Beyond the Internet: Week 49 Merchant Seamen

Beyond the Internet

Beyond the Internet

If you’re feeling it’s a case of “that week went quickly”, you’re right. I’m busy catching up with my Beyond the Internet series. So let’s just pretend it’s now Week 49, not weeks 48 or 50,as weexplore the sources of information beyond our computer screens and this week’s topic is Occupations –Merchant Seamen.

 I have a whole branch of these on my family tree and even after they left this occupation they remained my international travellers even 100 years ago or more.


Writing about this topic is a classic example of the speed of genealogical events and records overtaking us all. I’ve had this on my scheduled list since the beginning of the Beyond the Internet series. Meanwhile the subscription site, Findmypast UK, has added digitised records which you can search here, under Education and Work. To see the image you will either have to pay, take out a subscription or visit a local reference or family history library (or order in the microfilm via the LDS church).  What you are mainly looking for here are your merchant seaman’s ticket.

Sailing ship. Image from Microsoft ClipartFamily Search, which is free, has indexed some of the same merchant shipping records enabling you to identify which microfilm you might wish to order in: this is how I’ve done my maritime research pre-digitisation. You can also search the Family Search catalogue for the keywords “Board of Trade” to see what other records are available and pertinent. It’s worth noting that sailors on British ships will need to have been ticketed with the Board of Trade so these records also include men from non-British countries including Ireland and Scandinavia.

Of course there are more records available for officers within the merchant navy so you should also explore the records for these as they had to sit for exams to gain their officer’s and captain’s tickets.


You should also make it a priority to beg, borrow or “steal” a copy of Records of Merchant Shipping and Seamen by Smith, Watts and Watts, in my opinion THE benchmark book for understanding this occupation. This book explains in detail the cryptic entries you will find on your ancestor’s ticket which you’ll want to pursue to complete your understanding of his service. You might also find information on the National Maritime Museum (NMM) useful to understand more. You may also want to read more widely on your ancestor’s specific responsibilities in the merchant navy.

Online there are many sites with images of various ships (but make sure you’re not looking at a later one than the one your ancestor served on, as the names are often reused). You may even find postcards of them on e-bay which I’m pretty sure are mainly copies of an original. In Australia you will want to look at the Mariners and Ships in Australian Waters (who might come from anywhere in the world)

A further source of information on the ships is to look at the Lloyd’s List for the timeframe so you learn more about where it was registered, who owned it, size etc. Another option that has come online instead of needing to search in a reference library.sailor


It is also worth paying particular attention to maritime deaths, and also newspaper reports, which will tell you more about their lives including the hazards of working and living on board ships which sailed in dangerous conditions.

It might even be wise to check that there’s not a second marriage lurking somewhere in the records, not that I wish to malign our ancestors.


If you can identify one of your ancestor’s ships it may lead you through the others that he served on. You should then see if you can find the ship’s crew lists through the CLIP site even though you may need to order them in. I have one friend who was very lucky with this (sadly I haven’t been, at least so far!). Some of these are also on Findmypast UK under Education and Work.

Census records may include your ancestor’s name on board ship, provided they are in port somewhere in England/Scotland or Wales: in fact you may even find your ancestor mentioned twice! It’s worth searching to see if there are special CDs which coincide with the census, as some years ago I discovered a series called Seamen’s Crewlists 1851 which was most helpful.


And a final word of warning: don’t rely entirely on the online transcriptions. I know I have entries which are mis-indexed on the online sites as well as some information that I’ve found in microfilms or on site at the National Archives in Kew, and vice versa. I only regret that I didn’t have more time to spend in the NMM when I was there a couple of years ago.

This is a huge topic which needs further development. My intention had been to do that here, but it will need to be a topic in its own right in 2013. Meanwhile if you have an interest in this area, you may wish to have a preliminary look at a series of conversations on RootsChat from a few years ago. The researcher found the tips he’d received from a few of us very helpful and you might do as well: no point everyone re-creating the wheel.

Commemoration ceremony 19 February 2012

A huge crowd turned out this morning for the commemoration ceremonies at the Darwin Cenotaph while the families of the wharfies and merchant seamen held a separate ceremony down at the wharf (their usual tradition). The USS Peary commemorations were held earlier in the morning but although we hoped to get there in time, we didn’t make it. The powers-that-be were expecting 5000 people to attend the main event but the crowd was apparently closer to 7000.

As I waited to get a photo of the Governor General (GG) walking down the carpet to the official dais, I was chatting to an American soldier who was somewhat bemused that the Prime Minister had just wandered down without any great security detail (so low key that we didn’t even see her). We may mutter and insult our pollies but we don’t usually shoot at them, though the Territory’s high-security-trained police were in evidence, and her bodyguards reminded us of the Danish TV series The Protectors. The US soldier also wanted to know why the GG took precedence over the Prime Minister so I had to explain that she represented the Queen who is our Head of State.

For me the highlight of the day was the re-enactment with machine guns blazing and heavy anti-aircraft guns firing loudly while throughout an air raid siren sounded and heavy red smoke billowed. Quite honestly the hairs on my arms stood on end…it was sobering and only the tiniest indication of the mayhem the Darwin servicemen and civilians lived through for those torrid 45 minutes on the day. I really admired the courage of the old veterans who were willing to endure that kind of reminder purely to honour their mates who didn’t survive. It took them 50 years to be awarded campaign medals from the War and they seem universally pleased that 19 February has been marked as a national day of commemoration.

The Governor General gave a balanced speech which addressed the need to be vigilant in the defence of our country while reconciling with former enemies to ensure peace. There was the merest allusion to the recently signed deal with Japanese company Inpex for a gas pipeline etc. The politicians mostly could not contain their need to score points for their parties, in terms of gaining credit for finally recognising the national significance of the Bombing of Darwin. The speech by Mrs Ada Mumford was both interesting and emotional especially as she recounted her father sending the wireless message to RAAF Parap telling them of the incoming planes.

The Ode of Remembrance was read by Shelly Bryant from Darwin High School. Interestingly the Darwin and Palmerston branches of the Returned and Services League (RSL) had agreed some years ago that this should be read by a student. A way of passing the historical baton on to the younger generation.

From all the various quotes from old veterans I especially liked the one reported in The NT News. Prime Minister Curtin in 1942 told the nation that the enemy would not  give any satisfaction at all to the enemy. Former Chief Petty Officer Tom Minto’s view was that “.. the enemy must have been very hard to please.”  It’s this mix of cynicism and laconic humour that endears these men to me.

I’ll be posting photos on my Tropical Territory blog and also on my Flickr site for anyone who wants to see them. You can find both of these in the side-bar on the right of my blog.