Catalogue description Records of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen and successor

Details of Division within BT
Reference: Division within BT
Title: Records of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen and successor

Records of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen and successor relating to the registration of ships and merchant seamen.

Registration of ships:

  • Transcripts and transactions relating to the registration of ships and subsequent changes in ownership, masters or other registration details are in BT 107 - BT 111 and BT 340 with annual lists of ships registered in BT 162-BT 163.
  • Registers of changes of names of ship are in BT 374.
  • Ships' official logs for the period 1902-1919 are in BT 165.
  • Ship registration papers from the Shanghai Registry are in BT 368.
  • An alphabetical register of masters is in BT 115.
  • Registers of changes of masters are in BT 336.

Registers of seamen:

War service:

  • Rolls of honour, wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 are in BT 339.
  • An index of First World War Mercantile Marine Medals is in BT 351.
  • Daily casualty registers, war of 1939-1945 are in BT 347.
  • Merchant seamen prisoner of war records, war of 1939 -1945 are in BT 373.
  • Log books, crew agreements and associated records are in BT 380.
  • An index to WWII ships' logbooks and crew agreements are in BT 385.
  • Database records of World War II medals issued to merchant seaman are in BT 395 and BT 399.


  • Registers of apprentices, with a sample of copy indentures, are in BT 150-BT 152.
  • Registers of births, deaths and marriages at sea are in BT 158-BT 160 and BT 334.
  • Records of Royal Navy reservists are in BT 164 and BT 377.
  • Inquiries into deaths at sea are in BT 341.
  • Miscellaneous records of the Registrar General's Office are in BT 167.
  • Records of the Merchant Seamen who served on Royal Navy ships under the T124X and T124T agreementsBT 390.

Date: 1702-2002

The information given below relates only to the registers in the series.

The online list gives two sets of dates for each register, one of the years during which further service is recorded. There is room in each register for twenty years service to be marked up, and any continuation is carried over into a second volume, which explains the apparent duplication of certificate numbers. When a man dies or ceased to hold this certificate, the same number was often used for a new man, and it may be necessary to search in more than one volume for a man's entry.

There are notes in the margins of the registers of other ranks or certificates previously or subsequently held. These are usually in a readily intelligible form. 'CC' and 'CS' refer to certificates of competency or service. 'HTPS' refers to Home Trade Passenger Service. '2M', 'IM' and 'OC' refer to certificates as Ordinary Captain, and First and Second Mate. 'PN' means previous number. 'BB' is a reference to a page in the Black Books, containing notes of disciplinary proceedings.

The five sub-series form a single numerical series, and the particular sub-series in which an entry falls can be identified from the following summary:

  • 1 to 34,999 are in BT 122
  • 35,000 to 79,999 are in BT 124
  • 81,000 to 99,999 are in BT 122
  • 100,000 to 102,999 are in BT 125
  • 120,000 to 135,453 are in BT 126
  • 0500 to 034,999 are in BT 122
  • 001 to 00999 are in BT 123

Related material:

Records of the Establishment Department's Mercantile Marine Branch are in BT 235

Separated material:

Original shipping registers were kept at the customs house at each local port of registry and may be still held there or may have been transferred to the appropriate local record office, as have been some records of Mercantile Marine offices.

Legal status: Public Record(s)
Language: English

General Register and Record Office of Seamen, 1835-1872

Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen, 1872-1992

Registry of Shipping and Seamen, 1992-

Physical description: 80 series
Closure status: Open Document, Open Description
Publication note:

For further information see:

Merchant Seamen: Records of the RGSS, A Guide to Research Guides A brief typescript history of the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen, written in 1945 by the then Registrar General, W J Killingback, is available at the Public Record Office, Resource Centre and Library. \\na-vfiler1\lan-replication\WEB\Production\webapps\Procat\catalogue\Internal Site\leaflets\

Administrative / biographical background:

The Mercantile Marine Act of 1850 (13 & 14 Vic c 93) transferred all functions relating to seamen and apprentices who were not in the Royal Navy, including the General Register and Record Office of Seamen, which registered merchant seamen by means of a register ticket system, from the Admiralty to the Board of Trade, which thereby inherited the office of Registrar General of Seamen.

The same act established local Shipping Offices, later called Mercantile Marine Offices, where all crews of foreign-going vessels were to be engaged and discharged under formal articles of agreement, a measure that was intended to combat exploitation, and provided for the issue of certificates of competency to masters and mates.

The Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 (17 Vic c 104), which gave 'general superintendence of all matters relating to Merchant Ships' to the Board of Trade and required all British ships to be registered, also gave the General Register Office the duties of keeping 'a Register of all persons who serve in ships subject to the provisions of this act' and preserving the ships' official logs.

In 1857 the registration of seamen was abandoned, as being too expensive and no longer necessary. The development of a professional navy, with the introduction of continuous service for ratings after 1853, and the formation of a Royal Naval Reserve after 1859 meant that the Admiralty no longer required a separate register of merchant seamen, although the Registrar General did co-ordinate the enrolment and payment of training allowances to reservists. From 1857 until 1913, the crew lists, to which no index of names was kept, became the only central record of serving merchant seamen.

The Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen (abbreviated to RSS, below) was formally established by the Merchant Shipping Act of 1872 (35 & 36 Vic c 73), when the Registrar General of Seamen took over responsibility for returns relating to the registration of ships from the Board of Customs' Chief Registrar of Shipping.

Customs officers in each port of registry continued to register ships, issue certificates of registration and record subsequent transactions, sending duplicate entries to the Registrar General. By 1888 RSS had five divisions: Registration of Shipping; Royal Naval Reserve; Masters Mates Engineers and Skippers; Ships Employment and Records.

The Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 reinforced previous legislation and required all British sea fishing boats, irrespective of size, to be registered.

In 1910, the Advisory Committee on Merchant Shipping proposed to the Board of Trade that a Central Index Register of merchant seamen should again be created. A Central Index Register was started in October 1913 and maintained until 1941.

Registration was made compulsory by the Registration of Merchant Seamen Order of September 1918, under the Defence of the Realm Act.

RSS was transferred from the Board of Trade to the Ministry of Shipping in 1939 and to the Ministry's successor, the Ministry of War Transport in 1941. In the same year it moved from London to Cardiff. The Essential Work (Merchant Navy) Order 1941 created a Merchant Navy Reserve Pool. To ensure that seamen would always be available to man vessels, the Government paid them to remain in the Reserve Pool when they were ashore.

Now that continuous paid employment instead of casual employment was available to all seamen, comprehensive and effective registration became possible. All those who had served at sea during the previous five years were required to register with the Registrar General and a new Central Register of Seamen was started. The Central Register of Seamen was maintained until 1972, after which registration effectively ceased.

After 1946, the Merchant Navy Reserve Pool was disbanded. The Royal Naval Reserve was combined with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1957. RSS became part of the Marine Crews Division of the Ministry of Transport, moved back to the Board of Trade in 1965 and was absorbed into the Department of Trade and Industry in 1970. In 1975 it moved to the Department of Trade and then in 1984 returned to the Department of Transport.

The simpler Small Ships Register, for craft less than 24 meters length, was introduced in 1983. The register was first run by the Royal Yachting Association; then by the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Centre Swansea and then from 1997 by RSS

In 1992 RSS became part of the Marine Safety Agency; and in 1998 the Marine Safety and Coastguard agencies merged to form the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

In 1994 a new system of registration for ships was introduced including the requirement to renew every five years, and this was followed in 1997 by computerisation of all vessel registration on the Fleet Management System (FMS).

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