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The Government's Disgrace

When my wife, elder son and I started this site last year ( April 2000 ) in an attempt to provide a platform for all things Merchant Navy I didn't realise just how involved I would become in other people's problems. The range has been vast but by far the largest is the problem of tracing one's relatives' sea time and records that should have been kept in this country. I myself first encountered problems when I started to do the history of Blue Funnel, my maternal Grandfather had been employed by them in the 1920's as an Engineer but I had no idea at what rank or on what ships. I managed to find a few hazy photograph's from my family but very little else and then one day I was bemoaning this fact to a visiting friend from London who is something of a ship enthusiast. He agreed after I'd made various enquires which included Ocean Fleets, Liverpool Maritime Museum, the Tax Records Office in Cardiff and finally the Public Records Office at Kew to visit Kew when he returned to London. This was after I'd been informed by Kew that one had to attend in person to obtain access to records or the alternative was to pay a professional to do the search for you. At no time was I informed what records were held at the office in Kew.

My friend set aside a day armed with all the information I had been able to gather and crossed London for a visit to the Records Office in his own firm belief that he would be able to access all the information required in a matter of hours. At the end of the day he was of the opinion that my Grandfather's career was a figment of my fertile imagination having not been able to turn up one minutia of his existence. On his way out he spoke to a records office clerk ( according to Ian courteous and helpful in every way ) and explained his or rather my predicament, the official explained that the records were divided between Kew and The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and a visit there would most probably turn up the missing records.

That evening Ian telephoned and explained the events of the day also stating that he would like to visit the N.M.M. perhaps the following weekend admitting that he had rather enjoyed himself, who was I to argue? To cut a long and tedious story short Ian telephoned the following Saturday night explaining that he had drawn another blank and what should he do, he even offered to go back thinking that it must be he who was making simple mistakes. As other matters were pressing I dropped the idea thinking I would return to the problem later and I still continued to give out information to enquires received through the web site, most direct a few on the noticeboards that records could be found at Kew or Greenwich.

A short while later I had discovered that one of my Grandfather's ships was the Pyrrhus and I searched all over the place for a photograph of her to go on the site and in the end contacted Malcolm Pickhaver who operates the Red Duster site to see if he had any ideas. He put me in touch with Captain John Bax who within days furnished me with the said photograph which is now on the site. John and I communicated for weeks before the subject of records came up and in a nutshell John had travelled to the U.K. in an attempt to chase down a relative of his and had met with the same result, nothing. Again as luck would have it I met another gentleman through John called Peter who was doing research on a relative but as he lived in the U.K. was able to devote more of his time. Peter had almost given up on the idea when he heard that some of the records had been sent to Canada and asked John to follow up on the information. Now if you're like me you think Canada, what the hell are British Merchant Navy records doing in Canada? Anyway John mailed the said University and the following is their response;

If you are still with me at this stage of the story I don't doubt for one minute that you are as speechless as I am. Documents of equal importance as those of the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force have been allowed to leave the United Kingdom without so much as a ripple. Questions which have been asked go unanswered and no-one is prepared to shoulder any responsibility! I could go on ranting and raving but alas it serves no purpose except to assuage my anger and at the end of the day the records have been lost forever from their rightful countries of origin!
Information to trace relatives.

Source: Captain B.D. Johnson.

An excellent booklet published by the Imperial War Museum titled ‘Tracing Your Family History Merchant Navy’ is by no means foolproof but an invaluable aid also the Marine and Coastguard Agency at Cardiff can prove helpful. The Marine Coastguard Agency also hold the records of those that served during the War and were awarded medals.

I have received the following information:

The fifth register of seamen's service that dates from 1941 to 1972 holds details of individual Merchant Seamen and the ships in which they served, with relevant dates. These records have been transferred to the Public Record Office, Kew Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU, Tel: 020 8876 3444 Fax 020 8878 8905. Website http//

These records contain the following information concerning individual Merchant Seamen, namely full name, date and place of birth, discharge book (seaman's) number, rank ,number of any certificates issued.

The records also contain details of the ships in which the seaman served. This information includes the name and official number of the ship, date of engagement, rank or grade, date of discharge, whether ship was foreign going or home trade, and in some cases National Insurance contributions.

These records are held in classification BT 382. The Fifth Register of Seaman's Service 1941 to 1942.

This sounds very helpful, but I think it requires a personal appearance


I was recently contacted with regards Voyage Record Cards and must confess I hadn't got a clue as to what they were. I then contacted the B.I. egroup to which I belong and the following two letters were the response:

Re Fred Waddington's question as to whether the Guildhall Library has voyage Record Cards, I can say that I did some research last year in that Library regarding a small ship which was torpedoed off Brittany in 1915. They had ledgers there containing most of the information which I needed although they wouldn't let me photo-copy what I wanted and I had to write it our for myself.(There is also a splendid art gallery attached!). I had been directed there by Lloyd's Register who also allowed me to trawl their records for a donation to a seamen's charity.

And the second letter:

Voyage Record Cards are part of the remains of the manual ship reporting system maintained by Lloyd's of London. The cards contained all reports of a vessel as received by Lloyd's from Lloyd's agents, ports, signal stations etc around the world. It was possible to subscribe to the information on a particular ship and this was extracted from the Voyage Record Card. For example a cargo consignee or Bill of Lading holder could get a report mailed to him saying when 'his' ship sailed from the loading port.

In the 1970s or thereabouts the reports and records were computerised to the system which is still in place today. The weekly Lloyd's Voyage Record is now one of the published outputs of the reporting system - it is laid out with the current voyage of each ship, with dates of arrival and departure. Another is Lloyd's Shipping Index, which has all trading ships listed alphabetically with main particulars and most recent report.

The Lloyd's collection at Guildhall Library includes bound volumes of Lloyd's List, the daily newspaper, going back almost to the first edition in 1734. This is a huge archive. LL is now mostly on microfilm, which is available to the public. The newspaper contains daily shipping movements (ie reports) and of course all the casualty reports, which make fascinating reading, as well as much else.
The Guildhall Library's Lloyd's collection also includes the Loss Books - those are the ones famously written in copperplate with quill pen at Lloyd's. They contain entries for all serious marine casualties reported at Lloyd's. There are also the Lloyd's Captains Registers with details of the careers of captains and mates of merchant ships who held masters' certificates and who were active between 1869 and 1947.

Documents in the Guildhall Library are available to the public - it is a public library, but I think you would need to be there in person as documents and manuscripts have to be ordered from the collections. This process takes 20 minutes or so once you have established which volume(s) you require. The LL microfilm, however, is easily accessible and several readers are available for public use. You can even take photocopies from the microfilm using a special coin-in-slot contraption, although the results are pretty variable. The librarians are knowledgeable and quite helpful. Photography of documents is allowed but flash isn't, so you need to choose a bright day for that.

If you are looking for Lloyd's Registers (ie the registers of ships containing technical particulars) the best place to go is Lloyd's Register itself, which is a separate organisation to Lloyd's. LR has a library of the register books going back to the 19th century and maybe earlier. LR is about a 10 minute walk from Guildhall.

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They may prove helpful in tracing relatives' voyages.