The ‘Ticketing System’
Although the threats (to Britain’s state) of the French revolution and later military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte had been seen off, post 1815 the ruling elites of Europe were intensely scared of the capabilities of their peoples. Life was difficult post war. In Britain the war-time boom ended with the crash of corn prices and there was large-scale disaffection, including riots. There was a very limited enlargement of the franchise in the First Reform Act of 1832, but this merely affected the middle classes. Nevertheless, something of a cautious approach was made towards the lower orders.
Always a controversial matter, in these worrying times the press fell out of political favour - although apparently not with most senior naval officers. Although partially solved with the run-down of the massive Royal Navy’s wartime strength, there was another reason for the reform of R.N.: recruitment. With France’s seaborne power, both naval and mercantile, all but destroyed, British mercantile business was expanding and was seen as a great hope for Britain’s future prosperity. Liberal politicians, as advocates of free-trade, regarded naval impressment as a hindrance to this. (Incidentally, it is clear that not all senior naval officers were reactionary. In 1835 and entirely overlooked in modern understanding, there was a limited scheme that introduced engagements of continuous service for boys and men joining as seamen.)
Returning to merchant mariners, a ‘ticketing system’ had been part of a Bill of 1834, which seems originally to have stemmed from an idea of Lord Nelson’s. However, this was dropped. Instead a year later the Merchant Seamen’s Act was passed. This required masters of vessels to forward their Agreements and Crew Lists (that were required as early as 1747) to the newly formed Register Office of Merchant Seamen, through customs officials, on the completion of voyages in the case of foreign-going vessels and six-monthly for coasters. The idea was to then to compile indexes of all British men, in order to force specific groups into the R.N. in times of necessity and was at this stage, an Admiralty office.
The first simple attempt at this alphabetical indexing is known as the Register of Seamen, Series I and lasted less than a year. Deluged with Crew Lists, a new system was instituted in 1836, known as the Register of Seamen, Series II. This was far more complex, which created separate registers for foreign-going and home trades. (Please note that home trade included voyages not only around Britain and Ireland, but also within all sea areas from Brest to the Elbe.) It is now known that Series II consisted of two differing listings and was even more complicated than realised. These forms lasted until 1845.
There had been certain practical difficulties. One of these was that the clerks in London had significant problems differentiating between men of the same name (and having done lots of searches on these records I can understand why). Obviously some of this was social, such as under the clan system of northern and island Scotland, but also due to more common names. Of course, there also seems to be evidence of deliberate obstruction by masters, shipowners and less than keen customs officials. Studies of the records of the port of Lancaster at this time seem to show all these traits. A number of family businesses not only operated tiny vessels of apparently the same type and tonnage, they also gave two or more craft the same name, with family crew members transferring between these as required. In effect this makes tracing individuals highly difficult. This is especially so for the example of the port of Lancaster, since the record keeping by the customs officials is also most definitely lacking in professionalism!
However, there were also other considerations. Interestingly, the statistics showed that only about a third of the number of apprentices by tonnage, under the 1823 Act, were being taken on. (Additionally with no ‘quality control’ there was no guarantee of high standards of training. In fact there is much evidence to show that often there was no training as such and apprentices were only used as unpaid labour. Through the workings of the Poor Law, many apprentices were simply ten year old boys sold off by local authorities for fifty shillings.) Wrapped up with the lobbying of a few officers for the introduction of proper naval reserves (drawn from merchant service) and separately, the working of the Merchant Seamen’s Fund, the R.N. opted for the full ticketing system. This put off what was regarded as the thorny question of reserves and the more complete records would allow for the R.N. to take the pick of merchant seamen in times of war. This was enacted by Parliament in September 1844.
Excepting masters and surgeons, individually numbered ‘register tickets’ were issued by Customs Officers at the main ports to all British merchant mariners, with the details supposedly being forwarded to the General Register and Record Office of Seamen. (Naval authorities also issued tickets to men on warships to some lesser and unknown degree, as did coastguard authorities to their own.) As Crew Lists and Agreements were also received, men’s movements were to be entered into the registers. Also, mariners’ tickets were to be held by masters during voyages and returned on discharge. However, since the Register Office was not used in the prosecution of deserters, this did not have the desired effect in curbing sometimes very high levels of desertion. Furthermore, in an era with no state provision for education and a high rate of illiteracy, mariners saw no reason to comply with the legislation and look after their tickets. Anyway, even though money was stopped out of their pay they received no benefit from the Merchant Seamen’s Fund (which being bankrupt, was wound up in 1851). There is both considerable statistical and anecdotal evidence to show high levels of an illegal trade in forged tickets, which could be acquired for about a quarter of the fine imposed by the authorities for the loss of tickets.
In London there were other practical difficulties which bear heavily on modern use of these documents. Because of an apparent intolerable workload for the shore-bound civil servants, legal opinion was sought as to the requirement of keeping the registers. This led to entries of movements not being made for the years 1849, 1850 and 1852 to 1854. Apart from this, the actual notations themselves are far more complex. Until this time vessels’ names had been given. However, this was replaced by a numerical system whereby vessels could only be identified through ports of registration and voyage numbers. Added to all the other shortcomings above and others such as incredibly poor handwriting both of mariners and some civil servants, as well as genuine errors and omissions, this can prove highly problematical. Where mariners had common surnames, it is apparent that often there was no attempt by clerks to update entries, as numerous entries showing the same ticket numbers can be found. Of course this can be useful in checking numbers that are unclear, but it also adds greatly to the time and effort spent in conducting modern searches. I find it difficult to understand how the system for identifying men required for the R.N. could actually have worked in reality, which is backed up by later Board of Trade correspondence dealing with proposed the reintroduction of similar systems (in the early 20th century) that brought up this same point.
In all likelihood this was fully realised at the time by the powers that were and it was done away with in 1853, by the Lords of Her Majesty’s Privy Council appointed for the Consideration of Matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations - as the Board of Trade was still officially known. With the formation of the Marine Department of the ‘Board of Trade’ in 1850, through the Mercantile Marine Act of the same year, they had taken over the Admiralty’s ‘Register Office’ and submissions were made to reduce what was regarded as a severe workload. As well as a second and relatively large-scale scheme encouraging continuous service for seamen ratings in the R.N. as of 1853, legislation was passed that for the first time allowed for the ‘calling out’ of merchant seamen in times of war. This had a knock-on effect for those lobbying for naval reserves. It is interesting to note that no recourse was made to the new powers of the state (relating to merchant mariners) during the Anglo-Russian War (1853-56) though.
A paper hangover of the above remained between 1853 and 1857 in the form of the Register of Seamen, Series III (or ‘third register’). Again this was an alphabetical system for mariners’ names, but retaining the complicated numerical form of port of registry and voyage numbers for identification of vessels. Nevertheless, Crew Lists and Agreements continued to be relayed to London and were filed under the new bureaucratic systems to follow.
In some areas of this collection of records the original civil-servants were organised and efficient, entering information neatly and in strict alphabetical order. Elsewhere, they are a complete mess, entries made haphazardly and in what seem to modern readers to be illiterate scrawls. It should also be pointed out that at the stage of recording the mariners’ entries in London, there was a separate register for masters. As a matter of interest, there is at least one surgeon entered into the masters’ entries.
The bulk of the historical information for this section came from Archibald Hurd’s: The Merchant Navy (London: John Murray, 1921) volume I and Frank C. Bowen’s: History of the Royal Naval Reserve (London: The Corporation of London, 1926): the former which has been reprinted by the Imperial War Museum, the latter more difficult to find. Additional and pertinent information also came from 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), but this seems to be something of a ‘rare’ book.