by Debbie Beavis

Often an entry on a birth or marriage certificate or on a census record

is the first evidence of a mariner in the family. These basic steps suggest some of the first steps forward in researching the career of a seaman in the British Merchant Service in the 19th Century.

Each step suggested here is supported by a separate Guide. They are not exhaustive but a few ideas to help the beginner on their way.

19th Century merchant seamen's service records commence in 1835 and end in 1857. (They do not recommence until 1913.)

In the most basic terms, this means that if your seaman was born between 1780 and 1842 you stand a reasonable chance of finding some records of his service in the Merchant Navy. Once you begin moving outside these dates, the chances reduce accordingly. If he was born before 1770 then he was almost certainly too old to appear in service records. If he was born after 1849 your chances of finding records of his service are very slim indeed.

If your mariner's service falls in this period, the first thing you should do is to check the indexes and registers of seamen's tickets

See the Guide to tracing 19th Century Mariners.

The most likely result of your search is that you will find a clutch of men of roughly the correct age, born in the same area as your man, any of whom just might be yours. Along with this you will have obtained information possibly in shorthand, from which you may identify some of the ships on which they served. Unless you are absolutely certain that one of these men is yours, you should keep all your notes (and keep an open mind!). Remember that these records may not be accurate for various reasons and you must beware of passing over the right man in favour of one who, in the first instance, seems more likely to be yours.

For now, using the information gleaned from the service records, you should begin a systematic check through the series of logs, crew lists and agreements which will tell you more about their lives at sea.

See the guide to Logs, Agreements & Crew Lists.

See what each gives for his place of birth, and his age, on each of the crew records. You may pick up a valuable clue. Using what you know of your man's home life, you may now be able to discount some of these men. Your man ought to have been at home for the conception of his children. Does his name appear as witness or informant on relatives' marriage or death certificates? How does this information compare with the evidence of his sea voyages? You may find that some of these men appear to be serving with brothers, fathers, other close relatives of the same name. Do you recognise these people? If your seaman has a relatively common name, this stage of your research may take some time but stay the course, with luck you could eventually pinpoint your man.

All of the records mentioned here have been filmed and are available through LDS libraries. The Public Record Office has a series of on-line leaflets which explain other possible sources, and have recently placed their catalogue on line which may help you decide which records you need.

PRO Website

Dr. Reg Davies is compiling an index to all Welsh Master Mariners, Mates and Engineers who held certificates of competency or service. For information and look-ups E-mail him at Regandpaddy@btinternet.com