Crew Agreements for the Merchant Navy

Anyone who has seafaring ancestors from the United Kingdom will want to know how and where they can obtain more information on them and their voyages.

There are a few sources, but the best by far are Crew Agreements. If you have an ancestor who was a merchant seamen, copies of Crew Agreements are a must.

This article will tell you what crew agreements are, what information they contain, and where you can obtain them.

What, exactly, are 'Crew Agreements' and what information can I find in them ?

Crew Agreements are the official documents for each merchant ship's voyage, sometimes also referred to as crew lists. They contain invaluable data, such as:

A description of the ship and it's owners, including tonnage, build year, horse power

Name of the ship's Master, address and Certificate of Competency number

Voyage's port and date of commencement

Voyage's destination and port and date of termination

Rules or laws to be observed during the voyage

Daily meal provisions for the crew

Particulars of each member of the crew, including name, age, place of birth, previous ship, place and date of signing, capacity (seaman, fireman, engineer, etc), Certificate of Competency number if any, when expected on board, pay for the journey, and address

Particulars of each man's discharge (e.g. end of voyage, desertion, sickness, death, never joined etc)

Ports visited (endorsements by British Consuls)

Other details

Some of the information listed on agreements is written in the original handwriting of the crew, and you should at least be able to see the original signature from your ancestor.

Here are some examples from Crew Agreements of my great great grandfather's ships, S.S. San Domingo, S.S. Nereid and S.S. Castleton from 1877, 1878 and 1886.

Agreement and Account of Crew - Foreign-going Ship

Description of the Ship and it's Owners

Name: Castleton, Official No. 81774, Port of Registry: Cardiff, Port No. and Date of Register: 15/1879, Registered Tonnage: Gross: 1751, Net: 1149, Horsepower: 200, Registered Managing Owner: M. Cope, Address: Cardiff, No. of Seamen for whom Accommodation is certified: 40.

Ship's Master

William Henry, 38, Porthcawl, Certificate of Competency No. 92277

Voyage's Port of Commencement

"Port at which Voyage commenced : Penarth" [Cardiff]

Voyage's Destination
Penarth to St. Lucia "and/or any Ports or places within the limits of 75 degrees North and 60 degrees South Latitude the maximum time to be one year trading in any rotation and to end in the United Kingdom."

Daily Meal Provisions for Crew

These are the actual provisions for the crew for the above trip, dated 12 October 1886. An additional note states: "At the Master's Option - No Spirits Allowed".

Bread (lb.)Beef (lb.)Pork (lb.)Flour (lb.)Peas (pint)Rice (lb.)Tea (oz.)Coffee (oz.)Sugar (oz.)Molasses (oz.)Water (qts.)
Sun.11--- ?243
Mon. 1-1-?- ?243
Tue.11--- ?243
Wed. 1-1-?- ?243
Thu.11--- ?243
Fri.1-1-?- ?243

Rules or Laws to be observed during the Voyage
I quote: "And the Crew agree to conduct themselves in an orderly, faithful, honest, and sober manner, and to be at all times diligent in their respective duties, and to be obedient to the lawful commands of the said Master, or of any Person who shall lawfully succeed him, and of their Superior Officers, in everything relating to the said Ship and the Stores and Cargo thereof, whether on board, in boats, or on shore : in consideration of which Services to be duly performed, the said Master hereby agrees to pay to the said Crew as Wages the Sums against their Names respectively expressed, and to supply them with Provisions according to the above scale."

And: "No Cash shall be advanced abroad or liberty granted other than at the pleasure of the Master."

Several possible offences are listed along with their fines, such as:

"Drunkenness, First Offence.....Five Shillings",

"[Drunkenness] Second and for each subsequent Offence.....Ten Shillings"

"Striking or assaulting any person on board or belonging to the Ship (if not otherwise prosecuted).....Five Shillings".

Particulars of each member of the Crew
To give the example of my great great grandfather, John George Brew:

Name: John G Brew [signature]

Age: 36

Town or County where born: Woolwich

Ship in which he last served: Same

Date and Place of signing this Agreement: 1886 12 Oct, Penarth

In what Capacity engaged, No. of Certificate: 12854, 1st Engr.

Time at which he is to be on board: 5.a.m. Thursday 14 Oct / 86

Amount of Wages per Calendar Month: 16

Amount of Monthly Allotment: 10

Address: 49 Exeter St. Gateshead.

Particulars of Discharge
As the above mentioned details relate to a voyage which ended in Castleton's foundering and the deaths of the entire crew, there is logically no discharge information. However, the agreement from Castleton's voyage from Cardiff on 20 July 1886 to Las Palmas, arriving back in Bristol, via Baltimore, USA, on 1 October 1886 shows the following examples:

Lewis Phillips, 41, 20 July 1886, Penarth, sick

Sidney Jones, 30, 9 September 1886, Baltimore, deserted

Thos. Johns, 25, 20 July 1886, Penarth, never joined

Most discharges are of the normal kind, that is, at the end of a voyage, and the column simply states 'Discharged'. However, you may come across some interesting information regarding, for example, gaoling of members of the crew for offences, or deaths while at sea or in port:

"Mercantile Marine Office Bristol - Oct. 7 1886 - H. Larsen late B.S. died at [unreadable name] Fever Hospital, on 5th October 1886 from "Typhoid Fever" - E. A. Atwood Superintendent."

In an 1878 Crew Agreement from S.S. Nereid the following comment appears against the name of Thomas Patterson, 21, of Newcastle:

"25/2/78 Cardiff - Sent to Gaol for 4 Wks for refusing duty"

Ports visited and Endorsements by British Consuls
On arrival in a foreign port, it was necessary for a British ship to be registered with the Consul. The logs were passed to him for the duration of the stay and returned for departure. Usually the endorsements by Consuls on Crew Agreements will state the day of arrival of a particular ship in port and the date of departure. Here is an example from the above voyage Cardiff - Las Palmas - Baltimore - Bristol, from the 1 week stopover in Baltimore: "British Consulate Baltimore

Articles deposited September 4th 1886

Do. returned September 11th 1886

I hereby certify that the within named Sidney Jones has been reported to me as having deserted at this port, taking his effects and upon inquiry I have found the allegation to be true.

I also certify that I have sanctioned the engagement of Francis C Short upon the within written Agreement which he has signed in my presence with a full understanding of its terms.

For H.M. Consul, W.H. Wilson, Consular Clerk, September 11th / 86"

Other Interesting Details

Sometimes there are small bonuses to be found. For example, a seaman's kit is mentioned in a crew agreement from S.S. San Domingo when the ship's cook, Henry Smith, aged 43, died on 5 October 1877. Henry Smith's effects give us a good idea of what a seaman carried with him in those days:

"1 Reefer Jacket - 1 Large Jacket - 3 Pairs of Trousers - 2 pairs of Dungareys [sic] - 2 Vests - 2 Singlets - 1 Guernsy [sic] Frock - 3 Shirts - 4 pairs Stockings - 2 Aprons - 1 Towel - 1 Blanket - 1 Rug - 1 Bed - 1 pair of Braces - 2 Caps - 1 Scarf - 1 pair Slippers - 1 Bag"

Where can I obtain copies of Crew Agreements?

If you are searching for a particular person or ship, make sure you're armed with the name of the ship and person, and the year the voyage ended in, not when it started. You can approximate the year if you're not sure.

Try the following addresses, but if you're not successful try checking the local record office or library where the ship was registered.

The Archivist

Maritime History Archive

Memorial University of Newfoundland

St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada, A1C 5S7.

Phone: 709-737-8428

Fax: 709-737-3123


Web Site:

Their research fee is CAD$35.00 per hour (1 hour minimum fee) and photocopies are CAD$0.50 per page. Mastercard and Visa are accepted for payment by phone, fax or e-mail. They hold 70% of the Crew Agreements from 1863-1938, and 80% of the Agreements from 1951-1976. But they hold no agreements for 1875, 1885, 1895, or 1905.

National Maritime Museum

Greenwich, London

England, SE10 9NF

Phone: 0181-858-4422

Fax: 0181-312-6632


Their research fee is GBP18.00 per hour, and postage is extra for overseas requests. They hold 90% of the Crew Agreements for the years 1861-1862, 90% of the Crew Agreements for the years ending in '5' from 1865-1935, and 90% of the years ending in '5' from 1955-1975, as well as many Mates and Masters Certificates of Competency and their applications. Reader Services Department

Public Record Office

Ruskin Avenue

Kew, Richmond, Surrey

England, TW9 4DU

Phone: 0181-876-3444

Fax: 0181-878-8905

Web Site:

They hold all the surviving documents from 1747-1860, a 10% sample of each year from 1861-1938, all official logs from 1902-1919, all papers from 1939-1950, a 10% sample of each year from 1951-1976, and all records pertaining to famous ships (e.g. the Titanic) from 1861-1938.

The PRO will not conduct searches for you but rather will tell you to either come and look yourself or use an official researcher from a list of many which they recommend. Researchers in the U.K. are generally not cheap, but if you can't go yourself, it's still cheaper than an air ticket!


Through Crew Agreements I have personally been able to trace all of my great great grandfather's voyages, spanning his entire career from 1872 up to his early death at sea at the age of 33 in 1886. I have also been able to trace most of my great grandfather's voyages, and those of his two brothers, spanning the years 1892 to 1947.

Agreements have told me my great great grandfather was twice on board a ship which sank during his career, and my great grandfather once. Each agreement gave me enough leads to unearth the full story from other sources. Leads taken from yet another agreement led to the story of my great grandfather's older brother having helped save the crew of a German ship sinking in the mid-Atlantic, and his ensuing award and thanks from the German Kaiser.

There is such a wealth of information to be found in crew agreements, they are an absolute "must have" if you are researching your seafaring ancestors. Finding them by yourself can mean a few hours searching, and a lot of photocopying; using a researcher can become rather expensive. But the results can be extremely rewarding and make the investment well worth your money.