What are Merchant Navy crew lists?

By Editor, 10 October 2019 - 10:20am

Merchant Navy crew lists can help you track the lives of your seafaring kin, as Simon Wills explains

Crew list from Findmypast
Crew list for The Belle of Devon, 1861 from the collection on Findmypast (Credit: Findmypast)

If your ancestor vanishes from the records, they may have gone to sea and Merchant Navy crew lists may be the answer.

Ships that operate for commercial reasons, 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. 

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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 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.

Finding crew lists

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.

Top websites for finding Merchant Navy crew lists online

First World War merchant navy
The 1915 Crew Lists Database will help you find sailors who served during the First World War (Credit: Simon Wills)

1. 1915 Crew Lists Database

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 searfarers because the Merchant Navy service records for this period were destroyed.

2. 1881 Crew Lists Database

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 for the year, so you can search the names of more than 376,500 seamen for free.

3. Crew List Index Project

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.

4. Findmypast

Findmypast has digitised a large collection of crew lists held by the South West Heritage Trust and Anglesey Archives, 1861-1913.

5. National Archives of Ireland

The National Archives of Ireland has indexed crew lists for ships registered in the south of Ireland.

6. Swansea Mariners

There are a number of smaller indexes to local crew lists available online, include this one from Swansea.


 A list of websites that contain crew and passenger lists, although some are very limited.


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