How to look for records of... Civilian gallantry medals and awards

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1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide to find out:

  • how to find records relating to civilian recipients of gallantry medals and awards in the 19th and 20th centuries
  • how to find records of policy relating to the award of gallantry medals

The civilian awards in this guide include those given to merchant seamen and police officers.

2. Searching for official announcements

Awards of medals were announced in the official government newspaper, the London Gazette, available on The Gazette website.

Citations and recommendations are sometimes included in the Gazettes but are rarely found in the documents held at The National Archives.

You can use The Gazette’s own search tips for help with your searching.

3. Searching for other records of medals and awards

Use our catalogue to search for references to records of medals and awards. Very few of the records for civilian medals and awards are available online. To view most of these documents you will need to either visit The National Archives at Kew or pay for copies to be sent to you. Alternatively, you could pay for research.

For general tips on searching the catalogue, use the Discovery help page.

The records we hold of civilian medals and awards are incomplete, scattered and varied. The following search methods will cover most possibilities:

  1. Try a broad, speculative search across our whole catalogue using the medal name and/or the recipient’s name. For example, search for ’empire gallantry medal AND smith’ or ‘edward medal AND thomas brown’. You may need to use abbreviations for medals – so, for example, to search for the George Cross you may need to enter GC as your keyword. Try searching in both ways.
  2. Target your search to a specific department or series within our catalogue. Consult sections 4 to 9 in this guide to find catalogue references to departments (such as HO for Home Office or BT for Board of Trade) or series (such as HO 144 or BT 261) that contain records of specific kinds of medals and awards, then either:
    • Use the advanced search option in our catalogue to search within a department or series using the search criteria specified for each series in sections 4 to 9
    • Click on any catalogue reference link in sections 4 to 9 and use the ‘series search’ box to search using a type of medal or a person’s name or other keywords
    • Browse through a series by clicking on the catalogue reference link and scrolling down to “Browse by Reference”
  3. Search Home Office registered papers 1839-1979 in series HO 45. Use the advanced search in our catalogue, specifying HO 45 in the references box, or use the series search in the HO 45 series description, to search by name, though you may need to include either the word ‘award’ or ‘medal’.

4. Civilian gallantry medals

4.1 Types of medals

The main civilian gallantry medals in the 19th and early 20th centuries were:

  • Albert Medal – for merchant seamen, the Royal Navy and later firemen, miners, railwaymen, the army, and others
  • Edward Medal – for miners, quarrymen and later dock workers and railwaymen
  • Sea Gallantry Medal – for merchant seamen
  • Empire Gallantry Medal – from 1922 for meritorious service – primarily for civilians but also for the military in certain circumstances
  • British Empire Medal – from 1922 for meritorious service – primarily for civilians but also for the military in certain circumstances
  • George Cross – from 1940 for meritorious service, replacing the Empire Gallantry Medal and later the Edward Medal and Albert Medal – primarily for civilians but also for the military in certain circumstances
  • George Medal – from 1940 for meritorious service – primarily for civilians but also for the military in certain circumstances
  • Queen’s Gallantry Medal – from 1974 for meritorious service

In addition, the following medals have been awarded specifically to police officers for gallantry:

  • King’s Police Medal (later the King’s Police and Fire Services Medal, and now the Queen’s Police Medal)
  • Constabulary Medal (Ireland)
  • African Police Medal (later the Colonial Police Medal)

4.2 Where to search for records

The table below refers to awards granted before the changes in the honours and awards system of 1993. All the series shown contain some information on individuals.

Type of medal Series references Announcements and, in rare cases, citations
African Police Medal CO 523 Search colonial and dominion gazettes – use the tips in our research guide on newspapers
Albert Medal BT 97; MT 9 code 6; ADM 171; HO 45; WO 327; BT 261; HO 144
British Empire Medal ADM 1 code 85; ADM 116 code 85; AIR 2 code 30; MT 9 code 6; ADM 171; HO 250; WO 373 Please note, HO 250 is also available to view online via Ancestry (£). Search The London Gazette
Colonial Police Medal Search The London Gazette and colonial gazettes – use the tips in our research guide on newspapers
Constabulary Medal HO 184; HO 45
Edward Medal HO 45; CO 523; HO 178 Search The London Gazette
Empire Gallantry Medal ADM 1 code 85; ADM 116 code 85; AIR 2 code 30; MT 9 code 6; ADM 171; HO 250 Please note, HO 250 is also available to view online via Ancestry (£). Search The London Gazette
George Cross AIR 2 code 30; PREM 2; MT 9 code 6; WO 32 code 50AP; WO 330; HO 250 Please note, HO 250 is also available to view online via Ancestry (£). Search The London Gazette
George Medal AIR 2 code 30; PREM 2; MT 9 code 6; Admiralty ADM 1 code 85; WO 330; HO 250 Please note, HO 250 is also available to view online via Ancestry (£). Search The London Gazette
King’s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom Eden’s circular despatch T3530/206/372 of 17 March 1945, called for recommendations for the award of British honours to foreigners for war service. Brief citations are in T 339
King’s Police and Fire Services Medal, & King’s and Queen’s Police Medal MEPO 2; MEPO 7; CO 523; HO 45; HO 178 Search colonial and dominion gazettes using the tips in our research guide on newspapers
New Zealand Cross CO 212 Search the New Zealand Gazette
Queen’s Fire Service Medal Search The London Gazette
Queen’s Gallantry Medal Search The London Gazette
Sea Gallantry Medal MT 9 code 6; Parliamentary papers; BT 261 Search The London Gazette

5. Honours Lists and other records of CBE, OBE and MBE

Since the late 19th century the most significant announcements of gallantry awards have been the New Year and Birthday Honours Lists, sometimes known as the Half Yearly or Periodic Honours. Twice a year honours, including the CBE, OBE and MBE (Commander, Officer and Member of the Order of the British Empire), are bestowed upon individuals; New Year Honours are announced on 1 January and Birthday Honours on the monarch’s official birthday which, since 1908, has been the first, second or third Saturday in June.

The announcements are published in the The London Gazette but do not normally include a citation, just the name of the recipient.

Records that provide the reasons why individuals were awarded honours (known as recommendations) are very scarce. Newspapers are generally a more reliable source. Search the British Newspaper Archive at the British Library.

Use our catalogue to search for references to honours lists in one or more of the following ways:

  1. Try a broad, speculative search across our whole catalogue using combinations of ‘honours’, ‘award’ ‘birthday’ or ‘new year’ as your search terms.
  2. Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search within one of the two following record series using ‘honours’, ‘award’ ‘birthday’ or ‘new year’ as your search terms and enter a year or year range (even in these series recommendations or citations are rarely featured):
    • Prime Minister’s Office Honours Lists and Papers 1915-1967 in series PREM 2
    • Submissions to the Prime Minister concerning Half Yearly Honours Lists 1936-1970 in series T 305, though these records are closed for 75 years from the date of their creation

For recent Honours Lists, from the last decade, go to the GOV.UK website.

6. Civil defence and non-combatant military awards

Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search within the following series or click on the links below and use the respective ‘series search’ box:

  • Non-combatant gallantry awards, 1940-1948 in WO 373 (browse the relevant pieces in WO 373/66-70). Some records can be downloaded and viewed online. The awards include the George Cross, George Medal, Order of the British Empire, British Empire Medal, and the King’s/Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct – search with:
    • name of person
    • name of award
  • Second World War Civil Defence Awards Files, 1938-1950 in T 336 – search by:
    • year
  • Gallantry awards awarded to, amongst other types of people, firemen, policemen and air raid precautions wardens,1940-1949 in the records of the inter-departmental committee on civil defence in HO 250 – search our catalogue by:
      • name
      • occupation
      • reason for recommendation

    Please note, HO 250 records are also available to view online via Ancestry (£).

  • Recommendations for awards of the military George Cross, George Medal and British Empire Medal, 1941-1946 in AIR 2 – search with:
    • the recipient’s surname
    • the name of the award (for example, OBE – try with and without fullstops)
    • ‘Code B 30’

7. Merchant Navy and other maritime awards

There is further advice on Merchant Navy medals in our research guide Merchant seamen’s medals and honours.

Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search within the following series or click on the links below and use the ‘series search’ box:

  • Gallantry at Sea Awards for the Merchant Navy, 1856-1981 in BT 261  – search by year or browse the whole series (some records can be downloaded)
  • Second World War Merchant Navy Awards Files, 1939-1947 in T 335 – search by both:
    • name of the individual recipient
    • name of ship
  • Marine Harbours and Wrecks, 1854-1969 in MT 9 – search with combinations of (to find exclusively online records in this series, go to the advanced search, use a wildcard, search within MT 9 and select ‘online collections only’:
    • name (note that initials are sometimes used instead of full first names)
    • date range
    • ‘code 6’, ‘award’ and/or ‘medal’

8. Foreign awards and British awards to foreigners

Foreign awards and British awards to foreigners were handled by the Treaty Department of the Foreign Office but only a limited number of files survive.

  • Before 1906 – use the advanced search in our catalogue to search in FO 83, using ‘medals’ or ‘decorations’ as your search terms (you can also try searching with an individual’s name though many records are not searchable by name); alternatively, search using the search box in the FO 83 series decription
  • After 1906 – use the advanced search in our catalogue to search in FO 372, using ‘medals’, ‘awards’ or ‘honours’ as your search terms (you can also try searching with an individual’s name though many records are not searchable by name); alternatively, search using the search box in the FO 372 series description.

For 1906-1951, you may need to consult the Index to Foreign Office correspondence, only available in the reading rooms at The National Archives in Kew.

9. Policy records

For policy files on medals, search our catalogue using the medal title or its abbreviation.

To focus your results, use the advanced search option and search within one or more of the record series below.

Where codes are quoted, use these as keywords in your search.

  • AIR 1 – Air Ministry: Air Historical Branch
  • HO 45 – Home Office: Registered papers
  • AIR 2 code 30 – Air Ministry and Ministry of Defence
  • WO 32 code 50 – War Office registered files
  • ADM 1 code 85 – Admiralty correspondence and papers
  • MT 9 code 6 – Board of Trade and Ministry of Transport
  • ADM 116 code 85 – Admiralty: Record Office cases
  • T 300 – Treasury and Civil Service Department: Ceremonial Branch
  • T 333 – Treasury:Ceremonial Branch

10. Further reading

Some or all of the recommended publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives’ Bookshop. Alternatively, search The National Archives’ Library to see what is available to consult at Kew.

  • William Spencer, Medals: the researcher’s guide (The National Archives, 2006)
  • Seedie’s list of awards to the Merchant Navy for World War II (Tisbury: Ripleys Registers, 1997)
  • Seedie’s roll of naval honours and awards, 1939-1959 (Tisbury: Ripleys Registers, 1999)
  • Peter J Farmery, Police gallantry: The King’s Police Medal, the King’s Police and Fire Service Medal and the Queen’s Police Medal for Gallantry, 1908-1978 (New South Wales, 1995)

The Gazette publishes civilian and military awards including the New Year’s Honours.

Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 13