How can you tell what branch of the navy your maritime ancestor sailed with?
There’s a general, but not unbreakable, rule of thumb that if he’s called a ‘seaman’ in parish or census records, he served in the Royal Navy.
However, ‘mariner’, ‘master’, ‘mate’ or ‘skipper’, mean he was probably a seaman or officer with the Merchant Navy.
And remember that if you find an ancestor missing from the census, it may well mean they were at sea.
These websites will help you track down potential Merchant Navy ancestors and find out more:
This long-standing project is a useful hub for finding names in crew lists. These are the most important sources for tracing a merchant seaman. When an individual joined a ship, his name was noted on the crew list and he signed articles of agreement.
The resulting crew lists and agreements survive in The National Archives, the Maritime History Archive in Canada, and county record offices.
This website can help you find lists held in county collections, which you can search by ship’s name or official number. Findmypast also has crew lists and agreements for 1861-1913.
Work on this wonderful resource began in 2012. Volunteers marshalled by The National Archives and the National Maritime Museum (and with help from the CLIP team) began transcribing all of the surviving crew lists from 1915.
There are more than 39,000 crew lists here, featuring over 750,000 names. You can search for a crew member by forename, surname, rank, vessel name and/or birthplace. You can also search for a vessel, using its name or official number (vital for distinguishing between two vessels with the same name). There are also useful FAQs.
3. The National Archives (TNA)
The Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen kept records of merchant seamen, so most material is held in the Board of Trade record series (BT). There are guides to tracing merchant seamen for 1858-1917 and after 1917.
You can, for example, search and download registry cards of merchant seamen 1918-1941 via Findmypast. Southampton Archives has the originals. You can also search First World War Mercantile Marine Medal recipients on TNA’s website.
4. Irish Mariners
We’ve already mentioned the central indexed cards that are held at Southampton Archives. This website can give you a feel of what’s in store if you need to consult the card index.
This free resource contains details of more than 23,000 Irish and 1,000 Canadian merchant seamen from the CR10 series. As detailed on the homepage: “A unique feature of the CR10 cards is that they usually contain a good passport style photograph of the seaman. They also contain personal and voyage start details.” You can search by surname; surname and forename; surname and initial; RS2/Identity Certificate Number; and add a year of birth.
5. Welsh Mariners
Although the design of this website looks rather old-fashioned, it’s still updated. The main database was expanded in May this year. It lists nearly 24,000 Welsh merchant masters, mates and engineers who were active between 1800 and 1945. Most of the masters and mates were from West Wales. You might also wish to investigate Swansea Mariners and Cardiff Mariners.
6. Expert’s choice: 1881 Crew Lists Database
Chosen by Simon Wills, author of Tracing Your Merchant Navy Ancestors (2012) and Tracing Your Seafaring Ancestors (2016):
“Tracing a Merchant Navy ancestor during the second half of the 19th century can be difficult. National registration of Merchant Navy employees stopped in 1857 and didn’t begin again until the early 20th century.
“Fortunately the 1881 Crew Lists Database helps fill this gap. A team at the Maritime History Archive in Newfoundland is indexing British crew lists by name on this free website.
“It already contains more than 344,000 names. A crew list tells you the name of everyone on board a ship plus their age, place of birth, role, dates of service, and where they left the ship.
“Crucially, it also specifies the previous ship an individual served on. With luck, you can retrieve crew lists for each ship an ancestor served on. If you do this, you’ll also need The National Archives’ research guide to finding crew lists.
“The 1881 Database includes scanned copies of every crew list so you can also see who else was on board, which may include relatives, plus any annotations about individuals such as their death, for example.”