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Guide reference: Military Records Information 7
Last updated: 21 December 2010

1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you to find records held at The National Archives, which can be used to trace the service of soldiers who served in the British Army between around 1730 and 1898 but who were not discharged to pension. These records are known as muster rolls, pay lists and description books. For more information on this subject see the Militia research guide.

2. Essential information

2.1 What were muster rolls?

Regimental musters, from the early 18th century onwards, were taken every month or quarter (frequency varied over the years) for pay and accounting purposes. They, along with pay lists, were effectively the main everyday service records kept by the army of men in active service.

2.2 What information do they contain?

Muster rolls and pay lists give the enlistment date, movements and discharge date of all soldiers in the British Army. From 1868 to 1883 musters may also contain lists of 'men becoming non-effective', found at the end of each quarter (or the beginning for regiments stationed in India) which give a man's birthplace, along with his trade and date of death or discharge. However, these quarterly lists are not always present. From about 1868 musters may also include Marriage Rolls giving details of children and wives occupying married quarters.

2.3 What do you need to conduct a search?

To trace a man's army career by way of the musters, you will have to know the name of his regiment.

3. How to search for musters and pay lists c1730-1878

The musters are bound together in annual volumes for each regiment and are held in the War Office (WO) series, listed below.

Each series is searchable in Discovery, our catalogue. Search by name of regiment and specify the appropriate record series from the table below. If you are searching within WO 69, search by name of non-commissioned officer or soldier within WO 69.

To view the muster roll or pay list itself you will need to order the original document. The first entry for a recruit in a muster book usually gives his age, place of enlistment and trade. 

Type Date range Description Record series
General Series 1732-1878 Household troops, cavalry, guards, regular infantry, special regiments and corps, colonial troops, foreign legions and regiments, and regimental, brigade and other depots WO 12
Artillery 1708-1878   WO 10, WO 69, WO 54
Engineers 1816-1878 From 1816 to 1856, the musters are principally of the Royal Corps of Sappers and Miners, and list only NCOs and other ranks. The two merged in 1856, as the Royal Engineers WO 11, WO 54
Militia and Volunteers 1780-1878   WO 13, WO 68
Crimean War 1854-1856 British troops sent to the Scutari Depot WO 14

Records of some soldiers' children may be found among the papers of the Duke of York's School and the Royal Hibernian School in WO 143, from 1801.

4. How to search for musters and pay lists 1878-1898

From 1878 to 1898, all muster rolls and pay lists are in WO 16. From 1888 onwards, the series contains only muster rolls, there are no longer any pay lists and by 1898 muster rolls were no longer kept by the War Office either. There are some difficulties in using WO 16, caused by the reorganisation of the Army in 1881.

4.1 Reorganisation of the Army: the Cardwell reforms

The Cardwell reforms of 1881 led to major changes within infantry (foot) regiments:

  • Infantry regiments, which had been known by numbers (for example, 28th Foot), were to become known by a title
  • Regiments from the 26th Foot onwards were paired together to form new regiments (for example, the 28th Foot and the 61st Foot became the Gloucester Regiment)
  • Each 'new' regiment was to have two battalions, as the first 25 Foot regiments already did
  • The lower number became the 1st battalion and the higher number became the 2nd battalion (thus, the 28th Foot and the 61st Foor became the 1st and 2nd Battalions respectively of the Gloucester Regiment)
  • All infantry regiments were placed into numbered regimental districts

4.2 Searching WO 16

The arrangement of WO 16 reflects the reorganisation of the army following the Cardwell reforms. If you are working backwards through the musters, you may need to find the previous regimental number of a 2nd battalion. To do this, you should consult the Army List. Each volume of the Army List has an alphabetical list of regiments: find the title of the regiment, and turn to the page indicated which lists the various designations over time of its component parts. You may also need to know the relevant regimental district numbers, a key to which can be found in the record summary of WO 16.

5. How to find description books

These give a description of each soldier, his age, place of birth, trade and service, and are in WO 25/266-688, which can be searched by regiment in our catalogue. The books themselves are in alphabetical order of soldiers' names. The overall dates are 1756 to 1900, but for most regiments there are volumes for the first half of the nineteenth century only. Similar description books for depots, 1768 to 1908, are in WO 67. There are also description books for the Royal Artillery, 1749-1863 and 1773-1876, in WO 54/260-309 and WO 69/74-80, respectively, and for the Royal Irish Artillery, 1756-1774, in WO 69/620. Description books of sappers, miners, artificers and the like, 1756-1833, are in WO 54/310-316.

6. The British Foreign Legion 1854-1856

During the Crimean War, men were recruited abroad to form the British German Legion, the British Italian Legion, and the British Swiss Legion. These forces were formed as a result of the Enlistment of Foreigners Act 1854 and they became known collectively as the British Foreign Legion. A total of 14,000 men were recruited, although none saw active service: they were disbanded after the war. The musters, service records and attestation papers of the German and Swiss Legions are in WO 15, searchable by regiment in our catalogue. Those of the Italian Legion no longer survive. See Mercenaries for the Crimea by CC Bayley (London, 1977).

7. 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.

Mustor (muster) books and pay lists: General series: Cavalry (Swift, 1984)

Amanda Bevan, Tracing your Ancestors in the The National Archives (The National Archives, 2006)

J Gibson and M Medlycott, Militia lists and musters, 1757-1876: a directory of holdings in the British Isles (Federation of Family History Societies, 2004)

William Spencer, Army Records: A guide for family historians (The National Archives, 2008)

William Spencer, Records of the Militia and Volunteer Forces 1757-1945 (Public Record Office, 1997)

Guide reference: Military Records Information 7

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