High Court of Admiralty (1160 to 1875)

Being an Island, England has a long history as a seafaring nation, little is it any wonder that piracy was once a significant problem and that disputes arose in the maritime industry.

The High Court of Admiralty was established around 1160 as a civil court with a criminal jurisdiction being established by Act of Parliament in 1535.

Criminal matters included piracy and murder; civil matters included the condemnation and sale of enemy ships (‘prize cases’) including those captured by privateers under Letters of Marque first issued by the High Court of Admiraty in 1293 and abolished in 1856 (although only usually issued in times of war). Letters of Marque enabled privately owned ships (known as privateers) to capture enemy merchant ships which when then be brought before the admiralty courts for condemnation and sale.

Following the Restoration in 1660, civil business was split between an Instance Court (dealing with matters concerning cargo, collisions, salvage, seamen’s wages claims etc) and Prize Court dealing with the a sale of a ship, confirming it was a prize, and how how that prize money to be shared.

Around the same time, the criminal jurisdiction of the High Court of Admiralty, particularly in cases of piracy and murder, was transferred to Admiralty sessions at the Old Bailey until 1834 when it was transferred to the Central Criminal Court.

Also established from the 17th Century were Vice-Admiral Courts in nineteen maritime counties around England and in the British Colonies which represented the High Court of Admiralty in those areas and dealt with local admiralty cases. Appeals from these courts were to the High Court of Admiralty.

Appeals in civil dispute cases (other than ‘prize cases’) from the High Court of Admiralty were heard by the High Court of Delegates between 1535 and 1833. The High Court of Delegates was a court in which appeals were made to the Crown in Chancery where they were heard by Commissioners appointed by letters patent under the Great Seal.   Appeals from the Prize Court were heard by a Commission of Appeals in Prize until 1833.

In 1834, both appeal courts were abolished. Appeals were then to be heard by the Privy Council’s Judicial Committee until 1876 when Appeals jurisdiction transferred to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Admiralty became part of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court of Justice in 1875 follwed by part of the Queen’s Bench Division in 1880.

The Cinque Ports of south east england,  predominantly in Kent and Sussex, with one outlier of Brightlingsea in Essex, however retained their ancient rights of local Courts of Admiralty and continues today although it dits only rarely with the last full sitting being in 1914. This court is presided over by the Judge Official and Commissary of the Court of Admiralty of the Cinque Ports. A High Court Judge who holds the appointment of Admiralty Judge normally holds this office.

The records for Admiralty courts are held in series HCA at the National Archives. With most surviving files dating from the 17th to the mid-20th century they name many merchant seamen however before 1733, they are likely to be in Latin.

Criminal proceedings records

Criminal case records between 1535 to 1834 are largely to be found in series HCA 1 and indexed by persons’ and ships’ names. There are gaps in the recods however from 1539 to 1574.

These records contain lists of prisoners, bails and bonds, jury panels, indictments and depositions.

Series HCA 13/98, 99 and 142 contain criminal examinations whilst warrants relating to execution of judgement are held in series HCA 55 for the period 1802-1856.

Between 1834 and 1844 records will be found in the CRIM series and from 1844 to 1971 in the ASSI series.

Instance proceedings

For Instance cases from 1524 to 1864 there are act books or registers that provide brief summaries which can be found in series HC 3, 5, 6 and 7 with each volume from 1786 haivng an index of ship’ names.

Original files between 1629 and 1943 (although some as early as 1519 can also be found) are in series:

  • HCA 13 which contains examinations and answers which are in English.
  • HCA 15-20, 23, 24, and 27 which contain variously affidavits, allegations, answers, decrees, and exhibits.

There are indexes to ships’ names from many cases since 1772 in series HCA 56.

Prize proceedings

Prize proceedings cases are mainly held in series HCA 8-11 and 30-32 with records of prize appeals in series HCA 41, 42, and 48.

Vice-Admiralty courts

These records (including those in some colonies) from the 17th to the 19th centuries can be found in series HCA 49 whist records of appeals can be found in series DEL and PCAP.

Very few records have been published but there are a number of finding aids to assist the researcher a TNA including their research guide https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/high-court-admiralty-records/.

It should also be noted that from the 19th century, some cases were held in county courts or by justices of the peace.

My next blog, which will be after a break for summer, will be looking at other courts which perhaps receive less attention unless your are researching in those areas – the Palatine Courts of Chester, Durham and Lancaster. In the meantime if you need help with your research please contact me sarah@spfhhistory.co.uk.