Merchant Navy

This guide was last updated in 2009

If you’re looking for an ancestor who sailed the high seas with the Merchant Navy, you’ll find the vast majority of surviving records housed at the National Archives (TNA) in Kew, Surrey, says Janet Dempsey

Merchant Navy crew lists from the late-19th and early-20th centuries have recently been made available to search online at, meaning finding your elusive seafaring forebears is much easier. Including the names of 270,000 merchant seamen of all ranks who worked on the high seas between 1860 and 1913, the lists are estimated to contain about 10 per cent of the total number.

If you manage to track down an ancestor on the online indexes, it's worth getting in touch with the organisations that hold the original records in order to arrange access to the actual crew lists.

If you've had no luck online, don't panic – there's still a number of other ways to find what you're looking for at TNA. You can either go in person, hire an independent researcher, or use the archive’s in-house research service (details can be found here).

The Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen (RGSS) was responsible for keeping records of Merchant seamen and the vessels they took to sea in. These are largely kept in the ‘BT’ (Board of Trade) record series at TNA. Before you go to Kew, you will need to have a fairly good idea of when your forebear served, as the way the RGSS kept registers over time changed and this is reflected in the different BT classes.

This DIY guide does not deal with the records of ordinary seamen, about whom the staff at TNA can advise further. A series of free, printable research guides on Merchant Navy records is available from TNA’s website.

Photo © Getty images

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