This is a brief guide to finding records of merchant ships. The National Archives holds many records relating to government regulation of merchant shipping, but they can be difficult to search. There are also many records of merchant shipping in local archives.
What do I need to know before I start?
Agreements and crew lists often also contain integral logs giving details of ships and voyages.
Although the numbers of ships and trained sailors have been recorded since the medieval period, few of these early records survive.
A series of Navigation Acts from 1660 onwards aimed to make British merchants use British built ships with predominantly British masters for the carriage of their goods. Registration of ships came about as a result of these Acts.
The Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen (renamed the Registry of Shipping and Seamen in 1992) was formally established by the Merchant Shipping Act 1872.
Merchant shipping movement cards (1939–1946)
Search and download surviving merchant shipping movement cards (BT 389) in Discovery, our catalogue, (£) for the Second World War.
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 (£).
Agreements and crew lists (1747–1860)
Search the agreements and crew lists in BT 98 by date range and port of registry.
Agreements and crew lists (1861–1994)
Search for agreements and crew lists by ship’s official number (obtainable from the Miramar Ship Index (£) in BT 99, BT 380 and BT 381. (For some dates after 1927, you will have to browse our catalogue as the numbers are given as ranges).
Daily casualty registers and index to ships (1940–1945)
Browse our catalogue in BT 347 for records of daily ship casualties, mainly due to enemy action but also including other routine causes of losses at sea.
British merchant and fishing vessels sunk or damaged by enemy action (1914–1920)
Browse our catalogue in MT 25/83–85 for lists of British merchant and fishing vessels sunk or damaged by enemy action 1914–1920.
Records in other archives and organisations
Consult Lloyd’s List, which has been printed since 1734, first weekly and then daily. It provides information on merchant shipping for insurance companies and the maritime industry. Copies are held by the Guildhall Library, National Maritime Museum and other archives.
Consult Lloyd’s Register, printed since 1764 and published annually. The Register provides information about all sea-going merchant ships, including their condition.
Consult the Crew List Index Project (CLIP) website, which has information about merchant ships from 1861 to 1913.
Consult the Miramar Ship Index (£) website, a historical database listing some categories of merchant and naval ships.
Consult the ShipIndex.org (£) website, a database of ships mentioned in books, journals, websites and other resources.