Records of Merchant Shipping and Seamen by Kelvin Smith, Christopher T. Watts and Michael J. Watts. Public Record Office Readers’ Guide No. 20. Published by PRO Publications, Public Record Office, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU. 1997. vi, 112 pp. Illustrated, index. Softcover. £6.99.

Mainland Britain has almost 2,500 miles of coastline and it is impossible to be more than 70 miles from the sea. This is less than two day’s walk for our ancestors. In this context it is easy to see why so many families have ancestors who served in the Merchant or Royal Navies or worked in the industries that supported them. For example, in 1800 it is estimated that the Merchant Navy had 15,000 ships and 127,000 seamen.

This Readers’ Guide will get you into the wide variety of records available for the study of the Merchant Navy, covering the organization, the ships and the men who sailed them. The records cover the time period from the 17th through the 20th century.

The introduction acknowledges that not all documents needed are at the Public Record Office. One major collection of British Merchant Navy records is in the Maritime History Archive at Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, Newfoundland. Other major collections are at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, the Guildhall Library in London, and modern records at the Registry of Shipping and Seamen in Cardiff. The guide does indicate when the records you need are in another repository and not at the PRO.

The book is divided into eight sections (1) Records of Seamen before 1835; (2) Records of Seamen after 1835; (3) Records of other Officers; (4) Records of Fishermen and Fishing Vessels; (5) War Service; (6) Royal Naval Reserve; (7) Registration of Ships; (8) Miscellaneous. Each section is subdivided into chapters and these again divided. Thus a detailed table of contents which makes specific items very easy to find.

Each section is well organized, describing what will and will not find in record group. The illustrations of sample documents go well with the text. After reading this book I want to find out more about my ship owners and seamen.

For those with Merchant Navy connections this book is a must to be able to access the large volume of records available at the PRO and other repositories.

Reviewed by Paul Milner
BIGWILL v.5 no.5, 1998