How to look for records of... Merchant Navy ships’ records: registration of merchant ships
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
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1. Why use this guide?
This guide will help you to find records relating to the registration of merchant ships and other records relating to merchant vessels but not to merchant seamen or crews.
Records of merchant ships at The National Archives are often arranged and described in our catalogue by the name of the port of registry and it may be difficult to find details for a ship if you do not have this information.
See section 3 of this guide for information on published registers and links to online sources, which will probably be easier to use than the records in this guide.
If you are looking for records relating to a person this is not the best place to start. Use our guides on merchant seamen and on crew lists and agreements for information on records relating to individuals.
2. Registration of merchant ships
Many different types of registration records have been created over the years. The records covered in this guide are mainly those collected by the Board of Trade from records created locally at ports.
Vessels registered at their home ports and were given a numbered certificate, unique to that port and the year of registration. Numbers began at zero each year for each port, so the same number could be used for different vessels in different years even in the same port. The certificate numbers were recorded in registers and copies sent to the Board of Trade.
From 1854 each ship had an official number in addition to the port registration number.
Registers created by customs officials at ports are kept at local record offices, with the exception of records of the Port of London, which are at The National Archives, see section 6 below.
The National Maritime Museum Merchant Navy research guide has a list of:
- Custom Houses for England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands
- contact details of the relevant local record office
- dates for which they hold ship registration records
Fires at customs houses means some records do not survive.
For information on port books created to record customs duties, read our guide Merchant trade records: port books 1565 – 1799.
3. Published sources
Information on ships may be more easily found in published registers than in the original records held at The National Archives.
The Crew List Index Project website has information on British registered ships between 1855 and the 1950s, including port of registry, and can be searched by ship’s name or official number.
The Lloyd’s Register Foundation has links to online copies of:
- Lloyd’s Register of Ships, providing information about merchant ships since 1764,
- Casualty returns, recording losses of vessels worldwide between 1890 and 2000.
Incomplete sets of annual directories available to consult in the reading room at the National Archives, include:
- Lloyd’s Register of Ships – copies between 1835 and 1973 are available in the National Archives reading room
- The Mercantile Navy List – 1861-1949 available in reading room.
Lloyd’s List, was printed between 1734 and 2013 when it became a digital resource. It provides information on merchant shipping for insurance companies and the maritime industry. Copies can be consulted at the London Metropolitan Archives and National Maritime Museum.
4. How to search our catalogue for records
Click on the links in this guide for more information on how to find records in each series. Different series are arranged in different ways, so you may need to search or browse a series by:
- port of registration
- alphabetical ranges of ship’s names
- numerical ranges of ships official numbers
The official number of a ship can be found on the Crew List Index Project website.
For most of the records in this guide a simple catalogue search using a ship’s name, or its official number, will not be successful. The best way to search through many of the records will be to browse in reference order, usually the same as date order, or hierarchically by sub-series, related records grouped together, for example by place or region. Refer to our Discovery help pages for guidance on searching and browsing.
Very few of the records described in this guide are available online. To view most of the documents that you find references for, you will need to either visit The National Archives at Kew or pay for copies to be sent to you.
5. Board of Trade registers: Transcripts and transactions, 1786-1998
Transcripts are registers compiled centrally by the Board of Trade from copies of registration certificates issued for merchant vessels in their home ports. Initially the transactions were annotations added to the transcripts recording changes of ownership.
From 1854 to 1889, the transcripts and transactions were separate series of registers.
From 1889 they were reunited and all papers relating to a single vessel were kept together.
5.1 Transcripts and transactions, Series I, 1786–1854
The 1786 Shipping and Navigation Act made registration obligatory for certain vessels.
- British ships over 15 tons were registered with customs officers in the ship’s home port
- numbered certificates were issued as proof of registration
- the certificate number was written into a registration book
- a copy of the certificate, known as a transcript, was sent to the Customs House in London or Edinburgh
From 1825, details of ownership, including changes of ownership, known as transactions, had to be noted on the transcripts held in the Customs Houses. Any change of master also had to be noted.
These records are in record series BT 107. They are arranged regionally and then by alphabetical range of port name. For London vessels are listed in port registry number order and individual registers are described in our catalogue by the range of numbers they contain.
- port registry number
- name of vessel and home port
- date and place of registration
- names of masters
- names, occupations and addresses of owners
- place and date of construction or capture as prize
- name and employment of surveying officer
- nationality of building (British, Plantation or Foreign)
- number of decks and masts
- depth of hold and tons burden
- type of vessel
- whether it had a gallery or figure head
Transcripts sent to the Customs House in London between 1786 and 1814 were destroyed in a fire. The Registration Books for the Port of London for the same period have survived and are in record series BT 107.
Indexes to these records are in the series BT 111 which can be downloaded from our website.
5.2 Transcripts and transactions, Series II and III, 1854–1889
The Merchant Shipping Act, 1854, introduced the official numbering of all newly registered ships and a new series of transcripts and transactions was created.
Indexes to the BT 108 transcripts are in the series BT 111, which can be downloaded from our website.
The records in BT 108 have notes on them which refer to the files in BT 109. The records contain the same information as in earlier transcripts but also show:
- official number
- port number
- names and addresses of builders
- particulars of engines
- names, descriptions and addresses of owners and shares held
5.3 Transcripts and transactions, Series IV, closed registries, 1889–1998
From 1889 all papers relating to a single ship were kept together. These papers are in record series BT 110 and can be searched by ship’s name or official number.
Registry of a ship was closed if the vessel was sold to a foreign owner or sank. The registers are filed by decades, according to the date of closure, and then alphabetically under the ship’s name. United Kingdom registered ships are separate from Colonial.
If a ship was bought back from foreign owners the registry would be re-opened. In some of these cases the papers have been filed under the second date of de-registration.
5.4 Transcripts and transactions, registries, 1994
Registries of ships which were current in 1994 when a digital ships’ register was opened and Customs and Excise ships’ registers were closed are in BT 340.
6. London Port title registers and transfer books, 1818-1994
Title registers for vessels registered in London from 1818 to 1994 are in record series CUST 130. They are arranged by date and registration number with indexes of vessels between 1837 and 1920 at CUST 130/132-136.
- registered owners
- a description of each registered vessel in registered number order
The series also contains transfer books from 1845 to 1982, recording changes of ownership. Transfer books list:
- name of previous owner
- name, address and occupation of new owner
- number of shares
- date and time of sale
- registered details of the vessel
- where and when built
- type and construction of ship, details of engines
7. Lists of ships 1786-1880 and 1905-1955
Lists of ships registered in UK and colonial ports (referred to as plantation ports) were submitted annually to the Customs House in London, and later to the Registrar General of Seamen, from 1786. The 1854 Merchant Shipping Act made this compulsory for UK ports and plantation ports carried on submitting lists although they were not covered by the act.
These lists are in record series BT 162, by date and whether they refer to UK or Plantation ports, and relate mostly to the period 1786–1880. The lists can be downloaded as digital microfilm.
UK ports also compiled lists of ships on their registers every 5 years – again on an informal basis – but many do not survive. The ones from 1905, 1910, 1920, 1935, 1950 and 1955 are in record series BT 163.
8. First and Second World War records
8.1 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.
8.2 Merchant shipping movement cards (1939–1946)
Search and download surviving merchant shipping movement cards (BT 389) in Discovery, our catalogue, (charges apply) for the Second World War.
8.3. Merchant vessel losses in the Second World War
Casualty registers recording losses of merchant ships during the Second World War are in BT 347/1–7. There is a microfiche card index in BT 347/8 available at The National Archives. These records relate to the ships and do not include crew.
The records are in date order, but if you have the casualty number allocated to the incident it will be easier to identify the right document.
Lloyd’s war losses is available to consult in the reading room and lists ships lost to war causes in date order.
See also Casualty returns on the Lloyd’s Register Foundation website.
9. Fishing boats
The Merchant Shipping Act 1894 required every fishing boat to:
- be lettered and numbered
- have official papers
- be entered on a register
Annual returns were made from each port and are in record series BT 145 by alphabetical ranges of ship’s names.
Transcripts and transactions relating to fishing boats are in BT 110 from 1895
10. Changes of master, from 1894
From 1894 to 1948 changes of master (the master of the ship was the officer in charge) were reported to the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen and entered into registers. These registers are in record series BT 336 and are arranged in numerical order by the ships’ official numbers. The registers record when and where a new master joined a ship and, if the master changed frequently, can give an idea of the ship’s ports of call.
The registers show the
- official number
- name of the vessel
- port where the master joined
- date on which the master joined
- master’s surname and certificate number
11. Other registers
Some other smaller collections of registry records can also be found at The National Archives
- BT 374, registers of changes of names of ships, 1959 – 1996, arranged by date
- BT 368, 5 bundles of papers of the Shanghai registry of ships, catalogue descriptions include the names of ships, 1875–1919
12. Pre-19th century records
12.1 State papers
State papers can contain information about ships and crew, but finding where a person, ship or incident is mentioned can take a lot of research.
Start by looking in published calendars of state papers – these are summaries of letters and papers arranged chronologically. Most calendars contain indexes to people, places and ships and some can be seen online at:
You can also find printed copies of the calendars in academic libraries including The National Archives at Kew.
12.2 Trade and customs records
From 1660 the records dealing with registration of ships were created by Collectors of Customs. Customs officers took over this function more formerly in 1701 and this continued until 1994. Many of these records remained at the port and were transferred to local record offices. Amongst those you can find at The National Archives are:
- Port Books (E 122 and E 190)
- Board of Trade Shipping Returns (in many CO series)
- Customs Records (in several CUST series)
You might also find our guide on Port books, 1565-1799 useful.
12.3 Treasury records, 1764–1887
Records from the Treasury can contain information about shipping but finding mention of specific ships is difficult. The two best record series to search within are:
- T 1 Treasury board papers and in-letters containing Shipping Lists, Naval Office shipping returns for plantations, customs and excise returns from North America. For help searching these see our research guide on Treasury papers
- T 64 Miscellaneous records with ships entered and cleared, plantation shipping returns, miscellaneous returns from Scotland
13. Further reading
Christopher T and Michael J Watts, ‘My ancestor was a merchant seaman‘ (Society of Genealogists, second edition with addendum, 2004)
K Smith, C T and M J Watts, ‘Records of merchant shipping and seamen‘ (PRO Publications, 1998)
Register of merchant ships in England, with the names of their masters compiled by Thomas Colshill, surveyor of the Port of London dated 1572 SP 15/22 – in the calendar of State Papers Domestic, Addenda, Edward VI to James I, 1547–1625, (SP 15) Addenda, Queen Elizabeth – Volume 22
British History Online, Guides and Calendars, State Papers Domestic, Calendar
Useful links: Royal Museum Greenwich guide to Merchant Navy: Ship registration and Custom House records
Richard Woodman: ‘A History of the British Merchant Navy’:
Consult the Crew List Index Project (CLIP) website, which has information about merchant ships from 1861 to 1913.
Consult the Miramar Ship Index (charges apply) website, a historical database listing some categories of merchant and naval ships.
Consult the ShipIndex.org (charges apply) website, a database of ships mentioned in books, journals, websites and other resources.
Visit the Lloyd’s Register Foundation Heritage and Education centre website for information on their online and archival resources.