A History of the Agreements

(and the Registrar General of Shipping & Seamen)

  1. What were Crew Agreements? [Click here to close]

    Crew Agreements were labour contracts between ship owners, masters and crew in the British Empire. They listed every man and woman who worked aboard a merchant vessel. A large amount of information was written about every crew member, including his or her age, birthplace, job onboard and resulting wage. The Agreement was a legally binding contract on seafarers to remain with their vessel until officially discharged. This was normally when a foreign-going vessel reached its final destination or at the end of a six-month period for a home-trade vessel.

    By formalizing the relationship between master and crew, the Agreements limited the number of disputes that could arise over wages, food rations, and other details. They were legal documents that showed all parties the agreed-upon conditions and wages.

  2. What information was included in a Crew Agreement? [Click here to close]

    The form Crew Agreements took changed in the years between 1854 and 1913, but the majority contained information on:

    The Vessel, the Owner, the Master: The Voyage: The Crew:
    The ship's official number, name, rig, tonnage, date and place of build of the vessel. Ration scales for the crew. The name, age, date, and place of birth of crewmembers.
    The name and address of the managing owner. A description and approximate duration of the intended voyage. The rank, rate of pay, and the place and date of joining and leaving the vessel for all crew members.
    The name, official number (certificate of competency), and address of the Master. Special Instructions (eg. Consumption of alcohol, advances on wages etc). The name and port of registry of the previous vessel upon which each crewmember served, and the date of discharge from that vessel.
    The dates the agreements were deposited and withdrawn by the master at the consulate or shipping office of each port of call. The amount of wages advanced, if an advance was given, and whether final payment was made.
    Details of all apprentices aboard.
    The reason for discharge of each crewmember.
  3. Why did the British imperial government create Crew Agreements? [Click here to close]

    The British government created Crew Agreements to better regulate the merchant shipping industry and to maintain a list of seafarers it could enlist in the British Navy. They began as early as 1747 with a document known as a muster roll. Its major purpose was for the 'pressing' of seafarers, masters and apprentices excluded, into naval service during both peace and war. Muster rolls recorded names, job ratings, dates of entry, and final discharge.

    The balance of interest between seaborne trade on the one hand and naval strength on the other had already begun to shift by 1835, an important date because the Registry of Seamen was established. At the same date, legislation required the master of any vessel belonging to a British subject, or any British-registered vessel of eighty tons or more to carry a written Agreement with every crew member recorded. This document was to go through several more transformations later in the nineteenth century, but from 1835 the agreement exists in something of its modern form.

    Muster rolls were abolished in the mid-century as the argument for the autonomy of the merchant marine from the Royal Navy gained momentum. This is the period too in which the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen (RGSS) assumed responsibilities for the regulation of seafarers, which had previously belonged to the Admiralty. Bureaucratic routines of unprecedented sophistication were devised by the RGSS to supervise the labour force of a rapidly expanding maritime commercial empire. Memorial University's holdings of the Crew Agreements, starting in 1863, are the result of this initiative.

  4. How did the system develop?[Click here to close]

    Britain's international trade and imperial dominion grew between the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth century. At the interface of state, business and labour— where property interests and labour rights were involved— supervision increased and became more complex. The Agreement was a contract that provided a framework for almost everything connected with merchant shipping work at sea. When the number of workers peaked, no fewer than 250,000 individuals were involved each year. They might be recruited at any port worldwide to serve anywhere over the seas, but recruitment to a British registered vessel brought even non-British subjects under extensive statutes governing wages, payments, onboard conditions and qualifications. The state, by now committed to free trade, dedicated an unusual amount of resources to regulating the Merchant Marine in Britain, the Empire and elsewhere. The Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen's office, under the British Board of Trade, had custodianship of the Agreements in London. It was assisted by a network of Mercantile Marine officers in each port throughout Great Britain and by the Consular Service abroad.

  5. What interests were involved?[Click here to close]

    Merchant Marine legislation had a lot to do with how the Crew Agreement and Official Log looked and what was contained within them. Fortunately, over the period we cover in this website, two Acts of Parliament accounted for much of the legislation applying to Agreements and thus there is a fair degree of consistency over time. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1850 (consolidated in 1854) regulated much about labour and its conditions until a new comprehensive Merchant Shipping Act was passed in 1894. Many provisions of the 1894 Act were still current in the twentieth century.

    Then again, if legislation is only a response to everyday developments at sea, the question 'what interests were involved?' might be answered by looking at what had happened in this industry that made it desirable to manage the engagement and discharge of seafaring labour. First, larger amounts of capital were invested by shipowners in vessels which they wished to see deployed as economically and efficiently as possible. Second, the imperial government had many reasons for wanting a cheap and effective means of communication and commodity transport provided in British registered vessels, the latter being a source of state revenue in their own right. Third, while there had always been groups of seafarers who were diligent about receiving a due return for their labour, the advent of steamers and the expansion of a steam passenger service caused jobs to become more diverse and arguably more demanding: workers were increasingly assertive about their rights. Fourth, safety was a concern of all parties, though the carriage of passengers often forced this issue. Eventually, however, the conditions of life in the fo'c's'le (forecastle) were subject to regulation under merchant marine legislation and thus appeared in various ways in the official documentation.

  6. Why were there different kinds of Crew Agreements?[Click here to close]

    There were two main kinds of voyages, which resulted in two kinds of crew agreements: foreign-going agreements and home trade agreements. Most voyages for which a home trade agreement was completed were around the coasts of the British Isles. These were technically known as coasting voyages. But 'home trade' introduced a different reference for it could, in addition, mean voyages to the near-continent. Foreign going voyages were to anywhere outside these limits and the ports at which foreign going voyages began and ended were not necessarily ports in the British Isles.

    On this website we have posted an example of a foreign going and a home trade agreement which we have annotated so that users can see in detail what each contained by clicking the links. Our examples are taken from different periods (1871 and 1908), chosen to be indicative of the most common documents in the archive. Please note, however, that should you identify a document held at the MHA and request a scanned copy, it might differ from either one of these two. Let us explain why, concentrating first on agreements for foreign going voyages.

    Before the all-purpose foreign-going form known as Engagement 1 was created by the Merchant Shipping Act of 1867, several different forms were used. A request to the MHA for an Agreement for the 1860s and early 70s might well result in one or more of these other documents (Schedules A, C, AC and M) being supplied. They will be useful, but may not provide as complete an account of the voyage, as an Engagement 1. Over time some documents have not survived and sometimes the process they document might never have been properly administered. This is why the RGSS introduced an all-purpose agreement, which was the result of combining Crew Agreement, List and Termination document. This was the Engagement 1 (Eng 1) and it gradually came into circulation as the stationery supplies of the previous forms ran out.

    But there is another reason why even after this date a foreign going agreement or list produced by the MHA might look different from the Engagement 1. This would likely be the 'office copy', an agreement made only at the signing-on of a crew. In this case, the crew was never officially signed off and the reason might well have been a shipwreck. So this too is an interesting document. It helps to realize that these contracts reflect a process which unfolded over time. The loss of a vessel by shipwreck is a prime example of a truncated process. Office copies survived and were filed because the RGSS did not have the completed agreement. They are conspicuous because they are printed in red. Elsewhere on this website you will see examples of office copies and of the earlier documents which were fore-runners of the Engagement 1.

    Home trade crew agreements also evolved in their sophistication. In 1874 the Board of Trade combined Home Trade Agreement B with Home Trade List D in a single document, Engagement 6. It too was completed over a period of time, in this case a maximum of six months during which men signed on and off. But this kind of agreement functioned from the first as a running document. Early agreements will look different from that of the Brio but will in fact contain much of the same information.

    Finally this discussion is important to your understanding of a process that generated a document or documents as a seafaring contract. Our reference is to events happening over a period of time rather than at one time. These seafaring documents are different from the census and this, together with the amount of information they contain, makes them even more revealing than censuses.

  7. What was recorded in Official Logbooks?[Click here to close]

    The Official Logbook was a statutory document kept by the master, but sometimes transcribed by another hand. Starting in 1850 masters were required by law to keep a record of crew changes, illnesses, births and deaths on board, seafarers' infringements of their terms of the Agreement as well as outright criminal offences. At sea the master's authority was such that he was referred to as being 'Next After God'. Nevertheless there came a time when a vessel returned to port and this document might then be treated as evidence if his judgment was questioned. Many of the incidents recorded had potential legal consequences, so the logbook was a record that could be produced in court. A seafarer might, for example, contest a fine from his wages. Log entries involving crew offences had to be read to those named, who were free to object.

    In cases of death, masters had to conduct an inventory of the seafarer's possessions for the logbook, and auction off the articles with the proceeds going to the next of kin (Merchant Shipping Act 17 & 18 Vict. c. 194-202). The logbooks contain character and job performance reports for each seafarer, which were used to fill out the discharge papers issued to the crewmember when he or she left the vessel. All entries had to be signed by the master and a witness, except for entries concerning deaths, which required two witness signatures. Logbooks were sent to the Registrar-General together with the completed Crew Agreements. Some masters recorded nothing more than they were legally obliged, others provided much fuller accounts of the voyage, and sometimes the researcher will discover a master who suppressed information about events that are to be found documented in other sources. Requests to the MHA for foreign going Crew Agreements will often turn up a Logbook from the 1860s and 70s, but they are rare thereafter. Information elsewhere on this site explains their partial survival.

  8. What other kinds of documents can be found amongst the Agreements and Logbooks?[Click here to close]

    Documents are found inserted in the Agreements and particularly in the Logbooks. Agreements and Logs followed a routine format and there was, for example, some explaining to be done by the master if there were aberrations. Notes from the master to the RGSS explain their omissions and assure the official that these mistakes will not be repeated. Master Joseph McMullen of the vessel Dennis Horton, ON 38187, 1866, sailing from Calcutta to Liverpool, forgot his copy of the ship's log book at his agent's house in Liverpool. As he explains in the logbook, he noted what happened during the voyage in an old logbook, and upon arrival in Liverpool, "copied a true copy" into a current, blank log book. Captain McMullen went to all this trouble to avoid paying a fine.

    Extraneous documents were undoubtedly stored either in or with Logs and Agreements intended to be removed by the master later. Individual crewmembers' discharge certificates collected at the beginning of the voyage should have been returned on their leaving the ship, but if not retrieved they were pinned to the agreement and often remained there after the Registrar General had received it. More unusual are fugitive documents such as letters to family members dictated by a dying seafarer.

  9. How did the British Government organize all these records?[Click here to close]

    The RGSS is mentioned many times on this site. He was indeed a person, a bureaucrat, known to us by name. The first, Captain Brown, presided over an office located in the London Custom House, but it was John Mayo, appointed to replace Brown in 1862, who oversaw many of the changes that enabled the sophistication of the agreement system, now administered from Adelaide Place. It is worth reflecting on the huge amount of work involved in inspecting and either filing or following up on such Agreements that revealed discrepancies when hundreds of thousands were received each year.

    All Agreements and Logbooks returned during a year for a single vessel were bundled together and filed in a sequence determined by the vessel's official number. This is the same system adopted today at the Maritime History Archive. But we use standard archival boxes on movable shelving for storage. On a year by year comparison of their volume the number of boxes peak twice: in 1868 (960 boxes) and in 1914 (963 boxes). The first peak is because of the number of individual vessels at sea, and the second because of the larger crews, particularly on passenger liners.

  10. What happened in the British Colonies (Canada, Australia, India, etc.)?[Click here to close]

    The colonies made a very large contribution to the strength of British imperial shipping. Canada and India especially supplied workers, ships and cargoes, though quite different in kind. Informal as well as a formal influence contributed to a situation in which approximately two-thirds of the world's commodity trade was shipped in British-registered vessels by 1914. (Those included colonial-built and registered vessels with labour supplied by colonial crews.)

    Merchant marine legislation reached to the Colonies: the 1850 and 1894 Merchant Shipping Acts both applied. But from 1867, colonies could make their own shipping laws in addition to these major acts of colonial administration. Agreements for foreign-going voyages were administered by similar procedures in the colonies and when researchers come across Agreement forms that were printed overseas, they are similar to forms issued in the UK.

    The differences, however, have merited our posting several examples of colonial agreements on this site. See, for example the Julia Blake ON 59410, 1872 [taken from the MHA website crew agreements codes page]

    Special articles applied to some kinds of imperial labour recruited even to UK-owned and operated vessels. From before our period, Indian and African seafarers might constitute the majority of crew on vessels on Asian routes. Known as Lascars, they signed for rates of wages generally lower than European seafarers and for provisions, which, while recognizing different culinary preferences, were cheaper for the shipowner to supply. This was also true of Chinese seafarers.

    Colonial crew agreements for foreign-going voyages were not systematically returned to the RGSS, though the Archive contains a great many that evidently followed the official route. Our suspicion is that no matter how impressive the reach of the mercantile marine department of the Board of Trade and no matter how co-operative colonial governments, there were local lapses, omissions and evasions. MHA researchers are still collecting evidence of the imperial administration of the Agreement system and of its anomalies, not least in respect of Newfoundland, part of the British Empire until 1949.

  11. Why does this site call these documents Agreements when elsewhere they are 'Crew Lists'?[Click here to close]

    We are perhaps alone at the MHA in using the term Crew Agreements. Most other institutions and individuals who work with these records call them Crew Lists. What we (and they) mean is the bundle of documents filed for each vessel and each voyage (in the foreign-going trade) or period (in home trade). If you have become accustomed to refer to 'Lists' do continue, but you may be interested in the following argument for discriminating between Lists and Agreements and as a researcher, knowing the difference, you will better understand the relationship of the documents to what was done, and what happened at sea.

    Between an individual joining a vessel making a voyage outward and inward in the foreign-going trade or several Home Trade voyages and then departing with his or her wages a time elapsed during which he or she was subject to different administrative procedures. First, he or she was enumerated on what was in effect, the List. When it existed as a document in its own right, up to the 1870s, it was known as a List C (Foreign-going) and List D (Home Trade). Second, he or she had to consent to the terms of employment (capacity, wages, provisions etc) with his or her signature. The individual made the Agreement at this point. Third was the discharge, when employment ceased, which happened usually, but not always, at the end of a foreign-going voyage or a six-month period in the home trade. Particulars relating to the crew member's discharge were noted by the master. These included the amount of his or her wages outstanding, but the actual payment of the sum was often delayed beyond the seafarer's discharge and that takes us to the fourth and final part of the process. This was the release, where every crew member provided his or her signature to say pay was received from master or ship owner, and the legal contract had therefore been observed and was now ended.

    Into the 1860s, (foreign-going) or 1870s (home trade), a set of separate forms was used, one for each part of the process. Subsequently they were grouped into one form called an 'Agreement and Account of Crew'. In short, Lists once existed independently of the Agreement, but even then they were involved with a smaller part of the process. It is really the Agreement, or seafarer's contract, that is the fullest and most informative document in any of the bundles that are now filed as 'Lists, Agreements and Accounts of Crew'.

    What you see below is indeed a “Crew List”, a printed version of one prepared, privately, by a shipping company. Though it came to the MHA amongst the official papers, its form is very different from any other Agreement you will see reproduced on this site.

  12. Does the fact that Agreements and Logs were official documents affect their usefulness for finding out about seafarer's lives?[Click here to close]

    Our information about so-called ordinary people in past times would be the poorer if we did not have access to state-generated records. People with limited access to resources rarely created records, at least not the kind of records that survive in such numbers as to justify a dedicated archive like the MHA. On this website we make a point of informing readers about the official procedures for, and the assumptions about, record creation. This is so that you know how the stories of ordinary people were mediated, or glossed by others, when details of their lives were written up.

    We are enthusiastic about the Crew Agreements and Official Logs as an exceptionally comprehensive set of records that can vastly extend our knowledge of past lives. At the same time, we encourage you to step back from the detail, and take in a picture, which involves the ideas and practices of people who lived by different presumptions from our own, because they lived in past times.

    An hierarchical, or top-down authority prevailed at many points of creating Crew Agreements and Logs. If, however, users wish to be more than collectors of information, they must make allowance for the politics of time and place, when trying to learn more about a relative who held a humble situation in life. The effort involved in asking what ancestors and others might have meant when they said or did what is reported of them is rewarded with a richer story of the past. We hope to convince you of this as we show you how we interpreted the sources that we use in telling the stories of people identified on this website.