The captain of the Titanic, which sank after colliding with an iceberg in 1912, is believed to have failed his navigation test at first attempt, TV historian Tony Robinson said yesterday.
But Edward John Smith, who famously went down with the ship, was eventually given the all clear and he received his masters certificate in February 1888.
He is among the well-known seamen to appear in The Great Britain, Masters and Mates Certificates 1850-1927, which were published yesterday on the family history website Ancestry.co.uk.
The 280,000 documents, released in partnership with the National Maritime Museum, detail the seamen who passed examinations designed to test their experience and general good conduct, and give evidence of their sobriety.
The system was of certificates was designed to combat drunk and disorderly behaviour, which was rife in the merchant navy in the early 19th century.
Launching the newly accessible records in London today, Robinson, of TV’s Time Team, said: “It is believed, for instance, that Captain Smith, who was eventually the man in charge of the Titanic when it sank, failed his exams the first time round because he did not have sufficient navigating skills.”
He went on: “In the mid 19th century there was an incredible problem in Britain’s merchant navy, which was essentially that all the sailors were getting hammered all of the time.
“It’s quite understandable. They were away from their homes for years on end, away from any port for months on end with nothing to do on the ship.”