1. Early registration
The various series of State Papers (SP), Domestic and Foreign, may contain information incidentally about ships and seafarers, but locating references, if any should exist, to any particular individual, ship or incident will depend greatly on luck and perseverance. The best starting point is the over 200 published volumes of Calendars to the Domestic, Foreign and Colonial Papers, ranging from the reign of Henry VIII to that of George III, on open access at The National Archives, but also available elsewhere. These calendars contain sufficient information from the original document usually making recourse to the original papers unnecessary. Most calendars contain indexes to persons, places and ships. Amongst the State Papers Domestic, Addenda, Edward VI to James I, 1547-1625, (SP 15) is to be found a Register of merchant ships in England, with the names of their masters compiled by Thomas Colshill, surveyor of the Port of London dated 1572 (SP 15/22).
Registration of ships was the consequence of a series of Navigation Acts from 1660 onwards, which were intended to compel British merchants to use British built ships with predominantly British crews for the carriage of their goods. Since the Middle Ages the State had sought to promote the domestic ship-building industry and to ensure that there would be sufficient numbers of British sailors to man the Royal Navy in time of war. Registration was made compulsory by the Shipping and Navigation Act 1786 which established the Registrar General of Shipping, under the Board of Customs. The Merchant Shipping Act 1854 transferred general superintendence of all matters relating to merchant ships to the Board of Trade.
A Commonwealth ordinance of 1651, re-enacted at the Restoration (1660), reserved all plantation (colonial) and coastwise trade to be imported in English vessels or vessels of the country of origin of the goods. In 1701 one of the Commissioners of Customs was directed to keep a register of all trading ships and to check the particulars of vessels engaged in outport shipping. The office was placed on a more formal basis in 1707 when an article in the Act of Union of that year directed that all Scottish ships should be entered in a General Register of all Trading Ships belonging to Great Britain. From 1660 ships were actually registered by collectors of customs.
Customs officers had been involved in the registration of ships since 1701. This function continued until 1994. Many of the registers which they compiled have been deposited with local record offices but The National Archives holds those for London from 1818 to 1926 in the Registry of British Ships: London Port: Title Registers (CUST 130). The registers record registered owners, mortgages, and a description of each registered vessel in registered number order. Each vessel is allocated a unique port, year and date number in a series beginning at one each year. In some years odd and even numbers are in separate registers.
The main sources for research into the registration of ships before 1786 are Port Books (E 122 and E 190), Board of Trade Shipping Returns (in many CO series) and Customs Records (in several CUST series). The legal records described will also be useful in tracing any disputes over the ownership of vessels. In addition the many and varied records from the Treasury may contain information about shipping but locating references to any particular vessel will be difficult. However, two series are worth examination, namely T 1 and T 64. Details of available sources are described in My ancestor was a merchant seaman Christopher T and Michael J Watts (Society of Genealogists, second edition with addendum, 2004), and Records of merchant shipping and seamen by K Smith, CT and MJ Watts (PRO Publications, 1998).
2. Transcripts and transactions, 1786-1854
The Merchant Shipping Act 1786 required the owners of any British ship with a deck and of more than 15 tons burden to register it with the Customs officers in its home port. Each certificate of registration was numbered in an annual sequence, entered into a registration book and copied: the copies, Transcripts, were then sent to the Customs House in London or in Edinburgh. An Act of 1825 laid down that the ownership of any vessel must be divided into 64 shares and that details of ownership and changes in ownership, known together as Transactions, and any change of master be endorsed on the Transcripts held in the Customs Houses. These records, from both the London and Edinburgh Customs Houses, now form the series Transcripts and Transactions: Series I (BT 107). They provide:
- port registry number
- name and home port
- date and place of registration
- names of masters
- names, occupations and addresses of owners
- place and date of construction or capture as prize
- name and employment of surveying officer
- nationality of building (British, Plantation or Foreign)
- number of decks and masts
- depth of hold and tons burden
- type of vessel
- whether it had a gallery or figure head
Early Transcripts sent to London were destroyed in a fire at the Customs House in 1814. The series proper begins in that year but the Registration Books of the Port of London 1786-1814 have been included at the beginning of the series.
Indexes to registrations 1786-1854 are in the series Indexes to Transcripts (BT 111).
3. Transcripts and transactions, 1854-1889
The Merchant Shipping Act 1854 consolidated previous legislation and instituted the official numbering of all newly registered ships. Separate series of Transcripts and Transactions were thereafter maintained. The Transcripts now form Transcripts and Transactions: Series II: Transcripts (BT 108). In addition to the information noted above, they provide:
- official number
- port number of ship
- names and addresses of builders
- particulars of engines
- names, descriptions and addresses of owners and shares held
Indexes to these records are in the series Indexes to Transcripts (BT 111).
4. Transcripts and transactions, 1889 onwards
From this date, all papers relating to a single ship throughout the period that it remained registered were kept together and put away under the date when it was taken off the register. The papers are now in Transcripts and Transactions: Series IV: Closed Registries, BT 110. They are filed by decades, according to the date of closure, and alphabetically under the ship's name thereafter. United Kingdom registered ships are separate from Colonial. In order to find the papers for a particular ship you need to know the date of the ship's de-registration. This can be obtained from the Mercantile Marine List or Lloyd's Register of Shipping , copies of which are available at The National Archives, by following a ship's registration until it disappears from the List or Register.
Ships were sometimes bought back from foreign owners whereupon the registry was re-opened. In some of these cases the papers have been carried forward and are filed under the second date of de-registration.
Further papers regarding the registration of ships can be found in BT 340 Board of Trade: Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen and successor: Transcripts and Transactions, Registries of ships which were current in 1994; BT 374 Registers of changes of names of ships, 1959-1993 and BT 368 Shanghai Registry: registry of ships 1875-1919.
5. Losses - Second World War
The loss of merchant vessels, during the Second World War, is recorded in Board of Trade: Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen: Daily Casualty Registers, War of 1939-1945 (BT 347) to which there is an microfiched card index (BT 347/8). This index also provides useful references to Lloyd's List; this publication is not available in The National Archives, but copies are to be found at the Guildhall Library and the National Maritime Museum amongst other places.
6. List of ships
The Merchant Shipping Act 1854 made provision for Customs officers in United Kingdom ports to submit to the Registrar General annual lists of ships registered in each port: such lists had, on an informal basis, been submitted from both United Kingdom and Plantation ports since 1786, and Plantation ports continued the informal arrangement after the Act came into force. The lists are in the Annual Lists of Ships Registered (BT 162) and relate mainly to Plantation ports for the period 1786-1880. United Kingdom ports also compiled, again on an informal basis, quinquennial lists of ships on their registers. Those for the years 1905, 1910, 1920, 1935, 1950 and 1955 form the Quinquennial Lists of Ships Registered (BT 163).
7. Fishing boats
The Merchant Shipping Act 1894 required every fishing boat to be lettered and numbered, to have official papers and be entered on a register. Annual returns were made from each port: the returns constitute the series Statistical Register of Fishing Vessels (BT 145). From 1895 details of Fishing Boats should appear in (BT 110) described in section 4, above.
8. Changes of master, from 1894
Changes of master were required to be reported to RGSS under section 19 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894. The information was entered into registers by RGSS and the original forms later destroyed. The registers are in (BT 336). They are arranged in numerical order by the ships' official numbers and show the name of the vessel, the port where the master joined the vessel, the date on which the master joined the vessel, and the master's name and certificate number. The registers ceased in 1948 as a result of changes in legislation.
9. Official logs
From 1850 ships were obliged to keep Official Logs, which were to record illnesses, births and deaths on board ship, misconduct, desertion and punishment and a description of conduct. These logs begin to appear in 1850 but many have been destroyed. Usually only those recording a birth or death survive. If they survive they are to be found with the Crew Lists and Agreements.
None survive for the period 1880-1901, except for a few from coasters of under 80 tons. From 1905-1912 surviving logs have been separated from the Crew Lists and are in series BT 165. Logs for 1913 remain with the Crew Lists. All logs for the period 1914-1918 containing any entries have been preserved and are in series BT 165. From 1920 surviving logs are usually with the Crew Lists.
10. Further reading
Christopher T and Michael J Watts, My ancestor was a merchant seaman (Society of Genealogists, second edition with addendum, 2004)
K Smith, CT and MJ Watts, Records of merchant shipping and seamen (PRO Publications, 1998)