From 1837 to 1965, the Registrar General’s Office (GRO) compiled registers and indexes of births and deaths of persons of British nationality, normally resident in England or Wales. These include events occurring on both British registered (and colonial) merchant ships and Royal Navy vessels. If the event occurred from 1966 onwards, it was recorded in the GRO Registers of Births and Deaths Abroad.
However, it was not until the Merchant Shipping Act 1850 that the deposit of official logs with the Registrar-General of Shipping and Seamen (RGSS) became compulsory.
- From 1854, registers were compiled from the entries in these logs of births, deaths and marriages of passengers at sea.
- And not until the Registration Births and Deaths Act 1874 were ships’ masters required to report all births and deaths on board ship to RGSS who then reported them periodically to the Registrar-General of Births, Deaths and Marriages of England and Wales, Scotland or Ireland as appropriate. Whilst the majority of these records will be about merchant seamen, many of the records also include details about passengers. There are no marriage returns in these records.
Therefore, the registration of births and deaths at sea before 1874 was at the best irregular: the earlier entries probably being taken from log books sent directly to the GRO by ships' masters.
The Public Search Room of the General Register Office for England and Wales at the Family Records Centre (1 Myddelton Street, London, EC1R 1UW) holds the above mentioned indexes in several series. However, these are now conveniently available to search on the 1837Online.com website, and comprise:
- GRO Marine Births Indexes 1837-1965
- GRO Marine Births Indexes Informal Certificates 1-41
- GRO Marine Deaths Indexes 1837-1846-1965
- GRO Births Abroad Indexes 1966-1994
- GRO Deaths Abroad Indexes 1966-1994
Similar material dating from the start of their systems of civil registration is held by the General Register Offices in Edinburgh (1855), Dublin (1864) and Belfast (1922).
Royal Navy Personnel deaths
The GRO for England and Wales hold registers, and indexes, related to the deaths of Royal Navy personnel during both the First and Second World Wars. With the exception of these war periods, the registration of deaths of Royal Naval personnel should be found amongst deaths at sea, or occasionally in 'Army Deaths' (from 1881) and 'Service Deaths' (from 1956). These indexes are again held at the Family Records Centre or are searchable at 1837Online.com:
- GRO War Deaths Naval Officers Indexes 1939-1948
- GRO War Deaths Naval Ratings Indexes 1939-1948
- GRO War Deaths Naval All Ranks Indexes 1914-1921
The GRO also holds records for people who have died on off-shore installations or hovercrafts. If you are searching for an ancestor who died on a British-owned oil or gas rig (including a survival craft belonging to an offshore installation) or a hovercraft, please look within the GRO Marine records above. Alternatively if the event occurred from 1966 onwards, you will need to look in the GRO Deaths Abroad Indexes.
The records of the RGSS, from which the GRO compiled its own registers of births and deaths at sea, are held at The National Archives (TNA). These are in several different series covering different periods, events and categories of person. From 1875, the information held by the GRO, and described above, should duplicate these, but there is always the possibility that this may not be the case:
- Registers of births, marriages and deaths of passengers at sea, 1854-1890 (BT 158)
- Registers of births at sea of British Nationals, 1875-1891 (BT 160)
- Registers and indexes of births, marriages and deaths of passengers and seamen at sea, from 1890 (BT 334)
- Registers and wages and effects of deceased seamen, 1852-1881, 1888-1889 (BT 153; indexes BT 154)
The TNA also holds miscellaneous other records of births and deaths at sea, for example:
- Registers of births, 1847-1854, and deaths, 1847-1869, of emigrants at sea (CO 386/17-172)
- Register of deaths and births at sea, 1892-1918, first reported at Falmouth (CUST 67/74)
- Deaths of British citizens on French and Dutch vessels, 1836-1871 (RG 35)
- Deaths of officers and ratings [various series including WWI and WWII], 1854-1950 (ADM 104)
- Deaths of officers and ratings, WWI [various series] (ADM 242)
Further, but less important, records of births and death at sea are also held at Guildhall Library in London and at the National Maritime Museum Caird Library.
Paul Blake - is a professional genealogy and local-history lecturer. A regular contributor to the Family-History press, he is also joint author, with Audrey Collins, of Who was your Granny's Granny? (Foulsham, 2003).
Records of Merchant Shipping and Seamen by K Smith, C T & M J Watts (Public Record Office, 1998)
Tracing your naval ancestors, by Bruno Pappalardo (Public Record Office, 2003)
Tracing births, deaths & marriages at Sea, by C T & M J Watts (Society of Genealogists, 2002)
My ancestor was a merchant seaman, by C T and M J Watts (Society of Genealogists, 2002)
TNA Research Leaflet: Births, marriages and deaths at Sea