Information sheet

Researching Seafaring Ancestors in World War One

Sheet number 39

Seafarers can be some of the most difficult ancestors to trace since they were often away from home for long periods.  However, for the period leading up to the First World War many forms of records are available to the family historian, although in many cases it can take perseverance to track down their location.  The following brief guide concentrates on those records dating from the mid-19th century onwards, which would apply to those serving up to and during the First World War.

Records of Merchant Navy Service

From 1835 onwards Central Government started to take an interest in Merchant seamen from a desire to improve their conditions and to help man the Navy in time of war.  As a consequence many more records became available that allow the researcher to trace details of individual seamen.  The main sources of information are the records compiled by the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen, the majority of which are now held at the National Archives (PRO) at Kew (unless otherwise stated).

Registers of seamen's service

The registration of seamen was introduced by the 1835 Merchant Shipping Act.  To meet this need the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen compiled indexed registers of seamen from the crew lists who were issued with a seaman's or master's ticket.  However, by 1856, it was decided that the obligation to maintain a Register of Seamen was satisfied by the Crew Lists and the register was closed.

However, in 1910, an Advisory Committee on Merchant Shipping proposed to the Board of Trade that a Central Index Register of Seamen be created.  This was started in October 1913 and was maintained until 1941.  It comes in three forms:

  • The Register of Seamen, Numerical Series, 1921-1941 (CR2), arranged by discharge number, and containing a brief record of ships on which seamen served and dates of signing on (BT348).
  • The Register of Seamen, Alphabetical Series, 1921-1941 (CR1), arranged by surname only, contains date and place of birth, discharge number, rating and sometimes a photograph (BT349).
  • The Indexes for 1913-1920 were destroyed in 1969, but there does survive the Special Index, Alphabetical Series, 1918-1921 (CR10), which includes similar information to the Alphabetical List (CR1) and photographs (BT350).

The Indexes cover all categories of seafarers, not just ordinary seamen, including details of mates, engineers, trimmers, cooks, stewards, etc., but not masters.

Apprenticeship records

From 1823 masters of ships greater than 80 tons were required to carry a quota of indentured apprentices.  The indentures had to be filed with the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen, who compiled an Index of Apprentices (BT150).  These cover the years 1824-1953, but the actual indentures have only been kept in batches of every 5th year for 1845-1950.  Some apprenticeship indentures may have survived in private hands, for example, in shipping company archives.

Agreements and crew lists

Following the passing of the 1835 Merchant Shipping Act, masters of any ships belonging to UK subjects undertaking a foreign voyage, and masters of any British registered ships of 80 tons or more employed in the coastal trade or fisheries, were required to carry on board a written agreement with every seaman employed including those joining at any intermediate ports.

These agreements contain details of wage rate, capacity served in and nature of the voyage.  On return to the home port the master delivered to the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen, both the original agreements and a list of all seamen who served in the ship during any part of the voyage.

From 1835-1860 these lists are kept at the National Archives (Agreements and Crew Lists Series I, BT98).  From 1861-1938 the location of these lists may be anywhere from Greenwich to Newfoundland.  The lists have all been retained but finding them can be very complex.

The National Archives holds a 10% sample of the Agreements and Crew Lists of each year from 1861-1938 (Agreements and Crew Lists Series II, BT99) and those for celebrated vessels such as the 'Great Britain' and the 'Titanic' (Agreements and Crew Lists Series III (Celebrated Ships), BT100).  Also retained was a 10% sample for fishing vessels of less than 80 tons, 1884-1929 (Agreements and Crew Lists Series IV (Fishing Agreements), BT144) and Ships' Official Logs, 1902-1919 (BT165).

The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, holds the remaining 90% for the years 1861, 1862, 1865 and every ten years up to 1975 (except 1945).

Local Record Offices hold crew lists for up to 1913 for ships with ports of registry within their area.

The Maritime History Group at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, holds the remaining majority of the agreements and crew lists for 1861-1938 and 1951-1976.  A class list is available at the National Archives and the Memorial University offers a postal enquiry service.

Official logs

The Mercantile Marine Act of 1850 required masters to keep a ship's Official Log, recording illnesses, births and deaths on board, misconduct, desertion and punishment, and a description of each man's conduct.  They were to be deposited after each foreign voyage, or half-yearly for home trade vessels from about 1852 onwards.  In general only those recording a birth or a death have survived.  Except for the period 1902-1919, where there is a separate class (BT165), they are kept with the Agreements and Crew Lists.

Certificates of Discharge

Following the 1854 Merchant Shipping Act, both the master and seamen had to sign Certificates of Discharge and Character (E-1) on termination of a voyage.  These had to be signed before the relevant port official or shipping master in a colonial port.  These documents were given to the seamen and may survive amongst personal papers.  At the turn of the century the certificates were replaced by a bound volume, known as a Continuous Certificate of Discharge Book, in which details of each voyage was entered.

Registers of Certificates of Competency and Service

An order of 1845 authorised the institution of a system of voluntary examinations of competency for those intending to become masters or mates of foreign-going British merchant ships.  The Mercantile Marine Act of 1850 made the system compulsory and the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 extended it to masters and mates of home trade vessels.  The certificates were entered into registers arranged in numerical order and provide: name, place and date of birth, Register Ticket number (if any), rank examined for or served in, and date and place of issue of certificate.

Those without sufficient service, or wishing to rise in rank, were granted Certificates of Competency on passing formal examinations.  The Registers of Certificates of Competency for Masters and Mates are arranged into 6 series covering the years 1845-1921 (BT122-128) and are accessed by Indexes to the Registers, which give the date and place of birth and certificate number.  Examinations of competency were extended to engineers in 1862.


There is no single collection of records relating directly to the award of pensions for seamen, but information can be found in documents created by the Board of Trade, the War Office, Paymaster General's Office and Ministry of Pensions.

Deaths at sea

Deaths at sea are not usually found amongst the normal records of civil registration at the General Register Office.  The details are recorded in the Marine Register Books starting 1 July 1837.  From 1854 when the deposit of the Official Log Books with the Registrar General became compulsory, registers were compiled from entries in the logs.  From 1874 masters were required to report deaths at sea to the RGSS, which was forwarded to the Registrars' General of England, Scotland or Ireland, where it can now be sought.

Microfilm copies of registers of marine births and deaths, 1837-1965, are available at Liverpool Record Office, Liverpool Central Library, William Brown Street, Liverpool, L3 5EW, Tel: 0151 233 5817; Email:


Records of the following medals to Merchant seamen are held at the National Archives:

  • Sea Transport Medal (ADM171/52)
  • Albert Medal (BT97, BT261, MT9 code 6, ZJ1)
  • Sea Gallantry Medal (BT261, MT9 code 6, ZJ1, ZHC1)
  • First World War: awards of the British War Medal, Victory Medal and 14-15 Star to men of the Merchant Navy Reserve only (ADM171/130-133)

The Mercantile Marine War Medal records are held at the Registrar General of Shipping & Seamen, Cardiff

Other sources of information

Lloyd's Marine Records

Underwriters at Lloyd's of London have been undertaking marine insurance for nearly 300 years.  The publications and records arising from this business are potentially of great interest to the family historian.  The Lloyd's collection is deposited at the Guildhall Library, London, but many record offices, especially those based at ports, have their own copies of the publications.

Lloyd's Register of Shipping has been published annually since 1764.  It was primarily concerned with a ship's seaworthiness and records information about each vessel in alphabetical order, including its port of registry, builders, owners and masters names, and destined voyage.

Lloyd's Lists were daily newspapers published by Lloyd's from c.1741, which contained general commercial information and shipping intelligence.  It gives details of vessel sailings and arrivals at ports in England, Ireland and abroad, and also reports on ships lost or damaged.

Lloyd's Captains' Registers contain details of master mariners active between 1869 and 1948, arranged alphabetically and list all holders of Master's Certificates.  For each man they give his full name, date and place of birth, as well as certificate number, the date and place of examination.  Included is a complete history of his career, giving vessels in which he served, in what capacity (master or mate) and general area of voyaging.  Casualties to vessels are given as are any suspensions of his certificate.

Loss Books - at the Guildhall Library - there are two sets of records relating to mishaps to ships.  The Missing Vessels Books (1873-1954) lists those vessels posted missing but whose fate was unknown, and the Lloyd's Loss and Casualty Books (1837-1972) contains reports of casualties and losses.  The Guildhall Library also hold War Casualty Books (1917-1922) and First World War Loss Books.

War Graves Register

Register of the Tower Hill Memorial compiled by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for all those who fell 1914-1918 and have no known grave.  The registers contain brief biographical details, together with the name of the ship of the Merchant Service on which they lost their lives.  They are available on microfilm at the Maritime Archives & Library, Merseyside Maritime Museum.

Shipping company records

Where they survive, these are a major source of information on the career of late 19th and 20th century merchant seamen, as they often contain staff records such as apprentice and officer registers, wage books, as well as operational and fleet records such as logs and photographs.  The Maritime Archives & Library, Merseyside Maritime Museum, holds many collections of records of major shipping companies operating from Liverpool.  These include Ocean Transport & Trading which incorporated Blue Funnel Line, Elder Dempster, Bibby Line, T & J Brocklebank and Pacific Steam Navigation Co.

Educational training establishments

The Maritime Archives & Library, Merseyside Maritime Museum, holds the records of two of the training ships, which were moored on the Mersey in the latter half of the 19th century, the 'HMS Conway', which became a national institution for the training of future officers of the Merchant Navy, and the 'TS Indefatigable', founded to give sea training to poor boys.  Both of these collections contain records of the cadets who trained on them.


Photographs of Merchant Navy vessels on which your ancestor may have served, can be found amongst shipping company archives and also in photographic collections, such as those held at the National Maritime Museum and here at the Maritime Archives & Library.

Prisoners of War :  List of First World World: British Seamen and Civilian  Prisoners of War (POW) Merchant Seaman Prisoner of War Index ( 31st May 1918).

Index of c3000 names taken from  "List of Merchant Seamen and Fishermen detained as Prisoners of War in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey, Board of Trade Printed List 31st May 1918" printed by the Board of Trade. This is an index of an original document reference MT9/1238 held at The National Archives. Searchable by surname or name of ship. 

Further reference: 'Records of Merchant Shipping and Seamen', by Kelvin Smith, Christopher T. Watts and Michael J. Watts, produced by the Public Record Office, 1998.

Records of Royal Navy Service

The records of the Royal Navy are to be found in the Admiralty records held at the National Archives. These records are described in detail in the National Archives guide 'Tracing Your Naval Ancestors' by Bruno Pappalardo, 2003.

Published sources

The researcher interested in the service of a commissioned officer, or occasionally a warrant officer (heads of specialised technical branches of the ship's company), would be advised to consult the Navy Lists.  Published from 1782 onward, it names the ships of the Royal Navy together seniority lists of officers by rank and from 1810 it lists the ships with the names of the officers serving on them.

During the two World Wars much of the usual information was omitted from the published editions of the Navy List and confined to the Confidential Editions of Service use only, now held in the National Archives (ADM177). Confidential reports on officers who served during World War One, and who in some cases continued serving beyond World War Two, have also been added to Officers’ Service Records (ADM196).

Service records

Service Records come in many different forms.  Certificates of Service, 1802-1894, give the services of warrant officers and ratings applying for superannuation (ADM29).  Similar certificates of service to date usually accompany the Passing Certificates of lieutenants, 1854-1897 (ADM13): as engineers, 1863-1902 and officers qualifying for warrants, 1851-1902 (ADM13).

Service Registers for Officers were developed by the Admiralty during the mid-19th century.  These take the form of a page for recording each officer's career, and this is often, though not always, his entire career from entry to retirement and death.  The Service Registers provide the most complete and convenient source of information about an officer's career; covering the years frio  Some volumes in the later period are subject to extended closure.  Other service registers can be found for Engineers, Surgeons, Boatswains and Carpenters, and for Royal Naval Reserve Officers (ADM240).

Despite the introduction of continuous service for ratings in 1853, the Admiralty did not keep any central records of ratings' services in Service Registers until 1873, the information recorded being similar to those for officers (ADM188).  Only those registers for ratings enlisted in the period 1873 to 1923 are in the National Archives. These records can now be accessed online via the National Archives website.

Records of marriage and death

No systematic records of marriage were kept until the mid-19th century.  Names of wives and dates of marriage were usually recorded in the Service Registers.  The name and address of next of kin of all officers and ratings who dies from any cause 1914-1920, can be found in ADM242/7-10.  For officers there is also a card index giving the date, place and cause of death of all officers who died during the First World War, 1914-1920 (ADM242/1-6).

For details of other ranks who died whilst serving during the years 1914-1919, you need to look at the War Graves Roll (ADM242/7-10).  The service men's entries, arranged alphabetically, include their rank, service number, name of the ship on which they served, the date and place of birth, the date and cause of their death, the location of their grave and address of their next of kin.  Registers of those killed and wounded 1854-1919 are to be found in the Medical Departmental Registers (ADM104).

Medal Rolls

Medal Rolls (1793-1966) record the names of officers and men who were awarded or claimed medals or clasps issued for gallantry or service, in particular actions or campaigns, are available on microfilm (ADM171).

Enquiries about entitlement to medals, should be directed to Medal Section, Centurion Building, NPP(Acs)1(f), Grange Road, Gosport, Hants PO13 9XA.

Records of Royal Navy Reserve (RNR) service

A reserve force of volunteer seamen was established under the Naval Reserve Act of 1859.  The Admiralty controlled the reserve and was responsible for its training.  Merchant seamen and fishermen were recruited through the shipping offices at ports in the UK.  The Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen maintained the central records.  Initially the reserve comprised solely of ratings; officers were admitted in 1862.

Service records of ratings who served between 1860 and 1913 are in BT164.  Each page covers a period of 5 years, as it was necessary to apply for re-entry every 5 years.  Officers were Merchant seamen who held master's or mate's certificates.  In 1864 engineers were also eligible to enter the RNR as officers.

Records of officers who served between 1862-1960 are in ADM240.

Officers of the RNRE are also listed in the printed Royal Navy list, giving name, rank in reserve, date of commission and seniority.


Records relating to the award of the RNR Long Service Medal are in ADM171/70-72.  Honours and awards for the RNR during the First World War are in ADM171/77.  The roll of the Naval War Medals also contain entries for the RNR (ADM171).

Other Admiralty Records at the National Archives

Operational records used in preparation of the Official Histories of the War such as War Diaries of the Royal Naval Division, which include loss or damage to ships details, reports of action and logs of most HM ships.  Photographs of HM ships including some taken during operations.

Reference: 'Tracing Your Naval Ancestors', by Bruno Pappalardo, produced by the National Archives, 2003.

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