Tracing seafarer ancestors by certification

ship paintingHelen Doe sheds light on a certification scheme for merchant seamen that aimed to increase standards of navigation and improve safety at sea from 1845.

The first government-led set of examinations to test the competency of masters and mates was introduced in a notice in The London Gazette in 1845 (Gazette issue 20498). It was to be completely voluntary, organised by Trinity House, and the fees were modest. It was the start of a system that would eventually lead to today’s stringent examinations.

State involvement in shipping was limited at the beginning of the 19th century and was strongly resisted by ship owners. There were private schools of navigation available to the seaman, if he had time on shore and could afford them. As the name indicates, they taught the science of navigation, rather than practical seamanship skills, which were acquired through experience.

Some philanthropists set up marine schools specifically to remedy this lack, but they were never widespread enough to make a real difference. The merchant fleet was growing rapidly and demand for mariners was high.

After several high profile shipwrecks, public pressure grew for action. Safety at sea was not a government priority, and it took a determined MP to persuade the government to investigate the causes.

James Silk Buckingham’s 1836 Select Committee

The 1836 Select Committee on Shipwrecks was set up at the end of a parliamentary session. It lasted for less than a month, and its recommendations were ignored by government. Nevertheless, its report was to have a far reaching impact, and included the vexed issue of the variable standards of navigation and seamanship among masters of the merchant marine.

The committee owed its existence to James Silk Buckingham. He had been MP for Sheffield since 1832 (Gazette issue 19010) and was a persistent, determined and effective lobbyist. Described as an ‘active and reformist parliamentarian’, he was a promoter of the creation of parks, museums and libraries for the fast growing industrial towns and was a temperance supporter. But as a seasoned traveller, his passion for maritime reform was his greatest legacy.

Once Buckingham had successfully gained his select committee, he worked with drive and energy. The committee met 12 times in July and early August and the report, with its 400 pages of evidence, was presented to parliament on 15 August. The report heavily criticised some masters and ships’ officers for incompetence, citing evidence of appalling ineptitude and utter ignorance of navigational skill and techniques. Drunkenness was established as a further cause of shipwreck.

Among the suggested remedies was the establishment of a mercantile marine board to oversee a wide range of measures, which included nautical schools for seamen and the examination of officers.  No action was taken, and Buckingham shortly stepped down as an MP.

Voluntary certificate of qualification

The issue would not go away, though, and a voluntary scheme was announced on 19 August 1845 for a certificate of qualification as a master or mate (Gazette issue 20498). In order to be eligible for certification, applicants had to:

  • be aged over 21
  • provide evidence of general good character, sobriety and a certificate of service
  • show the ability to write in a ‘legible hand, and must understand the five first rules of arithmetic’ (numeration, addition, subtraction, multiplication and division)
  • be able to use a sextant and a chronometer

They were to be strictly examined on navigation and proficiency in seamanship, such as showing they knew how to erect and rig a jury mast, or to form rafts in case of being stranded. Knowledge of the impact of compass deviation, which was present in iron ships in particular, and a full understanding of charts and their construction, was also required.

The highest award of ‘1st class, extra’ was given to those who could prove they were well-versed in great circle sailing, spherical trigonometry, marine surveying and more extensive knowledge of astronomy. The fees for these examinations were set at a modest £2 for the master’s exam and £1 for the mate’s exam.

There was not a rush of applications of those ‘voluntarily offering themselves for examination’ (Gazette issue 20498). The first published list in January 1846 (Gazette issue 20564) had 11 qualifying for master’s certificates and six qualifying as mates. 

By April 1846 (Gazette issue 20595), the numbers were gradually increasing, to 25 master certificates and 13 mates. The details of the early candidates published in April 1846 show a wide range of candidates, with ages ranging from James Sturrock, 21, to William Allen, 48. The majority were already masters and mates, and their experience ranged from the mate of the 1,175 ton Java, to a 32-ton ship from New Zealand.

Progress was slow, and fewer than 3,000 candidates passed the examination in the five years of its existence. But there was a growing acceptance of its value. Some of the men who applied saw it as a step towards promotion perhaps to bigger ships, or to work with different owners. The details were to be noted not just in The London Gazette, but also in Lloyd's Register.

The list of men taking these voluntary examinations is a useful source for researchers of merchant seamen, and add to other records available in The National Archives and elsewhere. The big advantage is their accessibility in The Gazette.

There is one slight puzzle, however. Cross-referencing the details in the April 1846 list with Lloyd's Register shows up surprisingly few of the ships listed. While Lloyd's Register was not a comprehensive list of all shipping, it does raise a query about the accuracy of ship data; perhaps one or two of the applicants were less than honest about their experience. As the examining body had only four days to respond to the applicant’s request to be examined, detailed checking was not possible.

The committee’s legacy

If Buckingham was disappointed by the lack of any immediate action following the work of his committee, he could rightly be proud of its legacy. All of the 1836 proposals did eventually find their way into law by 1862.

The Marine Department was set up in 1850, and the examination of officers was introduced in the Marine Act of 1850 and came into force in 1851. Compulsory examinations were only introduced for those in foreign-going vessels, unlike the voluntary examinations, which were open to all. Additionally, the compulsory examinations were set at a lower standard than the voluntary scheme. 

By 1854 it became compulsory to carry a certificated master in passenger ship in the home trade (Gazette issue 21711), and by 1862, foreign-going steamships had to carry certificated engineers. The coastal trade, despite operating in difficult navigational waters around the British Isles, was not required to carry certificated masters until late into the 20th century.

The men listed as qualifying under the voluntary scheme were standard bearers for the industry.

About the author

Dr Helen Doe is a lecturer, author and historian. She is a teaching fellow at the University of Exeter, where she gained her doctorate in maritime history, and is is also a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (FRHistS). Visit