In 1855, the system of registration of British shipping was re-organised so that each vessel was given an unique official number. One purpose of this was to distinguish between vessels which had the same name. The number remained with the ship throughout her life, even if her name or port changed, or if she was sold abroad and then re-registered. It was carved into, or welded onto, the main structure of the vessel.
The numbers were allotted centrally, in batches, to the hundreds of ports of registry throughout Britain and the British Colonies and then allocated to vessels by the port officials.
The initial allotments of numbers up to 40000 covered all ports, including colonial ports, and depended on the size of the port. So, 1 to 1000 were allotted to London, 1001 to 2000 to Liverpool, the next 500s to Shields and Sunderland, and so on. Allocation to vessels began at all ports on 16 April 1855 or soon after.
To deal with the thousands of ships which were already registered at that date, a vessel was allocated an official number when she first touched at a port of registry, even if that was not her home port. Thus official number 1 was allocated to a Goole registered vessel at London. A vessel's official number was added to her registration certificate and at some later date added to her entry in the shipping registers at her home port. This catching-up process was mostly completed by early in 1856, but continued into the 1860s.
Newly registered vessels were similarly allocated an official number on initial registration. Again, this was written prominently at the top of the new style shipping registers that were introduced at this time.
At each port, its allotted official numbers and vessel names were recorded in port Appropriation Books. These books can often be found with the shipping registers for the port, at local record offices.
Once a port's allotment was used up, further allotments were made as needed. Especially in the first year, allotments which had not been fully used were re-allocated to other ports.
The ports of registry made returns of vessel registration (register transcripts and annual returns) to the Board of Trade and these were then used to make up the central Appropriation Books. These ledgers contain a list of all the official numbers in order, with the vessel name against each, together with a few other details such as tonnage and port of registry. So far as we are aware, they contain the only single list of all the official numbers and the vessels to which they were allocated. These ledgers are at present held at the Registry of Shipping and Seamen in Cardiff.
CLIP have transcribed the records from the Appropriation Books which are now available from Clip Website »» This is the only database with complete coverage of British registered vessels with official numbers from 1 to 200,000 and covering years 1855 to the 1950s.
Mick O Rourke 11/10/2011