Library and Archives Blog – Discovering Muster Rolls…

Last week I chatted to Barbara (one of our valued volunteers) about the Muster Rolls. I was aware of them but was interested in learning more and actually seeing them up close.

In 1747 an Act of Parliament required all ship owners to provide muster rolls. These record a wealth of information about crews and ships, and offer an insight into merchant seamen’s working lives. A ‘seaman’s sixpence’ was charged for each month at sea and this money was a pension fund that gave financial support to injured seamen and to the widows and children of seamen who died whilst serving on merchant ships. Learn more about muster rolls.

Each muster roll was completed by a master or the mate and sent to the Whitby Seaman’s Hospital, transferred into a ledger. Believe it or not before they were discovered, some muster rolls were found in a loft serving as insulation! Unfortunately, due to their fragile state they are not available for personal handling, however, a small group of transcribers have spent years reading the documents and turning them into digital copies; currently over 6000 can be accessed online for anyone interested in research or had family that may have crewed on ships from 1747 to 1795.

In this photo the master was Captain John Jefferson, the ship was the Freelove and James Cook was listed as a servant (or apprentice) of the crew in 1747 aged 19! They were at sea for 2 months and 19 days.

Barbara has been volunteering since 1998 and was involved in cataloguing. She picked up on discussions about the Muster Rolls, thought it sounded interesting and began transcribing the ledgers. Usually, there will be two transcribes for each ledger. As well as transcribing, Barbara’s roll is to compare the two transcribed ledgers and make a final decision about any discrepancies before they are added to the digital catalogue. What an amazing resource to have in our archives!

If you would like to chat to Barbara about Muster Rolls contact