Focus on the basics

This guide was last updated in 2009

Ask family members what they know about any seafaring ancestors who were in the Merchant Navy. 

You may be able to find out where and when they sailed, the names of the ships they served on and the position they held. Find out more details using censuses or birth, marriage or death certificates.

If they are described as a ‘seaman’, there is a strong possibility they were in the Royal Navy. A ‘mariner’ is more likely to be an ordinary seaman in the Merchant Navy, while a ‘Master’, ‘Skipper’ or ‘Mate’ will have been an officer in the Merchant Navy. Masters were the captains of Merchant Navy ships and Mates were the officers, engineers and cooks on board. A Skipper was the equivalent of a Master on board a fishing vessel.

Merchant Navy
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