How to look for... Merchant Navy ships’ records: crew lists, musters and log books
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1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide for advice on how to find British merchant shipping records known as crew lists and agreements, originally known as muster books, and log books. These records, which collectively date from 1747 to the 1990s, 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 leaving the ship, whether discharged, drowned, or otherwise
You should not expect to find any detailed accounts of day-to-day life or the activities of crew or passengers.
Between 1858 and the First World War, the Merchant Navy did not keep registers of its seamen, so crew lists and agreements are the only records you are likely to find of an individual merchant seaman during this time.
2. What are these records?
From the mid-18th century, masters or owners of most British-registered merchant ships were required to keep a record of their crew before the ship left port. This was simply a record of the total number of crew (known as a muster roll), but it evolved into what are known as crew lists and agreements. The list was kept on board and then sent to the Register Office of Merchant Seamen, the central administration office of the Merchant Navy, on the ship’s return to Britain.
The Mercantile Marine Act of 1850 required ships’ masters to also keep a log book to record events on board a ship, which included seamen’s conduct. Log books were deposited after each foreign voyage, or half-yearly for home trade ships. They first appear in the records around 1852; many have been destroyed, with only those recording a birth or death surviving.
3. How to find a ship’s number
With the introduction in 1855 of a central registry, all ships were given an official number as soon as practicable.
To find a crew list and agreement from 1855 onwards, you will 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 1855 to 1913, or the Miramar Ship Index website (subscription required) which lists some categories of merchant and naval ships.
You can, however, search for crew lists and agreements using the names of the seamen from 1881, 1891 and 1915 by ship’s number for all other years (see section 8.4 for more information).
Ships did not have an official number before 1855. These earlier records were organised by port of registry and then alphabetically by name of ship (see the respective sections below for advice on finding earlier records).
4. Pre-1747 records
Before 1747 no systematic records of the crew of merchant ships were kept. For pre-1747 records, you need to look speculatively through material from other government departments or courts that may have had an interest in merchant navy affairs, such as:
- State Papers (SP)
- Colonial Office (CO)
- Treasury (T)
- High Court of Admiralty (HCA)
- High Court of Delegates (DEL)
Use the advanced search in Discovery, our catalogue, to search for records using the department codes above and relevant keywords such as ‘ships’, ‘shipping’, or ‘manifest’. You are unlikely to find records by searching for the names of ships or seamen, as the records have not been indexed in that way.
Further 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)
- Tracing Your Merchant Navy Ancestors by Simon Wills (Pen & Sword, 2012)
5. Muster Books (1747-1834)
In 1747, following an Act of Parliament, a fund for the relief of disabled seamen was set up, using money taken from seamen’s wages. To administer this fund, masters or owners of merchant ships had to keep a muster book, also known as a muster roll, which was filed at the port of arrival with the Seamen’s Fund Receivers.
Muster rolls for this period did not usually record the names of the whole crew but did provide:
- name of the owner of the ship
- name of the master of the ship
- total number of crew members
- very brief details of the ship’s voyage
However, some lists, appearing randomly during this period, also show:
- a full list of the names of the crew
- the amount of money invested in the fund by each crew member (this was calculated on a pro rata basis at 6d per month)
There would have been calculation tables but none of these are thought to survive.
6. How to find muster books
The main record series for muster books is BT 98.
Click on BT 98 to search by date and name of British port where the ship was registered.
Alternatively, browse BT 98/1-139 (1747 to 1853) to view all the ports and years for which there are records in this period.
A few muster rolls survive in other record series. Search for ships registered at:
7. Crew lists and agreements (1835-1999)
In 1835, following the Merchant Shipping Act, muster books were replaced by similar records known as crew lists and agreements. 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 agreements were between master and crew and are also called ‘Articles of agreement’.
They were filed at the Register Office of Merchant Seamen, the forerunner of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen (RGSS). Sometimes a log book, with details of the ship’s voyages (see section 7), was filed along with the agreements and crew lists.
7.1 What crew lists and agreements tell us
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
- 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)
7.2 Foreign and home voyages
Crew lists and agreements were either for ‘foreign voyages’ or ‘foreign trade’ or ‘home voyages’ or ‘home trade’.
These essentially distinguished between ships sailing in waters around Britain (home) and those sailing further afield (foreign).
In addition, the following types of lists were introduced used between 1835 until 1856:
Agreements for ‘Foreign Going’ or ‘Foreign Trade’ ships (Schedule A)
These agreements had to be filed within 24 hours of the ship’s return to a UK port.
Agreements for ‘Home Trade Ships’ (Schedule B)
These agreements covered coastal and fishing ships. The forms had to be filed within 30 days of the end of June or December.
Crew lists for ships on ‘foreign voyages’ (Schedule C)
A form known as a Schedule C was completed by the master of every ‘Foreign Going Ship’, filed within 48 hours of the ship’s return to a UK port.
Half-yearly crew lists for ships on ‘home voyages’ (Schedule D)
A Schedule D form was headed ‘Accounts Of Voyages And Crew For Home Trade Ship’. Completed by the masters of ships 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.
Names and Register Tickets of Crew (Foreign Trade) (Schedule G)
A list of the crew, with their Register Ticket numbers, to be filed for a foreign-going ship on sailing.
7.3 The distribution of the surviving lists
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:
- Maritime History Archivein Canada – holds approximately 70% of the surviving crew lists and agreements for 1863-1938 and 1951-1976
- The National Maritime Museum– holds 10% of surviving agreements and crew lists for the periods 1861-1938 and 1951-1976
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 12).
8. How to find crew lists and agreements
Use this section for advice on finding crew lists and agreements from 1835 up to 1999.
From 1835 until 1857, crew lists and agreements were organised by port of registry and then alphabetically by ship name (see sections 8.1 and 8.2 for search advice), and then from 1857 onwards, you will need to find the ship’s official number to locate these records (see section 3 for more information).
There are two main types of crew list for this period:
Schedules C and D
See section 7.2
Crew lists for this period are in BT 98.
Use the search box contained within BT 98 to search by date and name of ship’s port of registry. There are usually several boxes of records for each port of registry, each box containing an alphabetical range of ships’ names. Within each box the lists are randomly arranged.
Alternatively, browse BT 98/140-563 to view all the ports covered for this period and the alphabetical ranges of ships for each port.
To locate crew lists for these years you will need to know the name of the ship on which an individual seaman sailed. This is not given in the Merchant seaman registers 1835-1857 until 1854. A search on our catalogue of all the available crew lists is only practical for small ports.
Crew lists for this period are in BT 98.
Use the search box contained within BT 98 to search by year and name of ship’s port of registry. Any search results will be divided into alphabetical ranges according to the initial letter of the ship’s name
Alternatively, browse BT 98/564-4758 to view all the ports covered for this period and the alphabetical ranges of ships for each port.
From 1845 onwards the following lists were being used:
Schedules C, D and A, B, G.
See section 7.2.
From 1857 onwards, the records are arranged in BT 98 by ships’ Official Number (ON). The Official Number was allocated on registration, retained for the life of the ship, and was not reused.
You may find a ship’s Official Number from the following published sources available at The National Archives:
See section 3 for more information on how to find a ship’s number.
Use the search box contained within BT 98 to search by ships’ Official Number and date. Each piece in this series covers a number of ships and therefore appears in our catalogue as a range of numbers.
To find the right range for your ship you will need to search using the first two or three digits of the number. For example, for a ship with the number 25820, search using 258* (include the asterisk) as your keyword. This will find BT 98/6795 which covers ships’ numbers 25801-25834 for the year 1860.
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.
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.
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).https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/research-guides/research-guide-c12-merchant-navy-ship-registration-custom-house-records
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.
8.7 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.
8.8 Crew lists and agreements 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 Record Search database
Crew lists and agreements for Indian crew (or lascars) of British registered ships who enlisted on the Indian sub-continent are called Asiatic agreements. They were logged at ports such as Madras and Bombay under the direction of the Serang or Headman of the port. Since the Registry General of Shipping and seamen regulations covered only British seamen, details of engagement, such as length of engagement, could be different, allowing a lascar seaman to be contracted for a period longer than one voyage and sometimes for several years. These agreements are unlikely to be held in any archive in the UK, but if any do survive, they may be in the archives of shipping companies such as P&O or the British India Steam Navigation Company, or in the East India Company Archives held at the British Library.
9. Log Books (1852 onwards)
Agreements and crew lists from the 19th century are occasionally accompanied by ships’ logs and this becomes increasingly common for 20th century records. The Mercantile Marine Act of 1850 required masters to keep a ship’s Official Log to record events on board including:
- births and deaths
- the ship’s ports of call
- a description of each man’s conduct
Logs were 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.
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.
You should not expect to find any detailed accounts of day-to-day life or the activities of crew or passengers.
Often the description of a man’s conduct, listed under the two headings ‘General Conduct’ and ‘Ability in Seamanship’, consisted of nothing more than the letters VG (Very Good). Sometimes, however, other details may be found.
10. How to find log books
Search by ship’s name or number in BT 165 for selected logs covering the periods 1902-1920.
There are a small number of log books in BT 98 and BT 99.
Use the search box contained in BT 98 to search by date and name of ship’s port of registry. There are usually several boxes of records for each port of registry, each box containing an alphabetical range of ships’ names.
Use the search box in BT 99 to search by name of ship or official number.
11. 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.
The left hand side of the E-1 certificate was a certificate of character on which the master rated the seaman’s ability and character of conduct (VG, G Fair, Poor). On the right hand side was the certificate of discharge, which had spaces to fill in the name of the ship, official number, port of registry, registered tonnage, port of departure, name of seaman, date of birth, place of birth, capacity, date of entry into crew lists, place and date of discharge. All fields were usually completed.
The document was signed by the master of the ship and the shipping master of the port, and the seaman would sign their name on the back. The certificate would then be given back to the seaman which is why they can be found in the personal collections of an individual or their family. Very few seem to have been preserved in 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.
12. Further reading
Christopher T Watts and Michael J Watts, My Ancestor Was a Merchant Seaman (Society of Genealogists, second edition with addendum, 2004)
Simon Wills, Tracing Your Merchant Navy Ancestors (Pen & Sword, 2012)