Merchant Navy Seamen1835-1941
About the Merchant Navy Seamen records
Search more than 2.6 million Merchant Navy Seamen records, published in partnership with The National Archives.
The Merchant Navy Seamen records comprise two main sections:
- Merchant Navy Seamen 1835-1857: records of individual seamen that the central government created 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
What can these records tell me about my ancestors?
As well as providing information about your ancestor's career, the Merchant Navy Seamen records can also reveal what he or she looked like. Many of the records include a photograph or a physical description, bringing you face to face with your ancestor.
The information listed varies, but the records will usually include a combination of the following:
In the news
Maritime specialist Simon Wills advises a reader about the Merchant Navy Seamen records in Your Family History Magazine:
- Age or date of birth
- Place of birth
- Photograph of your ancestor
- Physical description including height, hair colour, eye colour and tattoos
- Your ancestor's signature
- Name and address of next of kin
- Rank or rating
- Ship names or numbers and dates of voyages
- Register ticket (a merchant seaman's ID)
- Discharge number
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 thousands of records that identify individual seamen. The main series are the ships' agreements and crew lists, from which the registers of service were created.
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 two or more cards for some individuals, so the total number of merchant seamen is lower than 998,838.
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. You may also be able to see other information about your ancestor, such 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.
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.
These records are digitised from materials held at The National Archives and are the series BT348, BT349 and BT350. Please note that a fourth series BT364 is not being published at this time, due to data protection concerns. The collection is not complete for a further reason: most cards from 1913 to 1921 were destroyed by the Board of Trade in 1969.
Find out more
View a list of definitions for ratings (PDF), e.g., AB for Able Seaman, OS for Ordinary Seaman. This PDF also contains abbreviations of destinations and a list of port numbers.
The official ship numbers can be searched for on the CLIP website to identify the name of the ship.
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.
If you're looking for ancestors in this gap, the following records may prove useful:
- Passenger lists leaving the UK 1890-1960
- CLIP crew list records 1861-1913
- Trinity House Calendars 1787-1854
- Royal Navy Officers Medal Roll 1914-1920 your ancestors may have been in the Royal Navy rather than the merchant navy
© Crown copyright. Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England. www.nationalarchives.gov.uk
The National Archives give no warranty as to the accuracy, completeness or fitness for the purpose of the information provided. Images may be used only for purposes of research, private study or education. Applications for any other use should be made to The National Archives Image Library, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU, Tel: 0208 392 5225 Fax: 0208 392 5266.
Begin with the basics
The name of the person you are searching for may not be recorded in the way you expect. Henry John Davies, for example, may have been recorded as Henry Davies, Henry J Davies, H Davies, or even H J Davies. We would therefore suggest that you initially search using their last name only. If you receive too many results, you can then add a first name to narrow them down.
If you don’t find the result you want first time, it is worth trying every possible variation in the first name field. If you’ve included a middle name in your search, try searching the first name only.
Your ancestor might have used a different first name in everyday life from the one that appears on official records. For example, your great-uncle Jack’s birth name might have been John. If you can’t find someone recorded under the name you expect, try variations of that name. And if you still can’t find your ancestor using their full forename, try entering their first initial instead.
We’ve added an ‘Include variants’ tickbox next to the ‘Last name’ field to allow for common differences in spelling or incorrect spelling. For example, if you search for the name ‘Foakes’ while ticking the variants option, you may also get results for ‘Folks’, ‘Fookes’, ‘Forkes’, ‘Foukes’, ‘Foulkes’ and ‘Fowkes’.