Merchant seamen crew lists: What are they, and where can you find them?
What are merchant seamen crew lists, and where can you find them? Naval historian Dr Simon Wills reveals how to trace an ancestor who served in the Merchant Navy
Merchant seamen crew lists: What are they?
Ships that operate for commercial reasons, such as passenger and cargo ships, and their crew are known as the Merchant Navy. The captain of each vessel is called the ship’s master, and from 1747 he has been required to keep a list of every crew member. Originally called ‘muster rolls’, these were later known as ‘crew lists’, but until 1835 there was no requirement to retain them and most are now lost. However, surviving pre-1835 lists for ports such as Liverpool, Plymouth and Shields are in series BT98 at The National Archives in Kew (TNA).
In the 18th century crew lists ensured that seafaring taxes were paid, but by 1835 they had become a method to keep track of merchant seamen for potential wartime deployment. In the later 19th century crew lists evolved to include terms of employment, so are sometimes called ‘crew lists and agreements’.
The format varies over time, but a crew list typically displays the name of each crew member; their age; role; place of birth; previous ship; dates of boarding and departure; and how and where they left the ship. Merchant Navy employees had little employment security before 1941. They were hired for one voyage at a time, and discharged when the vessel returned to the UK.
Crew lists enable you to trace an ancestor’s career ship-by-ship. Each crew list identifies an employee’s previous vessel, so you can get the crew list for their former ship which, in turn, will identify the ship before that one. You can repeat this process and, with luck, reach all the way back to your forebear’s first job as a ship’s boy or apprentice.
Sometimes crew lists have an accompanying logbook if there was a significant event on board such as a death. Here the captain will record the details of what happened.
Merchant seamen crew lists: Where to find them
The biggest problem with crew lists is locating them, because only a tiny proportion of the surviving records have been digitised. TNA holds all crew lists up to and including 1860 (series BT98), and for 1939–1950 (series BT380 and 381). TNA also retains a 10 per cent sample for all of the intervening years up to 1977 (BT99), as well as crew lists for famous ships such as the Cutty Sark (BT100). Crew lists up to 1854 at TNA are kept unbound in boxes indexed by name of port and then, within that, by ship’s name. However, many of the earliest records are missing or badly damaged. From 1855 crew lists are indexed by the ship’s official number. You can find this number by typing a ship’s name into the Crew List Index Project (CLIP) database.
The National Maritime Museum (NMM) at Greenwich has the remaining 90 per cent of lists for 1861, 1862 and subsequent years ending in ‘5’ (1865, 1875 etc).
Most other crew lists (about 70 per cent of the surviving total) are kept by the Maritime History Archive (MHA) in Newfoundland. Copies cost a significant fee. However, MHA doesn’t have all of them. Some are at record offices with seafaring connections such as Liverpool, while Scottish crew lists (1867–1913) are at the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh, in series BT3.
Also, some sites provide digitised versions of crew lists. The 1915 Crew Lists database unites the TNA and NMM collections for that year, and can be searched by ancestor’s name, place of birth, vessel name and other parameters. It’s useful for First World War seafarers, because the Merchant Navy service records for this period were destroyed.
Similarly valuable is the 1881 Crew Lists Database developed by the MHA. It’s not yet complete, but it already has over 80 per cent of available crew lists, so you can search the names of more than 376,500 seamen for free.
As well as helping you to locate crew lists in the archives, the aforementioned CLIP has a collection of crew lists featuring more than one million names.
In addition, the National Archives of Ireland has indexed crew lists for ships registered in the south of Ireland. There are also smaller indexes to local crew lists available online, such as on Swansea Mariners.
Finally, family history websites such as Ancestry, Findmypast and TheGenealogist also include crew lists from various sources. There is also a collection of Irish merchant seamen crew lists on FamilySearch.
Dr Simon Wills is an expert in nautical genealogy who has worked on many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? He is the author of Tracing Your Seafaring Ancestors and Tracing Your Merchant Navy Ancestors.