How to look for records of... Merchant Navy officers
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
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?
In the merchant navy the term ‘officer’ can refer to a master, mate, engineer, fishing boat skipper, second hand or cook.
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:
- the crew lists in BT 98
- the Lloyd Lists which are available at the Guildhall Library or the National Maritime Museum
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 Ancestry.co.uk (£).
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|
Certificate numbers with a letter(s) prefix – NWS – were issued in the colonies. Consult series BT 140 for details.
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.
Foreign trade voyages
These entries record a single voyage during which the seaman was engaged on a particular ship.
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:
- 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:
- 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
- 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.
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.
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