The Prize Papers of the High Court of Admiralty are papers relating to, or collected immediately after, the capture of enemy or neutral ships in wartime, by the Royal Navy, by privateers or by Customs vessels, or their seizure in port at the outbreak of war. As such, the Prize Papers are an unparelleled source of documentation for life at sea, maritime trade, and letter-writing from multiple countries, in at least 19 languages.
The Prize Papers include the notarised examinations of captured crews before commissioners in the nearest friendly port, subsequent proceedings in the High Court of Admiralty in London, and two kinds of exhibits.
The first type of exhibit is the collection of all the papers found on the ship, including ship's papers, the master's and others' private archives, and mail in transit. These were numbered by the captor or the court, and abstracts and translations were made of those not in English. The second type of exhibit comprises copies of proofs of the neutral status of the ships or cargo, notarised before the ruling authorities of neutral states. If neutral status was accepted, the relevant papers from the first set of exhibits were returned to their owners (leaving behind a ghost archive in their English translations), unless an appeal was launched: see HCA 42 and HCA 45.
Most of these ships were brought into English ports, a few into Welsh ones, and more into Irish ports (reflecting trade routes). For convenience Lisbon and Livorno [Leghorn] were also treated as friendly ports, with the English consuls there able to take examinations. Similar captures made further away were taken before colonial Vice-Admiralty Courts: see HCA 49.
Until 2013, these captures were not searchable by name: now, all except the wars of 1652-1697 have been catalogued by at least the name of the ship and the name of the master. Some wars have more detailed entries, but so far the only those ships taken in the War of the Austrian Succession [HCA 32/94-159, 1740-1748] have all been catalogued in the new pattern, giving a voyage and capture history with details of cargo, a list of court papers, and a brief listing of the ship's papers and any mail in transit. These will be given individual descriptions, and be digitised from 2022 onwards, by the University of Oldenburg, our partners in the Prize Papers Project.