Crew Lists and Agreements
Before beginning the practicalities it is worth pointing out that, as far as I understand, agreements were first required under an Act of 1729. According to a Board of Trade Precedent Book (TNA: PRO BT 167/1 p.1) ‘Masters of vessels proceeding to parts beyond the seas were then required to enter into Agreements with their seamen...’. It was not, however, until 1835 that there is any usable collection of these records (if indeed any previous examples survive).
The individual forms that constituted Crew Lists and Articles are not particularly important to this study, so slight changes will not be mentioned in great detail. How they were filed and where the surviving documents are now held are more important however.
Firstly, between 1835 and 1856 all were filed by port of register. Therefore, this is an essential element of the entries in the ‘ticketing system’. From 1857 onwards, thanks to the efforts of the first Registrar of Seamen, British vessels were issued with official numbers and are filed by this number. Therefore, it is essential to identify vessels by official number. Lloyd’s Register of Shipping can be used for this, but not before the mid 1870s. Therefore, in searches for vessels between 1857 and the 1870s the Mercantile Navy List should be used.
Between 1835 and 1844 there were basically two varieties of crew lists. There was the Schedule C for vessels conducting deep ocean voyages and which was required to be deposited with the local Customs Office within 48 hours of arrival at the final U.K. port of discharge. For vessels on coastal work there was the Schedule D, a six-monthly return to be handed in within three weeks of the end of the half year (June and December). All these years are filed together in their original documentary form, by port of register, at The National Archives, Kew, Surrey, U.K.
Between 1845 and 1854 further forms were added. There was the Schedule A for foreign-going vessels. Generally known as ‘agreements’ or ‘articles’, this was a contract between the master and the crew. Schedule G was a list of crew members on sailing for foreign-going voyages, giving their ticket numbers. There was also the Schedule M that indicated those still onboard at the final discharge (which may have been introduced at this stage). And, for the coastal and fishing trades the Schedule B was introduced. The rules for depositing changed slightly. Again these are held at the P.R.O. as original documents.
In 1855 and 1856 there were no changes and these records are filed exactly as immediately above. However, as already stated above in 1857 ships’ official numbers were introduced and Crew Lists and Agreements have been filed by the year of the end of voyages ever since. Between 1857 and 1860 these are again held at T.N.A., Kew.
From then on in, because of a stance taken at the Public Records Office, Kew in the late 1960s these have been scattered far and wide. Although this body had been charged under law to maintain public records the then management of the P.R.O., seeing no apparent reason for keeping these and taking up much space, planned to have the vast majority destroyed. No British institution could be found to take these (other than in part) and had a small number of Canadian academics not stepped in, then these would surely have been obliterated. (In a lecture as part of the International Commission for Maritime History Seminars, held at Lloyd’s Register on 8th December 2005, in discussing the above Professor L.R. Fischer mentioned that the original correspondence relating to this rescue operation remains in existence in Newfoundland.)
For the already noted reasons it is important, once again, to stress that not all Crew Lists and Agreements have survived. There are three main repositories for vessels operating from U.K. ports, with another ‘class’ of locations known. These are The National Archives (until 2004 the Public Records Office), Kew, Surrey, U.K.; the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, U.K.; various ‘county’ records offices and other miscellaneous collections spread around the U.K.; and overwhelmingly, Memorial University, Newfoundland, Canada.
As already touched on in the main mercantile page, it might be thought that these documents may not have survived enemy action in war. However, this is not actually the case. It seems that much effort was expended in securing the ‘office’ copies of these documents. This not only covers the World Wars of the 20th century (or at least the First World War), but also earlier conflicts in which British merchantmen were lost. Regarding the Great War 1914-1919, strangely the documents of many others on commercial account which were not destroyed violently are missing though. Perhaps, through other pressing matters the state apparatus did not put a high priority on this. For some time I thought that much of the documentation of vessels that were taken up for Government Service (Mercantile Fleet Auxiliaries) during the First World War was missing. However, there is a partially separate listing of Crew Lists at Memorial, described as vessels on Admiralty service 1914 to 1920 under T.124 forms (for commissioned vessels). This, I have found, is slightly misleading, as there are also others on other ‘T’ forms. In all likelihood, these will cover the majority of vessels (but not all) on Government Service for the First World War period. Some of the outstanding can be found within naval files, especially those extracted for the writing of the official histories by the Naval Historical Branch, but not all by any means.
Generally the coastal-trade was much less stringently policed. Undoubtedly part of this was down to an 1851 amendment to the Mercantile Marine Act of the year before, which exempted vessels of less than 80 tons burden involved purely in U.K. coastal work from all this paperwork. However, this does not explain fully a great many gaps which appear in these records.
Another variety of documents missing belonged to vessels working permanently within the Empire. It is clear that these were held by local Colonial Mercantile Marine Offices, without any intention of ever sending them to the U.K. Not only do these cover entities such one ship companies of the Pacific nitrate trade working out of Singapore in the 1920s, but also such esteemed companies as P & O, based in Bombay in the 1860s and 1870s. Some such documents are definitely known to exist within state records at Hobart, Tasmania and also in Sydney, N.S.W., both in Australia (It should be noted that those in these past outposts of empire may be filed in orders different from those in the U.K. post 1857. Apart from anything else, I have seen correspondence relating to some First World War era movements that show that those in Australia were originally held at ports of signing on.) I have also heard that there are some within state records in Ottawa, Canada and also in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In the past I had been led to believe that any records surviving in India would be at New Delhi, thanks to a civil servant friend I have learned that there are some in Bombay. This would seem to indicate that there may be others at Calcutta. However, I understand those at Hong Kong were burnt by the Japanese during the Second World War and Singapore’s did not survive independence. Although having made enquiries I have found no information on any surviving records in South Africa.
Also, few examples of Schedule G and Schedule M have survived. This is a pity from a genealogical point of view, as these can be used to check ticket numbers and signatures.
So, where are these records post 1860?
For the years 1861 and 1862 all surviving ‘British’ examples (minus 10 per cent at T.N.A.) are held at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, U.K. They also have ninety per cent of the years ending in five - 1865, 1875, 1885 etc., etc. Of course, there are exceptions here - 1945 and from 1975 onwards. (Those for 1975 and 1985 are said to have been transferred by the R.G.S.S. but are not yet available to the public.)
T.N.A., Kew holds ten per cent (one in ten boxes) of all years 1861 to 1938 and 1951 until 1994. Apparently all from 1939 to 1950 are now available, in which case from the searches I have conducted there is a not insignificant percentage of these missing. The earlier sloppy catalogued information has now been greatly improved, although there may still be problems in locating some of these documents.
T.N.A. also keep a separate selection of ‘celebrated’ ships. These are the better known vessels of the esteemed passenger liners: of famous companies such as Cunard and the White Star Line (before their forced amalgamation in the 1930s). However, the lesser known vessels of these same companies, such as White Star’s BALTIC, are not held within this class. Incidentally, the choice of the holdings in this class were made by staff members at the N.M.M., Greenwich and close related to their own interests and projects.
Some Second World War Allied merchant vessels’ documents are also now available at Kew. As per normal, these have not been organised in an efficient manner. One chunk, identified as Dutch are in BT 99, while the other, shown as Allied but also including Dutch freighters, are in BT 387.
Quite by accident, that is in conducting background research for an ongoing project, I have found that some of these records pertaining to vessels owned by railway companies (from 1863 onwards) are also at Kew. These are within the general class RAIL. There are also some others, scattered through government files.
An unspecified, but small holding of others from 1863 to 1913 is spread around various British county record offices. (Incidentally, a client has informed me that some catalogued as being in Northumberland Record Office are in fact now in Newcastle.) Others are known to have been given to back to commercial parent companies c.1969. An example of these are some of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company (that are now held by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich). Others, such as many from Cardiff registered companies seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth, but may lie gathering dust in archives somewhere.
I also have found two other locations, not apparently shown on any of the official listings, from an internal memo. This indicates that some documents also went to the National Library of Australia, Canberra and the Public Record Office of Ireland, Dublin.
However, the bulk until 1972 (of around 70 per cent of those once held by the R.G.S.S.) are at the Maritime History Archive, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, Newfoundland A1C 5S7: rescued from proposed destruction. For readers’ information, Memorial University’s Maritime History Archive website address is http://www.mun.ca/mha/. All their mercantile documents up to 1950 have been catalogued, but certainly as of 2005 those subsequently have not yet been dealt with and physical searches are required.
With the exceptions of the National Maritime Museum (that has no catalogue of holdings); the recently acquired holdings at Memorial University (covering 1951-76); and those in odd collections, the locations of all other surviving Crew lists and Agreements can theoretically be identified by a number of listings. So, apart from post Second World War vessels, generally these locations of surviving documents can be found, although because no one institution holds all the relevant catalogues, visits to multiple archives are often required in the greater London area. As indicated by the word ‘theoretically’, unfortunately none of these catalogues can be entirely relied on, with some being areas being really less than excellent.
Also, as already stated in the main webpage a small percentage of merchantmen’s official logs have survived, filed along with the Crew Lists and Agreements. This is dealt with in a separate webpage. Also, by the 20th century often the forms of Crew Lists and Agreements that coastal vessels used were combined with their logs.
It is worth pointing out that when conducting searches of these documents at Kew. they are not produced individually. One has to physically search through the boxes they are stowed in. After 1857 it generally becomes easier as they are retained in their numerical sequence. But, this cannot be promised prior to this date, when filed by port of register. Sometimes they are still bound up by pieces of sealed-cord that civil servants placed around them so long ago and often they are generally in alphabetical order. However, often they are not, and this it seems is the fault of people conducting modern searches who have little concern for others. Also, these documents can be in a very poor condition indeed, especially if cheap paper was used originally. (This is very apparent from documents from the Dundalk area that literally crumble when touched.) Anyway, wearing one’s ‘Sunday best’ clothes is not recommended for a day out at Kew looking at Crew Lists and Agreements
It must also be stressed that certainly in the first fifty years or so there was no one form of words in agreements (or indeed any of the documents covered by the Mercantile Marine Act of 1851), although there are phrases and paragraphs common to many. Rather than use the documents supplied or sold at shipping offices some of the larger companies obviously had their own specific forms printed, especially in cases where the terms and conditions were identical, in liner trades: such as the Wilson Line of Hull for the Baltic trade. However, all these documents had to be approved by Local Marine Boards. Some articles even contained advertising at the top, from chandleries to trade unions. Profits from this may have been used in the pursuance of setting up of sailors’ homes, which was actively encouraged by this Act in another way. Later, at the turn of the 20th century, Board of Trade correspondence shows a great deal of effort in standardising paperwork.
With 20th century documents, readers might notice that some were printed in green, whereas others are in red. The former were the copies that were kept onboard the vessels and surrendered at the end of the voyage. Where red copies have been retained, often these also have additional paperwork, including that relating to survivors and were those held by the shipping authority at the port of signing on.
Study of the original legislation, along with practical experience of viewing these records underpins this section. Minor points, such as the identity of the individual who proposed ships’ official numbers, can be found within publications mentioned elsewhere on this site.
Following are examples of different types of vessels, giving an idea of types information that may be extracted from Crew Lists and Agreements:-