How to look for records of... Maritime history records held by other archives

1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide if you are researching British maritime history and are interested in collections which are held by archives other than The National Archives. For research guides specifically on The National Archives maritime records please see the other guides in our Military and maritime research guidance category.

The collections described in this guide cover a broad range of maritime records including records of:

  • merchant shipping
  • privately owned shipping companies
  • shipbuilding
  • ship owners

This research guide briefly describes:

  • how to start searching for these records
  • the principal relevant repositories with significant collections relating to maritime history in the UK
  • useful addresses, links and general works of reference.

2. How to search for records

Search Discovery, our catalogue, to find records from over 2,500 archives across the UK, as well as from The National Archives itself. Your search results will include details of which archives currently hold the records.

Click on the title of a result for the contact details of the archive which holds the record – you will need to contact this archive for further information about the collection or the record itself.

Where the keywords you searched for appear in the description of a record, the search results are displayed under the ‘Records’ tab.

Where the keywords you searched for appear in the name of the institution or person that originally created the record (often not the same as the institution or person that currently holds the record), the search results are displayed under the ‘Record creators’ tab. For further tips on searching see our catalogue help pages.

3. Records recently collected by other archives

Many archives regularly take in new records to add to their collections – this process is known as accessioning. Every year, The National Archives collects information about new accessions from 250 archives across Britain and Ireland. This is known as the annual Accessions to Repositories’ survey.

This information is added to Discovery, our catalogue. It is also edited and used to produce thematic digests, including one relating to maritime history. The digests are made available through this website and distributed for publication in a number of learned journals and newsletters. Further information is available at Accessions to Repositories.

4. Major collections

Below are details of repositories and institutions that hold major collections of records relating to maritime history.

British Library, Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections The extensive records of the India Office Marine Department include material relating to the East India Company’s maritime service, the Bombay Marine, the Indian Navy and the Bengal Pilot Service. There are stray records relating to individual East Indiamen in other collections, as well as a small collection relating to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Co Ltd.

Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Holds the whaling records of Christian Salvesen of Leith as well as voyage books of Ben Line Steamers Ltd.

Glasgow City Archives Along with Glasgow University (see below) holds most of the records relating to Clyde shipbuilding. In addition, there are numerous shipowners’ collections including Burns & Laird and Donaldson lines, H Hogarth & Sons Ltd and Lyle Shipping Co Ltd. Other holdings include records of Clyde Marine Society, Glasgow and Clyde Ship-Owners’ Association and Glasgow Sailors Home.

Glasgow University Archive Services The University is particularly rich in modern business collections and holds, for example, records of Clyde Shipping Co Ltd, Ellerman Lines Ltd and Walter Runciman & Co Ltd. There are also collections relating to some forty Scottish shipbuilding, repairing and marine engineering concerns, and survey reports of the British Corporation for the Survey and Registry of Shipping, which later merged with Lloyd’s Register of Shipping.

London Metropolitan Archives The LMA holds the records of the former Guildhall Library including numerous overseas merchants and shipping agents, the extensive shipping records of Inchcape plc, the archives of the Watermen and Lightermen’s and Shipwrights’ companies, Lloyd’s Marine Collection, and the records of the Corporation of Trinity House, the general lighthouse authority for England, Wales and the Channel Islands.

Liverpool Record Office Holds the records of numerous shipping companies including the Booth Line, CT Bowring & Co Ltd, Thos & Jno Brocklebank, China Navigation Co Ltd, Lancashire Shipping Co Ltd, and the White Star Line. There are also the logbooks of a number of slave ships, the records of numerous marine insurers and the minutes of the Mersey Ship Repairers’ Association.

Liverpool University: Special Collections and Archives The university holds the extensive archives of the Cunard Steam-Ship Co Ltd.

Memorial University of Newfoundland, Maritime History Archive Given the enormous physical bulk of the records of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seaman, and the reluctance of any single UK repository to house them, roughly 70% of crew lists, agreements and official logbooks are now deposited in Newfoundland. The remaining 30% are spread between The National Archives, the National Maritime Museum and various local repositories in the UK.

National Records of Scotland Shipping collections include those of the British Railways Board, Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd and the London & Edinburgh Shipping Co Ltd. The office also holds considerable shipbuilding collections including Burntisland Shipbuilding Co Ltd, Henry Robb Ltd and Ramage & Ferguson Ltd.

National Maritime Museum: The Caird Library, Manuscripts Section Among the collections here are the business records of P&O and William Denny & Brothers Ltd; the museum’s 10% share of British crew agreements 1861-1965; certificates of competency or service for masters, mates, engineers and skippers 1845-c1927; and Lloyd’s Register of Shipping survey reports c1834-1960. For additional guidance to the collections see RJB Knight’s Guide to the manuscripts of the National Maritime Museum, Vol. 1: The personal collections (1977), Vol. 2: Public Records, Business Records and Artificial Collections (1980).

National Museums Liverpool, Maritime Archives and Library Holds records of local dock companies, ship owners, overseas merchants, shipbuilders and repairers, shipbrokers and sail makers. There are also records for related employers’ associations and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. For more guidance on the collection see Gordon Read and Michael Stammers’ Guide to the Records of Merseyside Maritime Museum (1995).

The National Archives The National Archives holds all the records relating to government regulation of merchant shipping, notably the records of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen. It also holds business records from several sectors of the economy which were nationalised in the mid twentieth century. Canal, dock, harbour, navigation and steamship company records are described in British Transport Commission Historical Records (List & Index Society, volume 142, 1977).

Public Record Office of Northern Ireland Holds the records of numerous harbour companies and authorities, including those of Belfast Harbour Commissioners. Shipping collections include records of the Antrim Iron Ore Co Ltd, the Head Line, Newry & Kilkeel Steamship Co Ltd and the Ulster Steamship Co Ltd. The office also holds the important shipbuilding collection of Harland & Wolff Ltd.

Tyne and Wear Archives This a particularly rich regional archive containing records as diverse as the North East Coast Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders, the North of England Shipowners Association, South Shields Marine College and Sunderland Pilotage Authority. The region’s connection with shipbuilding and ship owning are also well represented in collections of the records of R & W Hawthorn, Leslie & Co Ltd, Swan, Hunter Shipbuilders Ltd, Hall Brothers and Stag Line Ltd.

Warwick University: Modern Records Centre Specialises in the records of trade unions and employers’ associations. These include the records of the National Union of Seamen and the British Marine Industries Federation. See Richard Storey and Alistair Tough, Consolidated Guide to the Modern Records Centre (1986) and Richard Storey, Alistair Tough and Christine Woodland, Supplement to the Consolidated Guide (1992).

Archives Hub – The Archives Hub provides descriptions of collections held at archives in UK universities and colleges. At present the descriptions are primarily of the broad themes and subject matters of the collections, although where possible they are linked to more detailed descriptions of the records that make up each collection.

Archives in London and the M25 area (AIM25) – AIM25 provides online descriptions of collections held at the archives of over fifty higher education institutions and other academic and cultural organizations within the greater London area.

Scottish Archive Network (SCAN) – The Scottish Archive Network allows online searching of over 20,000 collections in 52 Scottish repositories.

6. Further reading

Rita V Bryon and Terence N Bryon, Maritime Information: A guide to libraries and sources of information in the United Kingdom (3rd ed, 1993)

Edward Carson, ‘Customs Bills of Entry’, in Maritime History vol 1, number 2 (1971)

Edward Carson, ‘Customs records as a source for historical research’, in Archives vol XII, no 57 (1977)

HAL Cockerell and Edwin Green, The British Insurance Business. A Guide to its History and Archives (1994)

Nicholas Cox, ‘The Records of the Registrar-General of Shipping and Seamen’, in Maritime History vol 2, number 2 (1972)

Rupert C Jarvis, ‘Ship Registry – to 1707’, in Maritime History vol 1, number 1 (1971), ‘Ship Registry – 1707-86’, in Maritime History vol 2, number 2 (1972) and ‘Ship Registry – 1786’, in Maritime History vol 4, number 1 (1974)

DJ Jeremy (ed), Dictionary of business biography (5 vols, 1984-86)

Lloyd’s Maritime Directory (2003)

Peter Mathias and AWH Pearsall, Shipping: a survey of historical records (1971)

K Matthews, ‘Crew lists, agreements and official logs of the British Empire 1863-1913 now in the possession of the Maritime History Group, Memorial University, St John’s, Newfoundland’ in Business History VXI (1974)

LA Ritchie, The shipbuilding industry: a guide to historical records (1992)

Anthony Slaven & Sydney Checkland (eds.), Dictionary of Scottish business biography 1860-1960 (2 vols, 1986-90)

CT and MJ Watts, My ancestor was a merchant seaman: how can I find out more about him? (1986)

Donald Woodward, ‘The Port Books of England and Wales’, in Maritime History vol 3, number 2 (1973)