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maritime archival records

A unique international maritime collection goes online

The Lloyd’s Register Foundation Heritage & Education Centre digitises extensive maritime collection

Over one million maritime archival records, documenting nearly 100,000 ships, are now available online for the first time following a five-year digitisation programme by the Lloyd’s Register Foundation Heritage and Education Centre (HEC).

The collection includes maritime technical records such as ship plans and survey reports for famous ships including the Carpathia – the Cunard passenger liner that rescued survivors of the Titanic – and other material such as wreck data, correspondence, photographs and certificates. Alongside the digitised collection of Lloyd’s Register of Ships from 1764 to 2000, it provides a fascinating insight into the history of maritime safety, the development of Lloyd’s Register, and the working lives of surveyors, shipbuilders, engineering firms and associated trades throughout the last two centuries. The material is also of unique interest to family historians through the inclusion of the names of shipowners, builders, surveyors and masters, all of which are searchable via HEC’s online research tools.

At the height of the project during the pandemic, 40 conservators, numberers, capturers, and quality assurers from digitisation and digital archiving services specialist Max Communication Ltd worked with HEC to keep the £5,000,000 initiative on track. Meticulously cataloguing the entire historic collection, it measures more than 2,000 metres of shelf space – the equivalent to over 18 football pitches end to end. More than 4,000 boxes of material were examined, specialist repairs made where needed, and the records were subsequently uploaded to the digital platform. From here, catalogued and digitised records can be accessed through the online system, studied, and high-resolution imagery downloaded directly to a device.

Archivist for the centre Max Wilson said: “It’s extremely unusual for such an extensive private sector collection such as this to be digitised unless it’s a statutory requirement. It captures a wealth of maritime history including from Lloyd’s Register, the world’s first maritime classification society which was created more than 260 years ago to improve the safety of ships.

“Now accessible to online visitors from around the world, the collection offers an invaluable resource to experts, family historians, schools, and general enthusiasts to nurture their interest and intrigue in maritime history. Collections such as these are a powerful tool to not only learn from the past but to help us shape a safer maritime future.”

Barbara Jones, the Lloyd's Register Foundation's Curator of Maritime History adds: “During the pilot project, First & Famous, at the end of 2014, it quickly became evident that digitising and sharing all our historic plans and reports would provide huge benefit to people worldwide. It’s such a unique collection and it’s been a pleasure to see thousands of people worldwide making use of it in so many interesting ways.”

“It has been a pleasure to work on this project and to now see so many thousands of people worldwide making use of it in so many interesting ways.

Each day brought something special, whether it was looking at a plan like that for the Banshee and working out that the draughtsman had not only drawn an engineer to scale in the inspection shaft, but that he was also carrying both an oil can and a candle, to finding odd “lost” items that surveyors had lost amongst their reports, and here we were 100 years later finding their railway timetables, cycling shoe brochures and even a .22 round from a gun!” 

While a UK-based archive, the collection includes tens of thousands of documents and records created from around the world, as well as records created for ships built in the UK for overseas clients. Using the online research tool bespoke datasets can be downloaded for wide-ranging searches from ship types, specifications, shipbuilders, time periods or locations.

As the largest and oldest collection of its kind these archives present fresh insight into the development of maritime technology, engineering, and science. Through the provision of unparalleled raw data this resource also underlines the legacy of and continued importance of safety for the future of the ocean economy.

The online collection is freely available via the Lloyd’s Register Foundation Heritage and Education Centre’s website.

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