The British Mercantile Marine and Fishing Fleets
c.1835 - c.1972
with reference to the Seagoing Naval Reserves
by Len Barnett
While this website guide primarily covers historical and technical matters relating to British mercantile trades (other than in the East India Companies), reference is made to the main collections of state and other records relating to these. Also, some information is given on whaling and fishing.
Prior to 1835 there is no surviving large body of information on British merchant mariners. There are, of course, various records still in existence. These include port books, ‘Board of Trade’ shipping returns, Customs books, High Court of Admiralty records, registers of protection from being pressed, muster rolls, apprenticeship books and ledgers of receivers of sixpences. However, these are often far from complete and for genealogical purposes are for the most part less than useful. (There are, of course, exceptions. An obvious class would be of major legal disputes involving merchant shipowners cum masters.)
Nevertheless, as of 1823 it became mandatory for seamen apprentices’ indentures to be registered.
Between 1835 and 1857 a whole series of experiments were made by the British state in keeping tabs on the entire British mercantile marine. This was due to changing political realities, inasmuch as the press had become inexpedient for manning warships of the Royal Navy when necessary. Under the control of the General Register Office of Merchant Seamen and headed by a lieutenant R.N. initially this was answerable to the Admiralty (although later handed over to the ‘Board of Trade’ in 1850). These exercises (known generally as the ‘ticketing system’) failed for a whole raft of reasons. Incidentally, by the end of this period the raison d’être had become non-existent with increasingly widespread continuous service for ratings in the Royal Navy from 1853 onwards.
Backing the ‘ticketing system’, from 1835 mercantile crew lists and agreements were required to be kept and have been ever since. Similarly, ships’ official logs were also required by the state as of 1850.
As of 1857, while none of the Board of Trade registers were kept on mariners, other than for ‘certificated’ masters and mates, all the rest of the bureaucratic processes remained in force. This included the issuing of discharge certificates that had already been introduced in real terms in 1835 to all mariners.
‘Certification’ of mercantile seamen officers had already begun in 1845, with a voluntary system of examination for masters and mates of deep-ocean vessels. However, from 1850 onwards there were moves to make certification mandatory, both in deep-ocean and coastal vessels. Regulation of the latter trade remained far lighter though. (Again in the early years of the 20th century moves to have certification within the coastal trade tightened up were fended off by the Board of Trade, but this came into being in 1931.) Certification of engineers began in 1862, but it is important to note that this remained far from universal in the earlier decades. Skippers and mates of larger fishing craft needed to certificated as of 1884. And, in order to improve the standards of food at sea, cooks required certificates, at least theoretically, as of 1908.
With changing business patterns through the development of iron and steel, liner companies began to emerge during the mid 19th century and unsurprisingly, they maintained records. One example is in the companies that became the ‘P & O Group’. Principally these were of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company Limited, British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. and the Orient Steam Navigation Co. Ltd.
Although there had been calls for a naval reserve for the Royal Navy long before, in 1859 the first element of the Royal Naval Reserve was formed. Initially tiny, through fits and starts, it grew through the rest of the century and into the next. After numerous changes in the post Edwardian period, the R.N.R. was used in a great many roles during the First World War (1914-1919). Of course, some mariners in merchant service had also been in the Royal Navy and were called up as part of the Royal Fleet Reserve. There was also a limited crossover into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as well. There was yet another reserve that merchant mariners served in. This was the Mercantile Marine Reserve that came into being mid First World War, originally for one specific purpose, but that would seem to have enlarged its scope at least administratively by the end of hostilities.
In 1913 the Board of Trade had been forced into reintroducing a register of merchant mariners, known as the Central Index Register (although modern civil servants had those up until around the end of the First World War destroyed). This continued until 1940-1941 when it was replaced with the Central Register of Seamen. This remained in force until 1972. .
Technical details on vessels can be gained from the records of classification institutions. In Britain, there were a number, but Lloyd’s Register of Shipping has predominated. Further information can also be gleaned from another institution, the insurance and re-insurance market Lloyd’s of London.
Please note that I earn my living from freelance maritime research and writing and while there is much in these guides, this information is primarily aimed at showing my expertise as a researcher. Unfortunately, since so many records are now online, I have found that enquiries have increasingly been from people merely wishing to use me as a free information service. Therefore, I have found it necessary to remove much detailed information on records, but I continue to treat my clients with respect and can be contacted at email@example.com.