How to look for records of... Royal Navy ratings 1853-1928

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

View online

How many are online?

  • None
  • Some
  • All

Order copies

We can either copy our records onto paper or deliver them to you digitally

Visit us in Kew

Visit us in Kew to see original documents or view online records for free

Pay for research

This guide provides advice on how you can search for records of a Royal Navy rating. Men serving in the Royal Navy were rated according to skills they had and the tasks they performed, hence the term ‘rating’.

There were many different types of ratings, such as Ordinary Seaman, Able Seaman, Leading Seaman, Petty Officer and Quartermaster.

What do I need to know before I start?

If the rating joined in or before 1928 he may have a record among the registers of seamen’s services (see below), some of which can cover service up to 1950.

If a rating entered the Royal Navy after 1928, his record will still be with the Ministry of Defence. For information, see the Veterans UK website or our ratings after 1928 guide.

It is difficult to trace a seaman before 1853 as there was no form of continuous service in the Royal Navy. Men signed up to serve on a particular ship and were paid off when the ship was decommissioned.

From 1853 new ratings signed up for ten years’ service if they were 18 or older. Existing ratings could sign up for seven years’ service. Both new and existing ratings were given a continuous service (CS) number.

In 1873 a new system began of giving ratings an official number (ON).

What records can I see online?

Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea database

Search the Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea database by name, service number and numerous other criteria. As of October 2016, the database contained 3,500 records and is continually being updated. By November 2018, the expected completion date, it will contain information relating to all the Royal Navy officers and ratings that served in the First World War. The database is being compiled largely from records held at The National Archives and there is no charge for access. It is a joint project between The National Archives, The National Maritime Museum and the Crew List Index Project with the help of a global team of volunteers.

Certificates of service (1802-c.1894)

Search by name the ratings’ service records (ADM 29) on Ancestry (£).

Some of these records can cover service up to 1919. However the dates given in the certificates of service books are the dates of issue of the certificates and do not necessarily cover all the service to date. If a Continuous Service (CS) or Official Number (ON) is given you should find further details in the Royal Navy ratings’ service records 1853-1928 – please see below.

Please note, although these records are available to view on Ancestry (£) you can find service details for some ratings from the descriptions in our catalogue (ADM 29/2-73). Therefore you may wish to start with a search of our catalogue.

Registers of seamen’s services (enlisted 1853-1928)

Search and download the Royal Navy ratings’ service records on our catalogue (£) for ratings who entered the Royal Navy between 1853 and 1923 (ADM 139, ADM 188, ADM 362 and ADM 363) – some of these records can cover service up to 1950.

These registers of seamen’s services can include information such as:

  • date and place of birth
  • ships served on with dates
  • character and ability
  • medals awarded

Medal rolls (1793-1972)

Search by name for information about the award of campaign, long service and good conduct medals in the Royal Navy medal rolls (ADM 171) using (£). These rolls do not usually contain biographical information.

Digital microfilm copies of these records are also available to download and browse from our catalogue free of charge.

What records can I find at The National Archives at Kew?

Pension records (1789-1894)

Search Discovery, our catalogue, by name for ratings ‘ pension records. These include ratings’ applications for admission into Royal Greenwich Hospital in ADM 73.

Please note, this is a search across the entire catalogue description of each record, not just the name. A search for someone called Barnes, for example, may give some results for people born in Barnes.

Narrow your search by using double quotation marks to find a person’s full name, for example “John Williams”.

Ships’ musters, pay books and ledgers (1667-1878)

Search our catalogue for a muster or pay book for a particular ship to find lists of ratings serving on the ship (ADM 31 – ADM 39, ADM 115, ADM 117 and ADM 119). When searching, enter the name of the ship not including HMS or other prefixes.

To access these records you will either need to visit us, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy (£).

What records can I find in other archives and organisations?

Records held elsewhere

Discovery, our catalogue has details of collections held by The National Archives and over 2500 archives across the UK. Search our catalogue using keywords; you can refine your results using the filters.

What other resources will help me find information?


Search for an announcement of a 19th or 20th century gallantry award in the London Gazette on The Gazette website.


Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list.

The books are all available in The National Archives’ reference library. You may also be able to find them in a local library. You can buy from a wide range of history titles in our bookshop.