Inevitably there will be times when you 'know' your ancestor was a British

merchant seaman.

You search the records (or, even worse, have to employ someone to do it for

you) and there is no trace of your man in the records which should have held

his details.

What went wrong? You may wish to consider the following points:

You checked the 19C register.. are you sure you checked the whole register?

See the posting on tracing 19C merchant seamen. It is easier than you may

expect, to miss a section.

You checked it all but he is not there. Many registers give places of birth.

Did he (or you) get it wrong? Look closer at those claiming to be born in

the same county as your man. Age is wrong? He may have got it wrong... in

19th century Britain, there were far more important things to worry about

than age. Don't discount someone purely on this. Look at any who just

"could" be your man!

He's still not there. Try all the variant spellings of his surname. Say the

name, and spell it how it sounds... now try again using the dialect of the

region and spell it how it sounds now.

Still not there? Some men did slip through the net and managed to work

without ever getting a ticket. This is more likely in coastal trade vessels.

Did he lie? He may have had good reasons for giving a false name. We all

heard about these sailors with a girl in every port.... Unless you have any

clues about what name he may have used, then your chances are virtually nil.

Did he get missed out of the registers? As with any branch of genealogy, if

he lied or was missed out of the records, then your chances of finding him

are very slim. If he served before 1857, crew agreements are filed according

to the port of a ship's registry. If your man was on a coastal or fishing

vessel, there is a reasonable chance that the ship was registered in his

home port. That means that the crew list will be filed there too. (See

separate posting on Crew Lists). Your job now, will be a list by list search

through all the boxes of lists for that port for the most likely year,

searching every crew list for his name. A very long winded job, but if you

really want to find him there it is your only option. If he was on a foreign

trade ship, the chances of the ship being registered in his home port are

considerably less and the chances of turning him up in a blanket search are

therefore remote.

He said he was a Master (or Mate) but he isn't in the registers. Until 1845,

Masters and Mates were filed with ordinary seamen. See separate posting on

tracing Master Mariners.

You checked all sources but he's not there. Maybe he didn't hold a

certificate. Especially in the early years, and even more so if the vessel

was owned by the man concerned, some men didn't bother with obtaining a

certificate. Other ship owners chose the cheaper option of using an

uncertificated man to work the ship. Search the seamen's registers and you

may find him there.

He's still not there! Try the suggestions above for variant spellings, wrong

details of birth place, age etc.

He's 20C and we have all his details correct. He should be in Lloyds

Captains' Registers but he's not there! Write to the Guildhall Library,

Aldermanbury, London EC2P 2EJ. Ask them if they could search Ms 18570/1-9 or Ms 18571/1-2 .... these are card indexes, unpublished.. the former relates to men who served only as Mates, 1912-1948 and the latter refers to men who appear not to have taken up any appointment by 1948. Bear in mind that this could be because they worked for a foreign shipping company for which details were not forwarded to Lloyds. This may well apply to men serving with American shipping lines, for example.

Note however that Lloyds Captains Registers themselves are not absolutely

correct. Some of the Masters of the most prominent British ocean liners of

the twentieth century do not appear in the records!

The above information is courtesy of Debbie Beavis



The following is a list of contact addresses for various archives, maritime

organisations or institutions whose collections include the primary

documents required in tracing British Merchant and Royal Navy ships and


The Public Record Office, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Surrey, TW9 4DU



The Family Record Centre, Myddleton Place, London EC1 1UW



The National Maritime Museum, Romney Road, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF



The Guildhall Library, Aldermanbury, London EC2P 2EJ



The Society of Genealogists, 14 Charterhouse Buildings, Goswell Road, London EC1M 7BA


The Registry of Shipping and Seamen, Anchor House, Cheviot Close,

Parc-Ty-Glas, Llanishen, Cardiff CF4 5JA

Lloyds Register of Shipping

100 Leadenhall Street, London, EC3A 3BP


Maritime History Archive, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John's,

Newfoundland, Canada A1C 5S7


MInistry of Defence

CS(R)2E, Bourne Avenue, Hayes, Middlesex