Catalogue description Admiralty: Hydrographic Department: Ships' Remark Books.

Search within or browse this series to find specific records of interest.

Date range

Details of ADM 346
Reference: ADM 346
Title: Admiralty: Hydrographic Department: Ships' Remark Books.

This series contains records of the voyages made by specific vessels, with particular emphasis on navigation. Categories of information recorded include positions, sightings, weather conditions, local anomalies and occasionally difficulties or conflicts. Some also contain letters, hydrographic survey drawings and coastal views.

From c1760 it was obligatory for captains and masters of naval ships to record observations about the coasts and ports they visited, and supply this information to the Admiralty in ships' remark books. After 1795 these were supplied to the Hydrographer of the Navy for use in the compilation of charts and navigational publications.

Date: c1760-1909

This series includes two sets of remark books:

1. Ships' Remark Books (referred to as 'Miscellaneous Papers'). These are 114 bound volumes each containing a number of books, together with items of hydrographic interest received in the Hydrographic Department. There are three sub-series:

  • (i) volumes 1-29 (mostly 1760-1780) arranged in alphabetical order by initial letter of ship's name. Some volumes contain more than one book for the same ship; such books are not necessarily bound sequentially;
  • (ii) volumes 30-108 (mostly c1790-c1830) arranged in geographical sequence, except volumes 107 and 108 which are chronological. The system employed in the geographical arrangement is the same as for 'Miscellaneous Letters and Papers' found in ADM 348;
  • (iii) volumes 109-114 West Indies and North America Station (1825-1853) arranged in alphabetical order by ship's name.

2. Remark Books (c6000 books, 1834-1909). Before 1861 each year's collection of remark books were bound up together. In 1861 specially printed remark books were issued to each naval vessel. There are therefore two sub-series:

  • (i) Composite Remark Books: one volume for each year 1834-1861. These are 28 bound volumes containing books in alphabetical order by ship's name. In addition, remark books for 1851-1871 are bound as one volume;
  • (ii) Individual Remark Books: one volume per ship's voyage, in alphabetical order by ship's name. The usefulness of the later Remark Books was assessed under five heads: for Light List, Charts, Sailing Directions, Passage Books and the Compass Department. Labels on the front covers record these assessments.

Held by: The National Archives, Kew
Legal status: Public Record(s)
Language: English

Board of Admiralty, Hydrographic and Harbour Department, 1856-1862

Board of Admiralty, Hydrographic Department, 1795-1856

Board of Admiralty, Hydrographic Department, 1863-1964

Physical description: 26 volume(s)
Access conditions: Open
Immediate source of acquisition:

From 2007 United Kingdom Hydrographic Office

Custodial history: These records form part of the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office (UKHO) Historic Archive formerly held at Taunton (as an authorised place of deposit under section 4(3) of the Public Records Act, 1958) and transferred to The National Archives commencing 2005.
Accruals: Series is accruing
Unpublished finding aids:

Some individual volumes of remark books contain indexes. No comprehensive index exists, but ADM 355 contains an index to all remark books received by the Hydrographic Office after 1812 and three mid-twentieth century manuscript Index Books to volumes 1-50, 51-96 and 97-114. Partial indexes compiled in 1958 and 1968-73 are in ADM 356 (These series are yet to be released onto TNA's Catalogue).

Administrative / biographical background:

In 1759, Admiralty Instructions were issued to Royal Navy Captains regarding the making of accurate observations, of all useful information about the state of home and foreign coasts. These observations were to include sands, shoals, sea marks, soundings, bays and harbours, times of high water and setting of tides, and in particular directions for sailing into ports (or roads) and for avoiding dangers. Practical information such as the best anchoring and watering places, and descriptions of the best methods of obtaining water, fuel, refreshment and provisions was also requested. Fortifications were to be described and their form, strength and position noted. The instructions specifically mentioned that, where there were artists on board ship who were sufficiently able, they were to provide illustrations (with references and explanations attached) of these details.

The Master of the vessel was instructed to keep a book in which all these observations were to be recorded. An index of place names mentioned was to be provided. At the end of the voyage, these Ships' Remark Books were to be submitted to the Secretary of the Admiralty as part of the official record. Many accrued in the Admiralty in the period 1760 to 1795 and thereafter in the Hydrographical Department.

The instruction of 1759 had been prompted by the realisation that the Royal Navy was suffering (for want of information) in its conduct of the Seven Years War (1756-1763) with the French, and that journals of the ships cruising off the coast of France had been found to be defective in this respect. Some thirty-five years later, the heavy naval losses incurred in 1793 at the outbreak of war against Revolutionary France - the result not of enemy action but of inadequate navigational charts - generated a demand for improved navigational information to be supplied to the Royal Navy. The lack of charts and the threat of a world-wide escalation of this Naval war, were contributory factors in the establishment of the Hydrographical Department of the Admiralty in 1795.

The first Hydrographer to the Board of Admiralty, Alexander Dalrymple, was to take charge of a quantity of original documents (surveys, unpublished charts, views and plans) which needed analysis in order to create the necessary charts to ensure safe passage for the Royal Navy. The Admiralty holdings in Dalrymple's charge in 1795 had been accumulated from disparate authorities in the pay and employ of the Admiralty, but who were not part of the naval service. Surveyors were obliged to deposit their original surveys at the Admiralty, but were at the same time free to publish for their own benefit. Information had also been gathered from other authorities including captured material from foreign governments.

This considerable collection had hitherto been in the care of one of the clerks to the Secretary of the Board, but little had been done to turn the information it held into reliable charts; and Dalrymple was primarily concerned with the arrangement and analysis of the information rather than chart preparation. He identified those documents which could be used for chart compilation, and created bundles and folios for each geographical area covered. Chart publication was begun in 1800, but proceeded slowly, and by 1808 had used little of the information contained in the collection of original documents.

Under Dalrymple's successor, Captain Thomas Hurd, chart publication increased, partly fostered by an increased interest in surveying among Naval officers following the distribution, throughout the Fleet, of Dalrymple's 'Treatise on Maritime Surveying', published in 1806. New charts were almost entirely produced from the accumulation of recent surveys, meanwhile the collection of original documents remained unclassified and largely unused. In the peace following the Napoleonic Wars of 1799-1815, Hurd established the Surveying Service of the Navy (1817) as part of the Hydrographical Department, with staff and ships dedicated to the task, and responsible to the Board for the regular supply of charts and other navigational material to the Fleet.

Captain W E Parry, a noted Arctic explorer, was appointed to succeed Hurd in 1823, but it was 6 months before he was able to take up his duties. In the interim, J W Croker, First Secretary to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, took over supervision of the Hydrographical Department. He appointed Lt A Becher RN to catalogue the documents which at that time included some 3000 Ships' Remark Books. Croker devised a system (based on geographical areas) for the arrangement of the charts and survey documents and gave Becher specific and detailed instructions to classify and arrange them for immediate reference and use. This was to include the compilation of an Admiralty catalogue of charts, plans and views which was produced annually from 1825, chart publications having been on sale to the general public from 1823.

By 1826, Becher had listed the Ships' Remark Books in alphabetical order of ships' names and dates. Two naval surveyors were appointed in 1828, to prepare 'Sailing Directions' to accompany the charts. 'Sailing Directions' (commonly known as 'Pilots') are comprehensive descriptions of coastal features and conditions, details of which may aid navigation. The first edition appeared in 1829, following the publication of the first 'Lists of Lights' (1827). These were were the first of a number of complementary publications intended to provide navigational information in addition to that contained on the Admiralty charts, and based on the observations recorded in the Ships' Remark Books.

Sir Francis Beaufort, Hydrographer from 1829 to 1855, presided over a period of innovation in chart publication and steady growth in survey. He published 'Tide Tables' from 1833 and approved the use of information recorded in the Ships' Remark Books to keep charts up to date. The first information of significance in chart correction appeared in the 'Nautical Magazine' published in 1832. Two years later the first 'Notices to Mariners' was published, specifically designed to provide mariners with information regarding new and significant navigational information prior to its incorporation in the charts.

The creation of a Scientific Branch in the Admiralty in 1831 (which included the Hydrographic Office and four other bodies, and with Beaufort as the Head), fostered an increasing interest in earth science (as well as surveying), and led to the sponsorship of expeditions combining surveying and scientific research. Forty years later the laying of ocean-floor telegraph cables in the Atlantic was a stimulant to the investigation of the seabed.

From 1828 there was increasing direction from successive Hydrographers in the matter of surveying techniques and procedures, reports required, and house style for fair sheets and charts. This is reflected in the attempt to standardise the Ships Remark Books in 1861 with the issue of specially printed books to each Royal Naval vessel, and the subsequent analysis of the usefulness of the content in relation to the needs of the Hydrographic Department.

In 1889, the Admiralty Board published comprehensive 'Instructions for the Hydrographer'. W J L Wharton, Hydrographer from 1884 to 1904, published 'Hydrographic Surveying', a comprehensive manual of surveying, which was in use until it was replaced in 1938 by the 'Admiralty Manual of Hydrographic Surveying'.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the skills of surveying and chart production were consolidated, and world coverage of Admiralty charts and related publications achieved. The status of the Hydrographic Department both within the Admiralty and on the international stage had been established.

Have you found an error with this catalogue description?

Help with your research

How to look for...