Anyone who has tried to research Merchant Navy ancestors knows how tricky it can be, particularly if the name/s of the ships on which they served are unknown. The UK National Maritime Museum’s online database of individuals serving on Merchant Navy ships is therefore particularly welcome. [Note: I first published this post in 1918 and have updated it to commemorate Remembrance Day 2020.]
As one of the many World War 1 centenary projects, this project transcribed the surviving crew lists for 1915 and the data records personal details for 39,000 voyages covering 750,000 Merchant Navy seamen. The database contains a plethora of information about the officers and crew which was previously only available by visiting the UK National Archives at Kew - and then only if you knew the name of at least one of the ships on which they served.
Keep in mind that each Crew Agreement is for every member on board the ship. Having found a person of interest in the database, you will need to scan through each page of the relevant Crew Agreement looking for your family member. But trust me, it is not onerous and the results are, in my opinion, well worth finding.
Another thing to remember is that many crew members were Irish, so this is another source to research your ancestors from the Emerald Isle.
Above : a sample image from a crew list.
The database is easy and intuitive to use and can be searched by either a crew member’s name or a vessel’s name. Once the correct individual or ship is located, there is a link to the relevant Crew Agreement which comprises multi-page images. Some merchant mariners will have multiple records - sometimes for the same vessel and sometimes for a different vessel if they transferred for any reason.
Above: One of the search screens at the National Maritime Museum
A search for an individual, e.g. H. Calder, returns one or more digital cards. By clicking on the card, the full crew list comprising multiple images appears on the screen. Following is an example.
Above: the digital card for H C Calder of Cardiff, aged 19, a Cadet on the Nirvana.
Above: Search results for either an individual merchant mariner or vessel produces multiple images containing detailed information.
The information in the Merchant Navy crew lists includes but is not limited to:
The written legal agreement between the shipping line and the crew member. This includes:
Nationality (or birthplace if British);
Capacity serving on the ship (i.e. their specific role);
Address at both the port of engagement and their home address;
Name of previous ship and year discharged;
Date and place of signing the crew agreement;
Qualification Certificate number and/or Royal Naval Reserve Commission number (if any);
Weekly or monthly wages;
Any amounts advanced to the crew member during the voyage;
Date, place and reason for leaving the ship.
The wording on the front page of a ship's crew agreement makes for interesting reading as it includes the standard of behaviour expected throughout the voyage. Many agreements even include the amount and type of provisions seamen can expect on the voyage and their "Weekly Fare" or what we might call their daily menus.
Information about the vessel includes:
Commencement and completion dates of the voyage;
The ship’s name;
Port of registry;
Type of ship (coastal or ocean-going);
Maximum number of crew the ship can accommodate.
If the person or people you are researching were killed during WW1, either before or after 1915, then don't expect them to appear in this database. However, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission should have records for them. Having said that I saw some crew agreements which started in 1914 so it is worth checking the database for people who were serving pre-1915. You might be lucky.
The National Maritime Museum's crew lists are of immeasurable value to family historians. They are also one the few sources about the contribution of our courageous seafaring ancestors who played an essential role during WW1. If you had an ancestor in the British Merchant Navy in 1915 there is a good chance a crew list for one or more of his voyages survives. Find one voyage record and it will very likely lead to more - either before, during, or after the War.
For more Merchant Marine records, check FindMyPast.com.au. This is where I found my own ocean-going ancestors from Plymouth in Devon. To commemorate Remembrance Day 2020, they are providing free access to military records for all periods until 12 November 2020. For an ongoing subscription to FindMyPast.com.au, take advantage of my 20% discount code for their annual PRO subscritption, i.e. FOFMPTL20. [Note: I have an affiliate relationship with FindMyPast.]
How did you go?
My own merchant navy ancestors from Plymouth were all deceased by the WW1 period. But I would love to hear about any success you had in searching these records. Let me know in the Comments Section at the bottom of this screen.
Happy ancestor hunting.
Your Family Genealogist
Pictures : Pixabay; UK National Maritime Museum; FindMyPast