The Merchant Shipping Act of 1835 required crew lists and related documents to be filed with the Register Office of Merchant Seamen (now the RGSS). There were different types of crew list, dependant on the particular voyage. In addition to information relating to the voyages, it may be possible to identify the seaman’s ticket number, his place of birth and age, the capacity in which he is now employed, the last ship in which he served, and the place and date of joining and leaving the ship. All records up to 1860 are filed at the Public Record Office.
The first series of agreements discussed here are filed in class BT98. In order to access them, it is necessary to know the port of registration… the easiest method of locating this is to check Lloyds Register or the Mercantile Navy List.
After 1857 the system changed – ships were given an official number on registration and the documents were filed accordingly in numerical order though may still be found in BT98. It follows then that the port of registration is no longer required in order to locate an agreement. The survival rate varies from reasonably good in 1835 to excellent in 1860.
After 1861, the documents have been scattered between archives.
- The PRO holds 10 percent of all Crew lists from 1861 -1938, and 1951 – 1989 in BT99.
- The National Maritime Museum holds the remaining 90 percent for 1861, 1862 and all for years ending in 5 except 1945, up to 1972.
- Certain County Record Offices and other archives hold many crew agreements for vessels registered in ports within their area, for the years from 1863-1912.
- The Registry of Shipping and Seamen holds all Crew lists from 1939-1950, and those from 1990 to the present day.
- From 1972 to 1989 all apart from those held at the PRO and those for 1975 and 1985 at the NMM, have been destroyed.
- Almost all other records are held at the Maritime History Archive at the Memorial University of Newfoundland for the period 1863-1972.
- The main exception is the class of records in BT100 – documents relating to celebrated ships… those vessels considered to be ‘famous’ such as the Great Eastern, are held at the PRO in the class Agreements and Crew Lists, Series lll – Celebrated Ships.
- Fishing Agreements and Crew Lists from 1894 – 1929 are held in BT144, also at the Public Record Office.
The Mercantile Marine Act of 1850 laid out rules requiring masters of all British registered ships to keep an Official Log Book for every voyage. The information contained in them varies and as you may expect, the earliest ones include much less information than 20th Century examples. In general, they will all include such information as births and deaths on board, illness, disciplinary issues, conduct of crew including notes of desertion, and anything else of significance taking place on board a ship during the period of the voyage or voyages.
Home Trade ships were to required to deposit the Log half-yearly, and Foreign Trade ships after each return voyage, with the Registry of Shipping & Seamen.
These records begin to appear around 1852, but relatively few remain for the early years. Any containing a note of a birth, death or marriage at sea should have been retained but in reality that is no guarantee that you will find the one you need.
They are filed with the Agreements and Crew Lists, EXCEPT for the period 1902-1919, when there is a separate class in BT165 at the Public Record Office in Kew, England containing all surviving logs from that period.
Crew lists and agreements dating from before 1861 have been filmed and should be available through your LDS libraries, but the quality is variable and in some cases only part of the document may have been copied. As with any copied material, it is always best to view the original document if possible.
This is just an overview of the records and what you may find in them. To find out in greater detail what may be available and what else you may be able to search, try the PRO’s web site http://www.pro.gov.uk. Their leaflets have recently been updated, and the most recent versions are now online. This includes the latest information allowing the codes in the Registers of Seamen’s Tickets to be more fully understood. The PRO has also placed their catalogue on line which may also be accessed via their website, and will help you to decide the precise reference you need.
If you are accessing the information via films from Family History Centres, note that PRO references are not LDS references! You will need to search the LDS catalogue (now also online). A short cut to finding this section of the catalogue is: Go to the custom search page at http://www.familysearch.org
Click on Family History Library Catalog Click on All Searches Click on Author Search In the Author Box, enter exactly as between quotes below “Great Britain. Board of Trade. Mercantile Marine Department” The PRO records available are: BT 98, 112 to 116, 119, 120, 159, 160
Note again that the filming is not good, and as always with filmed records, you are wise to recheck the information by examining the original record. The Public Record Office will not conduct a search on your behalf but a list of researchers is available from their website.