FOCUS ON: MERCHANT NAVY CREW LISTS AND AGREEMENTS
Janet Dempsey discusses The National Archives’ project to transcribe lists of seamen and how these records can be a vital maritime resource
Janet Dempsey looks at The National Archives’ project to transcribe lists of seamen and explains how these records can provide a vital research tool
No industry in the 19th and 20th centuries was so overseen by the Government as that of shipping. Virtually every aspect of the industry was at some point the subject of laws, improvement committees or parliamentary debate. This scrutiny isn’t surprising: as an island, Britain depended on its large mercantile marine not just for imports and exports but also as a source of men (and sometimes ships) for use in the Royal Navy.
It is therefore strange that between 1857 and 1918 there are no records for individuals who served on these ships, even if they spent their whole lives at sea. Record keeping had been attempted between 1835 and 1856, but despite trying several systems, it proved impossible to keep one that was accurate, easy to maintain and didn’t cause extra work for the masters of ships.
A decision was made by the Register General of Shipping
The crew list for each voyage shows the names and details of all those on board the ship including apprentices
and Seamen therefore that the Crew Lists and Agreements, which had to be kept by law would suffice as a record of the men of the merchant navy. The problem with this system of record keeping, however, is that 160 years on from that decision, if you do not know the name of a ship your ancestor served on you cannot take your research any further.
The Crew Lists and Agreements were kept from 1835 but a few musters dating back to the 1740s survive at The National Archives (TNA). The Crew Lists and Agreements of each ship are actually a single document. The front of the list details the rules on board the ship and as each man (or woman) signs on for the voyage they are also signing to ‘agree’ to be bound by the rules. The lists themselves include all individual crew members as well as apprentices, but not always radio operators or medical personnel, who were not bound by the agreements.
Ships engaged in ‘home trade’ usually have two crew lists per year, one running from 1 January to the end of June and the second from 1 July to the end of December. ‘Foreign trade’ vessels (outside the UK and northern Europe) usually have a list for every voyage, often with a different crew each time.
The crew lists are very representative of the hierarchy on board with the master listed first, then deck officers and crew, followed by engine room officers and crew, and then ‘victualing’ – stewards, waiters, cooks and others who neither ran the engine room or the decks.
There are several types of crew list depending on the type of trade the ship was engaged in and how many crew she carried. Help with identifying a crew list and how to read them can be found on the ‘More than a list of crew’ page of the Maritime History Archive ( www.mun.ca/mha/mlc).
As The National Archives started to prepare for the centenary of the First World War as long ago as 2009, it became apparent that the men of the merchant navy, whose ships were as legitimate a target as any Royal Navy vessel, were not going to be recognised in any way. Plans went ahead to digitise records of the Army, Navy, Air Force and reserve, and make them available online, but still there were no plans for those of the merchant navy.
Stokers tirelessly feed the coal engines aboard a merchant navy vessel during the First World War
Manning the switchboard. Radio operators aren’t always
included on crew lists