Introduction to Shipping Records

By Tom Richardson, Record Assistant

We hold a wide range of sources for maritime history spread across a number of the collections in our custody. This article will focus on some of the records of merchant ships and their crews found amongst these collections.

Scarborough’s Company of Shipowners and Master Mariners

Within the Scarborough Corporation Archive are the records of Scarborough’s Company of Shipowners and Master Mariners which begin in 1602. With each voyage, the owner and crew of a ship would make a contribution to a common fund to be distributed to relieve ‘poor and distressed broken seafaring men’ and their families. The account book of the company gives us several lists of Scarborough ships together with their owners and names of some of those receiving relief.

DC/SCB XI accounts of Company of Shipowners and Master Mariners from 1614 which lists Scarborough’s ships along with their owners.

A transcription, with modernised spelling, is given below:

[Wardens:] Mr William Thompson, Mr John Lacy, Mr Robert Fyshe, Mr Thomas Forde

Received by them at their entry 34s 3d

Disbursed by them as appears per account 33s 7d

Received of William Headleye for 12 voyages in the Angallant 11s wherof allowed for an old debt 5s 10d   5s 2d

Item of Mr Dobson for 3 voyages in the Maudlen 2s 4d

Item of Michael Cowper for 1 voyage in the Elsabeth 7d

more for the last year before 7d

Item of Robert Marshall for 9 voyages in the Gift of God 7s 6d

Item of Richard Harrison for 8 voyages in the Catheryn 6s

in discharge of all former arrearages

Item of George Pearson for 6 voyages in the George 3s 4d

Item more for the last year 3s 4d

Item of Francis Beale for 7 … voyages in the John Baptist 4s 3d

Item of Robert Reynolde for 11 voyages in the Dionyce 7s

Item of Robert Monckman for 12 voyages in the Ellin 9s 9d

Item of Mr Dobson for 4 voyages for the Lyon 3s 6d

Item of Mr Dobson for 4 voyages and a Norway voyage in the Newyeresgift 3s 10d

Shipping Registers

The Merchant Shipping Act of 1786 required all British ships of more than 15 tons to register with Customs in their home port. We hold the resulting registers from Scarborough and Whitby covering the period 1786 to 1988. They give a detailed description of each vessel along with its ownership and master. From 1869 compulsory registration was extended to all fishing boats, and we hold these registers for Scarborough and Whitby covering dates up to 1988.

NG/RS 1/1 Register of British Ships from Whitby, 1813, showing entry for the Esk commanded by William Scoresby, a whaling ship.
NG/RS 3/2 Register of Fishing Boats for Whitby 1886-1906 showing registrations WY1 William Ash and WY2 Get Away.

Crew Lists

Central government began to keep crew lists (also called muster books or muster rolls) for all merchant ships in 1747. A large number of these records survive though they are now split between several archive offices. We hold several hundred crew lists (which often include Log Books) from Scarborough and Whitby from the years 1857, 1861 to 1867, 1872 and 1912. Crew lists for other years can be found at either The National Archives, The National Maritime Museum or Memorial University in Canada.

Crew lists can also be found within the records of charities. We hold some of these records for Scarborough vessels covering dates 1841 to 1850 (in the Scarborough Merchant Seamen’s Hospital Archive) and for Whitby vessels covering dates 1835 to 1840. We also hold microfilm copies of Whitby muster roll ledgers covering the period 1747 to 1795, taken from the archives of Scarborough Merchant Seamen’s Hospital held by Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society.

NG/RS Crew list and agreement from the Whitby ship Alliance 1867
NG/RS Page of Log Book from the Alliance.

Having left Cronstadt on the 11th October 1867, the Alliance became overwhelmed with heavy seas and was abandoned on 29th October 1867. Rescued by a Captain Roer, the crew were taken to Christiania (in Denmark) from where they were transported back to the United Kingdom.


The above mentioned records represent only a very small selection of the shipping and seafaring records we hold. Many more can be located using our online catalogue and we are happy to answer any enquiries relating to the items in our custody.

Further reading

The National Archives and the Royal Museums Greenwich publish some very useful guides to researching merchant shipping and seamen:

Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada holds a large proportion of British crew lists from the period 1857-1976 and provide a good introduction to those records on their website.

The National Archives also have some useful research guides for crew lists:

The library of the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society holds many important records relating to Whitby’s seafaring past. It is situated inside the Whitby Museum which holds a fascinating collection of objects and artworks relating to Whitby.

Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre holds objects and records relating to Scarborough’s seafaring past and has many interesting and informative articles on its website.

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