Merchant Navy Records Online for Family Historians. | The Nosey Genealogist's: Help Me With My Family Tree
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Merchant Navy Records Online for Family Historians.

by Nick Thorne, The Nosey Genealogist on April 3rd, 2012

I’ve been browsing the Merchant Navy records on Findmypast and came across a definite ancestor and one or two possibles this afternoon.

Findmypast have released another batch of Merchant Navy data on their website and I believe that they now boast 350,000 records of merchant seaman stretching from 1835 up to 1857. For the first time we are now able to view this important 19th century set thanks to a partnership that they have with the National Archives.

What I noticed, from my searches, was that the details contained in them can vary somewhat. In some you will get a name, an age, a place of birth, physical descriptions of your man, the ship names and the dates of voyages.

In one image that I was looking at I was intrigued to find the description of one John Thorn as being a Distressed Seaman! What on earth did this mean, I wondered? I had images of someone who was standing on the deck and showing certain signs of emotion. Then I thought of ships in distress and wondered if he was a survivor of some disaster.

A quick detour over to the National Archives website (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk) found me a guide that explained abbreviations. It would seem that a Distressed British Seaman is one who is left without a berth, ill or without funds in a foreign port!

The ancestor that I have definitely identified as belonging to my family tree is one John Malser from Portsmouth. His daughter, Ellen married into the Thorne family and so he is my 3x great grandfather. As luck would have it, however, his record is one of the more sparse ones and only furnishes me with his name, his age of 35 and the fact that he sailed in 1845 and part of 1846 the other codes I have yet to understand in spite of looking at further guides on the National Archives website.

These records are great to flesh out the bones of a family history and provide me with another avenue to research.


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  1. Claire Toynbee permalink

    My English grandfather was a merchant seaman from the 1890s until World War One. My Dad is proud to tell people that his father sailed on some of the last merchant sailing ships, and he relays his father’s story about being taught to climb the rigging — another sailor followed behind him, pinching his heels!

    Dad and his brother also went to sea when WWII started, and they were too young to join the armed services like their oldest brother.

    I’m hoping to see some of their merchant service records on FindMyPast one day soon.

    Dad’s mother had sailors in her family, too. Her Dutch great-grandfathers and some of their relatives sailed the world in the mid-19th century. The one I’ve managed to find in some on-line records was my 3x gt grandfather Dirk Herderschee, captain of the ship Amsterdam travelling between Hong Kong and Australia about 1860. I’d love to find out more about his adventures!

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