Heritage100

Seamen’s record card

Seamen’s record card back

...information about their service, pay and conduct began in the 18th century.

Britain has a long and proud naval heritage, and the merchant fleet had a big role in that heritage. In turn as a major port Southampton played a huge part in merchant shipping.

Lists of crew serving on individual ships together with information about their service, pay and conduct began in the 18th century.

These early lists are held at the National Archives. Southampton Archives has about 80% of Southampton crew lists 1863-1913 – they are arranged by ship and it is very hard to search for an individual.

On the eve of the First World War central government was beginning to realise that a lack of a centralised list would be a major hindrance in the forthcoming war.

A centralised list of those serving on British and Commonweath registered ships began in 1914,and was arranged in alphabetical order and a further series in discharge number order. The series from 1918-1941 is now held in Southampton archives and has about 1.25 million index cards like the one on the website.

Although originally Southampton was interested in just Southampton merchant seamen it soon became evident splitting the series was impossible and so the service agreed to take the whole series.

Quick Facts

  • Made of card with ink, and a photographic print
  • Period covered 1918-1920
  • Card of Walter John Williams

 


Facts

  • The front of this Seamen's record card for Walter John Williams (see "Gallery" section) records both his identity certificate number and discharge number, his full name, date and place of birth, his nationality and his father’s nationality. Usually, the front of the card gives details of the height, hair colour and eye colour of the seaman, and descriptions of any tattoos he might have, but unfortunately, these details have been left out in the case of Walter Williams.
  • The back of the record card has the photograph of the seaman, in addition to details of his service (official numbers, or sometimes names of vessels appear next to the seaman’s date of engagement on that vessel).
  • Walter John Williams had previously served on White Star ships the Olympic, and the Titanic. He died in February 1972.
  • Walter Williams recalled his time on the Olympic during an interview in 1962.

    "He (Walter Williams) begins his story by recalling that in 1911 attention was drawn to the fact that there were not sufficient boats for all the passengers on the Olympic. The Board of Trade replied that as the Olympic was unsinkable 16 lifeboats were “quite adequate”. Mr Williams was on board when the Olympic was involved in a collision with another vessel (the Hawke) off the Brambles and had to be towed back to Southampton and then to Belfast."
  • Walter Williams recalled his time on the Titanic and its sinking during an interview in 1962.

    "When the Titanic struck an iceberg a wag remarked to Mr Williams; “We’ve only hit an iceberg. It’s another job for Belfast”. The joker went down with the vessel.

    When Mr Williams joined the Titanic as a second class steward at Southampton he remembers that some paint on the lockers was still wet. He told me he was surprised that there was no boat drill before they left Southampton and no boat drill on the first Sunday at sea as was the normal custom.

    When the Titanic struck, as we all know, the danger of the situation was not at first apparent to the passengers. Eventually Mr Williams made a jump for a boat, No. 13, as it was being lowered and landed safely among other seamen. “There was plenty of room; many of the ships boats were far from full.”  he says. As they watched the Titanic go down, suddenly all the lights went out as the ship dipped beneath the waves. “During the night we were passed by what looked like a sailing ship. As we got closer we realised it was a small iceberg”.

    Titanic Voices, Donald Hyslop, Alastair Forsyth and Sheila Jemima, published by Oral History, City Heritage, p.162"

 

Did you know?

There are a number of Seamen's record cards for surviving crew of the Titanic amongst the Central Index Register held at Southampton Archives.

Gallery

Seamen’s record card front

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