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Merchant Navy - Certificates of Competency & Service/Masters' Certificates

Nature of Source

Records of qualifications gained in order to serve as a master or mate which was at first voluntary from 1845 but made compulsory in 1850. Certificates of Service were issued to men who had proof of long service prior to 1850 and Competency Certificates were issued to new entrants after formal examination by the Board of Trade. Initially, the certificates covered those serving only on foreign going vessels but later extended to home coastal trade and then to engineers and to fishing boat officers.

The certificates are filed by certificate order number, so the seaman's certificate number will be needed to undertake further research. The certificate number can be obtained from the name indexed Captains Registers held at the London Metropolitan Archives. A partial online index is available here. The number can also be obtained from the Mercantile Navy List or from series BT 116 and BT 122-128 held at The National Archives.

An officer held the title of Ship's Master or Captain, Mate or Engineer. Be aware that a person serving as a Captain on a smaller coastal ship may have taken temporary demotion to a mate when serving on a larger ocean going vessel. The equivalent on a shipping vessel was a Skipper or Mate.

Merchant Seaman records sometimes identify a vessel an individual served on only by the Ships' Official Number. The Crew List Index Project (CLIP) offers a searchable index of ships by official number. The database includes every British registered ship from 1855 to the early 1950s with official numbers 1 to 200000. In addition CLIP offers a searchable index of ships by name. It shows matching names and their official number, sorted first by name, then by official number.

Most Merchant Seaman records survive from 1835 following the introduction of the Merchant Shipping Act which introduced for the first time a central register of seamen. Before the Act few records merchant seamen records exist as seamen were employed for the duration of the contract and then made redundant. Those serving as officers may be easier to locate. Those working in the Merchant Navy below the rank of the officer class are mostly referred to as 'seamen' or 'mariners' whilst those serving in the Royal Navy are mostly referred to as 'ratings'.

For details of the career of a captain or mate who held Masters' Certificates, consult Lloyds Captains' Registers. They cover the years between 1869 and 1947 with the original registers held at the London Metropolitan Archives with copies held at the Guildhall Library, the National Maritime Museum as well as other repositories. An index has been produced by the Guildhall Library and is available in the reading room or available to download online covering 1851-1911. The registers provide a date of birth, certificate number with date and place of issue and the name of ship's served on with voyage details. The name of a Captain will also be mentioned in Port Books covering England and Wales. The books date back to 1565 and detail the movements of all ships entering and leaving a port and provide the name of the Captain but no other crew members, the name of the ship and its destination as well as the cargo's owner. Port Books can be searched via The National Archives Catalogue. First enter the port's name in the 'Word or phrase' box and then enter E 190 in the 'Department or Series code' box. For Scottish ports the books are held at the National Archives of Scotland and can be searched via the online catalogue in series E71, E72 and E504.

To trace the voyages and obtain information on a particular vessel as well as obtain the captain's name, consult the Lloyd's Register of Shipping which is available at the National Maritime Museum as well as other repositories. Many editions covering the 18th and 19th centuries are available to view online at Google Books which also offers the facility to conduct a text search for the names of vessels and captains.

Merchant Navy mariners were recorded in the 1841 census but unfortunately not those on board ships either stationed on shore or at sea. They were first recorded on board vessels in port from 1851 (1861 for Scotland) and from 1861 measures were taken to record mariners at sea. However the coverage, especially for the earlier censuses, is patchy with many not appearing in the schedules. For more detailed information on the census and Merchant Navy see here and here.

See also
Merchant Navy - Apprenticeship Records
Merchant Navy - Crew Lists & Agreements
Merchant Navy - Death At Sea Indexes
Merchant Navy - Musters
Merchant Navy - Registers of Seamen/Service (Seamen)
Merchant Navy - Registered Ticket Records
Merchant Navy - Ship's Logs
Merchant Navy - Trinity House Petitions

Where Found

The National Archives (BT 122, BT 123, BT 125, BT 128, Registers of Certificates of Competency, Masters and Mates; BT 124, BT 126, Registers of Certificates of Service, Masters and Mates; BT 127, Indexes to Registers of Certificates of Competency and Service, Masters and Mates. The name index provides the certificate number which can be used to identify the relevant person in the registers. The TNA Research Guide Officers in the Merchant Navy: further research explains this process)
The National Archives (BT 139, BT 140, BT 142, Registers of Certificates of Competency, Engineers)
The National Archives (BT 143, Registers and indexes of Certificates of Competency and Service of men examined under the voluntary system; BT 115, Alphabetical Register of Masters)
National Maritime Museum/Caird Library (Successful applications for master's examinations and certificates of competency and service and copies of certificates, 1845-1927. Records are filed in certificate number order and not by name indexes. See the Research guide 'The Merchant Navy: Tracing people: Master mariners, mates and engineers' for more details)
Guildhall Library
Registry of Shipping and Seamen (Previously called the General Register and Record Office of Shipping and Seamen. Their records originate from 1927 with most now deposited at The National Archives. They do hold Log Books and Crew Agreements from 1996 onwards and the Registers of Births and Deaths at Sea 1965 to present day. For a guide to the Registry of Shipping and Seamen see the Lloyd's Register Infosheet)
Merseyside Maritime Museum (Maritime Archives and Library: The library holds registers of merchant ships and records of the major shipping companies operating from Liverpool; records of the port of Liverpool, local trade associations, shipping companies, merchant houses, port services, charities and ship builders; plans, photographs and oral tapes. A series of detailed information sheets dealing with the maritime research are available at the web site)
Imperial War Museum (Collections include photos, art, souvenirs, ephemera, recordings and newspapers, journals and books)

Period Covered

1845 - Onwards

Genealogical Value

Name, date and place of birth, address and certificate number. Previous certificates gained and details of service including ships served on. Cause of death if died on service.

Further References

Bevan, Amanda. Tracing Your Ancestors in the National Archives: The National Archives, 2006

Fenton, Roy & Briody, Nuala & Macdonald, Mike. Maritime Information, A guide to libraries and sources of information in the United Kingdom: MIA, 2004

Hailey, John. Maritime Sources in the Library of the Society of Genealogists: Society of Genealogists, 1997

Spencer, William, Family History in the Wars: The National Archives, 2007

Smyth, W. H. The Sailor's Wordbook: The Classic Source for Over 14,000 Nautical and Naval Terms: Conway Maritime Press, 2005

Tracing Your Family History: Merchant Seamen: Imperial War Museum, 2006


Tracing Your Family History, Merchant Navy, Imperial War Museum, 2006


Watts, Christopher & Watts, Michael & Smith, Kelvin. Records of Merchant Shipping & Seamen, PRO Publications, 1998


Watts, Christopher & Watts, Michael. My Ancestor Was a Merchant Seaman: Society of Genealogists, 2011


Watts, Christopher & Watts, Michael, Tracing Births, Deaths and Marriages at Sea: Society of Genealogists, 2004


Wills, Simon. Tracing Your Merchant Navy Ancestors: Pen & Sword Books, 2012


Wills, Simon. Tracing Your Seafaring Ancestors: A Guide to Maritime Photographs for Family Historians: Pen and Sword Books, 2016

Woodman, Richard. The Merchant Navy: Shire Publications, 2013


TNA Research Guides

Websites (TNA Research Guide: How to look for records of Merchant ships) (TNA Research Guide: How to look for records of Merchant seamen serving 1858-1917) (TNA Research Guide: Merchant seamen serving after 1917) (TNA Research Guide: Merchant seamen serving up to 1857) (TNA Research Guide: Officers in the Merchant Navy) (TNA Research Guide: Registration of merchant ships (Imperial War Museum: Merchant Navy Family History: Guides include: Where to find Merchant Navy Records; Casualty Records; Medal Records; Other sources) (National Museum Wales: Researching Welsh maritime history) (National Maritime Museum Research Guides: Tracing family history from maritime records; The Merchant Navy: World War Two; The Merchant Navy: Tracing merchant seamen; he Merchant Navy: Tracing people: Crew lists, agreements and official logs; The Merchant Navy: Tracing people: Master-mariners, mates and engineers; The Merchant Navy: Sources for enquiries; The Merchant Navy: Sources for ship histories; The Merchant Navy: First World War) (Lloyd’s Register Foundation: Information sheets: Guides include: Registry of Shipping and Seamen; Useful sources for genealogists; Sources available to historical researchers; Collections of the Lloyd’s Register of Ships and associated publications in UK and Ireland) (Lloyd’s Register Foundation: Lloyd’s Register of Ships online: How to access the historical Lloyd's Register of Ships. Links to volumes of the Lloyd’s Register of Ships which are fully accessible and searchable online. Resources include the 1764 Register Book) (Maritime History Archive. List of the principal records of British shipping and seamen, showing their present locations) (Researching the mariners and ships of the Merchant Marine) (Merseyside Maritime Museum: Tracing Seafaring Ancestors in the Merchant Navy) (Forum Thread: Complete Guide to Researching Merchant Navy Records) (GlobalGenealogy: Maritime Records & Resources by Fawne Stratford-Devai) (Crew List Index Project: Volunteer project transcribing records held at County Record Offices. Site includes guides to finding and using crew lists. The index is available online at (Tracing British Seamen & their ships) (Tracing British Crew Lists & Agreements) (National Museums Liverpool: Tracing Seafaring Ancestors in The Merchant Navy) (Guildhall Library. Leaflet Guide, Lloyd's Captains Registers at Guildhall Library and related sources) (P&O Heritage: The site highlights the history and the collections and archives of the P&O shipping line as well as the companies acquired by the group over the years. The site hosts a number of Family History Research Guides and an online database of nearly 2,500 P&O ships) (Online store selling Merchant Navy records from a variety of suppliers)

Online Databases

TNA Online Collections (Medals issued to Merchant Seamen, Second World War extracted from BT 395. TNA Online Collections is produced by The National Archives and contains online access to indexes, transcriptions and digital images of some of the TNA's most important holdings. Searches are free but a fee is levied for each downloaded item. However downloads are free if used at TNA or the Society of Genealogists)
(Masters and Mates Certificates, 1850-1927. This database contains master and mate certificates issued to merchant seamen by the British Board of Trade and produced in partnership with the National Maritime Museum’s Caird Library) (Indexes to Lloyd's Captains Registers) (Crew List Index Project 1861-1913: Indexes to around 33,500 lists of crew members on board vessels and around 413,500 records of individual crewmen. The lists are indexes to original documents held in various repositories in the UK as well as in Canada) (Merchant Navy Seamen 1835-1941: The records comprise two main sections: Firstly, Merchant Navy Seamen 1835-1857 which consists of records of individual seamen that the central government created to monitor a potential reserve of sailors for the Royal Navy and secondly, Merchant Navy Seamen 1918-1941 which consist of records of index cards that the Registrar General of Shipping and Seaman used between the two world wars to produce a centralised index to merchant seamen serving on British merchant navy vessels. The datasets consists of registers from Series I, Series II, Series III but not Series IV which will remain unpublished)
(Web: UK, WWII Medals Issued to Merchant Seamen, 1939-1945. Ancestry search linked to The National Archives website) (Welsh Mariners: Online index of 23,500 Welsh merchant masters, mates and engineers covering 1800-1945, compiled by Dr. Reg Davies. The sister site at has records of Irish merchant seamen) (Cardiff Crew Agreements, transcribed records of master mariners named in the crew agreements) (Maritime Memorials: The database contains records of over 5000 church, cemetery and public memorials to seafarers and victims of maritime disasters) (The Shipping Registers for Dumfries 1824-1904, Kirkcudbright 1824-1841, Stranraer 1824-1908 and Wigtown 1836-1908)

CD Roms

Family History Indexes (Seamen's Crewlists, 1851 extracted from BT 98)
S & N Genealogy Supplies (Crew Lists and Agreements 1863-1913)
The Maritime History Archive (Ships and Seafarers of Atlantic Canada. Searchable CD containing data on the vessels, captains and crews of Great Britain and Atlantic Canada, 1787-1936)
London Cornish Association (Cornish Masters & Mates Project. Cornish-born Merchant Navy Officers extracted from TNA BT 127)