How to look for records of... Royal Navy ratings: further research

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide will explain where in The National Archives you should search, both online and at our site in Kew, for the main sources of naval seamen’s records of service. The guide covers servicemen who joined the navy between 1667 and 1923 and served no later than 1928.

You will also find advice on what kind of information you can expect these records to contain.

For information on Royal Navy operations, with details of where and when specific ships were involved in combat, among many other things, you should consult:

2. Essential information

The kinds of records kept by the Navy to record details of ratings, the name used for ordinary seamen, as opposed to officers, changed over time. Tracing a seaman before 1853 can be very difficult as, until then, there had been no records kept specifically to track a seaman’s time in service. From 1853 the records become more detailed and generally easier to find, though there is never any guarantee that you will find who you are looking for. Records of servicemen who joined the Royal Navy after 1923 are still held by the Navy itself.

3. Sources for men entering 1667-1853

3.1 Ships’ muster and pay books 1667-1878

It is possible to trace a seaman’s service both backwards and forwards using ships’ muster rolls.

What are ships’ muster rolls?
Ship’ musters were taken every month or quarter for pay and accounting purposes. Equating to crew lists, muster rolls were, along with pay lists, the closest thing to everyday seamen’s service records kept by the Navy until 1853.

What information do they contain?
A muster should provide a man’s age and place of birth from 1764, although this has not always been entered. The information is often vague or inaccurate but it may give clues which can be followed up in parish registers. From about 1800 description books (which give age, height, complexion, scars and tattoos) may be included with musters. Where a muster is missing you can use the ships’ pay books to confirm that a man served on a particular ship.

How to search for a muster book
To make use of musters and pay books for tracing a seaman’s service you will need to know the name of at least one ship served on, and a rough date. To search for a particular ship go to Discovery, our catalogue, and search by ship’s name (do not use HMS in your keywords); enter the years you are interested in; and search within ‘ADM’, using the advanced search option. Ships’ musters in ADM 36-ADM 41, ADM 115 and ADM 119 and pay books in ADM 31-ADM  35 and ADM 117.

3.2 Certificates of Service 1802-1894

In the early 1800s pensions were more likely to be paid to warrant officers than ordinary seamen, but after 1834 pensions, and therefore records for seamen, become more common.
Ratings (and warrant officers) who applied for a naval pension, a medal or gratuity, had to give a brief record of ships and dates, and the total times in pay. Certificates of service books were compiled by the Navy Pay Office from the ships’ pay books. There were two sets, one of which was sent to the Admiralty for the granting of pensions, superannuation, gratuities or medals, and another sent to Greenwich Hospital (see 3.3 below).

How to search for a certificate of service

Certificates of service books are in ADM 29/1-96 on microfilm. You can search for a large percentage of these documents (currently as far as ADM 29/73) online by the name of an individual using our catalogue. Type in the name of the person and restrict the search to ADM 29 in the last box. If a Continuous Service (CS) or Official Number (ON) is given in ADM 29 documents, you should find further details of the seaman in the Continuous Service Engagement Books or the Registers of Seamen’s Services (see section 4 below). The dates given in the certificates of service books are the dates of issue of the certificates but they do not necessarily cover all the service to date. If the man was still serving, and later certificates were issued, this is noted in the entry books. The books themselves don’t all carry the same title and were labelled either ‘Time Book’, ‘Certificates of Service’ or ‘Records of Service’.

3.3 Applications for admission to Greenwich Hospital

Applications by ratings (and warrant officers) for entry into Greenwich Hospital as an in-pensioner can be found in ADM 73/1-35, some of which is name searchable online from our catalogue. These records cover 1790-1865 and are arranged by initial letter of surname. Applications can contain service records and admission papers.

In ADM 73/154-389 are applications for the children of seamen, often orphans, applying for entry to Greenwich Hospital School, otherwise known as the Royal Naval Asylum. ADM 73/154-185 are name searchable. Note that some men whose services are given in this series were dead at the time of issue of the certificates.

3.4 Trafalgar ancestors database

The Trafalgar ancestors database lists all those who fought in Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. The database can be searched by surname, and also by first name, age on 21 October 1805, birthplace, ship’s name, rating and rank.

4. Sources for men entering 1853-1923

4.1 Continuous Service Engagement Books and Registers of Seamen’s Services

From 1853 seamen entering the Navy were given a continuous service (CS) number. These were entered in Continuous Service Engagement Books, found in series ADM 139. Then, from 1873, this system was modified with the introduction of the Registers of Seamens’ Services, located in series ADM 188. These records can be searched and downloaded on our website (£). You can search by surname, forename, official number, date of birth or place of birth.

The exception is for records of ratings who served with armoured cars in Russia, 1915-1917, which are in ADM 116/1717; these must be viewed as original documents at The National Archives at Kew. It is important to note that these records will not record service details after 1928 (see section 5 below). Service numbers issued from 1894 also reveal the branch of the service in which a seaman served (see Appendix below).

What information do they contain?

Information found in these books and registers usually includes date and place of birth of an individual, and a summary of service to date with names of ships served on. From 1892 you are also likely to find physical characteristics on entry, any wounds received and the date of death if it occurred during service. In some cases, you will find a note on the register entry, giving a cross-reference to the ‘new register’. This will be to one of the Continuation Books, in ADM 188/83-90, which continue entries appearing in earlier registers. If the serviceman entered before 1873, the rating may also have a CS number and their earlier record of service will be in ADM 139.

4.2 Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) records

Records of men who served in the RNAS can also be found in ADM 188, available to download (£). Formed in July 1914, men who entered the RNAS between July 1914 and March 1918 were given service numbers prefixed with the Letter ‘F’. If an individual was already serving in the Royal Navy and transferred into the RNAS, so he would keep his original service number and just change his rating. On 1 April 1918 the RNAS was amalgamated with the Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force.

4.3 Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve records

Service numbers commencing with a Y were given to men who enrolled in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. If your man has only a Y number this indicates that he volunteered for service but was not actually called up, and his service record will not be found in ADM 188. However, it is possible to find entries with both a Y number and another service number. Where this occurs the man was called up for service, and the service record should be traceable in ADM 188.

4.4 Other records

A further set of records for seamen who served in the First World War are the campaign medal rolls, found in ADM 171/94-119, arranged in alphabetical order.

5. Sources for men entering after 1923

Read our guide on Royal Navy ratings after 1923 for more information.

6. Further reading

The following recommended publications are available in the The National Archives’ Library. Where indicated a publication is also available to buy at The National Archives’ bookshop .

JJ Colledge and Ben Warlow, Ships of the Royal Navy: the complete record of all fighting ships of the Royal Navy from the 15th century to the present (Casemate Publishers, 2010)

Kenneth J Douglas-Morris, The Naval General Service Medal roll 1793-1840 (The Naval & Military Press, 2001)

Kenneth J Douglas-Morris, Naval long service medals 1830-1990 (The Naval & Military Press, 2002)

Kenneth J Douglas-Morris, Naval medals 1793-1856 (KJ Douglas-Morris, 1987)

Kenneth J Douglas-Morris, Naval medals 1857-1880 (KJ Douglas-Morris, 1994)

David Lyon, The sailing navy list: all the ships of the Royal Navy built, purchased and captured 1688-1860 (Conway Maritime Press, 1993)

Bruno Pappalardo, Tracing your naval ancestors Public Record Office Readers’ Guide, XXIV (Public Record Office, 2003)

Bruno Pappalardo, Using navy records Public Record Office Pocket Guides to Family History (Public Record Office, 2001)

NAM Rodger, Naval records for genealogists Public Record Office handbooks, XXII (Public Record Office, 1998)

Appendix – Service numbers issued between 1894 and 1923

From January 1894 service numbers were no longer issued in a simple sequential order and were instead assigned according to the branch of the service in which the individual served. The following table shows which sets of service numbers were assigned to the respective branches of service:

Service numbers issued 1894-1907 Service numbers issued 1908-1923 Branch of service numbers assigned to
178001 – 240500 J 1 – J 110000 Seamen and Communications ratings
268001 – 273000 M 1 – M 38000 Engine Room Artificers
276001 – 313000 K 1 – K 63500 Stokers
340001 – 348000 M 1 – M 38000 Artisans and Miscellaneous
350001 – 352000 M 1 – M 38000 Sick Berth Staff and Ship’s Police
353001 – 366450 L 1 – L 15000 Officer’s Stewards, Officer’s Cooks and Boy Servants
Guide reference: Military Records Information 31