Researching Seamen of the UK’s Merchant Navy and some Sole Sailors

By Maureen Storey

This article was published in the April 2022 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

With the UK’s tradition for sea-faring it is not surprising that many people find a ‘mariner’ somewhere in their family. And while sailors that served in the Royal Navy in the last couple of hundred years can easily be traced through the various military databases, it is not so simple for merchant seamen. However, there are records available that can give us some insight into mariners’ careers and from which you can find their rank, whether they served on local boats or on ocean-going vessels and details of the ships they served on. The chief sources for these are outlined below.
Musters, Crew Lists and Agreements
Before 1747 there was no formal record keeping of crews on merchant shipping. The sailors were hired by the captain on a per cruise basis, with the terms of service agreed between the captain and the crew. A system of Port Books was used to record when a ship arrived in or left a port, but these only give its destination and the names of the ship, its captain and the owner of the cargo. The surviving Port Books, some of which date back to 1564, are held by the National Archives.
Muster rolls, a system used between 1747 and 1851, were initially introduced in order to collect a levy from seamen’s wages for a relief fund. They show the name, rating, and dates of joining and discharge for each man in the crew. Their survival is somewhat patchy and those before 1800 only survive for the ports of Bristol, Dartmouth, Liverpool, Plymouth, Shields and Scarborough.
The 1835 Shipping Act was intended to create a register of all seamen who could be called upon to support the British Royal Navy in times of war. The act stipulated that the captain had to compile a crew list and lodge it and its accompanying crew agreement with the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen. For ships that operated in the ‘Home Trade’, i.e. in UK coastal waters or from the UK to Northern European or Baltic ports, crew lists and agreements were deposited twice a year, whilst for those engaged in ‘Foreign Trade’ they were submitted after each voyage.
Some of the resulting central registers of seamen have been digitised and are available on findmypast. The amount of information they provide varies greatly from just:
1845: 210,842 Sole Valentine Sayer, Deal
(where the 6-digit number is the sailor’s ticket number) to the slightly more informative:
1853: John Sole aged 19 of Reculver who served on The Dolphin
while the really lucky researcher will find records like:
No of Register Ticket: 295,101
Phillip Sole Born at Portsea, Hampshire on 21 Feb 1817.
Capacity: Carpenter’s crew. Age when first ticketed 39. Cannot write.
Height: 5ft 7 ins; Hair: light; Complexion: fair; Eyes: Grey; No marks
First went to sea as carpenter’s crew in 1857.
Served in the Royal Navy: 9 years
Has not been in Foreign Service
When unemployed lives in Portsmouth
Issued Beyrout, HMS Inconstant 5 June 1846
This central registration of seamen stopped in 1857 because it was decided it was just replicating the information given by the crew lists and agreements. It was reintroduced in 1914 at the beginning of World War I.
Crew lists and agreements, which were effectively contracts between the men and their captain, were signed before each voyage. Again the contents tend to vary but as well as listing the crew and detailing each man’s rank, they may also include his pay, the ship’s destination, the expected duration of voyage, and the rations each man was entitled to on the voyage. In 1886 John Sole was one of a complement of 71 onboard the Beaver Line’s SS Lake Superior when she sailed from Liverpool bound for Montreal and Quebec. The crew list and agreement includes the following entry for John:
John Sole, b 1862, London, previous voyage was on the same vessel, date of signing on 13 Jul 1886, must be aboard by 6 am, rank AB, pay £3 10s per month, total pay given £3 1s
While the accompanying agreement details his daily ration as:
Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday 1lb bread, 1½lbs beef, ½lb flour
Monday, Wednesday, Friday 1lb bread, 1¼lb pork, ⅓ pint peas
with ⅛ oz tea, ½ oz coffee, 3 qts water

The SS Lake Superior of the Beaver Line which John Sole sailed on in 1886. Image thanks to Norway-Heritage licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.

Masters and Mates Certificates
In 1845 the Board of Trade introduced voluntary examinations of competency for men who wanted to become masters and mates on foreign-going British ships. These examinations became compulsory in 1850 and were extended to masters and mates of British ships operating in the Home Trade in 1854. Those who were already serving as masters and mates did not have to sit the exams but instead had to prove they had sufficient experience before being granted a certificate of service. There were different examinations for second mates, first mates and masters that required the candidates to show a level of competence in seamanship and navigation, with Foreign Trade certificates considered superior to Home Trade ones. As new types of ship were introduced, the certificates usually showed what type of vessel it was valid for, e.g. a squared-rigged sailing ship, a steamship, etc. Over the course of time the scope of compulsory competency examinations was extended to include engineers and the crew of fishing vessels.
The information given on a master’s or mate’s certificate (or ticket) varies a little with date but may include name, date and place of birth, the certificate number, the port and date of issue and the recipient’s address. The ticket is also usually accompanied by a record of the seaman’s service which may include names of vessels and the capacity in which he served on them and dates of service. Where a man has progressed from second mate to first mate to captain, the details from his earlier certificates are also often given.
The information given with Thomas Sole’s5 second and first mate certificates is shown below (many of the ship’s names are difficult to decipher):
Second Mate, certificate issued 10 Sep 1868
Thomas Sole, born 19 Dec 1846, Lambeth, Surrey. Current address: 15 Little Canterbury Place. Lambeth Walk, Surrey
Service: Trinidad of London, as boy, Sep 1863-Feb 1864
Enditive(?) of London, as boy, for 3 years
Noynrima(?) of London, as able seaman, 25 days in April 1867 and May-Jun 1867
St Vincent of Jersey, as boatswain, Jan-Apr 1868
St Vincent of London, as boatswain May-Aug 1868
with a total service at sea of 4 years 3 months and 27 days
Thomas Sole’s record was then extended when he applied to become a first or chief mate:
First Mate, certificate issued 4 Aug 1870
Thomas Sole, born 19 Dec 1846, Lambeth, Surrey. Current address: 143 Sidney Street, Mile End, Stepney
Previous certificate: second mate, now applying to become chief mate
Service St Vincent of London, as second mate for 5 voyages between September 1868 and July 1870
George Sole6 was already a master when the competency examinations for masters became compulsory in 1850, so to get his certificate he just had to show he had sufficient experience to be deemed competent. He was first issued with a master’s certificate on 26 Dec 1850. The information he supplied to qualify for the certificate was:
George Sole, b 7 Aug 1816 at Rustington, Sussex. Present age 34. Address: Littlehampton
Service: Two Sisters of London, 124 tons, apprentice, Irish Trade, 21 Aug 1830 to 31 Aug 1836
Science of London, 186 tons, mate, Foreign Trade 27 Aug 1835 to 27 Nov 1838
Reliance of Yarmouth, 216 tons, master, Foreign Trade, 30 Nov 1838 to 4 May 1839
Fame of Dublin, 160 tons, master, Foreign Trade, 10 Jun 1839 to 4 Feb 1841
Hebrides of Greenock, 746 tons, mate, Foreign Trade, 11 March 1841 to 13 February 1842
Orpheus of Greenock, 365, mate, Foreign Trade, 10 May 1842 to 14 Jan 1843
Europa of Greenock, 272 tons, mate and master, Foreign Trade, 16 Feb 1843 to 7 Apr 1845
Atalanta of Arundel, 196 tons, master, Coastal and Foreign Trade, 17 April 1845 to 3 October 1850
In 1869 George applied for and was issued with a new master’s certificate to replace the original which he stated was lost in Dublin.
As a Foreign Service captain he may well be listed in Lloyds Captain Registers, which are kept at the London Metropolitan Archives and which unfortunately have not yet been digitised. These usually contain details of voyages undertaken as well as further personal background.
In 1823 The Merchant Shipping act stipulated that all ships over 80 tons should carry at least one apprentice. Initially these apprenticeships had to be registered with the local Customs Officer or after 1835 with the Registrar General for Shipping and Seaman for London-based apprentices. The registration of apprentices ceased to be compulsory in 1849 but continued on a voluntary basis. About 20% of these records have survived and are held by the National Archives They typically record the apprentice’s name and age and where he was from, the length of the apprenticeship, to whom he was apprenticed and often the ship to which he was assigned.
5 November 1862, John Sole, of Hackney, aged 15, indentured for 7 years to Robert Hewitt of Barking, fishing
26 Feb 1877, James George Sole, aged 17½, b St Nicholas, Kent, bound to J W Scarlett of Ramsgate, release date 1882
Trinity House Petitions
The Corporation of Trinity House was responsible for the lighthouses and buoys around the English coasts. Before 1854 a proportion of its profits from lights dues was set aside for the relief of the families of disabled or dead seamen. This relief was provided as either an out-pension or as an admission to one of Trinity House’s alms-houses. In 1815 it was supporting 144 alms people and 7012 out-pensioners. Anyone wanting help from Trinity House had to submit a ‘petition’ asking for help and outlining their qualification to receive it. As always not all of the records survive, but those that do can be a valuable source of family information, including the mariner’s length of service and which ships he served on, details of the his marriage and the births of his children The records covering 1754–1854 have been lodged with the Society of Genealogists in London. A copy can obtained for £15. However, indexes of petitions can be found on findmypast. A typical entry in the index gives just:
1821 Thomas Sole, aged 52, married residing in St Peter’s, Isle of Thanet
The many merchant sailors who were killed during the two world wars appear in the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Those for whom there is no known grave are commemorated by a memorial outside Trinity House on Tower Hill in London. It is not the easiest memorial on which to find an entry as the dead are listed alphabetically under the name of the ship they were serving on, so it can be a long search if you do not know the ship’s name.
The sailors mentioned:
Valentine Sayer Sole was born in Deal in 1817 and was the son of John Sole and Ann Beach. He married three times but does not seem to have had any children. He died in 1872 in Lambeth, Surrey.
John Sole remains unidentified.
Philip Sole was born in Portsea, Hampshire, in 1817 and was the son of Philip Sole and Mary Lush. He settled in Cape Province, South Africa, where he worked as a carpenter in HM Dockyards. He married twice and had four children. He died in Simonstown, South Africa in 1887.
John Sole was born in Battersea, London in 1860 and was the son of John Sole and Ann Stacey. He married Catherine Smith in Tranmere, CHS, in 1884 and they had five children. John died at sea in 1903.
Thomas Sole remain unidentified.
George Sole was born in Rustington, Sussex, in 1816 and was the son of George Sole and Ann Longhurst. He married twice: first Caroline Blackallar in 1845 and then Elizabeth Pellowe in 1873. He had eight children, six with Caroline and two with Elizabeth. He died in Budock, Cornwall, in 1891.
John Sole’s identity is uncertain but he could be the John Sole, son of John Sole and Frances Maynard born about 1848.
James George Sole was born in St Nicholas at Wade, Kent, in 1859 and was the son of James Sole and Elizabeth Emptage. He drowned while working as a mate on the fishing boat Hibernia in 1883.
Thomas Sole was almost certainly the son of Edward Sole and Mary Squire and was born in St Peter at Thanet in 1769. He married Jane Woodward in 1794 and they had one daughter. Thomas died in St Peter in Thanet in 1848.