The National Archives Logo
Guide reference: Military Records Information 43
Last updated: 5 January 2010

1. Introduction

The National Archives holds some records relating to shipping losses, but is often not the best source of information. In general, relevant records held at The National Archives relate to British Royal Navy ships. The actual position of wrecks and their cargo is often not mentioned, or only in general terms. Information that would be sufficient to locate a wreck is most unlikely to be found.

2. Published works

There are hundreds of published books on shipwrecks, often based on research in the official records, so it is worth consulting these first. Often the official position of sinking, or the last known position, is given. Below is a list of useful works, some of which are available in the library at The National Archives. Further books on specific wrecks or locations are also available in the library.

General
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).
17th-19th centuries
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).
20th century
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).

In addition, many books relating to ships in general contain details of their ultimate fate. A useful reference work on naval vessels is J J Colledge, Ships of the Royal Navy, two volumes (London, Greenhill, 1987). Occasionally, the Navy List includes lists of ships lost, captured or destroyed.

3. Warships

Reports from flag officers or captains describing the loss of ships under their command may be found in ADM 1 from about 1698 onward. There is no subject index to these records before 1793: to locate a report you need to know the name of the writer and where he was stationed. From 1793 the Admiralty Digest (ADM 12) provides a name and subject index: ask at The National Archives for How to Use ADM 12.

Similar reports from about 1850 may also be found in ADM 116: a subject index is available with the standard set of series lists in the reading rooms in The National Archives at Kew. Letters addressed to the Navy Board, or by that board to the Admiralty, (in ADM 106), occasionally deal with wrecks, particularly those which occurred in the vicinity of the dockyard ports, or of which the salvage was attempted. There is a Digest - a summary record of the contents of each letter or paper for the period 1822 to 1832 only (ADM 106/2153 to ADM 106/2177). In order to identify records dating from before 1822 it is essential to know the date and place of the loss. Occasional references to ships lost may also be found in Admiralty Station records.

ADM 137 contains many reports dealing with the loss of British and enemy ships (including some transports, auxiliaries and merchantmen under naval escort) during the First World War. The position of loss is often given with such accuracy as was possible at the time. ADM 137/3089 to ADM 137/3832 is a systematic collection of such reports. Similar records relating to the Second World War are in ADM 199. The surviving logs of HM ships from the 1660s onward are in ADM 51, ADM 52, ADM 53 and ADM 54, arranged alphabetically by name of ship. These may provide the most accurate known position of a loss, but of course the log was often lost with the ship, and many ships were wrecked precisely because their officers did not know where they were. It may sometimes be useful to consult the logs of ships in company that survived. You can search for logs in Discovery, our catalogue, by typing the ship's name as the key word (do not use HMS as this is rarely used in the catalogue) and restrict the search to the dates you are interested in, and to ADM.

It was customary in the Royal Navy for the loss of ships to be enquired into by a court martial on the captain or surviving officers. These trials were often omitted in the case of losses to enemy action, or when no officers survived. Records of courts martial held between 1680 and 1839 may be found in ADM 1/5253 to ADM 1/5494, and thereafter in ADM 1 in the 'General Series' for each year (most are indexed in Lost Ships of the Royal Navy). These records are often the most detailed narratives of a loss available, but the court's concern was to establish the circumstances of the loss and to apportion any blame. It did not necessarily take an interest in the exact position of the wreck.

Few records detail the stores or equipment aboard particular men-of-war, and none that would help to identify the personal effects of officers and men. Lists of guns and warlike stores aboard HM ships in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century may sometimes be found in WO 55.

Many maps and charts are preserved among the Admiralty records. The largest readily accessible collection of printed Admiralty charts is held by the Map Library of the British Library. The national record set of both printed Admiralty charts, together with many manuscript charts, is held by the UK Hydrographic Office. Such charts may help to establish the precise location of a wreck, but not usually to identify it.

4. Merchant ships

Although many records contain incidental references to the loss of merchant ships, almost no systematic attempt was made before the nineteenth century to collect information about them. The registration system established by the Merchant Shipping Acts of 1786, 1825 and 1854 required the fact of a ship's loss to be officially recorded. The Transcripts of Registration transmitted to the Registrar of Shipping, 1786 onwards (BT 107, BT 108, BT 110, indexes in BT 111), show when the registry was closed on a vessel, that is, when it was lost or missing. The date the registry closed is given, and the nineteenth-century records often also include the date and place of the incident.

The 1854 Act empowered the Board of Trade to conduct enquiries into the loss of British merchant ships, which power was used very sparingly. The records of the Board of Trade Marine Department in MT 9 contain such reports of these enquiries as have survived, but these have been heavily weeded for the nineteenth century. Our catalogue can be used to search under terms such as "wreck" or the name of the ship, 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 enquiries into losses and accidents from 1867 are in MT 15.

The records of the Ministry of Shipping, 1917-1921, contain references to war losses, and include a complete list of British Merchant and Fishing Vessels sunk or damaged by enemy action 1914-1920 (MT 25/83-85). The records of the Trade Division of the Naval Staff, 1939-1945, (ADM 199/2073 to ADM 199/2194) contain much material on the losses of individual merchant ships, including interviews with survivors (ADM 199/2130 to ADM 199/2148) and convoy lists (ADM 199/2184 to ADM 199/2194). ADM 137 contains information about merchant shipping losses in the First World War.

Reports and depositions concerning shipwrecks may be found among the correspondence of Collectors of Customs (CUST series, arranged geographically) and of consuls and other British diplomatic or colonial officials abroad (FO and CO series, chiefly arranged geographically). Papers dealing with the Coastguard Service, including its responsibility for the saving of life and the prevention of shipwreck, are in MT 9 down to 1906, and in BT 166 thereafter. Papers dealing with the circumstances surrounding the passing of the Bahamas Wrecking Act 1858 are in BT 210.

British Parliamentary papers should also be checked. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers are available online at The National Archives. The Mercantile Navy List is useful for obituaries and honorary testimonials of Master Mariners 1857-1864. It may also be worth examining sources that are primarily concerned with the deaths of people at sea.

Newspapers may also contain reports of shipwrecks. The Times is available online at The National Archives.

Other possible sources include:

Catalogue reference(s) Description
BT 98 and BT 99 Agreement & Crew Lists - Series I and II
BT 153 Register of Wages and Effects of Deceased Seamen 1852-1889
BT 165 Ships Official Logs 1902-1938
BT 167/55 List of Merchant ships wrecked, broken up or sold foreign 1908-1918

Useful information, such as depositions, regarding both merchant and naval ships taken as prizes, are to be found in various High Court of Admiralty (HCA) series. However, these records are complex to use.

5. Sources elsewhere

A major source of record information about merchant shipping losses is the Lloyd's Marine Collection at the Guildhall Library, Aldermanbury, London EC 2. DT Barraskill, A Guide to the Lloyd's Marine Collection and Related Marine Sources at Guildhall Library (London, 1994) gives details of the collection, which includes records of official enquiries, and also gives a list of further sources of information about marine losses.

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 Library Newspaper Library, Colindale, London NW9 5HE.

A comprehensive database of wrecks containing over 60,000 records, of which approximately 20,000 are named vessels, is maintained by the UK Hydrographic Office, Admiralty Way, Taunton, Somerset, TA1 2DN. Tel: 01823 337900. Although it centres largely on UK territorial waters, the database also includes data on a small number of wrecks in other areas. UKHO also holds an extensive collection of British Admiralty Charts and other hydrographic charts.

The Society of Genealogists (14 Charterhouse Buildings, Goswell Road, London, EC1M 7BA) has a number of books on shipwrecks and shipping casualties.

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 holds many contemporary accounts of shipwrecks, but it should be remembered that while these are often spectacular and dramatic accounts, they are also often inaccurate. Works published by Thomas Tegg are particularly useful.

There are an increasing number of websites about shipping losses. There are also many newsgroups of people wanting to share information about ships, salvage, and shipwrecks.

Guide reference: Military Records Information 43

Our catalogue

Search descriptions of 20 million documents from the UK central government, law courts and other national bodies.

  • Download this guide as a PDF