How to look for records of... Ships wrecked or sunk
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1. Why use this guide?
This guide contains information about researching wrecked or sunken ships at The National Archives. It also includes suggestions for other collections and sources that may be useful.
Records of wrecked or sunken Royal Navy and merchant ships are held separately and the Royal Navy records are generally more detailed and extensive. Very few records of wrecked or sunken merchant ships exist from before the 19th century.
2. Where to start
The National Archives is often not the best place to begin a search for records of sunken and wrecked ships. Some of the other archives listed in section 6 may prove to be better places to start this kind of research. Nevertheless, our records can contain useful information and should be considered among the range of different sources.
To carry out a search of our records you will need to visit The National Archives to consult books in our library and view original documents in our reading rooms. These are not available to download or view online.
It’s usually best to begin by consulting one of the many books about shipwrecks, as it’s important to have some background knowledge and much useful research has been published. See the “further reading” section below for a list of useful books held in our library.
Original documents are mainly useful for researching Royal Navy ships. Useful documents might include:
- Naval officers’ reports describing the loss of ships under their command
- Records of naval forces stationed around the world
- Letters sent to and by the Admiralty and the Navy Board, which may deal with wrecks or attempts at salvage
- Reports on naval ships lost during both world wars, and occasionally on merchant vessels sunk while under escort
- Ships’ logs and Admiralty charts, which can be useful under some circumstances
3. Royal Navy ships: key records
Click on the links in the table below to search for records using Discovery, our catalogue. Use the ship’s name as a keyword (do not use HMS as this is rarely used in the catalogue); restrict the search to ADM (for naval vessels) or BT (for merchant ships), and to the dates you’re interested in. Other useful keywords include “cargo” and “loss”, while different department codes may also be of interest. See Discovery Help for more information.
Ongoing cataloguing projects are helping to make ships’ records easier to find and use. Recent work on the ADM 137, ADM 136 and BT 165 series have improved these records’ accessibility, while BT 110/426/2 is now available to download free of charge as part of the Digital Microfilm project.
|ADM 1||Includes reports from flag officers and captains on the loss of ships under their command from about 1698 onward. There is no subject index to these records before 1793, so to locate a report you would need to know the name of the writer and where he was stationed.|
|ADM 12||The Admiralty Digest, which provides a name and subject index from 1793 onward. Also see our guidance on How to Use ADM 12.|
|ADM 116||Similar reports from about 1850. A subject index is available with the standard set of series lists in our reading rooms.|
|ADM 106||Letters sent to the Navy Board, or by that board to the Admiralty, which occasionally deal with wrecks, particularly those which occurred in the vicinity of dockyard ports or where salvage was attempted. We also hold a digest, which is a summary record of the contents of each letter or paper, for 1822 to 1832 (ADM 106/2153 – ADM 106/2177). To identify records dating from before 1822 you need to know the date and place of the ship’s loss.|
|ADM 137||Reports dealing with ships lost during the First World War, both British and international, and including some transports, auxiliaries and merchant vessels under naval escort. The position of loss is often given with such accuracy as was possible at the time. ADM 137/3089 – ADM 137/3832 is an organised collection of such reports.|
|ADM 199||Similar records from the Second World War.|
|ADM 51||Surviving logs of British naval ships from the 1660s onward, arranged alphabetically by ship name. These may give the position of a sinking, but it’s important to remember that logbooks were often lost with the ship, and that many ships were wrecked because their officers did not know where they were. It may be useful to consult the logs of any other ships which sailed in company with the lost ship.|
4. Merchant ships: key records
Although many records contain incidental references to the loss of merchant ships, almost no systematic attempts were made to collect information about them until the 19th century. The registration system established by the Merchant Shipping Acts of 1786, 1825 and 1854 required a ship’s loss to be officially recorded. The Transcripts of Registration transmitted to the Registrar of Shipping for 1786 onwards (BT 107 – BT 108, BT 110, indexes in BT 111) show when the registry was closed on a vessel which had been declared lost or missing. The nineteenth-century records often also include the date and place of the incident.
Other possible sources include:
|Agreement & Crew Lists, Series I and II|
|BT 110||Forms giving details of the registry and ownership of ships which were removed from the British Register and kept by the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen.|
|BT 165||Ships’ Official Logs, 1902-1938|
|BT 167/55||List of Merchant ships wrecked, broken up or sold abroad, 1908-1918|
Useful information (such as depositions) on both merchant and naval ships taken as prizes can be found in various High Court of Admiralty series.
It may also be worth consulting:
- British House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, which can be viewed online at The National Archives.
- Sources primarily concerned with deaths at sea.
- Newspapers, which may contain reports of shipwrecks; The Times is available online in our reading rooms.
5. Other records
Court martial records
The loss of Royal Navy ships usually resulted in an inquiry with the Captain or surviving officers court martialled, though these trials often did not take place where ships were lost to enemy action or where none of the officers survived.
These records are often the most detailed narratives of a loss available, but the court’s purpose was to establish the circumstances of the loss and to apportion any blame, so it did not necessarily take an interest in the exact position of the wreck. Records include:
- Courts martial held between 1680 and 1839 in ADM 1/5253-ADM 1/5494, and afterwards in ADM 1 in the ‘General Series’ for each year (most are indexed in Lost Ships of the Royal Navy).
- Other courts martial in ADM 156 and ADM 178.
Board of Trade inquiries
The 1854 Act empowered the Board of Trade to conduct inquiries into the loss of British merchant ships, though this power was very seldom used. Few of these reports have been preserved, though the Board of Trade Marine Department in series MT 9 contains those which have.
Search our catalogue using terms such as “wreck” or the name of the ship, while restricting the search to MT. The out-letter books of the Board of Trade Marine Department are in MT 4, with indexes in MT 5. Other reports of inquiries into losses and accidents from 1867 are in MT 15.
Ministry of Shipping
Records of the Ministry of Shipping from 1917-1921 contain references to war losses and include a complete list of British merchant and fishing vessels sunk or damaged by enemy action for 1914-1920 (MT 25/83-85).
Trade Division of the Naval Staff
The records of the Trade Division of the Naval Staff, contain much material on the losses of individual merchant ships. The records can be searched as follows:
- Records from 1939-1945 in ADM 199/2073 – ADM 199/2194
- Interviews with survivors in ADM 199/2130 – ADM 199/2148
- Convoy lists in ADM 199/2184 – ADM 199/2194
- Information about merchant shipping losses in the First World War in ADM 137
Collectors of customs
Search for reports and depositions concerning shipwrecks among the correspondence of collectors of customs. The CUST series is arranged geographically, while the following series may also be useful:
- Records of consuls and other British diplomatic or colonial officials abroad, in the FO and CO series (chiefly arranged geographically)
- Papers dealing with the Coastguard Service, including its responsibility for lifesaving and the prevention of shipwrecks, in MT 9 until 1906 and in BT 166 thereafter
- Papers dealing with the circumstances surrounding the passing of the Bahamas Wrecking Act 1858 in BT 210
Treasury Solicitor’s files and war risk insurance records
The Treasury Solicitor’s files in series TS 18 cover the business of many government departments and may include details of claims for the cargoes of lost ships. War risk insurance records in BT 365 record claims for the values of ships’ cargoes lost during the First World War; the claims were made between 1914 and 1929.
Sea charts may be useful in establishing the location of a wreck, but usually not in identifying it. See our research guide for more information.
6. Records in other archives
Lloyds Marine Collection
The Lloyd’s Marine Collection is a major source of information about merchant shipping losses, based at the Guildhall Library, Aldermanbury, London EC 2. Details of the collection are published in D. T Barraskill’s “A Guide to the Lloyd’s Marine Collection and Related Marine Sources” at Guildhall Library (London, 1994), which includes records of official inquiries and a list of further sources of information about marine losses.
The British Library
Shipping newspapers are a useful source and may be found in major reference libraries, particularly in cities with significant ports, and also at the British Newspaper Archive.
The largest readily accessible collection of printed Admiralty charts is held by the Map Library of the British Library.
Information about the loss of British East India Company ships may be found in the India Office Records at the British Library, 96 Euston Road London NW1 2DB. Details of the East India Company are also listed at www.eicships.info.
The British Library also holds many contemporary accounts of shipwrecks, but these are often dramatic rather than accurate. Works published by Thomas Tegg can be particularly useful.
UK Parliamentary Archives
The Admiralty Register of Wrecks is found among the Parliamentary Papers held at The Parliamentary Archives.
UK Hydrographic Office database
A comprehensive database of wrecks containing over 60,000 records, of which approximately 20,000 are for named vessels, is maintained by the UK Hydrographic Office, Admiralty Way, Taunton, Somerset, TA1 2DN. Tel: 01823 337900. Though mainly concerned with UK territorial waters the database includes information on a small number of wrecks in other areas. The same office holds an extensive collection of British Admiralty Charts and other hydrographic charts.
Society of Genealogists
The Society of Genealogists (14 Charterhouse Buildings, Goswell Road, London, EC1M 7BA) has a number of books on shipwrecks and shipping casualties.
Websites and forums
Many websites give information about shipping losses, and there are also many online forums for people to share information about ships, shipwrecks and salvage.
Search the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust database of Royal Navy lost list, undertaken to assess of international spread of UK sovereign wrecks.
7. Further reading
Larn, R and Larn, B, Shipwreck Index of the British Isles (London, Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, 1995-ongoing). Comprehensive listing of all wrecks by UK coastal area
Marx, R, Shipwrecks of the Western Hemisphere, (New York, World Publishing Co, 1971). Several thousand losses before and including 1825 are listed and briefly described
Pickford, N, The Atlas of Shipwreck & Treasure (London, Dorling Kindersley, 1994)
Hepper, D J, British Warship Losses in the Age of Sail 1650-1859 (Sussex, Jean Boudriot Publications, 1994). Chronological list which details the circumstances of the loss
Huntress, K, Checklist of Narratives of Shipwrecks & Disasters at Sea to 1860 (Iowa State University Press, 1979). A guide to contemporary accounts of losses
Grocott, T, Shipwrecks of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras (London, Chatham Publishing, 1997). Contemporary newspaper accounts; covers both merchant and naval ships
Gosset, W P, The Lost Ships of the Royal Navy 1793-1900 (London, Mansell Publishing, 1986). Contains an index to courts martial in ADM 1
Hocking, C, Dictionary of Disasters at Sea during the Age of Steam 1824-1962 (London, London Stamp Exchange, 1969)
HMSO, British Vessels Lost at Sea 1914-18 and 1939-45 (Cambridge, Patrick Stephens Ltd, 1988). Facsimile reprints of four HMSO Publications: Navy Losses (1919); Merchant Shipping (Losses) (1919); Ships of the Royal Navy: Statement of Losses during the Second World War (1947); and British Merchant Vessels Lost or Damaged by Enemy Action during Second World War (1947)
Tennent, A J, British Merchant Ships sunk by U-Boats in the 1914-18 War (Starling Press, 1990)
Williams, D, Wartime Disasters At Sea, Every Passenger Ship Lost in World Wars I & II, (Yeovil, 1997). Alphabetical listing by war years
Brown, D, Warship Losses of World War Two (London, Arms & Armour Press, 1995)
Lenton, H T, British & Empire Warships of the Second World War (London, Greenhill, 1998). Lists all ships and what happened to them
Rohwer, J, Allied Submarine Attacks of World War Two: European Theatre of Operations 1939-45 (London, Greenhill, 1997)
Rohwer, J, Axis Submarine Successes 1939-45 (Cambridge, Patrick Stephens Ltd, 1993)
Hooke, N, Modern Shipping Disasters 1963-1987 (Colchester, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1989)
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