Discharge Certificates

Online exhibition 

Merchant Navy material from the Maritime Archives and Library

Mariner's Register Ticket number 147671 issued to John Elwood, 19 May 1845 (DX/2506).Mariner's Register Tickets were issued between 1845-1854 when the system broke down.  Records held at the National Archives list voyages undertaken by the ticket holder, but are hard to interpret.  The ticket held by the seafarer contains useful information including date and place of birth. Certificate of Discharge for William Holt, 18 December 1867 for a voyage on Amazonian (DX/256). Certificate of Discharge for William Holt, 6 July 1871 for a voyage on 'Coquette' (DX/256). A later version of a discharge certificate, printed on both sides, for William Holt serving as a cooper on the ship 'Coquette', on a voyage from Exmouth to Africa and returning to Bristol, December 1869 to July 1871. Reverse of certificate of Discharge for William Holt, 6 July 1871 for a voyage on 'Coquette' (DX/256). A later version of a discharge certificate, printed on both sides, for William Holt serving as a cooper on the ship 'Coquette', on a voyage from Exmouth to Africa and returning to Bristol, December 1869 to July 1871. Certificate of Discharge for Peter Facey, 27 April 1898 for a voyage on Majestic (DX/275). Continuous Certificate of Discharge of John Ward, fireman, replacement issued following loss of the original during the sinking of Lusitania, 1915 (DX/996).  Discharge books were important for a seafarer as they acted as proof of their service.  If they were lost when a vessel was sunk, a replacement would be issued by the Register of Shipping and Seamen. Continuous Certificate of Discharge of Charles Yates, pianist, 1943-1945 (DX/1977).  This image shows the voyage list section of a discharge book with the standard columns.  Charles Yates is serving as a pianist, aboard Otranto, Orient Line, but instead of playing to passengers on a cruise, he is entertaining troops as the ship was requisitioned as a troopship and an assault ship during the Second World War.

Registration of seafarers began because of a need to identify men that could be called upon to serve in the Royal Navy when required and was then expanded as efforts were made to improve their conditions and collect funds to support seafarers when out of work. There were a few false starts as early administrative systems were overwhelmed by the growth of the British merchant fleet and some records have been lost over time, but the central government records, held at the National Archives, are an incredibly useful and rich resource. The seafarers side of the administration resulted in the holding of a Discharge Certificate of some type. These documents can often be found within personal papers and provide a key to unlocking their working lives.

Certificates of Discharge were introduced following the Merchant Shipping Act, 1854, which required a Certificate of Discharge and Character to be signed by both the seafarer and the master at the end of each voyage. Originally individual paper certificates that were issued when signing off from each voyage, they were eventually replaced by the Continuous Certificate of Discharge, a passport sized, hard backed book, usually with a blue cover, that could record many individual voyages.