This guide outlines some ways in which you can trace information about wrecks and losses of merchant shipping vessels.
NB: Information on losses due to war causes in the First World War and Second World War is available in separate Research Guides:
- Research guide C9: The Merchant Navy: World War One
- Research guide C10: The Merchant Navy: World War Two
It can be frustrating for researchers that information on shipwrecks and losses is often incomplete, and spread across a broad range of official and non-official sources. However, this is a strong area of interest for many people, and in many cases, other researchers will have already identified the data available and compiled it into published texts. It is therefore wise to consult some of the following volumes before undertaking exhaustive searches of original sources.
Larn, Bridget and Richard, Shipwreck Index of the British Isles (London: Lloyd's Register, 1995–97). An extremely useful, comprehensive and well referenced, multi-volume register of shipwrecks of the British Isles.
Huntress, Keith, A Checklist of Narratives of Shipwrecks and Disasters at Sea to 1860, with Summaries, Notes and Comments (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1979). Useful for its coverage of the period before centralised records began.
Hocking, Charles, Dictionary of Disasters at Sea During the Age of Steam (London: Lloyd's Register of Shipping, 1969).
Marx, R. Shipwrecks of the Western Hemisphere (New York, World Publishing Co, 1971). Several thousand losses before up to 1825 listed and briefly described.
In addition, the Library has very large collections of works on the shipwrecks of particular areas, and of individual losses so it is always worth checking the library catalogue.
Prior to 1786
There was no official requirement to register the loss of ships before the Merchant Shipping Act of 1786. Prior to this, researchers are reliant on sources such as Lloyd’s List (from 1741: see below).
From 1786, Transcripts of Registration submitted to the Registrar of Shipping record the date of closure of a register when a ship was lost or recorded as missing. These records are available at The National Archives.
The Admiralty was briefly made responsible for recording wrecks and losses from 1850 to 1854. Copies of the Admiralty Wreck Register were published annually as Parliamentary Papers. The library at the National Maritime Museum has the edition covering losses in 1854 only.
Board of Trade Wreck Registers (1854–1898)
By the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, the responsibility for maintaining a systematic wreck register was taken over by the Marine Department of the Board of Trade. The archive at the National Maritime Museum has the original Board of Trade Wreck Registers from 1854 to 1898, after which date they were abandoned. The volumes give the details of wrecked British vessels, including the name, official number, port of registry, port number and year of registration, tonnage, name of managing owner and master. In addition, it gives the date and place of wreck, some idea of the cause, and the number of lives lost. For more information, see the entry in the Archive catalogue
Board of Trade Casualty Returns
From 1856, the Board of Trade published abstracts of the wrecks and casualties of which it was notified. While the content varied over time, the abstracts include information such as the dates and circumstances of significant losses and awards made to mariners for bravery during losses. Earlier issues (1856–1876) also contain a précis of the official special inquiries held by the Board of Trade into wrecks, including details of the judgment passed on the master of the vessel. The library at the National Maritime Museum has copies of the abstracts from 1856–57, 1873–75, and 1877–1918. After this date, the abstracts continued to be published but contained only statistical information and nothing specific to individual losses.
Wreck reports 1876–1988 are held in the Maritime Collection of Southampton Central Library, although these are now being put online. Transcripts and images of the original reports for 1876–1894 and 1926–1951 can be seen via the PortCities Southampton website. It is impossible to trace a report unless the date of loss is known. From 1989 reports are published by the Marine Accident Information Branch (MAIB). The library at the National Maritime Museum has only annual reports containing statistical information rather than details of individual losses.
One of the best sources of information on shipwrecks, not least because of the span of its coverage, is Lloyd’s List. From 1741 this shipping newspaper gave a daily record of information on shipping casualties received in London. As Lloyd's intelligence network grew, its information became increasingly accurate and comprehensive. The library at the National Maritime Museum has complete holdings of Lloyd’s List, but it should be noted that there is no index available before 1838 (see Research Guide). In practice, this means that for earlier years it is essential to know the approximate date of a loss.
Lloyd's Register of Shipping
The earliest of these registers date from 1775. The registers have often been overlooked as sources of shipwreck information. While these will not go into detail, issues were frequently amended before going to press, with notices inserted next to the entries for vessels reading ‘foundered’, ‘burnt’, etc. For early years, this may be the only readily accessible confirmation of a vessel’s fate.
Lloyd’s Weekly Shipping Index, Lloyd’s List Weekly Summary, and Lloyd’s Weekly Casualty Reports
NB: It should be noted that the National Maritime Museum’s holdings of the Lloyd’s publications listed below are not complete, while they are very significant. In most instances, the Lloyd’s Marine Collection at the Guildhall Library will provide greater coverage.
From 1880 to 1920, Lloyd’s Weekly Shipping Index reprinted the casualties sections of the preceding week’s Lloyd’s List, but in alphabetical order by ship. The Library at the National Maritime Museum has copies for 1885–86 and 1893–1916.
In the same period, Lloyd’s List Weekly Summary repeated much of this information, but until 1915 it is particularly useful as it contains an annual alphabetical index to casualties and official inquiries. The Library at the National Maritime Museum has copies for 1884–89, 1891–1915, 1917–1930 and 1937.
From 1920 to 1992, Lloyd’s Weekly Casualty Reports effectively continued the casualties section of Lloyd’s Weekly Shipping Index (see above). It is a collation of the reports of wrecks and losses from the previous week’s Lloyd’s List, with supplementary quarterly indexes. The library of the National Maritime Museum has holdings of the reports and their indexes, 1967–1987 only. However, with all of these three publications, if the approximate date of the loss is known, the information can still be retrieved from Lloyd’s List, for which there are indexes for the period 1838–1927.
Lloyd's Register Casualty Returns
(Also known variously as Lloyd’s Register Wreck Returns and Return of Vessels Totally Lost, Condemned etc).
From 1890 to the present, this quarterly publication lists the vessels over 100 tons removed from Lloyd’s Register, with brief statements of the circumstances of the loss. Its entries are divided into British and Foreign vessels, then arranged by cause, so that there are separate lists for vessels burned, destroyed by collision, foundered or wrecked etc. This means that if the date but not the cause of a wreck is known, it is necessary to browse several lists. It also includes extensive statistical tables about losses. The Library has issues 1890–1900, and 1907–1993, although many of these are photocopies, and so for legal reasons cannot be further copied. From 1994, the content of the title was partially transferred to the new World Casualty Statistics, which no longer listed individual losses.
For significant wrecks or those involving loss of life it is frequently rewarding to search newspapers and periodicals. Those held at the library of the National Maritime Museum which are particularly useful, are Mitchell's Maritime Register and the Shipping Gazette, before both merged with Lloyd’s List. Significant losses are also often reported in detail in national and regional newspapers. The Library offers full electronic access to The Times from 1785 to 1985, and to the British Library’s ongoing 19th century newspapers online project. For licensing reasons, access is only available onsite at the Museum (see Electronic resources)
Lloyd's Captains' Registers
If you suspect that a ship's master whose name you know was in charge of a wrecked vessel, it is also worth consulting Lloyd's Captains' Registers. These printed and manuscript registers, listing masters alphabetically, were compiled by Lloyd’s and are held at the Guildhall Library. They were begun in 1869. The Guildhall Library has added partial Indexes to the Registers to its website. The National Maritime Museum also holds microfilm copies, but the quality is variable and sometimes difficult to read. Lloyd’s staff have often noted inquiries and their verdicts next to the master’s names, for example 'no blame', 'certificate suspended', etc.
The Lloyd’s Marine Collection offers much that assists in identifying wrecks, and they have a detailed research guide on the topic.
The National Archives similarly has many valuable sources, notably the Board of Trade Marine Department correspondence, records of the Collectors of Customs and the Coastguard Service. They also have their own research guide.
The Pastscape website, documenting the English Heritage National Monuments Record, aims to record the details of every known wreck in British territorial waters and currently contains some 40,000, searchable by name. The level of information available varies but it is an excellent and authoritative resource, particularly as a first step. A useful tip is to add the word 'wreck' to your search along with the name of the vessel.
Although care has been taken in preparing the information contained in this document, anyone using it shall be deemed to indemnify the National Maritime Museum from any and all injury or damage arising from such use.
Last updated February 2011
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