How to look for records of... Merchant Navy officers

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

This guide will help you find and interpret records of Merchant Navy officers’ from 1845 to 1965. For service before 1845, when registers of Merchant Navy officers were not kept, you must look for records kept for other purposes (such as crew lists, agreements and log books) but which may include incidental mention of officers. You might also find information about an officer by searching the records of ordinary merchant seamen.

You may also like to read our guide on Merchant seamen’s medals and honours.

What does it help to know before I start?

Officer ranks

In the merchant navy the term ‘officer’ can refer to a master, mate, engineer, fishing boat skipper, second hand or cook.

Ships’ numbers

It may help to know the number of a ship as ships are sometimes referred to in the records by their number rather then their name. You can search for ships’ official numbers through the Crew List Index Project.

Dates of departure and arrival for voyages

Find out dates of departure and arrival by consulting:

Online records

Alphabetical register of masters, 1845-1854

Search the alphabetical register (BT 115) on Findmypast (£) which was compiled from crew lists.
The registers follow a similar format to Registers of Seamen Tickets in BT 113.

Certificate applications by masters, mates, engineers and fishing officers, 1850-1927

Search for the National Maritime Museum’s records of master and mate certificates (1850-1927) on (£).

Announcements of examination passes

Search The Gazette for lists of masters and mates who passed officer examinations.

Second World War Medals, 1939-1945

Search and download (£) records of World War Two Medals issued to Merchant Seamen (BT 395).

Records available only at The National Archives in Kew

To access the records in this section you will either need to visit us or, where you can identify a specific document reference, order a copy (£).

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

Search Discovery, 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 ship’s or person’s full name, such as “Sydney Star” or “John Williams”.

Registers of merchant seamen after 1913 (for records of voyages)

Consult our guide to records of merchant seamen serving after 1917 for advice on searching within registers of seamen and seamen’s pouches to establish voyage details which you may be able to apply to the service of officers.

Voluntary examination passes, 1845-1850

From 1845 onwards a system of examinations was introduced for masters and mates. At first it was voluntary and applied only to foreign-going vessels.

Records of masters and mates passing the voluntary examination are in series BT 143 (which includes a name index) and in BT 6/218-219.

Details of masters and mates who have voluntarily passed an examination appear in the Lloyd’s Register of Shipping (copies of which are available at The National Archives). The details are in an appendix entitled ‘An Alphabetical List of all the Masters and Mates in the Merchant Service…’.

Registers of certificates of competency and certificates of service (including records of voyages), 1845-1921

From 1850 onwards, an officer was only officially qualified or ‘certified’ as an officer if he had been awarded a Certificate of Competency (by passing an exam) or a Certificate of Service (for long service). A certificate came with a number (and new numbers were assigned if a replacement certificate was issued following the loss of the original).

Registers were created to record the awarding of these certificates to officers and what they had done to qualify for them. For each officer registers provide:

  • name of officer
  • date and place of certification
  • place and year of birth
  • certificate number and grade
  • record of voyages (certificates up to 1888 only) – dates are for when the records were filed and are not arrival dates – sometimes records were filed after a series of voyages
  • date of death (certificates after 1888 only – and only sometimes)

Look for a certificate entry in the registers of certificates (they are arranged by certificate number) listed below. Use the name indexes (indicated below in brackets) to locate a certificate number. In the indexes, names beginning with Mc or Mac are usually found under the letter following that prefix. For example, MacDonald will not appear under the letter ‘M’ but under ‘D’.

Masters and Mates

Consult BT 122-126 and BT 128 (index in BT 127). Once you have obtained a certificate number from the index in BT 127, consult the table below for the respective record series reference:

Certificate No Certificate type Rank Trade Series starts Series Reference
1-34,999 Competency Master or Mate Foreign 1 Jan 1851 BT 122
35,000-54,999 Service Master Foreign Dec 1850 BT 124
55,000-69,999 Service Mate Foreign Dec 1850 BT 124
70,000-78,999 Service Master Foreign April 1851 BT 124
79,000-80,999 Service Mate Foreign May 1852 BT 124
81,000-99,999 Competency Master or Mate Foreign Oct 1868 BT 122
100,000-119,000 Competency Master or Mate Home March 1855 BT 125
120,000-134,999 Service Master Home April 1855 BT 126
135,000-150,000 Service Mate Home April 1855 BT 126
01-0500 Yacht Master No records survive
0501-045,000 Competency Master or Mate Foreign July 1875 BT 122
001-0021,000 Master or Mate Foreign, steam April 1881 BT 123
21,001 – Master or Mate Foreign, steam May 1927
* Most of these series are continued in BT 352.

Certificate numbers with a letter(s) prefix – NWS – were issued in the colonies. Consult series BT 128 for details.


Consult BT 139 for certificates of competency from 1861-1921, BT 142 for certificates of service from 1862-1921 and BT 140 for certificates of service of engineers examined in the colonies from 1870-1921 (index in BT 141).

The certificate number obtained from the index indicates:

Certificate number Certificate type Rank Series begins
1-400 Service 1st class Engineer 1862
401-3,000 Service 2nd class Engineer 1862
3,001-5,000 Service 1st class Engineer
5,001-5,999 Service 2nd class Engineer March 1930
6,000 upwards Competency Engineer 1862

Certificate numbers with a letter(s) prefix – NWS – were issued in the colonies. Consult series BT 140 for details.

Fishing officers

For skippers and mates of fishing boats, registers of certificates of competency are in BT 129 and registers of certificates of service are in BT 130 (index in BT 138).

Numbers were allocated to the certificate of service in BT 130 are as follows:

Certificate number Certificate type Series begins
01-03000 Skippers, English December 1883
03001-04888 Second Hands, English December 1883
05001-05765 Skippers, English January 1884
05800-05999 Skippers, Scottish May 1907
06000-07561 Second Hands, English July 1887
07600-07881 Second Hands, Scottish May 1907
08000-08180 Skippers, Scottish May 1907


We hold indexes to registers of certificates of competence and service for cooks, 1913-1956 in BT 319. The National Maritime Museum holds the registers (see below).


Voyages in the registers were usually recorded either as:

Home trade voyages (‘repeated’ or ‘reported’ voyages)

These entries do not simply record a single voyage, but a half year (January to June or July to December) during which the seaman was engaged on a particular ship. During that period the ship may have been on several voyages, and he may have been engaged for some or all of the period.

A register entry for home trade voyages, from BT 126.

Foreign trade voyages

These entries record a single voyage during which the seaman was engaged on a particular ship.

A register entry for a foreign trade voyage, from BT 124.

Use our guide Abbreviations in merchant seamen’s records to interpret the records.

Lloyd’s Captains’ Registers, 1851-1947

The Lloyd Captains’ Registers were compiled from the records of certificates issued to foreign-going masters. They cover masters with foreign trade certificates sailing either as masters or mates.

An incomplete set of captains’ registers is available on microfilm in The National Archives reading rooms. They contain the following information:

  • name
  • place and year of birth
  • date, number and place of issue of the master’s certificate obtained
  • any other special qualification, including the ‘steam’ certificate from 1874
  • name and number (taken from the Mercantile Navy Lists) of each ship (date of engagement and discharge as master or mate and the destination of each voyage)
  • any casualties endured
  • any special awards (for example, war service)
  • pasted-in summaries of the qualifications and service from 1851 of masters who were still active in 1869

Combined indexes to certificates of competency, 1910-1969

Search BT 352, a combined index to masters, mates, engineers and fishing officers certificates of competency covering home and foreign trade.

Each card provides:

  • name
  • certificate number
  • date of passing examination
  • date and place of birth
  • port of examination

The cards are of different colours depending on the type of qualification:

  • white cards are for masters and mates
  • pink cards are for engineers
  • green for skippers and mates of fishing boats

Chronological registers of the issue of certificates, 1913-1984

Consult registers and renewals of certificates of competency of masters and mates in BT 317; masters, mates and engineers in BT 318; just engineers in BT 320 (1913-1935) (in process of transfer from National Maritime Museum under references RSS/ENG/5-6); and fishing officers in BT 396.

The entries are arranged in date order and provide:

  • date received
  • first and last name
  • examination date
  • certificate number
  • grade
  • port sent to
  • port of examination

Records in other archives and organisations

Registers of certificates of competency and service, 1850-1927

Apply for a copy of a certificate from the National Maritime Museum’s Caird Library – you will need the certificate number.

Registers of certificates for engineers

As well as the registers of certificates of competency for engineers at The National Archives (in series BT 139, see above), the National Maritime Museum holds registers for the following years and certificate numbers:

  • RSS/ENG/1 1902-1905 39000-43999
  • RSS/ENG/2 1905-1909 44000-48999
  • RSS/ENG/3 1909-1913 49000-53999
  • RSS/ENG/4 1913-1918 54000-58999

Registers of certificates for cooks, 1915-1958

The National Maritime Museum holds the registers, bearing numbers 5001-41021 (reference RSS/CO/1-6).

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.

Application for certificates made in the colonies

Contact the appropriate state or national archive.

Other resources


Visit the Crew List Index Project (CLIP) website, which has information about merchant seamen on British registered ships from 1861 to 1913.

Search indexes to crew lists from 1861 to 1913 by name on findmypast (£).


Visit The National Archives’ bookshop for a range of publications on the Merchant Navy. Alternatively, search The National Archives’ Library to see what is available to consult at Kew.

Consult copies of the Mercantile Navy List for 1860 to 1864 in The National Archives reading rooms for alphabetical lists of masters and mates (with certificate numbers) as well as one-line obituaries for deceased seamen.

Read My Ancestor was a Merchant Seaman by Christopher and Michael Watts (Society of Genealogists, 2002) – this title is also available in our shop.