How to look for records of... Merchant seamen serving since 1918

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This is a guide to locating records of merchant seamen in service since the end of the First World War, including records from the Second World War, and up to the last decades of the 20th century. These are records of seamen serving on British registered vessels but the seamen themselves need not have been British to appear in the records.

For service records of seamen serving after 1972 go to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

What do I need to know before I start?

The records with the most detail

There are three principal sources of service details for merchant seamen up to 1972 (from 1972 go to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency). They are:

  • Central Index Register, 1918-1941 (also known as the Fourth Register of Seamen)
  • Central Register of Seamen, 1941-1972 (also known as the Fifth Register of Seamen)
  • Seamen’s Pouches, 1940-1972 (created primarily as files for paperwork supporting applications for discharge – files can contain paperwork from both the Fourth and Fifth Registers)

If the seaman was only employed temporarily, or was an apprentice, he may not have been issued with a discharge ‘A’ number or a British Seaman’s Identity Card in which case he is unlikely to appear in the registers.

Access to full details of seamen born less than 100 years ago may be restricted.

How to trace a ship

Sometimes the only way to track down a record of a seaman is to trace the records of the ships he served on. You can use the CLIP (Crew List Index Project) website to trace a ship by the:

  • ship’s name
  • ship’s port of registration
  • ship’s official number

How to interpret abbreviations in the records

See our guide to Abbreviations in merchant seamen records for further help interpreting information in these records.

Online records

Central Index Register (aka Fourth Register of Seamen), 1918-1941

Search and download registry cards from the Central Index Register (BT 348, BT 349, BT 350 and BT 364) of merchant seamen employed between 1918 and 1941 on Findmypast.co.uk (£). The originals are held by Southampton Archives.

For details of what sort of information the records may provide read the descriptions of BT 348, BT 349, BT 350 and BT 364 in our catalogue.

The Central Index Register, or Fourth Register of Seamen, was started in 1913 and maintained until 1941. The entries for 1913-1918 were destroyed, therefore the register covers the period from the last two months of 1918 to 1941.

Second World War medals

Search and download (£) records of Second World War campaign medals issued to merchant seamen (BT 395) on our website.

Second World War Roll of Honour

Search the Shipping and Seamen First and Second World War Rolls of Honour (BT 339) on Ancestry (£). The Roll of Honour lists merchant seamen who died in service during the war or who were declared ‘missing, presumed dead’. The information in these records usually includes:

  • rank or rating
  • name of ship
  • date of death or presumed death

Records available only at The National Archives in Kew

To access these records you will either need to visit us, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy (£).

Central Register of Seamen (aka Fifth Register of Seamen), 1941-1972

Browse the catalogue descriptions of records from the Central Register of Seamen 1941-1972 in BT 382 (the records themselves were known as CRS 10 forms). Our catalogue descriptions are arranged alphabetically in ranges of surnames.

The registers are filed in eight parts according to the nationality or ‘origin’ of the seamen and other criteria (each part has been assigned its own subseries in BT 382). Select from one of the eight subseries of the register to target your browsing of the series more efficiently (for seamen of European origin you should look for records in both Part 1 and Part 2).

These CRS 10 forms are often referred to as seamen’s docket books and can include the following details (for the full list of possible details see the series description of BT 382):

  • date of birth
  • place of birth
  • rank or rating
  • a list of ships and their official numbers with date and place of engagement
  • F or H (for Foreign or Home trade voyage)
  • date and place of discharge from the ship

Seamen’s pouches, issued 1940-1972 but covering service 1913-1972

Merchant seamen who were discharged from the navy between 1940 and 1972 had their records filed in what became known as ‘seamen’s pouches’. Some of the seamen discharged during this period had been in service as far back as 1913 and the records reflect this. Use the box below to search our catalogue, by name in BT 372 and BT 391 to see if a seaman’s pouch survives. Not every pouch survives and many were destroyed before any were transferred to The National Archives.

Details provided may include:

  • surname and initials
  • place of birth
  • date of birth
  • ships a seaman served on

For more details see the series descriptions for BT 372 and BT 391.

In a third series, BT 390, you can browse references to seamen’s pouches for service in the Second World War. They are arranged in alphabetical ranges, though a few describe individual seamen. You can try a search with a specific name and learn something about what the records contains from the BT 390 series description.

Agreements and crew lists, 1861-1994

The National Archives holds the following proportions of agreements and crew lists after 1861:

  • 1861-1938: 10%
  • 1939-1950: 100%
  • 1951-1994: 10%

Use the box below to search for these agreements and crew lists by ship’s official number in BT 99, BT 380, BT 381 and BT 100. For the more celebrated and famous ships you can also search by ship’s name. Discover a ship’s official number at the Crew List Index Project website (CLIP) or the Miramar Ship Index (£).

Not all agreements and crew lists are searchable on our catalogue by ship’s number. You may need to browse catalogue descriptions for records from 1951 onwards in BT 99 as the ships’ numbers are not itemised and are, instead, displayed in ranges.

For more information read Crew lists, agreements and log books of merchant ships after 1861.

Merchant Navy gallantry awards for the Second World War, 1939-1947

Search our catalogue by name of person or ship in T 335 to find what the award was, the person’s rank at the time, and the ship they were serving on.

Narrow your search by using double quotation marks to find a ships’s or person’s full name, such as “Sydney Star” or “John Williams”.

You can find out more about what these records tell us in the T 335 series description.

Records in other archives and organisations

Merchant seamen serving after 1972

Records of merchant seamen serving after 1972 are not held by The National Archives. Search the Maritime and Coastguard Agency website for ‘service records’ to find their information leaflet which offers further advice, or contact them directly.

Agreements and crew lists (1861-1994)

Look at the websites of other archives and organisations which hold agreements and crew lists, including the Maritime History Archive in Newfoundland, the National Maritime Museum, the National Records of Scotland, the National Archives of Ireland, and local archives.

Other resources

Books

Read My Ancestor was a Merchant Seaman by Christopher and Michael Watts (Society of Genealogists, 2002).

Read Tracing your Ancestors in The National Archives by Amanda Bevan (The National Archives, 2006).

You can also browse titles at The National Archives’ Bookshop and search for further publications available at The National Archives’ Library in Kew.