Archiving the Agreements

  1. Why did the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen retain Hundreds of Thousands of Agreements?[Click here to close]

    For over a century Crew Agreements and Logs accumulated in the Registrar General's hands. As these records were returned from every port across the world the RGSS took steps to reduce their bulk. In 1882 John S. Mayo described the challenges and the measures taken:

    It is true that we are getting crowded with papers notwithstanding that my predecessor had many tons pulped, sold, and destroyed in 1877. For some years we have been cutting out and sending to be pulped unused portions of logs at a cost of about £70 per annum and save thereby 100 feet of shelf room per annum. In all probability the sum total (of records) would be staggering, and although many papers are destroyed after a short period, many others need to be preserved for a long periods in case they may be required for legal purposes (quoted in Parkhurst 1962, 270). So far as we are aware none of the Agreements left the office of the Registrar before the 1950s, despite several moves to new premises. Though Mayo's comments provide evidence of an internal policy of controlled destruction of Logs, the fact was that because the Merchant Shipping Acts of 1854 and 1894 had created Agreements as public records they had to be maintained for the public to consult. In some senses even before they passed from the RGSS's hands these records were an historical archive. Many ships whose records were held had ceased trading or been sold foreign and left the British register. Similarly, large numbers of men and women who had signed on were deceased.

  2. What use did the material sustain when still in the RGSS's hand? [Click here to close]

    Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Agreements and Logs were produced in criminal and civil court cases and in other contexts as evidence of happenings at sea. They might be used to provide evidence of births at sea; a career seafarer might need them to attest to his having put in the required sea-time to be eligible to sit the master's examination, and eligibility for pensions was a further reason why Agreements might be requested. Several decades of Agreements might have to be reviewed to find the relevant document, but mostly it was the records of recent years that were of interest in connnection with the administration of wages, or workplace accidents or master's discipline under the Merchant Shipping Acts. In short, until the late twentieth century the archive was still treated by its keepers and users as a contemporary employment record.

    In 1961 there is evidence that even for this function large use was made of the documents. No fewer than 8,793 research requests relating to Agreements from the period 1835 to 1951 were made in a matter of just three months in 1961. Internal enquiries came, for example, from the Ministry of Transport, Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, the Home and Foreign Offices. Commonwealth governments also applied for information. External agencies brought their requests to the RGSS: enquiries were made by the police and local authorities, employers' and labour organizations, solicitors and the general public, but only a few family historians were amongst the enquirers.

    The RGSS survey of 1961 provides statistics on usage by the date of the documents' creation. Half of those requested in the space of these three months were generated in the Second World War and they might be presumed needed for purposes connected with disablement benefit and widows' pensions. To be sure there were people who already appreciated these documents had historical value. Parts of Crew Agreements had been reproduced in a 1971 study by the fine commentator on merchant shipping, Alan Villiers. Even so in the three months of the survey only three nineteenth-century Agreements were pulled to answer queries.

    Although he was obliged to answer general queries, the RGSS had no obligation to provide public access to the documents. And the earlier parts were by now rather inaccessible, having been moved to an aircraft hangar in Middlesex (UK) shortly after the end of World War II in order to clear space at the Registry. The unusual step of compiling statistics on usage was because as public records they were subject to review. Their future had become the business of a committee composed of officials, historians and archivists.

  3. Between working document and public historical archive I: where did the records go after the RGSS? [Click here to close]

    An aircraft hangar in Hayes, Middlesex UK provided a home for the records the RGSS dispensed with as this office returned to its normal functions in the immediate aftermath of World War II. These were Agreements and Log Books up to 1939. The 29,593 boxes which were stored at Hayes occupied 8,000 square feet of floor space.

    The late maritime historian Robin Craig had begun to use the Agreements as systematically as he was able in scheduled visits to Hayes. In a description he provided the MHA, he compared their residence in the aircraft hangar to their being 'in limbo' Excerpt from lecture at Memorial University. It is not uncommon for public records to be shelved for a while in this way. A process of weeding is done: the extent of what is to be kept (as distinct from destroyed) is gauged by an evaluation of the public interest.

    'Limbo' was for a rather extended period in the case of these records. Hayes continued to be their home until 1971 as the process of defining how the public interest might be served went on.

    Though the Public Record Office was very experienced in handling government documents, there was nothing to compare with this archive: it was the product of unique state surveillance of a private industry, and it was unique in its size as well as provenance. The RGSS had been unusually thorough and comprehensive in its work. The documents it had collected would occupy several miles of shelving if kept in their entirety, but this made retaining all of them problematic.

    An interest had to be demonstrated. Maritime historians – the few who were aware of their usefulness – came forward, as did their professional organization, the Institute of Historical Research. The British Records Association joined in the discussion too, representing mainly archivists. Non-academic users were without any effective lobby group. Deliberations took place on very British lines: a committee was formed and, at a critical juncture, a letter was written to the Times. It was published under the title "Records in Danger". This was not hyperbole.

  4. Between working document and public historical archive II: Why were the 'records in danger' ?[Click here to close]

    It would be simple enough to answer this question with "their size", but what was really being asked was what could justify maintaining a collection that entailed the expense of upkeep of several miles of archival shelving. The question of the 'public interest' re-emerges. There were maritime historians and archivists prepared to make the case for the national and international importance of the workers in this industry. Yet one voice was missing. Family historians did not count, at least not as they do were to do later. Without them the need to preserve the records comprehensively had few advocates. The particular qualities family historians most appreciate in voluminous records of 'ordinary people' simply did not register as a matter of public interest. Awareness of the social historical importance of seafaring as distinct from the economic historical importance of shipping was limited too because of the absence of this group. But scholars and archivists were worried enough by the emerging assumption that researchers of the future could be satisfied by retaining a sample. The letter 'Records in Danger' was now dispatched when it seemed that few Agreements and Logs would survive archival destruction.

  5. How did the Agreements and Logs survive? How nearly did they not? [Click here to close]

    In 1966 the RGSS generated figures that were fed into decision-making about the future of the Agreements and Logs. Series I (1747-1859) and Series II (1860-1913) together constituted about 9 million documents. The Keeper of the Public Records at the head of the PRO (now the British National Archives) was disinclined to keep any but a small proportion of the sizeable Series II based on internal advice that their value for historical purposes was "not high (in relation to their bulk)" (PRO Letter, Notes on the Crew Lists MF-009, MHA).

    The PRO committed to retaining Series I in its entirety and subsequently extended this commitment by one year to include 1860. The National Maritime Museum was moved by an argument concerning the importance of a census year and its Board agreed to take all Agreements for 1861 and 1862.

    How nearly did the Agreements and Logs not survive is a question which is, then, pertinent to records from 1863 to 1913, precisely the period when British imperial shipping was at its most extensive. But it was a problem in itself that the records were conceived by the PRO as pre-eminently a shipping archive to be used in future by professionals interested in matters of trade and commerce. Because those historians were equipped with new computer technology, it was thought they would need only a sample. By subjecting that to computer analysis they would have answers to what had served to make Britain's economy grow into the strongest in the world in the 19th century. A pilot study provided some evidence of the robustness of a 5% sample. The PRO played safe, went further than 5% and eventually took 10%, though its selection was not made on the sampling basis recommended in the pilot study. In addition the PRO secured a small number of "Famous Ships'' documents. Even with this done nearly 90% of Agreements and Logs post 1862 were still destined for destruction.

    The National Maritime Museum made space for a 10% sample, selected on a different basis from the PRO. And then from the remaining 80% UK record offices picked a selection of vessels with local relevance.

    Attempts to find an institution that would house the remainder in Britain were made by the group of scholars and archivists who constituted the chief lobby for preservation – Robin Craig (University College, London), Alan Pearsall (National Maritime Museum) and A.T. Milne (Institute of Historical Research). Craig's contacts with overseas academics eventually brought an offer from an unexpected source.

    This involved Memorial University of Newfoundland. On the university campus, storage space would be made available in connection with a large Canada Council grant. An enthusiastic team of scholars planned studying the Agreements, not to reveal what had made British shipping pre-eminent in the 19th century, but for insights into Atlantic Canadian shipping and seafaring as part of the region's economic development.

    In 1971 the first consignment of Agreements was removed from Hayes to make a voyage across the North Atlantic whence a considerable number of them had once come.

  6. What happened to the transferred Agreements when they arrived at Memorial University in Newfoundland?[Click here to close]

    Shipping the pre-1914 Agreements to Newfoundland in the 1970s in no way diminished the storage problem – there were still massive amounts of documents to be shelved -- but it brought them to an institution committed to their upkeep. Two Memorial University faculty members, Keith Matthews and David Alexander, applied for Canada Council funding and the Council, impressed with their plans to use the Archive to do research into Atlantic Canada's shipping industry, provided almost a million dollars. Additionally the University allocated space and personnel to the archive, just as it continues to do.

    Even before a research team could begin its work there was sorting, shelving and cataloguing to be done. The RGSS already had a system, and its new custodians had good reason to adhere to it. The year the Agreement was returned to the RGSS mattered first: the vessel's official number then determined the order of the documents within the year. All Agreements had to be checked against these two criteria, and ultimately double-checked as the Memorial catalogue to its holdings were compiled. This work alone occupied two clerical assistants for two years.

    Custodial work was one priority, research using the Agreements was another. For the first decade of their new life at Memorial the two functions were closely linked and the Maritime History Group coordinated all activities. Yet, while cataloguing had to be comprehensive (to include vessels that had never touched a Canadian port) research required that Canadian-registered vessels were identified for separate treatment. Gerry Panting, Eric Sager, Lewis 'Skip' Fischer and Rosemary Ommer augmented the Matthews/Alexander research team. Several assistants helped, notably in data inputting from the Crew Agreements of the Canadian vessels, for this was to be a computer-assisted project. The Atlantic Canada Shipping Project was in operation between 1971 and 1988 and its activities resulted in several publications. Its data-base, originally held on main-frame computer and accessed only through computer language, is now available for the public to purchase in a PC useable form as a result of an initiative of Danny Vickers and Vince Walsh. Archival cataloguing resulted in the comprehensive index now accessible on the Maritime History Archive mainframe. Memorial received the Agreements and Logs to 1976 in later shipments. These are catalogued too and are made available to researchers. The current archivist of the Maritime History Archive is Heather Wareham whose custodial relationship to the Agreements began a few years after their arrival in St John's.

  7. Why Can't the Researcher find Agreements in One Location?[Click here to close]

    It perplexes a number of the MHA users that the Agreements are not available at one location. There are others too who even though they have heard about the Agreements in Newfoundland start out by assuming that Memorial's is the smaller part of the Collection. What is explained above is how destruction of over 70% of the Agreements was avoided by their transfer to Newfoundland. The inconvenience of distance to UK-resident users is now moderated by electronic means of enquiry and document delivery. It is wise to remember too that as an imperial archive there is material on historical individuals and their descendents who never set foot in the British Isles.

    By a systematic program of cataloguing and of digitizing the indexes to Agreements the MHA has made it possible to tell year by year for any British vessel whether documents survive and are available in our archive. Information provided to the MHA by local record offices in the UK was incorporated into the online catalogue which is easily searched by ship's official number. Going online in Memorial's data-base you can discover whether there is documentation relevant to your research at two of four possible locations: at a UK local record office, or at Memorial. The other two repositories in Britain, the National Archive and the National Maritime Museum, have their own websites. No comprehensive institutional index yet exists to the names of individuals, though progress is being made at Memorial, the National Archive and the National Maritime Museum with name indexes for selected years. The results of an independent UK-based initiative the Crew List Index Project (CLIP) are still accessible at

    The needs of family history researchers were a very small part of the concerns of the various committees that deliberated on the fate of the Agreements in the 1960s. It could not have been foretold then just how many people would be enthused by this interest, nor was this apparent in 1971 when the records were delivered to Memorial. Within the decade however the enquiries received by the MHA indicated that family historians were eager to have access to the records. Academic research continues and we are happy to be bringing you the insights of scholars and students of maritime history, of archival staff and of family history researchers on this site