Posted by on 12 September 2012 in General, Guest Bloggers, Record Collections

Take me back to beautiful England
& the grey, damp filthiness of ages,
fog rolling down behind the mountains,
& on the graveyards, and dead sea-captains
.’ Lyrics from ‘Last Living Rose’ by P J Harvey.

Discovering your family history can be an exciting experience and researching one’s ancestor’s masters’ certificates is one such journey to embark on. Known officially as master-mariners they were also referred to in non-official sources as a captain and were qualified to be in charge of a merchant vessel. Master-mariners were issued with a certificate to prove that they were officially acting in that capacity.

Master’s certificate for Edward Smith, captain of RMS Titanic. Repro ID: E5388 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

The records began in 1845 when the Board of Trade introduced a voluntary examination, for seamen interested in owning a certificate of service. The examination system became compulsory for foreign trade in 1850 and for home trade in 1854. When the certificate was issued to the mariner a copy was filed at the office of the Board of Trade. It is this partial and incomplete record series which is housed at the National Maritime Museum. Records are available from 1845 to 1927 digitally on-line for the first time as a comprehensive search engine at

You can find out from the certificate the date the examinations were passed and the mariner’s signature. Perhaps the most useful document though is the original application put in by the mariner for the examination and kept with the office copy. These can provide more personal details, such as his date and place of birth, home address, whether he already held a certificate, whether previous applications for a certificate had failed and why, and details of voyages. In the majority of cases, applications provide a record of every ship on which the applicant had previously served.

Front of application accompanying Captain Edward Smith’s extra master’s certificate. Repro ID: E5390 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Back of application accompanying Captain Edward Smith’s extra master’s certificate. Repro ID: E5391 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Famous sea captains can be found in the records including master-mariner of the Titanic, Edward Smith (14102) who failed the navigation component of the exam in his first sitting! There are also the certificates of Robert Falcon Scott (76670), Ernest Shackleton (028219), Joseph Conrad (08361), Richard Woodget (89120), captain of the Cutty Sark and Arthur Rostron (022747) who in the Carpathia, heroically came to the aid of the sinking Titanic.

The search can be continued by finding out more about the vessels they served on (provided by the application). Many sources available in the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum can assist in revealing more.

Mike Bevan is an Assistant Archivist at the National Maritime Museum.

About Emma

Emma Pulman is a Social Media and digital Marketing Executive for Based in Ancestry's London office in Hammersmith, Emma regularly tweets and posts on Ancestry's Facebook page.