Crew Lists and clip


What’s dark and hairy and goes up and down?...  Give up?...  Well, one of my ancestors actually, or perhaps your ancestor,  if he was a seaman on a collier during the last part of the 19th  century.  How do I know?  I used the Crew Lists and did some background research.  What are Crew Lists, how do you use them and what has clip got to do with it?  That’s what this article is about (and also why great-grandfather was going up and down!).


Crew Lists and Crew Agreements for the late 19th century are packed with information about the seamen and their lives.  They are the documents which were filled in for every voyage for a ship making a foreign trip, or every six months if the vessel was in the home trade, i.e. coasting or fishing.  The main part lists the crew, giving their age, county of birth (though often the place of birth) and, very helpfully, the name of the previous vessel on which they sailed.  Often, the seamen themselves signed the register, so you can see your ancestor’s signature.  That is not all, however. The list shows the seaman’s rank, such as mate, able seaman or ordinary seaman.  This determined their pay, which is also shown.  Other parts of the form may show the food which was provided, sometimes in detail.  Also of interest are the voyages, shown even for coasting vessels and particulars of the cargo may be included.  The Crew Lists, and sometimes the Logs, for foreign-going ships are especially rich in colourful detail about the lives (and deaths) of seamen.


So from the Crew Lists, you can hope to find out roughly where your ancestor was on any day, who his companions were, what he was paid and even get some idea of what he was eating.  The Crew List is also a vital basis for other research (about things like going-up-and-down).  There can be few other records which give you such detailed information about the daily life of an ancestor.  So how do you use them?


If you know the vessel on which he sailed and when, it is relatively simple to locate the Crew Lists and get photocopies.  It should then be possible to trace back his career over several years by tracing his “previous vessel”, getting a copy of that Crew List and so on.


Oh, if life were that simple!  There has to be a snag.  In fact, there are several.


The records for the period 1863 - 1913 are scattered.  Most of them have survived, though unfortunately most managed it only by hiding in Newfoundland!  Some years ago the retention of the documents for this period was in some doubt and only far-sighted action by some County Archivists, concerned individuals and the Maritime History Archive in Newfoundland eventually ensured their survival.  As a result, 30% are in the United Kingdom and Ireland - at PRO in Kew, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and scattered over at least forty local Record Offices: the other 70% are in Newfoundland.  There are various lists and reference books which will help you track down the correct record office, provided you know the vessel and the year.  The simplest course is probably to ask for help at one of the Record Offices with large maritime holdings.  Once you know where it is, it should be possible, given time and perhaps some expense, to get a photocopy of the Crew List.


However, if  you only know that a person was a merchant seaman but are not sure where and when,  you will hit the next snag.  The only comprehensive lists are of vessels and the vessels’ official numbers, and lists of Masters and Mates.  There is at present no full list or index to the names of the ordinary seamen for this period, though, as explained below, clip  has provide some hope.  In the meantime, there are only three chances.  If you know the port from which your ancestor sailed and an approximate year, it may be feasible to search all the Crew Lists for that port for a limited number of years, if you can get access to them.  You may be able to consult local indexes, such as those in West Sussex, Flintshire, Bristol and Somerset.  The best chance is probably to use the 1881 Census Index which includes returns for ships.  That is how I found the first maritime record for my great-grandfather.  At that time he was on a brig taking coal from Newcastle to Dartmouth.  His vessel was probably riding out what the Meteorological Office Library described as a “tatty day in the Channel” in the comfort of Portland Harbour and was included in the census.  Many other vessels may have been in port that day for the same reason.


Even having found one record, research may not be plain sailing (sorry!).  The chain of “previous vessels” is likely to break down, leaving no easy way on.  Of course, the chain also only works backwards, so you cannot follow a person’s career into the years following the first record you find.  All you can do is to guess that he returned to the same ship and look up the Crew Lists for that.  Alternatively , he may have worked for the same Master on different vessels, so it may be worth tracing the Master’s career (perhaps using indexes at PRO) and looking up the Crew Lists for the ships he commanded.


As you can imagine, record office staff are likely to be gently discouraging if you ask about Crew Lists.  The combination of problems means that many researchers will make only limited headway with these fascinating documents.  It seems a shame.


That is where clip came in.  clip stands for Crew List Index Project.  The sheer volume of these records and the fact that they are scattered has prevented the making of any global index to the seamen’s names up to now, and it is unlikely that one will ever be fully completed.  clip however was based on the idea that even a small chance is better than no chance at all.  Its aim was to extract basic information (name, age, place of birth, previous vessel, rank) for as many records as possible and to build an index on a national basis.  You can look up a seaman’s name and find out the vessels he sailed on and where the records are held.  The data was gathered mainly by local volunteers using methods similar to those used for the 1881 Census and other co-operative indexing projects.  The project was started in 1999 as a fixed term project with the aim of reaching 100,000 entries.  We closed the project at the end of 2002 having exceeded the target by a wide margin.  Data quality was an important aspect, with checking being at least as important as transcribing.  The project was non-profit-making and sought to involve as many volunteers as possible, including not just family historians, but local and maritime historians too.


clip exceeded its targets with over 250,000 entries on the database.  We included data from Bristol, Somerset and Flintshire Record Offices which was converted to the clip format. The data was  originally published on CD-ROM.  It is currently unavailable but will be available again soon, on-line.  Royalties from the data have been used to fund future projects.  The project also gathered much useful information about the maritime records of the period and other finding aids which is on our web site at with much more information about current projects.

So, what was my dark and hairy ancestor doing “going up and down”?  Well, he worked on a collier, bringing coal from Newcastle.  Getting the coal into a vessel was easy - it was tipped down chutes from wagons on raised wharves.  Getting it out again was harder and often involved using man-power before steam shovels became available late in the 19th century.  The man-power often used the “jump” which was a set of high steps set up on the quayside.  Three of the crew loaded coal baskets in the hold.  A rope ran from a basket, up to a gaff and down to the jump where it split into three tails.  Three of the crew climbed the steps, each grasped one of the tails as high up as possible and they jumped off, hopefully together.  If the loading of the basket was right, their weight and an extra pull as they landed would be enough to raise the coal from the hold so that it could be swung ashore.  They worked for three hours and then changed over with the crew in the hold.  In this way, a crew of six, with the mate doing the weighing, would be well on the way to unloading the coal at the end of a twelve-hour day.  I think my great-grandfather must have been tough (as well as filthy dirty)!


ă Peter Owens 1998, 2009.