The National Archives
Merchant Navy Seamen Records
We are proud to bring you the Merchant Navy Seamen records in partnership with The National Archives. The records comprise two main sets of records:
- Merchant Navy Seamen 1835-1857: records that the central government created of individual seamen to monitor a potential reserve of sailors for the Royal Navy
- Merchant Navy Seamen 1918-1941: records of index cards that the Registrar General of Shipping and Seaman used between the two world wars to produce a centralised index to merchant seamen serving on British merchant navy vessels
In 1857 the Board of Trade abandoned the Seamen's register, deeming the agreements and crew lists enough to meet the department's needs. This means that no register of ordinary seamen's service was kept between 1858 to 1913.
Merchant Navy Seamen 1835-1857
Search 1.6 million records of Merchant Navy Seamen for the period 1835-1857.
From 1835, the central government began to monitor a potential reserve of sailors for the Royal Navy, resulting in the creation of many records that identify individual seamen. The main series are the ships' agreements and crew lists, from which the registers of service were created.
What the records tell you about your ancestors varies, but they usually include name, age, pre-civil registration place of birth, register ticket (a merchant seaman's ID), ship names and dates of voyages.
These are volumes from The National Archives' record series BT112, BT113, BT114, BT115, BT116, BT119 and BT120.
Merchant Navy Seamen 1918-1941
Search 998,838 records of Merchant Navy Seamen for the period 1918-1941.
These records are index cards used by the Registrar General of Shipping and Seaman between the two world wars to produce a centralised index to merchant seamen serving on British merchant navy vessels.
The Board of Trade issued these cards and they fall into three types: CR1, CR2 and CR10. There are 998,838 cards; however, there are two or more cards for some individuals, so the total number of merchant seamen is lower than this.
These records are particularly valuable due to the wide range of people they include. It is possible to find records for British nationals, foreign British-registered men and women, experienced crewmen and young cabin crew. Whatever your ancestor's role on the merchant ships, it is well worth searching for them in these records.
Another key benefit of these records is that you may find a photograph of your ancestor. For the first time, you could discover what your seafaring predecessor looked like.
The front of a card gives the basic biographical information about each individual their name, their year and place of birth, their rank or rating, and so on. Initials were sometimes given rather than first names. Sometimes there is a physical description.
The front of a card may also give such other information as discharge number, health insurance number, address of kin and so on.
The reverse of the card may be blank, or may contain a list of official vessel numbers and signing-on dates, and/or a photograph and/or signature of the seamen. Sometimes a photograph is not on the reverse of the card but on a separate attached card. Where this is the case, you will see 'Viewing Page 1 of 2' when you open the image, with an option to click on 'Next Page' (which will show you the photograph). Where available, the photographs of the mariners are enormously evocative of the inter-war working class men who made the British merchant navy what it was.
Unfortunately, not all fields in each card were completed. Place of birth is not always given. This is why when you view a list of free search results you are likely to see some entries where the place of birth is blank.
There were many abbreviated place names on the original cards and we have endeavoured to standardise these to improve searchability. From the multiple variations, abbreviations and misspellings of Middlesbrough, for example, we have created a single true value. Wherever possible, we have also assigned a county or country or region to each place to assist with searchability for example, Middlesbrough/Yorkshire/England.
For the British Isles, we have standardised using the historical counties. For overseas places, however, we have sometimes modernised a spelling to assist researchers (for example, we have converted the German name Reval and the Russian spelling Tallin to the modern Estonian Tallinn to avoid having three different versions in the database).
Some place names are ambiguous and we have not been able to assign them to countries or regions. For example, it is not always clear whether St Vincent refers to the island in the Caribbean, to the Cape Verde island, to the small port on Madeira, or to some other similarly named place.
Please note that 'India' is used as shorthand for the Indian Subcontinent and that post-Independence Bangladesh and Pakistan are not disparaged. A large number of these men were from the Sylhet region of Assam (in today's Bangladesh), which was later a major source for emigration to Britain.
The merchant marine service drew recruits from all over the world. There are large numbers of seamen from across Britain, especially from ports and their hinterlands a disproportionate number of sailors were from such areas as Merseyside, Southampton and Tyneside and large numbers from less obvious places such as the Shetlands.
There are merchant seamen from every continent, however, with large numbers from across the English-speaking world (notably the maritime provinces of Canada), from the West Indies and Sierra Leone, and from Scandinavia, Somaliland, China and Japan. There are even some sailors from landlocked Switzerland.