Seafaring ancestors

The following sources will help researchers find information on a seafaring ancestor.

To find the items mentioned below at a Library near you can also view this guide as a Trove list


My ancestor was a merchant seaman
Christopher J. Watts. London. Society of Genealogists, 1986.
REF 929.3 WAT
A very comprehensive work.

Trying to find a seafaring ancestor
Ronald Parsons. Gunmarcha, S.A. Gould Books, 1988.
929.1 PAR
A good starting point for Australian sources.

Finding families: The genealogist's guide to the National Archives of Australia
Compiled By Margaret Chambers.Sydney. Hale & Iremonger, 1998.
REF 929.934 NAT
An excellent guide to the records held by Australian archives. This covers both merchant shipping records and navy records.

Ships' deserters 1852-1900
Jim Melton. Sydney. Library of Australian History, 1986.
REF 359.1334 MEL
Always check this reliable source in case your ancestor deserted rather than immigrated (a common practice in the early days!).

The history of the whalers on the south coast of New Holland from 1800-1888
By Rod Dickson. Carlisle, W.A. Hesperian Press, 2007.
REF 639.280994 DIC
If you ancestors were whalers this may prove very useful as it details whaling voyages to Australia, listing ships with a short profile of the vessel and in some cases, information about the crew.

Naval records for geneaologists
N.A.M. Rodger. London. HMSO, 1988.
REF 929.341 ROD
A very comprehensive work covering the Royal Navy.

Tracing your naval ancestors
Bruno Pappalardo. London. Pubic Record Office, 2003.
REF 929.341 PAP
Another very good guide from the National Archives UK which includes case studies to illustrate information available.

Our master mariners: A select biographical dictionary of sea captains who have sailed in Australian waters over 150 years from 1788-1938
Edited by Jennie Woods. North Sydney, N.S.W. The Author, 1992.
REF 387.50922 OUR
A small but very useful book.

Records of merchant shipping and seamen
Kelvin Smith and Christopher T. Watts. London. PRO Publications, 1988.
REF 929.3 REC
A guide to the extensive collection of records held by the National Archives in the UK.

Tracing births, deaths and marriages at sea
Christopher T and Michael J Watts. London. Society of Genealogists, 2004.
REF 929.3 CHR
A very good guide based on UK records.

Navy lists 

Navy Lists [Great Britain]
These annual publications include information on all enlisted personnel including surgeons and engineers.
Library has :1826-1861;1914;1923-1990
REF 359.330941 GRE

The Library also has an index to the Navy Lists for people serving in Australian waters. See:

A card index to the navy list 1835-1886
Compiled by W.J.Jeffery.
(microfilm 359.330941 JEF)
An index of entries relating to Australians.

The Navy List/Royal Australian Navy
Canberra. Australian Government Publishing Service.
Library holds 1939- .

Journals and newspapers

Magazines, trade journals and newspapers are often a hidden source of biographical information on master mariners because they feature obituaries and reports of maritime incidents. The information is often tedious to find but can help flesh out a family history.

The Harbour
Early issues of this journal (later called Australian coal steel shipping and the harbour) has a series of short biographical articles on prominent Australian master mariners called "Our ancient mariners."
Download a list of the articles in the series:  Our ancient mariners  (PDF, 19kb)

Registers and indexes to registers 

Lloyd's Captains Registers
The library holds the Lloyd's Captains Registers on microfilm. These are registers kept by Lloyd's Register for their own purposes relating to captains in the merchant marine. They are not totally comprehensive, particularly for colonial engagements and people who gained their qualifications through Australian ports. Some of the registers are handwritten and the quality varies greatly from reel to reel.

The registers are arranged alphabetically by name within a series of years and will give you a date and place of birth, date passed, what type of certificate and a list of engagements with name of ship, official number and tonnage.

A pamphlet detailing what is on each reel is available to assist your microfilm search. If you are looking for an early entry, check Reel 1 (the index) first. This was a consolidated version published by Lloyd's in 1869. It is far easier to read than the original.

The originals are held at the Guildhall Library in London as part of its manuscripts collection. Visit the Guildhall Library website's index to entries in the Lloyds Captains Register 1869-1911. Series MS 18567.

Records relating to seamen: Particulars of certificates of competency and of service issued at Sydney to Masters, Mates and Engineers in the mercantile Marine 1872-1916
Sydney. Archives Authority of New South Wales, 1988. [microfilm].
This is a very useful alphabetical list of masters, mates and engineers issued with certificates at Sydney from 1872-1916. From 1916 responsibility for shipping was transferred from the States to the Commonwealth Government (see Finding Families).

Registers of certificates of competency: Engineers, colonial 1870-1921 (BT 140).[AJCP no. 6886]
Canberra. Australian Joint Copying Project, 19--. [microfilm]
MIC BT 140.
An Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP) microfilm of original registers of Certificates of Competency kept by the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen and held in the Public Record Office (PRO) in the UK.

The registers are arranged by certificate number and entries give name, place of birth, year of birth, date and place of certification as 1st or 2nd class Engineer and in some cases the ships on which the individual served.

Geographical coverage in and around Australia and dates are listed below. The register also includes Malta (1877-1916) and New Zealand (1872-1921).

  • New South Wales 1872-1921
  • Queensland 1877-1920
  • South Australia 1874-1921
  • Straits Settlements 1888-1908
  • Tasmania 1887-1919
  • Victoria 1870-1920

Library volunteer Janet Robinson has indexed the entries in BT 140:
Index to BT 140 Certificates of competency engineers New South Wales  (PDF, 116kb)
Index to BT 140 Certificates of competency engineers New Zealand  (PDF, 141kb)
Index to BT 140 Certificates of competency engineers Queensland  (PDF, 46kb)
Index to BT 140 Certificates of competency engineers Singapore  (PDF, 94kb)
Index to BT 140 Certificates of competency engineers South Australia  (PDF, 20kb)
Index to BT 140 Certificates of competency engineers Tasmania  (PDF, 16kb)
Index to BT 140 Certificates of competency engineers Victoria  (PDF, 54kb)

Registers of certificates of competency masters and mates: Colonial trade. (BT 128). [AJCP no's. PRO6894-6895.]
Canberra: Australian Joint Copying Project, 19--. [microfilm].
MIC BT 128
Another Australian Joint Copying Project (AJCP) microfilm of registers of Certificates of Competency issued at colonial ports.
The registers are arranged by certificate number and entries give name, place of birth, year of birth and date of certification as Master, 1st Mate or 2nd Mate. The pre-1890 entries often give the name of ships on which the individual served. In some case deaths are recorded.

Geographical areas and dates covered are:

  • New South Wales 1872-1921
  • New Zealand 1872-1921
  • Queensland 1877-1921
  • South Australia 1874-1916
  • Victoria 1870-1921
  • Tasmania 1876-1919

Library volunteer Janet Robinson has indexed the entries in BT 128:
Index to BT 128 Certificates of competency masters and mates colonial trade Victoria  (PDF, 315kb)
Index to BT 128 Certificates of competency masters and mates New Zealand  (PDF, 239kb)
Index to BT 128 Certificates of competency masters and mates Queensland  (PDF, 58kb)
Index to BT 128 Certificates of competency masters and mates South Australia  (PDF, 153kb)
Index to BT 128 Certificates of competency masters and mates Tasmania  (PDF, 70kb)
Index to BT 128 Index to certificates of competency masters and mates New South Wales  (PDF, 559kb)

As the originals are abbreviated register entries the information contained in the index is often everything that appears in the original entry. If you would like to view the original, the Australian Joint Copying Project microfilms are available at State Libraries and the National Library in Canberra.

Marine Board of Queensland Certificates of Competency: Queensland Record Series B.
Oxley, Qld. Yesteryear Links, 1996.
REF 387.5016 MAR
This is a very useful index and guide to Certificates of Competency for masters, mates and engineers issued by the Marine Board of Queensland. The original certificates are held at the Queensland State Archives and copies can be purchased.

Crew agreements, lists and guides to primary records for merchant marine and naval records in Australia and overseas 

Ships and seafarers of Atlantic Canada: The Atlantic Canada Shipping Project. [Cd-Rom.]
Newfoundland, Canada. Maritime History Archive and the Maritime Studies Research Unit of the Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1988.
CD 387.50971 CAN
Data from the Atlantic Canada Shipping Project. An unlikely source at first glance but worth checking as the Canadian fleet in the 1870s was the third biggest in the world and crew on Canadian owned ships were drawn from all over the British Empire and the world, it includes:

  • Register details of vessels registered at Canadian ports.
  • Crew agreements - a database of crew agreements for British Empire vessels registered at St John, New Brunswick, Yarmouth, Windsor, Halifax and Nova Scotia.
  • A small sample database of ships crew from non-Canadian ports is also included.

The Maritime History Archives are noted for their holdings of Crew Agreements, Lists (and some Official Logbooks generally prior to 1874) for British Empire Vessels 1863-1938 and 1951-1976 from the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen (Great Britain). These were acquired from the UK in 1971. You can also search their Crew Lists Index Search by official number and find out what lists are held for a particular vessel. Source the official number from a register of shipping like Lloyds Register. The Archives also provide a research service.

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK has a Collections and Research Section which has produced a series of research guides on tracing masters, mates, engineers and Royal Navy personnel. These highlight information in the Museum's collections, including holdings of crew agreements and log books, plus materials in the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) and direct you to other sources for both navy and merchant navy. Related links include detailed research guides on how to use resources such as Navy Lists and Lloyd's Captains Registers which are invaluable. Copies of Certificates of Competency for Masters and Mates held in the collection covering the period 1850-1927 can now be searched and downloaded online through

The UK National Archives also produce several guides to their holdings of records relating to Merchant seamen, masters mates and engineers and the Royal Navy and Auxiliary Services as part of their Family History Series. See the full listing of the Archives' comprehensive Research Guides Series first. If you're trying to trace seamen who joined the Royal Navy then try the Royal Naval Seaman 1853-1823. This database is part of the Archives Documents Online service and contains records from ADM 188 and ADM 139. You can search and download the service registers of more than 500,000 seamen who joined the Royal Navy between 1853 and 1923. Details given include a seaman's name, age, place of birth, summary of service and a list of ships on which they served. Later records (of those who joined after 1873) contain a description of physical appearance including tattoos.

New additions to Documents Online are Royal Naval Officer's Service Records. Starting from the 1840s, these records record service for warrant officers joining the Royal Navy up to 1931 and commissioned officers joining the service up to 1917.

Merchant navy seaman records National Archives UK (BT112, BT113, BT114, BT115, BT116 and BT120) are available at Find my past. These records cover the period 1835-1857 and 1918-1941. The information varies but includes basic biographical details such as date place of birth rank. Later records are more detailed and may contain a photograph and list of vessel official numbers and signing on dates.

Also includes a useful List of definitions for ratings

If you're wanting to trace the movements of crew visiting New South Wales ports then look at Archives in Brief 21 - Records relating to crew
from the NSW State Records.

For Victorian ports the Public Record Office of Victoria have also produced a guide to Transport - Ships crew.

For later records relating to Australian merchant seamen the National Archives of Australia hold a series of Microfilmed employment records [Australian merchant seamen] 1922-88. A8877 in the Canberra office. Further information is available under Other services in the Archives online guide to Defence service records.

For those tracing records of Royal Australian Naval personnel, the National Archives of Australia produces an online guide called Land sea and air forces.

If you want to find out more about the ships that your ancestor served on refer to the library's other research guides for tips on how to research ships and find illustrations of vessels.


Australian War Memorial
PO Box 345

Society of Australian Genealogists
Richmond Villa
120 Kent Street

National Archives of Australia
P.O. Box 7425

The Heraldry and Genealogy Society of Canberra
GPO Box 585

Genealogical Society of the Northern Territory
PO Box 37212

Genealogical Society of Queensland
PO Box 8423
Woolloongabba QLD 4102

South Australia Genealogy and Heraldry Society
GPO Box 592

Tasmanian Family History Society Inc.
PO Box 191

Genealogical Society of Victoria
Level B1
257 Collins Street Level 6
179 Queen Street

Western Australia Genealogical Society Library
6/48 May Street

National Archives of New Zealand
PO Box 12-050

New Zealand Society of Genealogists
PO Box 8795
Symonds Street
Auckland 1035

Keeper of Public Records
National Archives
Ruskin Avenue
Kew Richmond
Surrey STW9 4DU

Society of Genealogists
14 Charterhouse Buildings
Goswell Road
London EC1M 7BA

National Archives and Records Administration
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park MD 20740-6001

Monthly Highlights

highlightAmazing Whales
now showing
highlightBeautiful Whale
life-size photographs
highlightComing to Australia
Post WWII photographs
highlightMini Mariners
Fun for under 5s
highlightSchool Holidays
Whale Season

Connect with us

ANMM BlogFlickrYoutube