A sailor’s life – 11. For the record: ship’s logs
Tracing British merchant ship logs and crew agreements is infuriating. British registered ships were required by law to keep official logs after 1850, and at the end of each voyage any involving deaths, births, desertions or disciplinary offences were filed, together with agreements and crew lists, with the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen in Cardiff.
However, in 1966 the RSS ran out of storage space and it was decided to pension off all records over fifty years old – which were taking up some six miles of shelves. Negotiations began with various museums and archives, but no one had room for the while lot, so it was decided to split the collection. What resulted was a dog’s breakfast.
The National Archives in Kew ended up with all surviving records including logs up to 1860, a random 10 per cent (every tenth box, for heaven’s sake!?) from 1861 to 1938, plus all surviving documents from 1902 to 1919 (except 1913 …) and from 1939 to 1950, plus any papers pertaining to ‘celebrity’ ships (Except the Cutty Sark and SS Great Britain, who hung onto their own.) The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich took the remaining 90 per cent for 1861 and 1862, plus its own ten per cent sample: all years ending in 5, except 1915 and 1945 (see above). The rest — logs, crew lists and all — went into limbo for a time, while it was thought they were to be pulped, and rumour has it anyone who applied to see a document was given it to keep. Local archives had a field day. So, apart from needing to know the name and official number of the ship your subject sailed on, and the date that any relevant voyage ended, you also need to know where the vessel was registered, in case any records might have strayed there too.
At the eleventh hour the Memorial University of Newfoundland stepped in (Thank you!), and made room for the remaining 6,439 metres … Which is why modern day researchers must email Canada to trace and buy copies of Britain’s maritime history. Much is missing. Explanations of what is where, and why, vary considerably between the big three repositories and 45 regional ones.
However, thanks to a bunch of dedicated enthusiasts there is now a chart for record hunters – or at least some navigation lights. The wonderful Crew List Index Project (CLIP) provides a welcome steer on what might be where, and is still growing. Anyone can join in. Happy hunting!