How to look for records of... Merchant Navy ships wrecked or sunk

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 records at The National Archives, and to a lesser extent in other archives, of Merchant Navy shipwrecks, including passenger ships. The records covered include those that document the complete loss of ships through sinking as well as those lost to damage, whether as part of a military conflict, a result of natural disaster or any other accident. Some of the records will allow you simply to establish that a ship sunk or was wrecked, others can provide more detail, such as the circumstances of the incident and the number on board who died, if any.

Very few records exist from before the 19th century.

You can also consult our guide to births, marriages and deaths at sea.

2. How to conduct a search at The National Archives

The National Archives is not always the best place to begin a search for records of sunken and wrecked ships. Some of the other archives listed in section 5 may prove to be better places to start but, nevertheless, there are significant numbers of records within our collections as well as some very useful publications in our library.

A search here will almost certainly require a visit to our reading rooms in Kew where you can consult library books and original documents. Most of the records we hold for lost ships are not available to download or view online but you can, however, make a start online by searching our catalogue.

We recommend you follow these steps, in the order shown, when searching for records of the loss or damage to a specific ship:

Step 1: Consult newspaper reports, Wreck Site or published books

Before visiting us, look for reports of shipwrecks in old newspapers or search the online Wreck Site database, a free-to-use website with details of over 200,000 shipwrecks worldwide. This may be the easiest way of establishing the date and circumstances of the loss, if they are known, and could equip you with vital facts in your search for records.

The most comprehensive source for archived newspapers is the British Newspaper Archive. Local libraries usually provide access to archived copies of local newspapers and those in coastal towns and cities are more likely to contain accounts of offshore wrecks. They may also provide access to online versions of national newspapers, including The Times Archive, also available online in our reading rooms. Shipping newspapers are a useful source but are more likely to exist only in larger reference libraries, particularly in the major port cities.

The following books are available at our library in Kew, as are those listed for the First and Second World Wars in the subsequent sections of this guide. They are the best place to start on a visit to our reading rooms and may remove the need to consult original documents altogether.

  • Larn, R and Larn, B, Shipwreck Index of the British Isles (Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, 1995-2002). These six volumes are the most comprehensive listing of wrecks in UK coastal areas up to the end of the 20th century. Organised by county and date, with a ship name index, among the details provided with each listing are the name of the captain, the number of crew on board and lost, if any, and the origin and intended destination of the voyage.
  • Hocking, C, Dictionary of Disasters at Sea during the Age of Steam, 1824-1962 (Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, 1969). Two volumes listing ships in alphabetical order with a short description of the disaster and the date, among other details. Includes Royal Navy as well as merchant ships.
  • Hooke, N, Modern Shipping Disasters, 1963-1987 (Lloyds of London Press, 1989). A sequel to Hocking’s Dictionary of Disasters at Sea, presented in the same format.
  • Marx, R, Shipwrecks of the Western Hemisphere, 1492-1825, (David Mckay Co, 1975). Covering shipwrecks in the Caribbean and all over the Americas, several thousand losses are listed in date order and briefly described. The book includes a ship name index.
  • Grocott, T, Shipwrecks of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras (Caxton, 2002). Contemporary newspaper accounts of both merchant and military ships wrecked. Organised by date but with a ship name index.

Step 2: Search the catalogue with ship’s name and one other search term

Though the records of ship losses are not always identified by the ships’ names in our online catalogue, it is worth trying to locate those that are at an early stage of your search.

Search our catalogue using the name of the ship plus one of the following words:

  • sunk
  • sinking
  • loss
  • wreck/wrecked
  • torpedo/torpedoing/torpedoed
  • damage
  • attack

Step 3: Consult lists of wrecks

There are not many of these and they exist primarily for the First and Second World Wars but where they exist they can provide the quickest and easiest way to locate an original record of a lost or wrecked ship. See sections 3 and 4 for the detail.

Step 4: Consult merchant shipping registration records

The registration system established by the Merchant Shipping Acts of 1786, 1825 and 1854 required a ship’s loss to be officially recorded. The Transcripts of Registration transmitted to the Registrar of Shipping for 1786 onwards, held in series BT 107-BT 109, with indexes in BT 111, show when the registry was closed on a vessel. This may simply have been because the vessel was retired or sold to a foreign power but it does include removals for ships that were lost or went missing and the 19th century records often also include the date and place of any incident that led to a loss. Of particular value in a search for wrecked ships among these records are the duplicates of forms showing ships removed from the register, 1890-1998, in BT 110.

Step 5: Search through records which contain incidental references to losses

There are many records which were not created specifically to record losses but which do, nonetheless, either formally record losses or contain incidental references to them. Using these records for details of a wreck is bound to be quite time consuming and should be considered a last resort if you have followed the steps above and still need information. The principal records to search through are:

  • Ships logs, 1857-1972, in BT 165.
  • Agreements and crew lists, 1861-1994, in BT 99 and for 1747-1860 in BT 98.
  • Reports and depositions concerning shipwrecks among customs correspondence and papers held in the CUST collections.
  • Board of Trade and Ministry of Transport wrecks files, 1854-1969 in MT 9. An 1854 Act empowered the Board of Trade to conduct inquiries into the loss of British merchant ships, though this power was very seldom used. Few of these reports have been preserved, but MT 9 contains those which have. Search with the term ‘wreck’.
  • Reports of losses and accidents in the out-letter books of the Board of Trade Marine Department, 1851-1939 in MT 4, with indexes in MT 5. Other reports of inquiries into losses and accidents, 1867-1990 are in MT 15.
  • The Treasury Solicitor’s files in series TS 18 cover the business of many government departments and may include details of claims for the cargoes of lost ships.

3. Additional records and books of First World War losses

You can find records of First World War losses by following the steps in section 2 but in this section we present publications and records focussed specifically on the war.


The following books are available at our library in Kew and are the best place to start when conducting a search at The National Archives:

Lists of losses

Among the most straight-forward way to find official documentation of shipwrecks and losses is to consult one of the following lists:

  • A complete list of British merchant and fishing vessels sunk or damaged by enemy action from 1914 to 1920 in MT 25/83-85. This list is among the correspondence and papers of the Ministry of Shipping from 1917-1921 in MT 25.
  • List of merchant ships wrecked, broken up or sold abroad, 1908-1918 in BT 167/55

Narrative accounts

The records used to compile the Official History of the First World War are held in ADM 137 and contain much material on the losses of individual merchant ships.

Search with a ship’s name and the word ‘loss’, ‘torpedoing’ ‘sinking’ or any of the other keywords suggested at Step 2 in section 2 of this guide.

Insurance records

War risk insurance records in BT 365 include records of claims for the values of ships’ cargoes lost during the First World War. The claims themselves were made between 1914 and 1929.

Search by ship’s name in in BT 365.

4. Additional records and books of Second World War losses

You can find records of Second World War losses by following the steps in section 2 but in this section we present publications and records focussed specifically on the war.


The following books are available at our library in Kew and are the best place to start when conducting a search at The National Archives:

Narrative accounts

The records used to compile the Official History of the Second World War are held in ADM 199 and contain much material on the losses of individual merchant ships. In particular there are:

5. Beyond The National Archives: where else to look for information and records

Lloyds Marine Collection

The Lloyd’s Marine Collection is a major source of information about merchant shipping disasters and includes records of official inquiries into losses. It is based at the Guildhall Library in the City of London. Details of the collection are published in D. T Barraskill’s A Guide to the Lloyd’s Marine Collection and Related Marine Sources available at The National Archives library and the Guildhall Library itself. It includes a list of further sources of information about marine losses.

The National Maritime Museum, Caird Library

The Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum hold the original Board of Trade Wreck Registers from 1854 to 1898. These provide details of wrecked British vessels, including the name, official number, port of registry, port number and year of registration, tonnage, name of managing owner and master. In addition, it gives the date and place of wreck, some idea of the cause, and the number of lives lost.

The British Library

As well as the British Newspaper Archive, the British Library holds the largest readily accessible collection of printed Admiralty charts in its Map Library.

The India Office Records at the British Library contain information about the loss of British East India Company ships. Details of East India Company ships are also listed on the Three Decks website.

The Shipping and Mercantile Gazette (for 19th century accounts)

The Shipping and Mercantile Gazette was published daily and contains details of ships’ voyages alongside articles of all kinds from the world of shipping and includes details of wrecks and summaries of casualties.

UK Hydrographic Office database

A comprehensive database of wrecks containing over 60,000 records, of which approximately 20,000 are for named vessels, is maintained by the UK Hydrographic Office. Though focussed mainly on UK territorial waters the database includes information on a small number of wrecks in other areas. The same office holds an extensive collection of British Admiralty Charts and other hydrographic charts.

6. Further reading

Huntress, K, Checklist of Narratives of Shipwrecks & Disasters at Sea to 1860 (Iowa State University Press, 1979). A guide to contemporary accounts of losses

Pickford, N, The Atlas of Shipwreck & Treasure (London, Dorling Kindersley, 1994)

Rohwer, J, Allied Submarine Attacks of World War Two: European Theatre of Operations 1939-45 (Greenhill, 1997)