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England Sailors Records (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Records Useful for all Sailors[edit | edit source]

Ship’s Logs Your ancestor’s part in history can really come alive through reading the ships’ log books for when he served. They were kept by captains, masters and lieutenants and survive from around 1688, but not for all dates for all ships, naturally. The ship’s log gives an account of where it sailed, wind and weather, and daily life on board. The muster for the Bellerophon and its part in transporting Napoleon to exile is described before in the course. The ship’s log for the summer of 1815 for HMS Bellerophon is an historic document. The ship was returning English prisoners to Dartmouth, Devon after the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Charts 66 and 67 show portions of the ship’s log whilst at sea in July and August 1815.

CHART: Extract from HMS Bellerophon Ship’s Log 15 July 1815

AM. Winds NE. Fresh breezes and cloudy 4 D.W.
Guard Boats returned. Observed a French Brig and Schooner coming out with Flags of Truce, answered Ditto. At 6 sent boats to ditto. At 7 received on board Napoleon Buonaparte (late Emperor of France) and his suite. Two strange ships in the offing.
Winds NNE. 8 D.W. lowered the topsail yards down. 10.30 anchored, HM ship Superb, bearing the Flag of Rear Admiral Sir H. Hotham. Employed getting luggage etc on board belonging to Napoleon Buonaparte. Winds NNW. Noon modte and fine. Superb, Myrmidon and French Brig at Anchor in Co.
Water expd 2 ½ tons - remg 178 tons.
Bearings and Distance at noon At Single Anchor off Rochelle.
PM. Winds NNW. Fresh breeze % hazy weather at 3 Myrmidor weighed - 4D.W. Myrmidor beating out of the Roads.
5.55 up Boat- parted Co the French Brig.
6 Winds NW by N. Fresh breezes and cloudy. Superb in Co. 7.40 up boats.
8 moderate breezes and cloudy W.
Winds NNW. Midnight Modte and fine

CHART: Extract from HMS Bellerophon Ship’s Log 7 August 1815

AM. Moderate breezes and cloudy Wr
4. Light breezes and fine.
8 Ditto Wr At 10 Admiral Sir George Cockburn came on board. Employed getting Napoleon Buonaparte’s Luggage up and sending it on Board the Northumberland.
Noon Ditto Wr Remains of water 45 tons.
Bearings and distance at noon. At anchor off Bury Head.
PM. Light breezes and fine Wr
At 2 Admiral Lord Keith left the Ship. Delivered Napoleon Buonaparte and Suite to HMS Northumberland. Ansd Seg as P.. Column ..15. Weiged [sic] and made Sail. Admiral and Squadron in Co.
8 Moderate breezes and Hazey [sic] with small rain Froward Point.......

Navy Pensioners and Sailors’ Widows and Orphans[edit | edit source]

Officers received half-pay entitlement and pensions were provided for only a fixed number of warrant officers (from 1672), lieutenants (from 1737) and admirals (from 1747). Widows of officers who died in action received pensions from 1673. Pensions for widows of naval officers 1800-1818 (ADM 30) are on FHL film 1818354. Widows of all officers could receive pensions from 1836 (see The National Archives (TNA) leaflet M60), but pensions for ratings weren’t introduced until 1853 for those having 20 years’ service. Unfortunately very few of these records survive; refer to TNA leaflets M61 and M62.

Before 1853 some pensions were available to those who were wounded, gave outstanding service in battle, or received a medal. It was recognized very early on that sailing was a particularly hazardous occupation and various schemes and charities were instituted to provide for maimed and destitute sailors, as well as for their children, widows and orphans. Only a small minority of those who were in need actually received aid, but the records are wonderfully detailed. The most easy to find include:

Chatham Chest[edit | edit source]

A huge, ancient oak chest with an opening at the top sits in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and from 1590 it stored the Chatham Chest charity payments. Sixpence was deducted from every Royal Navy seaman’s pay and the accumulation provided funds for some of the most deserving cases. Warrant officers’ families seem to have benefitted most before 1834, but those of ratings received more help after this date. The records include:

  • Account books 1653-1657.
  • Registers of payments to pensioners 1675-1799 with annual alphabetical lists.
  • ŸPension Indexes 1744-1797 give the names of the ships that the seamen served on.

It is possible that the phrase on the chat may be derived from this type of handout, just as the phrase on the dole originated when paupers stood in line to have their relief money doled out by local monks or charity officials (Burns).

Trinity House Petitions[edit | edit source]

The ancient Corporation of Trinity House had three functions:

  • ŸIt was responsible for matters relating to safety at sea, for example provision of lighthouses, lightships, buoys and beacons around Great Britain and Ireland and off Gibraltar.
  • ŸLicensing of pilots for the Thames and later 40 outport districts around the country. Ÿ
  • The organization of charity for mariners and their dependents throughout the UK. They ran almshouses at Mile End and Deptford in east London, and gave relief to out-pensioners, typically poor disabled seamen and their widows and orphans.

Its Charter of Incorporation in 1514 granted it authority for distributing charitable funds from many benefactors including light dues levied on ships using ports.

By 1815 they supported 144 mariners (or their dependants) in their almshouses and over 7,000 out-pensioners. The Guildhall Library has records of payments to almspeople and out-pensioners from 1729 giving names, ages and reason for assistance (Herber), and they produce helpful leaflets. Almshouse applications and supporting documents from 1780-1880 can be found on FHL film 0950869 FHL film 0950870, and FHL film 2106686. Trinity House minutes and many lists of people are on 24 FHL films starting at film 1966898 -you’re almost sure to find someone here!

Trinity House took great care to see that only those truly destitute and genuine were assisted, and required the applicant to answer a Petition, consisting of a long list of questions as to their circumstances and eligibility. Owing to fires at Trinity House in London in 1666, 1714 and 1940 much has been lost, but the complete group of Petitions from 1787 to 1854 survive at the Guildhall Library, and the Society of Genealogists in London have produced an index (Camp 1987), which is not on film yet. A Request for Photocopies would need to include the page with the name from the general index as well as a copy of the entry page; the 2nd series begins on page 223. The petitions are available on film as follows:

1st Series of 102 vols on 57 FHL films starting at film 0395554.

2nd Series of 11 vols on 6 FHL films starting at film 0950871.

The index gives the following information about my 4th great grandparents:

TOPPING, Ann, 61, wid of Timothy, of Erith, Kent, 1842.

The Petition itself consists of three pages and a cover/address sheet and is transcribed below.

CHART: Trinity House Petition for Ann Topping 1842 FHL film 0395603

No 2093E Widow’s Form received on 6 Sep 1842, annotated 5269B. Recommended by Capt. D Warren.
The Humble Petition of Ann Topping aged 61 years residing at Erith in the County of Kent Widow of Timothy Topping showeth That your Petitioner’s Husband went to Sea at the Age of 14 in the Year 1796 and was employed in the Merchant Sea Service for upwards of 30 Years in the following Ships and others, and in the annexed Stations:
United Kingdom
London to China

Company’s Ship

Dover Castle

4th Mate
London to Bengal

Alnwick Castle

3rd Mate

Lisbon and Madeira


London to Dublin

Charming Molly

Charming Kitty

That your Petitioner’s Husband left off the Sea in the Year 1825 in consequence of Ill Health and died on Dec-1841 and she has -Children, viz. - Boys under 12 Years of Age, and - Girls under 14 Years of Age, viz.-
That your Petitioner has no Annual Income from Real or Personal Property to the Amount of £---
That your Petitioner’s Means of Support are from nothing but her own industry and this when she is well. Cannot frequently find employment, and her children are quite incapable of assisting her, which not being sufficient to support herself she most humbly prays that she may be admitted to the Pension of the Corporation.
Signed Ann Topping
CERTIFICATE to be signed by Owner of Vessel in which Petitioner’s Husband served in his highest station...
These are to certify to the Honorable Corporation of Trinity House That Timothy Topping the husband of the within-named petitioner served on board the ship Beaver of 250 Tons of which he was Master, of which Mr. Yems was Owner, in the Capacity of Captain on her Voyage from Lisbon to Madeira in the Year 1808.
And that the Petitioner to the best of my Knowledge and Belief, is in distressed Circumstances; and being a Person of good Character and Reputation, I do recommend her as a proper Object of the Corporation’s Charity; and am ready to make Declaration to the truth of this Certificate whenever required to do so. As Witness my hand, the 11th day of July 1842.
Signed by G. Heath, [see next page, in lieu of deceased]
Owner of the Ship Beaver in which the
Petitioner’s Husband served as a Captain.
N.B. Besides the above, and following Certificate, a Certificate of the Widow’s Marriage and of her Age, and a Certificate of the Ages of her Children, are to be procured: which it is hoped, will be granted without expence to the Poor Woman.

CERTIFICATE to be signed by a Medical Practitioner, in cases where the Petitioner is rendered by Hurt or Infirmity, incapable of working for her livelihood.
These are to certify to the Honorable Corporation of Trinity House, That Ann Topping the within-named Petitioner is rendered incapable of gaining her livelihood, by labor or otherwise, in consequence of an impaired constitution.
John S. Main [?] Surgeon

CERTIFICATE to be signed by two respectable Persons (at least) of which one to be the Minister, or Church Warden of the Parish wherein the Petitioner resides; the other a Younger Brother [of Trinity house], or other maritime Person.
We whose Names are hereunto subscribed, do actually know, and are well acquainted with, the Petitioner and her Circumstances, so that we can and do hereby vouch for the Truth of what is stated in the annexed Petition viz.- That she is the Widow of Timothy Topping a Captain of a ship, deceased:- That she resides in the Parish of Erith in the County of Kent where she is a Lodger and follows no certain Occupation being dependant upon casual and infrequent opportunities of procuring the necessities of life. That she has no children of the Ages therein set forth:- That she is a Person of good Character and Reputation, and being in indigent Circumstances, without any adequate Means for maintaining herself, do recommend her as a proper Object of the Corporation’s Charity. As Witness out Hands, the ----day of ---- 1842.

Richard Danes
Erith, Kent
Robert Hughes
Church Warden
Ralph Light

Charles Beadle

George Heath
Resident and Commissioner of Taxes

The London Trinity House was the main headquarters for the Masters and Brethren of the Society of Masters and Mariners, and others were in Scarborough, Hull and Newcastle (and perhaps elsewhere). The records of the Newcastle Trinity House span 6 FHL films starting at film 1545896 with a date range of 1580-1900, and include wills, apprenticeship books, enrollment of freemen, pilots licences and various charity records.

Charity for the Payment of Pensions to the Widows of Sea Officers was established in 1732 to provide pensions to needy widows of commissioned and warrant officers. It was funded partly by parliament and partly from pay deductions, and the surviving records include:

  • ŸPay Books 1734-1929.
  • ŸApplication Papers 1797-1829, which include many marriage and death certificates. Ÿ
  • Applications Requiring Further Investigation 1808-1830.

Other Charities have existed for periods of time (Watts and Watts 1991) including:

  • ŸMarine Society from 1757.
  • ŸBritish and Foreign Bethel Seamen’s Union in London from 1819.
  • ŸSeamen’s Hospital Society from 1821. Ÿ
  • Seamen’s Loyal Standard Association on Tyneside from 1824.
  • ŸBritish and Foreign Sailor’s Society from 1833.
  • ŸShipwrecked Fishermen and Mariner’s Royal Benevolent Society from 1839.
  • ŸMissions to Seamen from 1856.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.