Merchant Navy Archives


 Notes on Family History Sources at the the Caird Library, National Maritime Museum   and a report on our visit there, 30th January

It is not surprising that an island nation with centuries of maritime tradition should produce seafarers in so many families. The Society’s visit to the Caird Library at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, demonstrated that with a “full house” of 18 Members and their guests; and so keen that they all arrived early! Then we were entertained in a very professional manner by Martin, an archivist and Gregory, a librarian, whose enthusiasm and knowledge of both the subject and the resources was impressive.

The Caird Library is a new building, purpose designed and well suited to both “chatty” researchers and the more serious professional. It is the largest reference library of its kind, holding over 2 million items from the 15th century to the present day including manuscripts, 100,000 books, journals, maps and drawings covering every aspect of maritime history including personal papers, business archives and dockyard records but with remarkably few “official” records, which are mostly available at Kew.

The staff are helpful and keen to promote the use of the library. They cite their main attraction is the breadth and depth of information available in one place at Greenwich compared to the fragmented records that are scattered around so many other record sources, including, even, the University of Newfoundland. A number of Research Guides have been published and the most relevant to genealogist’s are listed below, all of which are available on the Caird Library’s website.

Whilst a good starting point for genealogical research are crew lists, there are numerous supplementary sources such as Masters and Mates Certificates, the Mercantile Navy List, the Royal Navy Lists from 1814, or for an earlier period, the Commissioned Sea officers of the Navy and ships logbooks. Apart from being a source of names, the latter are also a source of entertainment, (much like so many parish registers!). For the family historian, in addition to the well-known Lloyds List and Lloyds Register, there are fascinating additional sources such as the WW2 record of “Movements of HM Ships and Submarines” or “Lloyds Service List of Ships Requisitioned by Government in War” to name but a few.

Clearly, it is only possible here to give a taster of the enormous resources available at Greenwich. Their online catalogues can be accessed at www.collections.rmg.co.uk and their Research Guides, including one specifically for Family History, can be accessed at www.rmg.co.uk/researchers/library.  Google have digitised Lloyds Register of Shipping, and Ancestry have digitised and indexed the collection of Masters Certificates (with the usual words of caution about quality).

Finally, of course, a visit to the Caird Library has to include a tour of the magnificent historic buildings in Greenwich Park; but you will need a week for that!

Gregory Toth, one of our hosts, has kindly supplied the following:

The Caird Library The Caird Library is open Monday to Friday, 10.00–16.45 (until 19.45 on Thursday), and 10.00–13.00 and 14.00–16.45 on Saturday. Entry is via a free Reader’s Ticket which can be applied for online in advance of your first visit, or on the day. To register and to request items to view in the Library, please see Aeon and guidance on using Aeon. To help plan your visit to the Caird Library, our online catalogues can help you identify resources that you may wish to view. See the Library catalogue, the Archives catalogue and Collections Online. A guide to your first visit to the new Caird Library is available. Please note that although we hold lots of collections, maritime history research can be time-consuming so please allow plenty of time for your visit.

Contact details The Caird Library National Maritime Museum Greenwich London SE10 9NF Tel: +44 (0)20 8312 6516 Email: library@rmg.co.uk or manuscripts@rmg.co.uk

Non archive and library enquiries If your enquiry relates to a Museum 3D object, paintings, photographs, plans or images, please contact rmenquiries@rmg.co.uk for your message to be forwarded to the relevant Museum curator.

Research guides The Library has produced a range of research guides to help people carry out their own research on a wide range of topics. The guides provide information about the Museum’s collections and other sources for research into maritime history. All of our guides are available online from home. http://www.rmg.co.uk/researchers/library/research-guides/

The most useful might be the following research guides:

Research guide A3: Tracing family history from maritime records Remember that maritime records are not usually a good starting point for compiling a genealogy but they can add considerable detail about seafaring activities of an individual.

Research guide A6: Greenwich and the National Maritime Museum Information includes records of the Greenwich Hospital, the Royal Naval College and Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital.

Research guide B1: The Royal Navy: Tracing people It is important to stress that the service and official records of the Royal Navy and most Admiralty records are deposited with The National Archives, Kew.

Research guide B7: The Royal Navy: Ship records The Archive and Library has many complementary resources which will assist in researching the history, service and crew of Royal Naval ships as our holdings are extremely rich in items on individual ships and actions.

Research guide C1: The Merchant Navy: Tracing people: Crew lists, agreements and official logs A 10% specimen group of crew agreements for years 1861–1995, taken at random (every tenth box of papers) together with those for famous vessels (with some exceptions, such as those for the Cutty Sark and Great Britain), is in The National Archives. The remaining 90% for 1861, 1862, and years ending in ’5′, are held by the National Maritime Museum.

Research guide C2: The Merchant Navy: Tracing people: Master-mariners, mates and engineers All master-mariners operating between 1854–1927 would have been required to hold a certificate, of which many have survived and are now in the care of the National Maritime Museum. These have been digitalised and made available via Ancestry.

Research guide C5: The Merchant Navy: Sources for ship histories Early tax records from the 13th–19th centuries and ship registration records from the 18th century until 1994 are held at The National Archives, Kew and in other archives; but probably the best starting place is Lloyd’s Register. Mercantile Navy List is the Board of Trade official list of all British-registered vessels, which started in 1850. Most annual volumes exist from 1857–1976 and are in the National Maritime Museum library.

Research guide C8: The Merchant Navy: Wrecks, losses and casualties It can be frustrating for researchers that information on shipwrecks and losses is often incomplete, and spread across a broad range of official and non-official sources. However, this is a strong area of interest for many people, and in many cases, other researchers will have already identified the data available and compiled it into published texts. It is therefore wise to consult some of our volumes available in the reading room.

Research guide C9: The Merchant Navy: World War One and World War Two There is a wide range of material both in printed and manuscript form. The National Maritime Museum holds some key works that are likely to assist with most research problems.

Caird Library blog Discover the latest news on the Caird Library blog and do not forget to subscribe to it. http://blogs.rmg.co.uk/library/

-Barry Hepburn

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NEW MERCHANT SEAMEN RECORDS ONLINE and FREE at the Society of Genealogists

 

Leading family history website www.findmypast.co.uk has today released online for the first time Merchant Seamen records from the 19th century in association with The National Archives of the United Kingdom.

 

* First time that 19th century merchant navy records are available online

* UK merchant seamen records from two centuries now searchable at findmypast.co.uk

 

359,000 records of individuals covering the years 1835-1857 have now been added to the website. Details contained within the records can vary, but can include name, age, place of birth, physical description, ship names and dates of voyages. Often this information can be given in the form of coded entries which can easily be deciphered using downloadable finding aids from The National Archives.

The records are taken from volumes held at The National Archives in series BT112, BT113, BT114, BT115, BT116 and BT120 and were created by central government to regulate the merchant shipping industry. As the series spans two decades, some individuals may appear in multiple series, making it possible for maritime historians or those with ancestors in the merchant navy, to trace a seaman’s service over time.

Janet Dempsey, Maritime Expert at The National Archives commented:

"These records are as significant to the social historian as they are to the family historian. No other group of working class men and women had the freedom of movement and ability to see the world as these 19th century mariners.

"This was the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen’s earliest attempts at keeping individuals records and resulted in four different registers over twenty two years. Although more of a challenge to work with than other family history sources, it can be very satisfying to decipher the codes and have your investigative efforts rewarded with sometimes surprisingly rich detail."

In 2011 findmypast.co.uk published Merchant Navy Seamen records from 1918-1941 in association with The National Archives, some of which include photographs.

Debra Chatfield, family historian at findmypast.co.uk added: "The Merchant Navy Seamen records will be of great interest to family historians worldwide, as so many of us have generations of ancestors, who made their living at sea. These records will add more detail to our mental picture of their lives."

All the Merchant Navy Seamen records at findmypast.co.uk can be searched for free from the Education & Work section of the website. Transcripts and images can be viewed either with PayAsYouGo credits or a Full Subscription.

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One Million Merchant Navy Seamen records published online

One million 20th century Merchant Navy Seamen records are going online for family historians for the first time ever, as Britain approaches Merchant Navy Day on Saturday 3rd September. But when asked what the Merchant Navy was, 54% of the British population couldn’t answer correctly, even though almost 90% have heard of them. This is a sad fact considering the Merchant Navy was integral to putting Britain on the trade and industry world map and were named by Churchill as Britain’s ‘fourth service’. The revelation comes as findmypast.co.uk, a leading UK family history website, publishes these fascinating records online in partnership with The National Archives.

For the first time, you may be able to see what your ancestors looked like! Click Here to start start searching for free

Snapshots of mariners

Today’s launch sees records of crew members of UK merchant ships from 1918 to 1941 made available online, including rarely seen photos of the mariners. This is the first time that many relatives will be able to see what their seafaring ancestor looked like and also learn more about the people who made up Churchill’s ‘fourth service’.

 

The records provide fascinating details about each individual mariner. The most complete records have extremely detailed descriptions, including hair and eye colour, height, and distinguishing marks such as tattoos. In one case, Ordinary Seaman Henry Duncan Abbot from Dundee was listed as having a Chinese death head tattoo with the inscription “Death is Glory” on his right forearm – perhaps not so ordinary after all.

The shocking gap in Britain’s general knowledge is highest amongst the younger generation – just 26% of those aged under 35 know what the Merchant Navy is, compared to a wiser 64% of over 55s. Many will therefore be surprised to learn that the Merchant Navy consists of all seagoing UK vessels with commercial interests and their crews.

So it may be a shock to many that at various points in the last millennium, Britain had the largest merchant fleet in the world. The workforce on these vessels was a casual, ‘jobbing workforce’ so in any one year as many as 1.5 million people could be employed in the Merchant Navy, meaning many people are likely to find ancestors in these records. In the popular BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are?, David Suchet and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen both discovered ancestors who had been in the Merchant Navy.

Debra Chatfield, Marketing Manager at findmypast.co.uk, comments: “This is the first time the UK Merchant Navy Seamen records, with their fascinating images of the mariners, have been made available online. Many people aren’t sure what the Merchant Navy is, even though a large proportion of the UK population will have Merchant Navy seamen in their ancestry. Hopefully these records will help fill the gaps and people will enjoy learning about what life was like for the brave, seafaring merchants who helped the island nation of Britain prosper.”

A floating United Nations

The Merchant Navy Seamen records reveal the diverse crews that manned vessels ranging from cargo liners to passenger ferries to luxury cruise ships, working in a variety of professions and industries through some of the most vital moments in British history.

The term ‘floating United Nations’ has often been linked to the Merchant Navy and these records go further to support this idea. As high as 70% of ships’ crews were made up of international seamen from countries such as the West Indies, Scandinavia and Japan. These records hold details, and in many cases photographs, of these multi-national mariners.

Ship shape and women’s fashion

The Merchant Navy has been in existence for a significant period of British history, owing much of its growth to British imperial expansion. One of the most notable observations from the records is that women were prevalent on the ships. One example is Doris Abbey from Liverpool, a 5’4” Manicurist with hazel eyes, brown hair and a medium complexion – perhaps she joined the Merchant Navy to make sure the mariners’ nails were kept ship shape!

Janet Dempsey, Marine and Maritime Record Specialist at The National Archives comments: The Merchant Navy Seamen records cover a very significant era in nautical history commencing at the very peak of the popularity of ocean travel, in the time of the great ocean liners, when overseas tourism meant taking to the seas. The years that followed saw the end of this period of prosperity, and the start of the Great Depression. For mariners this was a time when work on board was hard to get, and many men were forced to take other work between voyages to make ends meet.  These newly digitised records make a fascinating social record as well as a valuable family history resource.”

Young hands on deck

At this time, many young mariners were operational at sea and a number of them can be found in the records. One young seaman, Allison Robinson Saville, was a 14 year old boy who was born in Hull in 1904. As Cabin Boy, the lowest ranking male employee, his role would have been to wait on the officers and passengers of the ship, and run errands for the ship’s Captain.

 

Remembering

Though these records do not cover the war time period, the Merchant Navy supported the Royal Navy during times of conflict, including WW1 and WW2. During these wars the Merchant Navy suffered heavy losses from German U-boat attacks. Official recognition of the sacrifices made by merchant seamen throughout history has taken place every 3rd September, with the Annual Merchant Navy Parade and Reunion taking place in Trinity Gardens, Tower Bridge on the closest Sunday, this year Sunday 4th September.

 

The Merchant Navy Seamen records are the only set of their kind available online and have been published in association with The National Archives. The records show that the seamen who made up the Merchant Navy not only came from the UK, but from every continent, with large numbers from across English-speaking world (notably the Maritime provinces of Canada), from the West Indies and Sierra Leone, and from Scandinavia, Somaliland, China and Japan. There are even some seamen from landlocked Switzerland.

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Book of the Month – My Ancestor was a Merchant Seaman

To coincide with the release of one million twentieth century Merchant Seamen records by Find My Past, the Society of Genealogists is offering My Ancestor was a Merchant Seaman by Christopher and Michael Watts as its Book of the Month for September. This book is recognised as the authoritative work on tracing Merchant Seaman ancestors and is available with a 20% discount throughout the month of September. You can order directly fron the society’s bookshop, or online at www.sog.org.uk. Members of the society may take advantage of this offer in addition to their existing members discount. Offer ends 30/09/2011.