1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide for advice on British merchant shipping records known as crew lists and agreements and, in particluar, how to find those that date from 1861 onwards. For advice on finding the same kinds of records prior to 1861 see our guide to crew lists and agreements 1747-1860.
You may wish to start your research by consulting the following starter research guides:
2. Essential information
What are crew lists and agreements?
Crew lists and agreements were introduced in 1835. These are not two separate documents but one and the same thing; you may see them referred to simply as 'crew lists', or sometimes simply as 'agreements'. The 'agreement' was effectively an employment contract between the ship's masterThe commanding officer of a merchant ship; also known as a Master Mariner and each member of his crew, signed by both parties before the ship sailed. A list of the crew accompanied these agreements. Sometimes a log book, with details of the ship's voyages (see section 6), was filed along with the agreements and crew lists.
What information do crew lists and agreements contain?
Most types of crew lists and agreements give brief details about the ship, its master and voyages at the date of being filed together with the following information for each crew member:
- first and last names
- place of birth
- 'quality' (the seaman's job on the ship)
- ship in which last served
- date and place of joining ship
- time and place of death or leaving ship
- 'how disposed of' (the nature of the seaman's departure from the ship, whether discharged, drowned or otherwise)
What proportion of crew lists and agreements are held at The National Archives?
After 1861 only a sample of crew lists and agreements and log books are held at The National Archives. Many are preserved at other archives (see section 8) and many do not survive.
3. Which records have survived?
3.1 Crew lists and agreements before 1861
All crew lists and agreements before 1861 are held at The National Archives. For more information see the research guide Crew lists and agreements and log books of merchant ships 1747-1860.
3.2 Crew lists and agreements from 1861
The National Archives holds the following proportions of crew lists and agreements after 1861:
- 1861-1938: 10%
- 1939-1950: 100%
- 1951-1994: 10%
The National Archives holds the surviving crew lists and agreements for the Second World War and the succeeding years up to 1950. These are in various record series, including BT 381, with an index to Second World War log books, agreements and crew lists in BT 385. They can be searched for by ship's official number in Discovery, our catalogue.
The crew lists and agreements are held in different series within the Board of Trade (BT) departmental records.
The 10% samples for 1861-1938 and 1951-1994 are in BT 99. Crew lists, agreements and log books are in BT 380 (1936-1950) and BT 381 (1939-1946). These can be searched by ship's official number (see section 4) in our catalogue. There is also a simple guided search for these three series in the starters' guide on merchant ships. For some dates after 1927 you will have to browse our catalogue, as the ship's official numbers are given as ranges.
Agreements and crew lists of allied foreign ships requisitioned or chartered by the British government in the Second World War are in BT 387. The records contain details of UK merchant seamen who served on the ships.
3.2.1 Records held by the National Maritime Museum and the Maritime History Archive
When files were being selected for preservation a decision had to be made about how to dispose of all those not taken by The National Archives after 1961. The National Maritime Museum holds 10% of agreements and crew lists for the periods 1861-1938 and 1951-1976. The records held are for years ending with five (1865, 1875, and so on), with the exception of 1945.
The rest, approximately 70% of the crew lists and agreements for 1863-1938 and 1951-1976, were transferred to the Maritime History Archive, Memorial University, Newfoundland, Canada. The agreements and lists from 1951-1976 have not yet been indexed but those for 1863-1938 can be searched by ship's official number.
Local archives took some of the records for the period 1863-1913 (see section 8).
3.3 Crew lists and agreements from 1972
After 1972 only two 10% samples of crew lists and agreements, held by The National Archives and the National Maritime Museum, have been preserved (see section 3.2). The rest, up to 1989, have been destroyed.
3.4 Crew lists and agreements from 1990
The Registry of Shipping and Seamen, part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, holds all crew lists and agreements from 1990 onwards.
4. Finding the ship's official number
You will need the ship's official number to carry out most online searches. To find the ship's official number refer to the Crew List Index Project (CLIP) website, which has information about merchant ships from 1861 to 1913, or the the Miramar Ship Index website (subscription required), a database listing some categories of merchant and naval ships.
5. Asiatic agreements
Asiatic agreements are not usually included among the records held by The National Archives. See section 8 for guidance on finding information in local archives.
6. Ships' logs
Ships logs can occasionally be found with their 19th century agreements and crew lists, as described above. In the 20th century it gradually became usual to find the logs attached. Selected logs covering the periods 1857-1889, 1922-1938 and 1913-1972 are in BT 165.
Logs were usually preserved from 1902-1912 where births, marriages or deaths took place on board ship. It is therefore possible, for example, to find records of deaths of soldiers and prisoners of war returning on ships from the Boer War. For the First World War (1914-1918) all surviving logs containing casualties are preserved.
7. Celebrated ships
The agreements and crew lists of a selection of celebrated ships are in BT 100, which can be searched by name of ship.
8. Agreements and crew lists held in other archives
The National Archives of Scotland holds agreements and crew lists under the reference BT 3, covering 1867-1913, for Scottish ships only. The ships are listed alphabetically by name in the paper catalogue. Official logs are found with the agreements and crew lists, where they survive.
The National Archives of Australia has a large number of record series concerning ships' crews and the merchant navy. They include registers of engagement, articles of agreement, registers of discharge, registers of deserters, and employment history records. All these record series are indexed on the RecordSearch database.
8.1 Records held in local archives
Many local archives hold the records relating to their local ports.
It is always advisable to contact a local archive to find out their access arrangements before setting out on a visit.
To find local archives with relevant records via the National Register of Archives, click on 'Corporate Name'. Then choose 'Advanced search of the Organisation index'. In the 'Category' section choose 'GOVERNMENT, CENTRAL', and in 'Subcategory' choose 'Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen'. This will produce a list of organisations holding records relating to the merchant navy.
You can search Access to Archives using keywords. Try going to the advanced search option and using the option 'this exact wording or phrase'.You can then type in terms such as 'agreements and crew lists' or 'Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen'. You can also narrow the search down to particular regions.