A lot of our role at the Archives Centre is pointing people in the right direction. We spend just as much time talking about sources we don’t hold as those we do. Sometimes the explanation of where the records are held is so complex and convoluted that people think we are making it up as we go along. A good example of this is crew lists. So, deep breath, crew lists can be held at any local government record office, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, The National Archives in Kew or, most likely, they can be found at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. The main reason they are so widely scattered is the sheer number of them.
Every voyage of every merchant vessel produced a crew list and they were required for all vessels large and small (although smaller vessels on coastal trade could sometimes just do one list for each half year, but that’s still a lot of records). We hold a minuscule amount of crew lists, about 3 boxes (listed on CLIP, as mentioned below). They are from just 158 voyages, a drop in the ocean if you will forgive a maritime metaphor. Crew lists in all their various types belonged to the Board of Trade, part of the British Government, so they became the responsibility of The Public Record Office, now The National Archives.
There was an acknowledgement that they were important records for family history and the merchant history of the national, but their sheer volume made them unwelcome in most overcrowded stores. So they were dispersed as outlined above. Before the days of the internet this made tracking them down very difficult, but with the internet comes great facilities like the Crew List Indexing Project CLIP and the website of the Memorial University of Newfoundland. It is now a lot easier to find their location, but still quite hard to explain. We tend to point people towards our information sheet on Tracing Your Seafaring Ancestors in the Merchant Navy for a full explanation and proof that we are really not making it up.
Lead image: Part of a crew list of Rhynland, for a voyage from Liverpool to Antwerp. Showing crew born in Norway, Liverpool, Madras, New York, Russia and Bristol (Maritime Archives and Library reference P/SL/41)