How to look for records of... High Court of Admiralty
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
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 captured ship had been lawfully seized and what should happen to it and its contents – known as ‘prize jurisdiction’
- 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 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 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.
3. Getting a search started
To get your search started you will need to know which records departments and series to search within.
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:
|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|
|1524-1537||Act Books||HCA 3/2|
|1515-1524||Warrants, monitions, decrees||HCA 39/1|
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 1/1-32||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.
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 ‘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.
There is a comprehensive guide to the series in the introductory note preceding the paper catalogue. The papers relating to each ship are often separated into two folders: Court Papers, being those actually produced at the trial, and Ship’s Papers, those impounded at the ship’s capture, but not actually used in court. Together, these can often form a vivid snapshot of the lives of the officers and men at the moment of capture. By their nature, the documents are usually in foreign languages, predominantly French, Spanish and Dutch.
Note that The National Archives have made available online an index to the contents of several hundred boxes of Prize Papers in HCA 32. The website is in Dutch and it includes some digitised images of the documents.
The following table shows the arrangement of the series HCA 32:
|HCA 32/||Dates||Document type||How sorted|
|HCA 32/1-45||pre 1700||Examinations and ships’ papers||Alphabetical by first letter of ship’s name|
|Examinations and ships’ papers||Alphabetical by first letter of ship’s name|
|Ships’ papers||Alphabetical by first letter of ship’s name|
|Ships’ papers||Full name of ship|
|Ships’ papers||Full name of ship|
|Ships’ papers||Full name of ship|
|Court papers and ships’ papers||Full name of ship|
French Revolutionary, Napoleonic, American
|Prize papers||Alphabetical by first letter of ship’s name with ships’ numbers|
|Common condemnation||Ships’ numbers|
French Revolutionary, Napoleonic
|Contested prize causes||Ships’ numbers|
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.||Indexed by:||IND 1|
|HCA 15||Early (includes some prize)||1586-1788||Letters||IND 1/9458|
|HCA 16||I||1772-1806||1-4254||Names||IND 1/9458|
|HCA 17||II||1807-1839||1-3062||Names||IND 1/9458|
|HCA 18||III||1840-1859||1-5319||Names||IND 1/9459|
|HCA 19||IV||1860-1874||1-7436||Names||IND 1/9460|
|HCA 20||V||1875-1963||Mainly arranged by year||Names||IND 1/9460|
These IND 1 volumes are available at The National Archives.
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 – Cape of Good Hope, Santo Domingo, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Minorca, New York, Sierra Leone and Various – 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 after that date 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.
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:
|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)|
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:
|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 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.
|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:
|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.
Acts, Acts of Session,
|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|
|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|
|Printed copies of prize cases which subsequently went to appeal|
Commission or decree
|Commission or decree by the HCA to appraise the value of the ship and its goods|
Commission or decree
|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|
|List of names of members of a jury|
|Written summons requiring the attendance of a jury|
|Equivalent of Attorney General|
|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|
|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|