Central Index Register c.1919 to 1941


Certainly by the last year of the 19th century there was discussion within a committee on manning for re-introducing a ‘register of seamen’. In part this led to the issue of books of continuous discharge certificates as of October 1900. As well as another committee again advocating this in 1904, there were various questions asked in the House (of Commons) by an ex-mariner, trade union official and Member of Parliament, Havelock Wilson. Taken up by the Merchant Shipping Advisory Committee in 1907 (courtesy of the newly passed Merchant Shipping Act of the year before) its report favoured also such a register. The unions wanted this to protect their membership’s interests, partially so that mariners with good records were not unduly penalised on the loss, or destruction of their discharge books. It should be noted that the Shipping Federation (representing a significant proportion of ocean-going shipowners) also wished to see such a register: in order to more easily look into the backgrounds of mariners and potentially keep persistent deserters and troublemakers off their vessels.

By this time the President of the Board of Trade was Winston Churchill, who no doubt on the recommendation of the most senior civil servants within the Marine Department of the Board of Trade and the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen (who were vociferous in their opposition), called for a Departmental Committee into this subject in May 1909. Although its terms and membership were heavily weighted against reintroduction of such a system, in 1910 this Departmental Committee also found for a ‘register of seamen’. Even with continued pressure, still the Board of Trade refused to budge.

Some of the grounds for this opposition are not only intriguing - they are bizarre. Apart from all the extra work involved by the office of the R.G.S.S. and the Local Marine Boards, which was judged to be excessive, there was also an important cost implication. Time and again it was cited that the 19th century systems had failed because individual mariners could not be identified and this one might fail too. (A fingerprinting scheme was looked into but regarded as too expensive.) Significantly, it was maintained that feckless and illiterate mariners, who misused their documents and did not co-operate in making the system work, had led to a large number of mistakes by civil servants and to the eventual abandonment of the 19th century system. This apparently high rate of errors and inability to identify masters, mates and engineers also was said to have led to their service not being recorded in the mid to late 1880s in the registers of certificates. The illiteracy aspect is worthy of comment. One can see that this would have been a distinct problem in the mid 19th century, but to cite the same over forty years after the introduction of mandatory primary education in Britain and if taken at face value is a real indictment of the standards of the British educational establishment. While, I believe British education was poor, (and unfortunately, remains so) study of crew-lists show very few mariners by the turn of the 20th century ‘making their mark’, rather than signing their names.

Anyway, pressure continued to be applied by the Advisory Committee through 1910. Interestingly, even though the senior civil servants had been arguing their case on apparent legal grounds for over decade, when this was finally placed before the Government’s foremost legal officers, they came down in favour of a register in August 1911. However, this was not the end of the matter by any means and it was not until October 1913 that the Central Index Register, often referred to as the ‘Fourth Register of Seamen’, came into being. Even then, this only recorded the least amount of information possible and in no way addressed the issues of both shipowners and trade unions.

Unfortunately, virtually all C.R. 1 and C.R. 2 cards for the years 1913 to about 1918, or 1919 have been destroyed - in modern times apparently on the advice of the Public Record Office’s management.

In 1941 a new series was produced, officially named the Central Register of Seamen, but often known as the ‘Fifth Register of Seamen’. As per the Registration for Employment Order the cards of mariners then currently active, or who had been active since 1936, were removed from the C.I.R. and transferred onwards to the C.R.S.


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