Registration of seamen and shipping has its roots in the medieval period, before the establishment of a standing navy. In the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, apart from a few crown-owned warships, any naval force would consist mainly of merchant vessels, commandeered for the purpose. This practice continued even after the establishment of the Royal Navy following the Civil War. Indeed, in the First World War, what were known as T124 agreements allowed for the chartering of private vessels for Admiralty service. In this part of the country, these were generally fishing vessels or tugs taken up for patrol work or minesweeping.
The records of the Registrar-General of Seamen and Shipping, are held in the Norfolk Record Office, and most post-date the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854. These records relate to ships, rather than to individual seamen.
There were three ports of registration in Norfolk: King’s Lynn, Cley and Wells, and Great Yarmouth. Each of these ports had a shipping office (later known as a mercantile marine office) which was responsible to the Board of Customs and later (after 1872) to the Registrar-General. These offices maintained the official register of merchant ships. Fishing vessels were registered separately, and few of these records survive for Norfolk. Many of the vessels registered in the latter half of the twentieth century were leisure craft, including those which toured the Broads.
The shipping register contains the official record of a vessel’s history. In theory, it should contain the full history of ownership of a vessel and any changes in its structure or method of propulsion. It records the name of the vessel, the type, the official number, details of when and where it was built, and its dimensions. Any changes in these details are also recorded. Details of the owner or part-owner of the vessel are given and any subsequent sale of shares. The registers held in the Record Office cover King’s Lynn, 1836-1989; Cley and Wells, 1832-81; and Yarmouth, 1834-1994.
In addition to the official registers, over a thousand individual ships’ files have survived. These contain the paperwork necessary to maintain the register, and include reports of surveyors, certificates of ownership and correspondence with owners. They sometimes contain information that does not find its way on to the official register. If a person had bought a vessel, they had to pay for the register to be amended. This might involve tracing the owners since the last entry was made and providing evidence for all the transactions. In many cases (especially those relating to small, leisure craft), the new owner was unable or unwilling to do this, and the official register was not changed. If this were the case, the correspondence in the registration file may be the only evidence of these transactions.
These records give a fascinating insight into Norfolk’s maritime heritage. They are also often used, in conjunction with other records, by people researching into shipbuilders, hire fleet owners or individual vessels.
For those of you attending the Great Yarmouth Maritime Festival on the 5th and 6th September, see you there!