Salt of the earth or scum of the earth? These are two phrases frequently used to describe merchant seamen. With a father who was one, I am obviously more inclined to the former, although I do remember him saying that the latter was what they were often called.
And with a father who was a merchant seamen I am well aware of the advantages and disadvantages of this particular profession with respect to family life or just life in general. He was away for much of the time and for his wife, my mother, it must have been extremely hard bringing up the children almost on her own. But then hard-working executives, for example, are probably just as absent, if not quite as obviously. We children certainly did not feel the absence - dad always came home so pleased to see us, and loaded with gifts that it was just a delight to have him there. And he wasn’t home long enough to become disillusioned with small children. And to us it was a glamorous profession - we got to visit the boats and see behind the scenes on the big ocean liners and the smaller cargo ships. And absence does make the heart grow fonder, so even for my parents there must have been advantages.
National archives - research guides - The National Archives have a number of research guides about Merchant Navy records. Make this your starting point for finding information about the service or about your ancestor.
Clip - the crew list index project - Some indexes - you may be lucky or not, and links for where to find them. Very useful.
Lloyd’s list digitised by google- Google has digitised early versions of Lloyd’s List covering the period 1747-1828 though with missing issues and years. The good thing though, is that it is searchable by name.
The mercantile navy list - Similar to Lloyd’s list but including smaller vessels. The volumes digitised date between 1849 and 1920 - though with gaps. It doesn’t seem to be indexed by surname though. You will need to know the ship’s name.
Books boxes and boats - A very useful links site for all sorts of information about the merchant navy, together with sources of records.
findmypast.co.uk - Find my Past now has most of the merchant navy ticket , crew lists and certificates held at the National Archives.
Maritime History Archive memorial university of newfoundland - Don’t be put off by the fact that this is a Canadian website. This archive has a huge collecttion of maritime records from around the world. They seem to be the world centre for such records.
National maritime museum - Britain’t premier resource for all things maritime. Well worth a visit if you are in England, if only to look at the fabulous buildings and visit the Cutty Sark. The website has guides to searching their collections.
Australian maritime museum - Well I live in Australie. If your Australian ancestors have links to the sea, this is where to start.
The ships’ list - More about the boats than the people, but there are some passenger lists, as well as masses of information about ships in general and specific ships.
Cyndi’s list - A very American bias but also a much more comprehensive list of links than I have given you here.
The importance of the merchant navy in the history, development and economy of the world is very often overlooked in favour of the more glamorous exploits of the national navies of the world - those that go to war. A sea battle is much more spectacular than simply taking goods and people around the world. And yet the (mostly) men who man the merchant ships of the world are no less skilled or intelligent. The sea is a hard master and they face as many dangers as those in the national navies - not just from the sea itself, but from pirates too - even and perhaps even more so today. I remember singing those lines in the hymn, “for those in peril on the sea”, with heartfelt fervour. Prior to air travel, the sea was the primary means of traversing the globe, and if useable fuel runs out, then maybe it will become so again.
It is also another of those very ancient professions. From the building of the first boats, trade has followed on conquest, most often by sea. Primitive boats were made very early on in human history, but there were probably no specialist sailors until the nomadic life was replaced by settled communities, where specialisation developed. At first the trade may just have been up and down a river, or a few miles along the coast, but gradually they ventured further afield. And even then it wasn’t just trade that stimulated travel in boats. The picture at left - an illustration of Minoan boats - seems to imply that it was people being carried across the seas. For ferries too are a vital part of the merchant navy.
It could be argued that trade is what has driven the development of nations and empires, and trading across the sea was one of the primary drivers. The Phoenicians, the Arabs and all the peoples of coastal Europe traded with their close and not so close neighbours by boat.