Posted by Bryony Partridge on September 14, 2015 in Collections, United Kingdom

More than 340,000 historic Merchant Navy apprentice records have been published online for the first time – shedding light on life at sea during the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • Historic records detail apprentices and their masters in the Merchant Navy 
  • Collection features famous ships such as the RMS Britannia and the Cutty Sark, which can still be viewed in Greenwich today
  • Victoria Cross winners Frederick Daniel Parslow and Archibald Bisset Smith appear in the record

We digitised the records from original copies held at The National Archives in Kew, the UK, Apprentices Indentured in Merchant Navy, 1824-1910 collection. They detail the service of over 340,000 young apprentices over a period of 86 years. Each record reveals the name and age of the apprentice with a start date for the indenture (the date they signed up) and the ports they visited throughout their naval career. Also included is the name of the master and, from 1830, the name of the ship served on and the port of registry. As such, this collection acts as a vital resource for anybody looking to piece together the life of a sea-faring ancestor.

UK Apprentices Indentured in Merchant Navy, 1824-1910

Among the hundreds of thousands of apprentices listed in the records, two names hold particular significance as recipients of the Victoria Cross (VC) – the highest military decoration awarded for valour ‘in the face of the enemy’. These are:

  • Frederick Daniel Parslow 15-year-old Frederick appears in the collection in 1871 indentured to a Mr Brown on the Frith of Clyde. Working his way up through the ranks he became a captain and was awarded his VC after bravely manning his ship under enemy submarine attack until he was mortally wounded during the First World War
  • Archibald Bisset Smith – Archibald was indentured at the age of 16, in 1899, to George Thomson. On board, he studied navigation and seamanship and also worked his way up to captain level. Smith was awarded his VC following action during the First World War – he went down with his ship after safely evacuating his crew following an attack by a German U-Boat

The records cover a period when the British Empire was at its peak, trading with countries across the globe. The Merchant Navy facilitated British trade, and would later support war efforts during the First and Second World Wars, ensuring that trade continued and crucial goods reached Britain. Under the Merchant Seamen Act of 1823, masters of British merchant ships of 80 tons and over were required to carry a given number of indentured apprentices, and these apprentices had to be registered. Although compulsory apprenticeship was abolished in 1849, the system of registration was maintained, and these later records have formed the collection launching today.

Over the years the Merchant Navy has included numerous famous faces such as noted author Joseph Conrad was also in the Merchant Navy – his maritime experiences framing his writing. Conrad set many of his stories at sea, even using an injury he sustained on a voyage to Singapore as inspiration for his novel Lord Jim. When it comes to ship names, Merchant Navy vessels were most commonly named after the owners, with Elizabeth, Mary, George and James appearing most frequently in the collection. The records also feature famous ships such as the RMS Britannia, and the Cutty Sark, which can still be seen in Greenwich today.

To search the UK, Apprentices Indentured in Merchant Navy, 1824-1910 and other naval collections including Crew Lists and Master and Mates Certificates click here.


Bryony Partridge

Bryony is the International PR Manager for Ancestry where she implements strategic communications and social media programs that bring increased media awareness for the company.


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  2. John Brown

    Nice to have the new MN records on line, however, can someone explain why your resources were not directed towards the hundreds of errors on new ancestry? over a month to correct the locations problem, over a month to remove all the incorrect rubbish added to peoples trees, over a month to get the picture frame rectangular, over a month to remove the dross added because your computer cannot ignore someone who does not have a death date known …etc etc etc and someone there has the cheek to think that by giving 3 months free subscription it will make everything alright ……. sort out the mess and then I may consider taking out another subscription, whilst my tree still contains all this computer generated inaccurate information there is no chance of me subscribing again

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  4. Scott

    in the Merchant Navy Aprenticeship records, what does “p.C.” or “per C.” mean? It’s in the remarks column after they deserted or left the ship for sickness.

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