1. Why use this guide?
This is a guide to some of the earliest records of individual merchant seamen, including officers. It covers crew lists and agreements, originally known as muster books, and log books up until 1860.
These records are especially useful for research prior to the first Register of Seamen in 1835, when they are the only likely sources of information for most merchant seamen.
2. Pre-1747 records
Before 1747 no systematic records of the crew of merchant ships were kept. For pre-1747 records, you need to look speculatively through material from other government departments or courts that may have had an interest in Merchant Navy affairs, such as:
- State Papers (SP)
- Colonial Office (CO)
- Treasury (T)
- High Court of Admiralty (HCA)
- High Court of Delegates (DEL)
Use the advanced search in Discovery, our catalogue, to search for records using relevant keywords, though you are unlikely to find records searching with the names of ships or seamen, as the records have not been indexed in that way.
Further details of available sources are described in:
3. Muster books 1747-1834
3.1 What are muster books and what information do they contain?
In 1747, following an Act of Parliament, a fund for the relief of disabled seamen was set up, using money taken from seamen's wages. To administer this fund, masters or owners of merchant ships had to keep a muster book, also known as a muster roll, which was filed at the port of arrival with the Seamen's Fund Receivers.
Muster rolls for this period did not usually record the names of the whole crew but did provide:
- name of the owner of the ship
- name of the master of the ship
- total number of crew members
- details of the ship's voyage?
However, some lists, appearing randomly during this period, also show:
- a full list of the names of the crew
- the amount of money invested in the fund by each crew member (this was calculated on a pro rata basis at 6d per month)
There would have been calculation tables but none of these are thought to survive.
3.2 How to find muster books
The main record series for muster books is BT 98.
Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search BT 98 by date and name of British port where the ship was registered.
Alternatively, browse BT 98/1-139 (1747 to 1853) to view all the ports and years for which there are records in this period.
A few muster rolls survive in other record series. Search for ships registered at:
4. Crew lists and agreements overview
4.1 What are crew lists and agreements and what information do they contain?
In 1835, following the Merchant Shipping Act, muster books were replaced by similar records known as crew lists and agreements (note: 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'). They were filed at the Register Office of Merchant Seamen, the forerunner of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen (RGSS).
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)
4.2 'Foreign' and 'Home' voyages
Crew lists and agreements were either for 'foreign voyages' or 'foreign trade' or for 'home voyages' or 'home trade'.
These essentially distinguished between ships sailing in waters around Britain (home) and those sailing further afield (foreign).
5. Crew lists and agreements 1835-1844
5.1 Types of crew list for this period
There are two main types of crew list for this period:
Crew lists for ships on 'foreign voyages' (Schedule C)
A form known as a Schedule C was completed by the master of every 'Foreign Going Ship', filed within 48 hours of the ship's return to a UK port.
Half-yearly crew lists for ships on 'home voyages' (Schedule D)
A Schedule D form was headed 'Accounts Of Voyages And Crew For Home Trade Ship'. Completed by the masters of ships engaged in the coastal or fishing trade, giving the voyages and crew for the preceding half year, and was to be filed within 21 days of the end of June or December.
You will find it easier to understand the records if you are familiar with the different filing rules described above.
5.2 How to find crew lists 1835-1844
Crew lists for this period are in BT 98.
Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search BT 98 by date and name of ship's port of registry. There are usually several boxes of records for each port of registry, each box containing an alphabetical range of ships' names. Within each box the lists are randomly arranged.
Alternatively, browse BT 98/140-563 to view all the ports covered for this period and the alphabetical ranges of ships for each port.
6. Crew lists and agreements 1845-1856
6.1 Types of crew list for this period
From 1845 onwards the following lists were being used:
Schedules C and D
See section 5.
In addition, the following types of list were introduced:
Agreements for 'Foreign Going' or 'Foreign Trade' ships (Schedule A)
Commonly called 'Articles', these agreements were between master and crew, and had to be filed within 24 hours of the ship's return to a UK port.
Agreements for 'Home Trade Ships' (Schedule B)
Again, these agreements were between master and crew and covered coastal and fishing ships. The forms had to be filed within 30 days of the end of June or December.
Names and Register Tickets of Crew (Foreign Trade) (Schedule G)
A list of the crew, with their Register Ticket numbers, to be filed for a foreign-going ship on sailing.
6.2 How to find crew lists 1845-1856
To locate crew lists for these years you will need to know the name of the ship on which an individual seaman sailed. This is not given in the registers of seamen's service until 1854. A search on our catalogue of all the available crew lists is only practical for small ports.
Crew lists for this period are in BT 98.
Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search BT 98 by year and name of ship's port of registry. Any search results will be divided into alphabetical ranges according to the initial letter of the ship's name.
Alternatively, browse BT 98/564-4758 to view all the ports covered for this period and the alphabetical ranges of ships for each port.
7. Crew lists and agreements 1857-1860
From 1857 onwards, the records are arranged in BT 98 by ships' Official Number (ON). The Official Number was allocated on registration, retained for the life of the ship, and was not reused.
You may find a ship's Official Number from the following published sources available at The National Archives:
Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search BT 98 by ships' Official Number and date. Each piece in this series covers a number of ships and therefore appears in our catalogue as a range of numbers.
To find the right range for your ship you will need to search using the first two or three digits of the number. For example, for a ship with the number 25820, search using 258* (include the asterisk) as your keyword. This will find BT 98/6795 which covers ships' numbers 25801-25834 for the year 1860.
8. Log books from 1852 onwards
8.1 What are log books and what information do they contain?
The Mercantile Marine Act of 1850 required masters to keep a ship's Official Log to record events on board including:
- births and deaths
- the ship's ports of call
- a description of each man's conduct
Often the description of a man's conduct, listed under the two headings 'General Conduct' and 'Ability in Seamanship', consisted of nothing more than the letters VG (Very Good). Sometimes, however, other details may be found.
You should not expect to find any detailed accounts of day-to-day life or the activities of crew or passengers.
Logs were deposited after each foreign voyage, or half-yearly for home trade ships. They begin to appear amongst the records from 1852 onwards; many have been destroyed; usually only those recording a birth or death have survived.
8.2 How to find log books
Using the advanced search option in our catalogue, search by ship's name in BT 99 and BT 165. It may help to include the word "log" among your search terms.
Search for a small number of log books amongst the medical and surgeons' journals of convict ships in:
9. Discharge certificates
Following the 1854 Merchant Shipping Act, both the master and seaman had to sign a Certificate of Discharge and Character (E-1) on termination of a voyage. These had to be signed before the relevant port official or the Shipping Master in a colonial port.
These documents were given to the seaman and you might find them if they were kept by the individual or their family. Very few seem to have been preserved in official archives in the UK, although occasionally a Release (List M) for the whole crew may be found with the crew lists in BT 98.
10. Further reading
Christopher T and Michael J Watts, My Ancestor Was a Merchant Seaman (Society of Genealogists, second edition with addendum, 2004)
Simon Wills, Tracing Your Merchant Navy Ancestors (Pen & Sword, 2012)