This week the family history website Find My Past has published the central index to the register of merchant seamen on British vessels. The original record series was created by the then Registrar General of Shipping and Seaman (part of the Board of Trade). It is now held on microfiche at The National Archives in Kew, England and can be seen under shelf references BT348, BT349 and BT350. 

The resource takes the shape of record cards which form a central index to seamen registered to serve on British-registered vessels within the period from approximately 1918 to 1941. 

What makes the Central Index Register cards interesting from an Eastern European genealogical research perspective is that many of those employed in the British merchant navy were engaged at overseas ports. For example, there are large numbers of records relating to Estonian, Greek and Latvian sailors. Additionally, there are smaller but still significant quantities of seamen from Cyprus, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia, and even some from landlocked Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Some of these men may have settled and even become naturalised in Britain but presumably a majority remained citizens or subjects of their country of birth. 

The front and back of each index card have been scanned and an online index published so that the records of individual merchant marines can be searched for and located. Two, three or more cards of different dates exist for some individuals. 

The cards evolved a little over time, from CR1 to CR2 to CR10 types, and the details recorded changed too. However, the basic format remains the same, as does the core detail of name, year and place of birth, rating, Discharge A Number, ship name and/or official registered number, and date. Some cards give physical descriptions, while others sport a black and white passport-style photograph and signature. 

The data is handwritten onto the printed index cards. The handwriting is not always legible and may be faint or contain abbreviations. The place of birth information on the cards will reflect the date at which they were created and the spellings current at that time, sometimes anglicised or misspelt. For example, the Estonian islands of Hiiumaa and Saaremaa often appear as Dagö and Ösel respectively (typically minus their diacritics), being their old Swedish names, and similarly the Saaremaa capital Kuressaare is often given as Arensburg. 

This online collection is not a complete record of those sailing on British merchant vessels between the Wars. The majority of cards dating from 1913 to 1921 are known to have been destroyed in 1969. Moreover, a fourth record series at The National Archives (shelf reference BT364) is not being published, on account of data protection and personal privacy concerns. The series BT364 also covers the period 1921 to 1941 and was extracted from the materials that now comprise BT348 to BT350 inclusive. It remains possible that this series, which has also been scanned and indexed, may be released too in due course. 

A final note: while some of the individuals contained within these records will have seen service additionally in the Royal Navy at some date, it must be emphasised that the majority would have served only on British merchant vessels and were not in the armed forces.

Filed under: Genealogy Research

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