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Finding Out More

Finding out about seafarers

This narrative will help you trace sea people. It covers both seafarers (those who worked on merchant ships) and migrant passengers. Because the work of seamen and women is regulated by governments, they often appear in official records. British records are talked about here, but other countries will have similar resources. Emigrants from and immigrants to the United Kingdom are also covered. The advice ends with details for finding cruise and ferry routes, in case you are inspired to take to sea yourself.

The Fourth Register of Merchant Seamen (also called the Central Index Register) is deposited in  Southampton Archives Services, covering the period 1918-1941. It includes all British seafarers, male and female, serving on British ships during that period. It also covers all occupations on board ship, from cook to captains. Archives staff undertake paid searches of the Fourth Register, or you can visit and look for yourself. Some of the record cards include photographs of the individuals.

Other seafarer records (and filmed copies of the Fourth Register) are held by the National Archives in Kew, which produces a detailed  information leaflet on the various series. Another  leaflet details the records for officers, for both merchant ships and fishing vessels. More recent records are still held by the relevant government agency, Registry of Shipping and Seamen at Anchor House, Cheviot Close, Parc-Ty-Glas, Llanishen, Cardiff, CF4 5JA. Tel: 029 2074 7333 for details of its charges.

Another useful source are the Agreements and Crew Lists, usually just called crew lists. When seafarers were employed for a journey or period, they signed an agreement which lists all the crew. Copies of these lists had to be filed with the Registry, and these are now deposited across a large number of archives. In fact, the biggest collection of British crew lists is in Canada at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. The National Archives`  leaflet explains what records are where. Be warned that you will not find a name index to the crew lists; you usually need to know the ship, port and date of departure, and will have to read different people`s handwriting.

Many merchant seafarers lost their lives in war. For British and other Commonwealth countries, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains a full record of their burial places. Since sailors often had "no grave but the sea", their names are recorded on monuments such as the Merchant Navy Memorial at Tower Hill, London. Tracing gallantry medals and war service medals awarded to merchant seafarers is a good way of finding out about individuals. Citations (the reasons given for awarding a medal) may explain why an individual deserved public recognition. Gallantry awards were administered by the Board of Trade`s Marine Department, and the records are in the National Archives (see its Domestic Records Information leaflet 95 on Merchant Seamen: Medals and Honours).