Tracing Master Mariners In British Records

Debbie Beavis 21/04/2002

The filmed volumes of Lloyd's Captains' Registers found in large archives worldwide are frequently cited as the main, if not the only source, for tracing the career of a Master Mariner. This is unfortunate as they are just one of the sources available and they do have limitations. The purpose of this posting is not to explain the reasons for and methods of compiling information at each source, which for most people is irrelevant. Rather it is to list the main sources available for anyone wishing to trace Master Mariners. It is not an exhaustive list. Where there is overlap you should check all sources. Remember also that most Masters and Mates will have seen service as ordinary seamen or apprentices before gaining their certificate and the various Indexes and Registers of Seamen and Seamen's Tickets should be also be searched together with Registers of Apprentices. Certain sources replicate information found in others, but as in any research, you are wise to check all possible sources.

Before 1845 Masters and other Officers were not separately registered. Use the Indexes and Registers of Seamen and Seamen's Tickets. (See Guide to 19C Merchant Seamen)

In 1845, a system of voluntary examinations for masters and mates of foreign trade vessels was introduced by the Board of Trade. The Mercantile Marine Act 1850 required examinations to be compulsory, and new masters or mates passing the examination were granted Certificates of Competency. Masters and Mates who had already been serving in that capacity on foreign going vessels before 1 January 1851 were granted Certificates of Service. In 1854 the requirement for certification was applied to masters and mates of home trade vessels also.

Records of the Registrar General of Shipping & Seamen


1845 -1854 BT115 Masters and Mates of all craft; Alphabetical Register of Masters Extracted from BT114 - Register of Merchant Seamen [q.v]
1845 - 1850 BT143 Men passing voluntary examinations for Masters; Certificates of Competency & Service Misc.  
1845 - 1921 BT122-128 Registers of Certificates of Competency and Service, Masters and Mates Home & Foreign Trade Series of six registers in several volumes indexed by BT127 with key.
1845 - 1894 BT127 Indexes to Registers of Certificates of Competency and Service, Masters and Mates, Home & Foreign Trade  
1880 - 1921 BT129-130 Registers of Certificates of Competency - Fishing Officers Two registers in several volumes indexed by BT138
1880 - 1921 BT138 Indexes to Registers of Certificates of Competency, Fishing Officers  
1910 - 1930 BT352 Indexes To Certificates of Competency - Masters, Mates, Engineers and Fishing Officers, Home and Foreign Trade  
1913 - 1935 BT318 Registers of Examinations for Certificates of Masters, Mates and Engineers - Returns of Passings and Failures  
1917 - 1968 BT317 Registers of Masters and Mates Certificates, Passings and Renewal  


Lloyd's Captains' Registers

1851 - 1947 Series of Registers each in several volumes predominantly only listing men employed in the foreign trade. The earliest date available is 1869 which has been printed and published on microfiche. This is readily available for purchase. Although this contains retrospective details to 1851, it officially contains the details only of those Masters in service in 1869 though there are isolated entries where the man is known to have died, and the information had not yet been transmitted.

Note that these registers can contain a wealth of information about individual voyages and also some biographical information about each man. Original Lloyd's Captains' Registers are at the Guildhall Library, Manuscripts Department, Aldermanbury, London EC2P 2EJ. Lloyd's Captains' Registers »»

There is a description of Lloyd's Captains' Registers at "Captains Registers" And Related Sources »» which explains fully the information they do or do not contain, and why, sometimes, an expected entry does not appear.


Guildhall Library

The Guildhall Library staff will undertake only limited research in response to written enquiries only and expect you to be able to give them the name and date of service at least before they will agree to do a search they do not offer a full research service but are by and large helpful within the limits of their available time. Note that some of the registers may not be copied at all due to their fragile condition, and that in any case, a black and white photocopies are inadequate as the registers have colour coded entries.

Most of the registers have been filmed, and should be available at large archives worldwide which have a maritime section. You should be aware however that some of them have been very badly filmed and can be virtually illegible this is not the fault of the originals which are perfectly clear.


Continuing Research

Published Sources

Lloyd's Register of Shipping and Mercantile Navy List both contain lists of those men who passed the voluntary examination, and the latter includes lists of all those granted certificates Master Mariners Continuing Research, Lloyd's Register of Shipping and Mercantile Navy Listfor some periods, these are readily available at many large libraries and maritime institutions.

Once the various registers and indexes of Masters and Mates have been searched, the next step is to obtain a copy of the man's Application for a certificate. Having passed the examination for a certificate of competency, a man had to make written application for the granting of the certificate. The information was entered in registers and the resultant information is of great value to the researcher.