How to look for records of... Registration of merchant ships
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
1. Why use this guide?
This guide will help you to find information relating to early informal and later compulsory registration of ships.
If you are looking for records relating to a person these are not the best place to start. Use our guides on Merchant Seamen and on Crew lists and agreements (see links to related guides on the right) for information on records relating to individuals.
2. Essential information
- Many ports records are deposited in local record offices
- Fires at Customs houses means some records do not survive
- From 1889 all papers relating to a single ship were kept together
Under international law any ship that trades internationally, or crosses international boundaries, has to be registered by its owners to a Flag Nation – the ship sails under the flag of that country and is bound by that country’s laws as well as international maritime law. Since 1958 there must be a viable economic or social reason for a ship to be linked to its Flag Nation.
3. How to search our catalogue for records
In this guide, look for mention of:
- department codes (such as CUST or CO)
- record series (such as BT 107 or T 64)
These will help you to focus your search of our catalogue.
Use the advanced search option to look for useful records. The ship names are rarely mentioned in the catalogue descriptions, so try wildcard searches using specific dates and department or record series codes.
For tips on searching more effectively use the help page.
Our catalogue contains descriptions of our records. 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. Alternatively, you can pay for research.
4. Key events in the history of ship registration
It may be useful to know the following key events when researching this subject:
- 1651 – a Commonwealth Ordnance restricted colonial and coastwise trade to English ships or ships of the country of origin of the produce it was carrying
- 1660 – this ordnance was re-enacted at the Restoration
- 1701 – a register of all trading ships was started by the Commissioner of Customs
- 1707 – following the Act of Union, Scottish ships had to be entered in a register of all trading ships belonging to Great Britain
- 1786 – the Shipping and Navigation Act made registration compulsory for ships over 15 tons and established the Registrar General of Shipping
- 1854 – the Merchant Shipping Act introduced official numbers for newly-registered ships
5. Early records of ships
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.
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 useful.
Legal records can be useful for tracing any disputes over the ownership of vessels.
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
6. Customs registers 1818-1926
Customs registers for London from 1818 to 1926 are in record series CUST 130. They show:
- registered owners
- a description of each registered vessel in registered number order
Many of the registers compiled by customs officials are kept at local record offices. 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
7. Lists of ships 1786-1880 and 1905-1955
Lists of ships registered in UK and plantation ports
were submitted, on an informal basis, from 1786.
The 1854 Merchant Shipping Act made this compulsory for UK ports, but plantation ports carried on submitting lists despite not being covered by the act. These lists are in record series BT 162 and relate mostly to the period 1786–1880.
UK ports also compiled lists of ships on their registers every 5 years – again on an informal basis. The ones from 1905, 1910, 1920, 1935, 1950 and 1955 are in record series BT 163.
8. Transcripts and transactions
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, known as the Transcripts and Transactions Series I, are held at The National Archives in record series BT 107. They show:
- port registry number
- name 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 Indexes to Transcripts BT 111.
In 1854 the Merchant Shipping Act introduced the official numbering of all newly registered ships, creating a new series of transcripts and transactions.
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 the
- official number
- port number of ship
- names and addresses of builders
- particulars of engines
- names, descriptions and addresses of owners and shares held
Indexes to these records are in the series Indexes to Transcripts BT 111 which can be downloaded from our website.
From 1889 all papers relating to a single ship were kept together. These papers are in record series BT 110 – Transcripts and Transactions: Series IV.
They 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. These are searchable by ship’s name in Discovery.
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.
9. Other useful registers
- registries of ships which were current in 1994 when a digital ships’ register was opened and Customs and Excise ships’ registers were closed, in BT 340
- 1959–1993 registers of changes of names of ships in BT 374
- 1875–1919 registry of ships in BT 368, the Shanghai registry
10. Shipping casualties in the Second World War
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.
These records relate to the ships and do not include crew.
11. Fishing boats
The Merchant Shipping Act 1894 required every fishing boat to:
- be lettered and numbered
- have official papers
- be entered on a register
12. Changes of master, from 1894
From 1894 to 1948 changes of master were reported to the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen and entered into registers. These registers are in record series BT 336.
The registers are arranged in numerical order by the ships’ official numbers and show the
- name of the vessel
- port where the master joined
- date on which the master joined
- master’s name and certificate number
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’: