Janet Dempsey dis­cusses The Na­tional Ar­chives’ pro­ject to tran­scribe lists of sea­men and how th­ese records can be a vi­tal mar­itime re­source

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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.

Ship’s roll

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 (

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

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