity probably after the battle of Sluys in 1340.

It was established to deal primarily with questions of piracy or spoil but later developed a jurisdiction in prize and a civil jurisdiction in such matters as salvage and collision, based on Roman or civil law. Actions could be taken against ships and goods as well as against persons.

Soon after the restoration in 1660 the civil business of the court divided, with an instance court and a prize court (the latter only existing in wartime).

The criminal side passed to the Central Criminal Court in 1834. When the Supreme Court of Judicature was established in 1875 the civil law business of the court joined the other civil law courts in the creation of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court of Justice. Unlike these other courts, the records retained their own code, HCA.

3. Getting a search started

To get your search started you will need to know which records departments and series to search within.

The records of the High Court of Admiralty are held in department HCA. There are indexes to HCA in a separate set of records, IND 1, although many of these are now obsolete.

The following sections of this guide will help you to target your search to particular series of records within HCA. However, HCA is a large and complex collection of documents and this guide does not cover all of them.

To supplement searches in the series listed throughout this guide you can try a catalogue search in Admiralty Miscellanea 1530-1948 in HCA 30, a very large series of records which covers several of the categories discussed below.

For more speculative searches you can use the advanced search in our catalogue, restricting your search to reference HCA, and searching with, for example, the following:

  • name of ship
  • name of the captain of a ship or other officers
  • shipping companies

Visit us in Kew for additional finding aids that may help you to find records that online searches alone will not reveal.

4. Pre 1535

An act of 1535/6 (27 Henry VIII) marks a significant change in the workings of the court (see below under Criminal) and documents prior to this date are considered here separately. One of the earliest and best known of these is the Black Book of the Admiralty, or ‘Liber Niger Admiralitatis’ of around 1450 (HCA 12/1). This was transcribed between 1871 and 1876 by Sir Travers Twiss. The Black Book was thought at the time to be lost, and Twiss worked from related manuscripts and transcripts. Of the four volumes of Twiss’s work at The National Archives, only the first and fourth relate to the Black Book. Vol I pp 1-344 contains the transcripts, and Vol IV contains minor corrections made after the original was found. The languages used can be dual text (pages side by side) in Old French and contemporary English, Latin alone, French alone or English alone. Each volume is indexed by person, place and subject. Other records from before 1535 are not numerous, but include:

Dates Records Reference
1531-1541 Exemplar (draft) files HCA 14/1
1526-1535 Libels, allegations HCA 24/1
1530 Original patents for appointments HCA 30/489
Sixteenth century Little court book HCA 30/1035
1530 Prohibitions HCA 30/542
1524-1537 Act Books HCA 3/2
1515-1524 Warrants, monitions, decrees HCA 39/1

5. Criminal

The act referred to above (27 Hen VIII c 4, 5), ‘An Act concerning Pirates and Robbers of the Sea’, and the very similar act of the following year (28 Hen VIII c 15), ‘An Act for Punishment of Pirates and Robbers of the Sea’, attempted to correct the shortcomings of the civil law in the prosecution of piracy, ‘treasons, felonies, robberies, murders and confederacies’.

Under civil law, the sentence of death could not be given unless the defendant confessed or there were witnesses, and witnesses were hard to assemble because by the nature of their calling, seamen were nearly always away at sea. The acts provided for such offences to be dealt with ‘in such like manner and form as if such offences had been committed upon the land’, in other words, under common law. Benefit of clergy was also withdrawn. The most common categories of offence are piracy, treason, murder, mutiny, desertion, sodomy, insurance fraud, rape, robbery (sometimes difficult to distinguish from piracy) and (after 1807) slaving.

The proceedings are to be found in HCA 1. Discovery, our catalogue, like the paper list from which it derives, largely lists the documents by type, for example, Proclamations of Sessions, Jury Precepts and so on. A relatively modern calendar and index is available at The National Archives. A key at the front of the paper series list records which pieces are searchable by name of person, name of ship. This may be summarized as follows:

HCA 1 Methodology Index
HCA 1/1-32 By person and/or ship * Calendared and indexed
HCA 1/33-59 Volumes of examinations and so on Chronological only
HCA 1/60-64 By person and/or ship * Calendared and indexed
HCA 1/65-77 Internal HCA, warrants, commissions and so on
HCA 1/78-84 Inquests and so on Indexed
HCA 1/85-98 Indictments, inquests and so on Mainly indexed
HCA 1/99-101 By person and/or ship * Calendared and indexed
HCA 1/102-109 Inquests. Chronological Name searchable on our catalogue (restrict search to HCA 1)
HCA 1/110-111 Old Bailey sessions Not calendared or indexed
HCA 1/112 Execution Dock papers Not calendared or indexed

Those marked with an asterisk represent the most straightforward way of finding a person or ship. The index and calendar to HCA 1/1-101 is available at The National Archives.

6. Prize

The business of the High Court of Admiralty, aside from the criminal cases above, was administered under civil law and divided into prize jurisdiction and instance jurisdiction (for the latter see below). The Prize Court ruled on disputed prize cases and either condemned the ship, cargo or both as lawful prize or found in favour of the owners of the prize as neutral or friendly, and therefore ‘not lawful prize’.

Records of prize cases are found in these series:

Minute books HCA 28 1777 to 1842
Minute books, war of 1803 HCA 29 1802 to 1810
Monitions HCA 31 1664 to 1815
Prize papers HCA 32 1592 to 1855
Crimean war HCA 33 1854 to 1856
Sentences and interlocutories HCA 34 1643 to 1854
Royal warrants HCA 40 1760 to 1857
Minute books HCA 57 1914 to 1949
Miscellanea HCA 61 1914 to 1943

Of these, HCA 32 is by far the most useful and the easiest to access if you have the name of the ship and an approximate date.

All the papers after 1700 are catalogued by at least name of ship and master: those for the 1740s have been fully catalogued as part of the Prize Papers Project (see

There is a comprehensive guide to the series in the introductory note preceding the paper catalogue. The papers relating to each ship usually comprise Court Papers, being those produced for or by the Court, and Ship’s Papers, those impounded at the ship’s capture, to prove nationality. Some ships were also carrying mail in transit for delivery.  By their nature, the documents are usually in foreign languages, predominantly French, Spanish, Dutch, but with at least 15 other languages also found.

The following table shows the arrangement of the series HCA 32: work on improving cataloguing of this and separated collections of ships’ papers and mail in transit in HCA 30 has been ongoing since 2013. Droits of Admiralty in Prize are rights to ships seized in port, or to enemy ships taken without proper authorisation.

HCA 32/ Dates Document type How sorted
HCA 32/1-45 pre 1700 Court Papers, Ships’ papers, some Mail in Transit In progress
HCA 32/46-93 1702-1733
Spanish Succession
Court Papers, Ships’ papers, some Mail in Transit Briefly catalogued
HCA 32/94-160 1739-1748
Austrian Succession
Court Papers, Ships’ papers, some Mail in Transit Fully catalogued by ship, master, nationality, voyage, cargo, capture, captor, and documents; being digitised by the Prize Papers Project []
HCA 32/161-259 1756-1763
Seven Years
Court Papers, Ships’ papers, some Mail in Transit Briefly catalogued
HCA 32/260-493 1775-1783
Court Papers, Ships’ papers, some Mail in Transit. Includes proceedings before the British New York Vice-Admiralty Court Briefly catalogued
HCA 32/494-1820 1793-1810
French Revolutionary, Napoleonic, American
Court Papers, Ships’ papers, Mail in Transit Briefly catalogued

7. Instance

Instance jurisdiction, as opposed to prize jurisdiction (see above), covers commercial disputes, disputes over wages, collisions, pilotage, salvage and droits. Droits of Admiralty are rights or perquisites, such as the proceeds arising from the seizure of enemies’ ships, wrecks, flotsam, jetsam and so on. Instance records and their means of reference are as follows:

HCA Reference Series Date Paper nos. Searchable by: Indexed by:
HCA 15 Early (includes some prize),

pieces 1-58

1586-1788 IND 1/9458
HCA 16 I, pieces 59-106 1772-1806 1-4254 IND 1/9458
HCA 17 II, pieces 107-171 1807-1839 1-3062 Ship and master IND 1/9458
HCA 18 III, pieces 172-310 1840-1859 1-5319 Ship and master IND 1/9459
HCA 19 IV, pieces 311-562 1860-1874 1-7436 Names IND 1/9460
HCA 20 V, pieces 563-2261 1875-1963 Mainly arranged by year Names IND 1/9460

These IND 1 volumes are available in the reading room at The National Archives.

Indexes to instance cases can also be found at HCA 56/1-61 for 1875-1946, at HCA 56/62 for 1860-1866, and at HCA 56/63-64 for 1772-1839.

8. Vice-Admiralty

Until 1835 there were local courts of admiralty in the maritime counties, and records relating to these are to be found in ADM 1 and HCA 49. However, the majority of Vice-Admiralty records relate to courts in colonial possessions, the proceedings of which are to be found in HCA 49. The arrangement is by colony beneath which the arrangement is usually roughly chronological. Other records relating to Vice-Admiralty courts are in:

By no means were all the records generated by these courts forwarded to the Admiralty in London and so many were never transferred to The National Archives.

9. Slave trade

In 1807 the slave trade was abolished in all British possessions and from 1808 many examples of the navy’s enforcement of this are to be found, especially in HCA 49/97, cases adjudicated in the court of vice-admiralty for Sierra Leone.

In 1821 William Rothery was appointed by the treasury to report on all cases involving slavery in admiralty, vice-admiralty and mixed commission (held jointly with representatives of the other country involved) courts. In 1860 he was succeeded by his son Henry, who remained in the post until 1888, by which time the work was greatly diminished. Their reports are to be found in HCA 35, 1821-1891.

10. Appeals

Appeals in prize cases went to the Commission of Appeals in Prize, also known as the High Court of Appeal for Prizes. (But there are some prize papers in DEL 2). The documents can be found in:

Appeals (Prize) Location
HCA 41 Act books, minutes and drafts
HCA 42 Papers (arranged by initial letter of ships’ names)
HCA 43 Assignation books Series I (arranged by nationality of prize)
HCA 44 Assignation books Series II (Dutch prizes separate)
HCA 45 Case books (printed). Those for 1793-1815 have been digitised by the Prize Papers Project
HCA 46 Interlocutories
HCA 47 Miscellanea

Appeals in instance cases, together with those from ecclesiastical and other civilian courts, went to the Court of Delegates until 1834. The documents can be found in:

Appeals Location
DEL 1 Processes (partially searchable in our catalogue)
DEL 2 Cause and miscellaneous papers (partially searchable in our catalogue)
DEL 3 Personal answers and depositions
DEL 4 Act books and files of original acts
DEL 5 Sentences
DEL 6 Assignation books
DEL 7 Bound volumes of printed appeal cases
DEL 8 Miscellanea (partially searchable in our catalogue)
DEL 9 Muniment books
DEL 10 Testamentary exhibits (partially searchable in our catalogue)
DEL 11 Miscellaneous lists and indexes (indexes to the other DEL series)

From 1834 onwards appeals were heard by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and are to be found in the PCAP series.

Appeals (1834+) Location
PCAP 1 (Processes) succeeds DEL 1 and is searchable in our catalogue
PCAP 2 (Appeals Assignation Books) succeeds DEL 6 and cases are indexed by name of party
PCAP 3 (Printed Appeal cases) succeeds DEL 7 and is partly searchable in our catalogue
PCAP 5 (Appeals miscellanea) is not searchable in our catalogue and is not indexed

11. Other finding aids and indexes

An index of cases (prize and instance together) for the limited period 1515-1551 relates to and cross-refers:

Warrant books
Original warrants
Act books
Examination books
HCA 38 HCA 39 HCA 24 HCA 3 HCA 13

Select Pleas in the Court of Admiralty, Reginald Marsden, Selden Society Vol. XI gives selected pleadings in the HCA from 1390-1602. In this volume the file number translates to the piece number in HCA 24.

12. Glossary

Term Meaning
Acts, Acts of Session,
Act Books
Records of the transactions and decrees of the court
Equivalent of barrister
A statement made in writing, confirmed by the maker’s oath, and intended to be used as judicial proof. (In legal phrase the deponent swears an affidavit, the judge takes it; but in popular usage the deponent makes or takes it.)
Response of the defendant to a libel. The equivalent of an answer in Chancery, and so on
As allegation – Response of the defendant to a libel. The equivalent of an answer in Chancery, and so on
Valuation of a ship or cargo by an official or authorized appraiser
All in HCA 65: playing cards, fabric samples and so on
Assignation books
1. In Prize and Instance cases, brief notes on proceedings in court (or chambers), forming the basis for Acts, Act Books. 2. In oyer and terminer sittings, adjournments to another date
Security given for the release of a prisoner from imprisonment, pending his trail
Benefit of clergy
Originally, the right of the clergy to be tried in church courts rather than the secular courts. Because to qualify one had to demonstrate one’s ability to read, the right was later sometimes extended to all literate persons
Case books
Printed copies of prize cases which subsequently went to appeal
Commission or decree
to appraise
Commission or decree by the HCA to appraise the value of the ship and its goods
Commission or decree
to sell
Commission or decree by the HCA to sell the ship by public sale to the highest bidder
The judgment of the court. In the HCA the plaintiff and defendant would sometimes draw up their own versions of the decree, and the court would select its preference
The giving of testimony upon oath in a court of law, or the testimony so given; spec. a statement in answer to interrogatories, constituting evidence, taken down in writing to be read in court as a substitute for the production of the witness
A matter which is likely to become an example or precedent
A decree given during the course of a case but not final, being provisional on some other event or condition
Question or questions in writing to be put to the defendant or a witness
In this context, a list of a ship’s stores, tackle, armaments etc. and/or cargo. Sometimes with prices
Jury panel
List of names of members of a jury
Jury precept
Written summons requiring the attendance of a jury
King’s/Queen’s advocate-general
Equivalent of Attorney General
King’s/Queen’s proctor
Equivalent of Treasury Solicitor
Letter of marque
Accreditation for a private warship to attack the shipping of an enemy power
The original complaint of the plaintiff, originating the action. Equivalent to a bill of complaint in Chancery and so on
Notice of the seizure of a ship as prize, requiring all interested parties to appear in a given period and show why it should not be condemned as prize
Muniment books
entry books containing copies of commissions, letters patent and warrants relating to the appointments of Lords High Admiral, Vice-Admirals, Judges, Registrars, Marshals and other officers in the High Court of Admiralty
Petition for desertion
Request, usually by the defendant, that the action be abandoned
A ship or goods legally captured in time of war
Equivalent of solicitor
Decree from a usually superior court to prevent another court from trying an action, as being outside its jurisdiction
Goods taken from an enemy in time of war