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Seamen and shipping

Registration before 1854

The state has recorded the numbers of ships and trained sailors since the Middle Ages.

It would be these ships and men who would form a navy or support services when the country went to war.

It was not a formalised system; in times of need, the Privy Council would instruct the lord lieutenants to undertake a survey of sailors in their counties.

We hold records which give examples of this process - see BL/Y/2/67-74, 77. However, very few of the lists drawn up during these surveys survive.

Navigation Acts were passed from the 1660s onwards with the intention of making British merchants use British-built ships and mainly British crews.

This was to ensure a pool of trained men and the capacity to build. 

Other acts gradually built up a system of registration, culminating in the Merchant Shipping Act of 1786.

This created the post of registrar general of shipping, answerable to the Board of Customs.

The act required all British ships of more than 15 tons (including fishing vessels) to register with customs in their home port.

A copy of this registration, the transcript, was then to be sent to a central body.

For Norfolk this was the Customs House in London - a fire in 1814 destroyed the transcripts from earlier years.

A further act, the Merchant Marine Act of 1850, required all masters of vessels to keep official logs. These recorded:

  • Illness on board
  • Birth or death on board
  • Misconduct
  • Desertion
  • Punishment
  • Description of conduct