Ships’ Official Logs
Through the Mercantile Marine Act of 1850, official logs were to be kept by masters. Instead of the traditional understanding of navigational records, these logs were intended to note illness and treatment (if any), deaths of mariners onboard, as well as bad behaviour, desertions and punishments of crew members, along with assessments of conduct and ability of all on board: excluding the master. As with crew lists and agreements they were to be surrendered to Shipping Masters or Customs Officers ashore (within the United Kingdom, which then included Ireland in the definition in the Act) on completion of agreed voyages for foreign-going vessels, or six monthly for coasters. (Within a year smaller coasters of 80 tons burthen or less had been exempted.) Even though crew lists and agreements were to be transmitted to the Registrar General of Seamen’s Office, after a time regarded as reasonable for any interested party to view all these documents, logs were not sent on to London. Instead they were then to be returned to masters or owners within forty-eight hours (if required by the same) and retained for two years.
In 1854, under the massively enlarging Merchant Shipping Act, further entries in these official logs were required of masters: for births, marriages and all deaths onboard. It should be noted that this legislation stated that official logs could either be combined with ships’ (navigational) logs, or separate. (There being very little navigational information in examples I have seen I would opine that overwhelmingly these were kept apart.) A comparatively small percentage of official logs have survived and the reasons for this can be found in careful study of this and subsequent Acts, combined with study of surviving documents and correspondence of the bureaucracies involved.
The popular understanding is that this 1854 Act required all official logs to be retained by the office of the Registrar General of Seamen (or Registrar General of Shipping & Seamen from 1872) in the City of London. While one section (277) indeed seems to state that all documentation handed into Shipping Masters, Customs Officers and under certain circumstances Consular Officials abroad, should be sent to the Registrar General of Seamen in London, this section was dealing with records other than ships’ logs. In fact, immediately before this (sections 273 to 276) it states that lists of details including births, deaths and marriages should be made out and surrendered at the end of voyages: as part of the normal documentation still to be found within crew lists and agreements. Interestingly, the sections actually dealing with logs themselves (280 to 287) do not specifically state where, or even if, all logs were to be retained.
The situation was far more complex though and allied aspects of this are dealt with in the section on deaths of mariners at sea. It is obvious that some logs were indeed transmitted to the office of the R.G.S./R.G.S.S., since they still survive. However, I know this was not due to a blanket requirement of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 at all. (There is something of an exception for the first few of years, where it seems that in confusion over the apparent contradiction within the 1854 Act many logs were sent to London and retained, along with the other documents. Nevertheless, this practice soon ceased.) The ‘Board of Trade’, which incidentally was housed in London’s West End near Whitehall, could request logs and this is one potential explanation. But, even then, this does not make administrative sense. After all, the pertinent detail was already in the crew lists and agreements. Instead, I believe that there were two not dissimilar reasons as to why there are logs surviving. There were the results of formal boards held at local level and transmitted to London on completion (section 12 of the 1854 Act) and when masters felt the need to have accounts of their actions retained. These alone would explain why some logs are missing where there were deaths at sea and also, why some others have been retained where there was wholesale breakdown in discipline, desertion en masse etc., etc.
Moreover, the currently widely expressed explanation that all logs were sent to London, but at some later but unknown stage, large numbers were destroyed by civil servants beggars belief! Not only is it known that by the 1870s the office of the R.G.S.S. was running very short of storage space and that a vast amount of documentation was destroyed, it is also known which types were got rid of at this time. These included 18th and early 19th century parchment certificates of ships’ registry, unwanted early 19th century customs registry books, seamen’s register tickets and apprentices’ indentures. All these were records that were not required to be kept by law. Intriguingly, one piece of correspondence of 1867 shows that there was a move to have a clause in the upcoming Merchant Shipping Bill allowing for all documentation held by the office (presumably of the R.G.S.) to be destroyed after 25 years. However, this clause seems never to have seen the light of day, as it was not within the Merchant Shipping Acts of 1867, 1871 or 1872 and there were no pertinent sections mentioning ships’ logs in these Acts. Furthermore, a quote from P.G. Parkhurst’s Ships of Peace, which deals with the workings of these bureaucracies, lays this to rest. On page 205 it states:-
‘The Lists of Crews dating from 1835 to 1845 are the only legal evidence of deaths of seamen at sea within that period; from 1845 they also contain records of births and marriages. They are the only documents from which seamen’s services can be proved during those years, for pensions, certificates or any other purpose...’ (My italics.)
This report went on to state ‘in pursuance of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1854, and subsequent Acts, I am required by that Act to record and preserve them, to allow the public to inspect them and to produce them in Courts of Justice’. This then was the crux of the matter.
Furthermore, section 242 of 1894’s Merchant Shipping Act is absolutely clear in regards to ships’ logs - they were to be handed to ‘superintendents’ (of Mercantile Marine Offices, as part of the local set-ups maintained by Local Marine Boards). Nowhere does it state that these superintendents were then obliged to transmit logs to the R.G.S.S.
Surviving ships’ official logs are normally held with crew agreements, but for reasons never disclosed by civil servants, those between 1902 until 1919 are in a separate class.
Before leaving this subject, a few points need making in regards to entries in ships’ logs. These overwhelmingly were from the viewpoint of the command. On relatively rare occasions when differing types of evidence is available, such as in court cases, others’ perspectives of events can be inherently different. I have noted that there was often a highly righteous tone taken by masters in their log entries, particularly when discipline had largely, or completely broken down. Frequently entries state that crew-members had refused to turn-to (that is work), but no explanation as to why was furnished. However, two reasons for men’s unrest can easily be determined from long term study of the Merchant Service - cruel and arrogant attitudes of masters and mates; and poor and/or insufficient food (compounded by equally foul living conditions for those in the fo’c’sle.)
Also, occasionally other types of log are uncovered elsewhere in official records.
Apart from where already mentioned, much of the historical information came from study of the original legislation, plus the excellent work on the Board of Trade - P.G. Parkhurst’s: Ships of Peace: A record of some of the problems which came before the Board of Trade in connection with the British Mercantile Marine from the early years to the year 1885 (New Malden, Surrey: private publication, 1962). I would be interested in hearing from anyone with further accurate information on the workings of the Marine Department of the Board of Trade and the location of a copy of the second unpublished but produced second volume of Mr. Parkhurst’s study.