Sometimes, relatives can seem to disappear from your family history search, apparently without reason. If your family are curiously absent from a census you expected them to appear on, they may have been travelling when the census was taken.

Even if you don’t think your family travelled or migrated, it’s always worth checking passenger lists to see whether your ancestor ventured to foreign shores – you may make a surprising discovery.

What are passenger lists?

Passenger lists record who sailed out of Britain for destinations outside of Europe and the Mediterranean, and on which ships. Findmypast has records from 1890-1960.

Some passenger lists are beautiful historic documents. They are also invaluable in tracing ‘missing’ ancestors. You can search long-haul voyages to destinations on all continents, including Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA.

Exploring a passenger list

This is a handwritten passenger record. Edwin Gill, a 40-year-old builder, travelled from Liverpool to Cape Town aboard the Suevic on 20 February 1902. We can work out the approximate year of his birth by subtracting his age from the year of the voyage – in this case around 1862.

Edwin may not have lived in Liverpool before his voyage. Someone living in Liverpool is more likely to have sailed from there, but their destination overseas wasn’t always served by a shipping line operating out of that port. If voyages were not departing on the date they were travelling, they would also need to journey to the right port.

Passenger lists are not always precise as to their exact routes on their way to their final destination. Wherever a voyage has one or more ports of call, there may be a difference between where the ship is going and where a passenger is going. A ship may be sailing to Sydney but passengers may leave the boat at Bombay. To make things as easy as possible for your research, we try to make sure that destination ports given on findmypast are those of the passenger, not of the ship.

Other travel records on findmypast

Findmypast has many other records related to migration to help you solve any gaps in your family tree:

  • British in India records: did your ancestors live and work in India between 1793 and 1933, perhaps in the army or civil service? Find out when they arrived and what they did there.

  • Transportation records: almost 100,000 convicts were sent to New South Wales in Australia between 1788 and 1842. Perhaps these records can show you a hidden link in your family tree – who they were, when they were transported, and the name of the ship they were on.

  • Passport applications: In 1846 standard regulations were finally passed relating to passport applications. As well as names and dates of issue, some passport records contain extra observations about the person that were noted during the application.