Community Toolkit: Finding out about the People on Board the Ships

Finding out about the People on Board the Ships


There has never been a better time to research individuals who served during the First World War. The commemorative period, 2014–18, has resulted in a host of information being uploaded onto websites by organisations and communities, because new material has been uncovered or digitised and new research carried out. What follows is a ‘first steps’ guide to researching an individual seaman or woman who served during the First World War using some of these easily available resources.

If the person you are researching died while serving on a ship in the First World War, one of the first places to look for information is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was set up to provide commemoration to those who had died while serving in the Commonwealth forces during the war. Their task was, and continues to be, enormous – from the erecting and maintenance of gravestones and memorials throughout the Commonwealth to providing register entries of those who the Commission commemorates, including those with no known grave and who were lost at sea. These are now available to search online. Go to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website section called Find War Dead. This will bring up this search page:

Fill in one or more of the boxes and click ‘search’. The information you can find includes the rank of an individual, their date of death, the name of the ship they served on, their age, next of kin and next of kin’s address.

CWGC screenshot
Example:  Search results found by typing the ship name ‘EDERNIAN’ in the ‘Unit’ search box, gives all the crew members who lost their lives when the ship was sunk on 20 August 1917 by UB 10 with the loss of 14 lives. These included Hugh Griffith Hughes (aged 17) from Nevin (note the spelling is the anglicised version of ‘Nefyn’). The name of Hugh’s parents and their address is also given.

Tip: You can refine the results by ticking the ‘Served in’ Merchant Navy and/or Navy boxes.

Tip: To search for those who died from a place, type a place name, e.g. ‘Swansea’, in the ‘Additional Information’ box without filling in any other boxes.

Tip: The Find Cemeteries & Memorials search page lets you search for a particular cemetery. Start writing the name or place of the cemetery in the ‘name’ box, this will bring up a list, you can then click on the correct one.  Then press ‘search’ this will bring up the link to that cemetery page, which links to names of those buried there, e.g. the entry for Holyhead (Maeshyfryd) Burial Board Cemetery lists the eight First World War Merchant Navy burials there.

Tip: You can download the results of a search as a csv. database file. This is useful if you have a large number of results that you want to scan through, or if you want to reuse the data.

A crew agreement lists all the crew of a vessel, their rank or rating, date of birth, where they were born, sometimes their address, their rate of pay and dates of joining and leaving the ship. Vessels which had agreements range from small fishing boats to the largest passenger liners with whole departments of deck officers, seamen, engineering and catering staff, amounting to as many as 400 individuals. Women also feature in the crew lists as stewards, nurses, matrons and in other roles. Vessels that were sunk by enemy action sometimes appear in the lists if there was time to evacuate the ship and save its documents.

Where to find crew lists

The Crew Lists of the Merchant Navy – 1915  Crew lists from the National Maritime Museum and The National Archives have been combined and then transcribed by volunteers to produce this online searchable database, which gives access to records of more than 750,000 seamen who were serving in 1915, providing details including their name, age, nationality, address, rank and name of the ships they served on.

Example scan of the original crew list for the APAPA dated 28 June 1915.

For the other wartime years: 1914 and 1916–18, search the Maritime History Archive in Newfoundland, where the surviving crew lists are mostly held:

CLIP screenshot

To search this database it helps to have the official number of the ship as ships’ names were often changed or reused. You can find this official number online in several ways, for example:

By entering the ship’s name, or a part of it, into the CLIP ship search page it will provide you with a list of the ships whose name matches, together with their official number. The advanced search allows you to input a range of dates and port of registry.

Or you can go directly to: Crew Lists of the Merchant Navy – 1915  and enter the ship’s name in the search box. For example, a search for the ship ‘APAPA’ will not only give you two crew lists from 1915 on that site but will also give you the ship’s official number: 136797. When you put this number into the Official No. search box on the Maritime History Archive website it brings up crew lists for 1916 and 1917. Only the 1915 crew list is viewable online, the crew lists in Newfoundland need to be ordered by clicking on the Ordering Crew Agreements link at the bottom of the page. There is a charge for obtaining copies of these and the fees are explained on that page.

The Central Indexed Register of Merchant Seamen entries for 1913–17 have not been kept, but the original registry cards for 1918–41 are held by Southampton Archives. They can be accessed online using the FindMyPast website. This set of records can be searched by name and/or by place of birth. Although the seamen indexed in these cards were recorded just after the end of the war, most would have served on ships during the war, and the photographs and personal information recorded can give us rare photographs of the seamen, their roles on board, the ships they served on and, in many cases, where they lived and even descriptions of their tattoos!

These records are especially valuable because they include records for those who survived the First World War and continued in the merchant service and include British subjects born overseas, and older crewmen and very young crew.

Example: The British Merchant Seaman cards for William Griffiths, a steward from Holyhead, John Davis Freeman from Sierra Leone and Arthur James Davies, Master mariner from Aberystwyth. 

Example search results for place ‘Llanelly’ (note the old spelling used) below brings up 378 results, clicking on the blue photo icon on the far right of each name brings up the scans of the individual cards which can be downloaded.

Find My Past screenshot

Tip: when you have the search results, refine by order by ‘Event’ in the drop-down list, this will bring up the earliest results first.

The records of more than 43,000 Royal Navy sailors who died between 1914–20 are available on Find my Past WW1 Naval Casualties. You can find out their place of birth, the ship they served on, their service number, cause of death and the name and address of their next of kin.

Tip: You can search by birth town, e.g. a search using ‘Llanelly’ (note old spelling) brings up the records of nine men; or by old county, e.g. a search using ‘Anglesey’ brings up 31 seamen.

Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea is a searchable database of all the Royal Navy officers and ratings that served in the First World War, based on service records held by The National Archives. You can find out a host of details such as service number, ships served on, battles served in, previous occupation, reason for discharge, next of kin. It is searchable by name and in other ways, such as by individual ship, town or village, or previous occupation.

This site is still in progress with volunteers continuing to transcribe the original records. It is expected to be complete in 2021.

Note: the database does not include those who served in the Royal Naval Reserve, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve or Royal Naval Air Service, see below for more on these.

The Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea search and advance search pages.

Many Welsh men who were working before and during the war in heavy industries such as steel and coal, volunteered with the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) or Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) and served during the First World War at major sea battles such as the Battle of Jutland and in Gallipoli. Others manned the guns on armed merchant ships and boarded trawlers searching for mines.

The records of the seamen who served in the RNR and RNVR are available on Find My Past here: British Royal Naval Reserve 1899-1930.

These are a very informative set of records, which provide details such as date of service, occupation, rank, ships served on, remarks on character, promotions and awards.

Gwilyn Williams's recordExample: this record for Gwilym Williams states that he was ‘Welsh; capable; excellent & careful navigator, loyal & trustworthy’.

Another set of records to search are the Royal Naval Division Service Records 1914-1920. These are cards giving details of the more than 50,000 men who joined the Royal Naval Division or who passed through Crystal Palace when it was used as an initial training centre during the First World War. These cards give personal details such as religion and civil employment, as well as service number, dates of service and home address. They also give dates and details of service and discharge, and note any wounds suffered.

Example: Royal Naval Division Service Card for William Morris Hughes from Cwmyglo. It gives his civil occupation as ‘Ironmonger & Motor Engineer’ and that he worked in ‘signals & wireless’.

Tip: the cards have more than one page, so keep clicking to the next page to see the complete record.

This set of records can be searched on the Find My Past website by name of person or by ship’s name (in the location box). Results will give the name, date and place of death, age, rank, nationality, last place of abode and cause of death.

FALABA death record
Example: search results for ‘FALABA’ in the location box brings up the original records of all those lost aboard the FALABA.

We are very lucky in Wales to have free access to the newspapers of the period of the First World War on the Welsh Newspapers Online  website. Use this site to find contemporary Welsh newspaper reports of seamen and women, funerals, obituaries and memorials, and many more snippets of local information.

Tip: Use ‘Advanced Search’ to search for a person’s name and place or ship, and the refine by date (e.g. 1915–1919).

Welsh Newspapers Online screenshot


Barry Dock News articleThis example cutting came from an Advanced Search for ‘sailor’ and ‘Barry Dock’ between 1917 and 1919. It shows the details that can be found in newspaper reports; in this case, Alfred Doughty’s age, address, parent’s names, school and workplace in a report from Barry Dock News, 8 March 1918.

Tip: Try different searching using words which mean the same thing, for example, reports use the terms ‘seaman’, ‘sailor’ or ‘mariner’. Often the term ‘killed by enemy action’ meant sunk by a torpedo or mine from a U-boat. U-boats are often referred to as ‘submarine’. Ships were often not named but can be identified by other details such as the date and place of sinking.

Tip: Remember that many of the reports were in Welsh and therefore you need to use Welsh words in the search to find these.

To find information on individuals named on Welsh memorials, often supplemented by information and photos uploaded by contributors, search the following sites: was established in Conwy, in January 2012, to provide a platform for societies, professional associations, public bodies, educational institutions and similar groups to inform the general public about local history, the site includes information on a range of sites. The section on memorials has information on those named on First and Second World War graves in cemeteries throughout Wales. The research on each individual has been carried out by volunteers and includes information not available elsewhere.

This site contains details on all the war memorials from the three counties of Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire. The research has been carried out by the creator of the website, Steven John, who has submitted new information to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for missing names to be included in their record. The information on individuals is often not available elsewhere and sometimes includes photographs and newspaper cuttings.

The project researches memorials to First World War servicemen in chapels, workplaces, schools and clubs. Most of these are not included on the available databases of war memorials. The project aims to preserve the information that is on these memorials, and to share images of them and any research that has been carried out into them.

Find a Grave brings together millions of photographs of graves contributed by volunteers. You can request copies of photographs and request photographs of a particular grave to be taken by a local volunteer.

Tip: you can search by cemetery name and refine by date died.

The War Graves Photographic Project is a non-profit making organisation which hosts photographs of First World War gravestones taken by volunteers. These can be searched by name and cemetery, viewed on the site and can be purchased for £4 (digital copy).

gravestone of John Mackay
Example search for Colwyn Bay (Bronynant) cemetery reveals the unusual gravestone of John Mackay, able seamen, and an unknown man whose bodies were washed ashore at Rhos-on-Sea from the sinking of the APAPA off Anglesey in 1917.
  • Royal Navy

Those who served during the First World War as officers & enlisted men of the Royal Navy and the Royal Naval Reserve were potentially awarded a wide range of medals. Search Find my Past British Gallantry and Long Service Medals and Awards to find an individual’s medal record card, which can then be downloaded from The National Archives website for a small charge.

  • Merchant Service

After the war, King George V created the title ‘Merchant Navy’ to honour the vital role that merchant ships played during the war. A new medal was introduced called the Mercantile Marine Medal. This medal had an image of a steam ship and sailing ship and a German U-boat coming out of the waves.

First World War medalsSeamen who served for six months or more during the war and entered an area where the enemy was active, were awarded the Mercantile Marine Medal and the British War Medal together (TNA BT351/1/1-2).

You can search the First World War Mercantile Marine Medal and the British War Medal Index Cards on Find my Past to find your individual seaman. The card will give you basic information about the medals awarded to individual seamen and the address where the medals were issued. These cards are available to download for a small cost from The National Archives website under BT/351.

James Headley's medal cardMedal card for James Headley who came from Barbados and served in the merchant service during the First World War. He settled in Cardiff after the war and was awarded both medals.

Once you have identified a person and have found information in the above resources, you can look for more information in sources for family history, in order to find out about their family, home, school and work. The Find My Past website is available to search online at home or at your local archives or library where it is free to access. The National Library of Wales and the Welsh County Archivists Group have provided Find my Past with Welsh baptism, banns, marriage and burial records to help you learn more. The census records, especially the 1911 census, will tell you about their families and where they were living shortly before the war.

In 2021 when the 1921 census is made publicly available, you will be able to trace individuals and families in the period just after the war. This will be useful, for example to find out about the settlement of those sailors who came to live in Welsh ports after the war and their families and occupations.

You can find more by searching the newspapers of the period of the First World War on the Welsh Newspapers Online website. Use this site to find contemporary Welsh newspaper reports of seamen and women, funerals, obituaries and memorials, and many more snippets of local information.

Visit or contact your local archives office to find out more from other records such as birth, marriage and burial records, school records, wills and electoral registers. Collection catalogues can be searched to discover what other records might be held, such as letters and photographs or oral history recordings.

See list of links to Welsh archives.

Visit the local studies section of your local library where you will often find collections of photographs and memorabilia, as well as books relevant to the local area.

Visit your local museum to see artefacts, photographs and memorabilia from the period.

See list of links to Welsh museums with maritime collections.

Community event
Community Toolkit: Gathering Local Stories
Community Toolkit: What to Do with Your Information
Community Toolkit: Useful Websites and Publications
Newspaper article in Cambria Daily Leader
Case Study: Will Gent, Engineer from Swansea
Western Mail headlines
Case Study: The SS CAMBANK, a Merchant Ship from Cardiff