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Civil Registration - Birth, Marriages & Deaths At Sea (Overseas)

Nature of Source

Registers of British and foreign passengers who were born, married or died at sea on British registered vessels or vessels registered in the colonies. The requirement to register these events resulted from the introduction of civil registration in 1837 in England and Wales but did not extend to events that occurred on foreign soil. The registers also included British subjects travelling on foreign registered ships carrying passengers to or from the UK. The registers were compiled from the ships' official logs and information given by the ship's masters to the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen and its predecessor the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen (RGSS). Be aware that problems occurred with the quality of record keeping on board as many passengers were not recorded at all by the authorities or the details about the passengers was often wrong. The RGSS transferred details of the event to the relevant General Register Office for England and Wales, Scotland (from 1855) and Ireland (from 1864).

Deaths at sea have been officially registered since 1837 for deaths occurring in British waters and for vessels sailing from a British port. Up to 1889 separate series of registers were kept for seamen and passengers but in 1890 a combined series was introduced. In theory the event should appear in the appropriate local registry, however about a half of the events were never reported with the only record of the event remaining in these registers.

Also check newspapers for reports of disasters at sea. Searching the Official Index to The Times and Palmer's Index to The Times, 1790-1905 which carry lists of shipping accidents will show whether the incident attracted national coverage. Local newspapers might carry coverage and provide more details. If the accident occurred further afield then foreign newspapers should also be consulted. Another source for a death at sea can be found on memorials commemorating lives lost at sea which can be found at the port from which the boat sailed or nearer to the scene of the accident. The National Maritime Museum hosts a database of maritime memorials.

See also
Consular and Overseas Records of Births/Baptisms, Marriages and Deaths/Burials
Merchant Navy - Death At Sea Indexes

Where Found

The National Archives (BT 158, Registers of Births, Deaths and Marriages of Passengers at Sea, 1854-1890; BT 159, Registers of Deaths at Sea of British Nationals, 1875-1888; BT 160, Registers of Births at Sea of British Nationals, 1875-1891; BT 334, Registers and Indexes of Births, Marriages and Deaths of Passengers and Seamen at Sea, 1891-1972; RG 32-RG 36, General Register Office: Miscellaneous Foreign Returns, 1831-1969)
Merseyside Maritime Museum
(Registers and records of Births, Deaths and Marriages at Sea and records of shipping companies including the Cunard Line)
The National Maritime Museum (Returns of Births and Deaths of Passengers, 1939-1963)
General Register Office for England and Wales (Overseas births, marriages and deaths certificates)

Period Covered

1854 - 1960

Genealogical Value

name of ship, official number, port of registry, date of birth, name, sex, name of father, rank or profession or occupation of father, name of mother, maiden surname of mother, father's nationality/birthplace and last place of abode, mother's nationality/birthplace and last place of abode.
name of ship, official number, port of registry, date of death, place of death, name of deceased, sex, age, rating [for seamen], rank or profession or occupation [for non-seamen], nationality and birthplace, last place of abode, cause of death, remarks.
name of ship, official number, names of both parties, ages, whether single, widow or widower, profession or occupation, fathers' names, professions or occupations of fathers

Further References

Annal, David & Collins, Audrey. Birth, Marriage and Death Records: A Guide for Family Historians: Pen & Sword Books, 2012  
Higgs, Edward. Life, Death And Statistics: Civil Registration, Censuses And The Work Of The General Register Office, 1836-1952: Local Population Studies, 2004  Buy Now on Amazon
Watts, Christopher T. and Watts, Michael J. Tracing Births, Deaths and Marriages at Sea: Society of Genealogists, 2004  Buy Now on Amazon

Websites (General Register Office Overseas & Military Indexes) (findmypast Knowledge base guide to overseas records) (Guide to Birth, Marriage and Death records onboard ships) (TNA Your Archives Guide Births, Marriages and Deaths at Sea) (TNA Research guidance Looking for records of a birth of a British national at sea or abroad) (The National Archives Media: Overseas births, marriages and deaths: records in The National Archives) (The National Archives Media: Tracing births and deaths at sea) (Research your family history using the General Register Office) ( guide to Overseas Records) (National Maritime Museum Research guide A3: Tracing family history from maritime records) (Ship Wrecks)

Online Databases

BMD Registers (Registers compiled from ships' official logs of births, deaths and marriages of passengers at sea by the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen (RGSS) and its predecessor held by TNA in series BT 158, BT 159 and BT 160) (Maritime BMDs including information from TNA series CO 386/170-172, Births and deaths of emigrants at sea; CUST 67/74, Births and deaths at sea registered in Falmouth; BT 334, BMDs of passengers and seamen at sea)
(Overseas birth, marriage and death records. Includes registers compiled by the Registrar General for Shipping and Seamen, RGSS, held by TNA in series BT 158) (United Kingdom, Maritime Births, Marriages, and Deaths, 1787-1933. Transcribed index with images available at findmypast UK) (Marriages At Sea extracted from TNA series BT 334/117 by Debbie Beavis)