Museum volunteers unearth 100 year old merchant navy crew list

As part of their commemorations for the WWI centenary, the National Maritime Museum and The National Archives began a four year long ‘e-volunteer’ project in 2012, attracting the help of over 400 volunteers from as far afield as Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Canada, as well as locations a little closer to home in Italy, Ireland and the UK.

Earlier this month saw the completion of the project to make details from all the surviving First World War merchant navy crew lists for 1915 searchable online for the first time. The e-volunteers transcribed the details for 39,000 voyages, from electronic copies of the documents and these included the names and personal details of 750,000 seamen. The span of the volunteers demonstrates the international interest and significance of these documents in highlighting the vital contribution made by the Merchant Navy during the First World War.  No records for individual merchant seamen from this period exist, so the crew lists are the only extant documents to showcase the efforts of these somewhat forgotten fighters.

In researching the documents, the volunteers and staff working on the project unearthed a plethora of untold stories showcasing the often overlooked, bravery of the Merchant Navy during the First World War.

One such story is that of Frederick Daniel Parslow; the first individual in the Mercantile Marine to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Parslow had been master of the cargo vessel Anglo-Californian (1912) and contracted by the Admiralty to transport horses. However, on 4 July 1915 – which was to tragically be his last day of service – a German U-boat was spotted about 90 miles from the Irish Coast. Parslow heroically stood his ground against the enemy for hours, but despite the submarine having used the last of her torpedoes prior to the encounter; the Germans were still able to mount a furious attack on the Anglo-Californian with their remaining weaponry. Parslow was killed by one of the numerous shells that were aimed at the bridge of the ship. The second mate, who happened to be Parslow’s eldest son bearing the same name, was forced to lie down amongst the wreckage to continue navigating, until assistance could reach the ship and escort her in to Queenstown.

1915 Crew List-17 © National Maritime Museum, London

For his gallantry, Parslow was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross and became the first individual in the Merchant Navy to receive this honour, although he had to be made a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve to bypass the rules in place at the time. His eldest son, who had also acted courageously during the attack, received the Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts.

Other notable stories that were uncovered during the project include:

  • The VOSGES (1911) on a passage from Bordeaux to Liverpool, which was attacked by a German submarine on 27 March 1915. The ship was struck repeatedly by shells that killed the chief engineer Harry Davies and sunk the ship. Ship’s master, John Richard Green, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and a gold watch was issued to the widow of chief engineer, Harry Davies.
  • The fishing vessel ALBION (1893), which was sunk by a mine whilst ‘hauling the trawl on board’ in the English Channel near Brixham on 30 September 1915. All crew members were killed in the explosion or drowned.
  • Thomas Alexander of the STANISLAS (1898) went overboard with a line and caught a fellow seaman who had been washed overboard on 1 November 1915. For this, Alexander was awarded the Bronze Medal of the Royal Humane Society.

The details contained in the crew lists will be available to search online at from Tuesday 30 June providing the public with access to one of the few sources of information on seafarers active in 1915.