Muster rolls on display

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A HISTORY project recalling Whitby’s seafaring tradition based on documents found in the town helped the county council gain the country’s top award for preserving ancient records.

Local volunteers from Whitby’s Literary and Philosophical Society are working with North Yorkshire County Council archivists on the documents found in the 1980s in an attic at the Whitby Merchant Seamen’s Hospital.

The documents comprise 8,000 merchant seamen muster rolls.

When they were found in the attic more than half of them were severely damaged by dirt, mould and pests.

The muster rolls date from 1747, when an Act of Parliament was passed requiring sixpence per month to be taken from each member of a ship’s crew to support distressed seamen and their families, to 1818.

Spanning 70 years, the rolls chart the voyage of every ship registered at Whitby, including whalers and coal cats.

They also list the names and ages of the crews, their posts on board, places of birth, abode, any injuries sustained or deaths, and the amount subtracted from their wages.

Of particular interest are twelve that chart the progress of James Cook, from servant at the age of 16 to ship’s mate eight years later, training that led him to become a world-famous explorer.

To help with cleaning and minor paper repairs, a number of volunteers were trained both at Whitby and the Record Office, but more are needed.

An exhibition on the history and preservation of the muster rolls will be on display at Whitby Museum from December 2011 until May 2012.

Christiane Kroebel, who is leading the Whitby project said: “It’s a wonderful corporative project working with the county conservator who is helping and teaching us.

“The muster rolls reveal fascinating social history. It was dangerous work at sea and the deaths and injuries they suffered included falling off masts or into holds.

“There are also records of widows who were given goods including coal.

“Some are local names but many seamen were recruited from other parts of the country and there is even a record of men being taken on in Baltimore in America.”

North Yorkshire County Council Records Office gained the highest score in the country for its work, including the Whitby Muster Rolls project and as a result was given four star recognition.

County Coun Chris Metcalfe, executive member for Library and Community Services, said: “We are very proud of this achievement. The Record Office and its staff are dedicated to providing a high quality service preserving the records safely and making them widely available.

“They continue to offer excellent value for money for the people of North Yorkshire.”