09 November 2023
Maritime historian Dr Simon Wills shares three websites to help you identify the ship on which your ancestor worked or was shipwrecked.
Ships can feature prominently in the history of British families because the British Empire built and owned about half of all ships afloat worldwide in 1900. Commercial ships carrying cargo or passengers are known as merchant ships, and it is common for genealogists to want to know the identity of a ship that their ancestor owned, sailed in, or even was wrecked upon. However, therein lies a potential problem. With so many ships afloat, how do you know if you’ve found the right one? Different ships often shared the same or similar names.
Three websites to help you identify a ship
1 Crew List Index Project
If you are looking for a ship after 1855, then a good place to start is the index to registered British ships by name provided by the Crew List Index Project (CLIP) website.
For example, you can type ‘Baron Erskine’ in the search box, choose ‘exact match’ because we are sure of the ship’s name, and then click ‘search’. You’ll see two different ships listed, both registered at Ardrossan in Scotland. The first was built in 1911 and the register for it was closed in 1915, and the second was built in 1930 and its registration was closed in 1942. The register for a named ship was closed if it was scrapped, sold to a foreign buyer, or it sank.
Most British ships that were lost are indexed on the Wrecksite database. For example, if you enter ‘Baron Erskine’ on this site’s search engine you will find one ship sunk by U-boat in 1915 and a second one sunk by U-boat in 1942.
The identical names are because the two ships were owned by the same company: Hugh Hogarth & Sons of Glasgow. Shipping lines often re-used ship names. This website often includes photos of ships too.
3 Lloyds Register of Shipping
If the ship is over 50 tons, then Lloyd’s Register of Shipping can provide additional information to help confirm a vessel’s identity too, such as its size, the name of the captain and owner, where it was built, and whether it had a regular voyage route. You have to search the online digitised books one year at a time, but it is easy to do as long as you know roughly the years that your ship was active.
Text extracted from an article on identifying an ancestor's ship by Dr Simon Wills in the December 2023 issue of Family Tree - get your copy here.
About the author
Dr Simon Wills is a genealogist and author with more than 30 years’ experience of researching his ancestors. He has a particular interest in maritime history and the natural world. His latest book is A History of Birds (White Owl). He is also author of The Wreck of the SS London, Tracing Your Seafaring Ancestors, and How Our Ancestors Died amongst others.
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