National Archives Project

Hello, I thought I’d share with you some information about something I happened to get involved with over the summer.

The National Archives have been running an interesting project by transcribing the crew lists of merchant vessels at the time of the First World War in 1915. The purpose of this project is to make the lists of crew members of the British Mercantile Navy, for the National Archives.

Given the great interest shown in tracing ancestors recently, likely as a result of the popularity of programmes such as the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?, the National Archives recruiting volunteers to help transcribe documents. During the summer, I took part in these transcriptions, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Transcribing the documents was fascinating, but at times rather difficult, given that much of the early twentieth century handwriting was entirely different to anything I was familiar with. Furthermore, I was not completely familiar with the terminology used by the merchant navy, and so I frequently had to look up certain phrases.

In any case, it was interesting to learn that the vast majority of crewman were illiterate, based on the number of times they made marks with crosses rather than sign their names. Though, it didn’t come as a particularly new piece of information, given that the poor rate of literacy in the early Twentieth century is mainly common knowledge.

It was interesting to record the variety of nationalities aboard the ships, Russian, Jamaican, and Scandinavian, clearly showing that merchant vessels were not particularly selective about their choice of crew. It was however odd that (if my selection of the documents is any guide), there were relatively few members from the colonies in Britain’s empire. Though given that the majority of the crew members I looked at were recruited in Edinburgh, it makes sense that the majority of its members were Scottish.

Other notable crew members included the oldest member of the crews I studied was born in 1823, making him even older than Queen Victoria, and several members that had previously worked on ships that had sailed from places like Lisbon and San Francisco, suggesting that the Merchant Navy had some of the most multicultural crews in the world.

The National Archives itself have been giving a number of talks on the subject, and I have heard it claimed that less than one per cent of the documents have been transcribed.

It is likely that interest will increase with the anniversary of the First World War next year, meaning that hopefully even more crew lists will be transcribed.

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