1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide to find out which records can help you to research the career of an officer in the Royal Navy.
There is a separate guide specifically dealing with Royal Navy officers in the First World War 1914-1918.
2. Essential information
Discovery, our catalogue, contains descriptions of the records we hold. In some cases the contents of the records are available to view online but in most cases you will need to come to The National Archives in Kew to see the original records.
Information about officers in the Royal Navy can be found in various records from the Admiralty, most of which are mentioned below. For information relating to officers' pensions please refer to the research guide on Royal Navy officers' pension records.
Bruno Pappalardo's book, Tracing Your Naval Ancestors, identifies many useful document series - often listed by rank or date - which will be helpful in any research into Royal Navy officers.
3. Navy Lists
Some of the most useful resources for researching an officer's career are the Navy lists which can be seen at The National Archives in Kew. Some can also be found online - search for 'Navy lists' on Google or any other search engine to see what is available.
The lists are published quarterly and show the names and career details of Royal Navy officers. Details include rank, seniority, and the ship or establishment in which the officer was serving. There have been three versions of the Navy list covering different periods:
- 1782-1814 Steele's Navy List
- 1814 to date official Navy List
- 1841-1856 unofficial New Navy List
From 1810 the official Navy List also shows ships with the officers appointed to them and from 1841-1856 the unofficial New Navy List gives potted biographies, often stretching back decades before 1841.
Confidential editions covering the two world wars are in ADM 177.
4. Seniority lists
Printed official seniority lists are in ADM 118 and cover the following:
- sea officers and officers on half pay 1717-1846
- warrant officers 1780-1844
5. Registers of officers' services
- dates and places of birth and death
- home address
- name of wife and date of marriage
- names of the ships on which the officer served
6. Returns of officers' survey
At various points between 1817 and 1861 the Admiralty tried to improve its personnel records by sending out surveys for officers to complete and return.
A comprehensive list by rank, date and type of survey is in Tracing Your Naval Ancestors by Bruno Pappalardo.
7. Officers' passing certificates
Some officers sat an exam to assess their suitability for a particular rank and were awarded a certificate if they passed. These certificates can provide information about a man's service prior to the exam as well as sometimes having supporting papers such as certificates of birth or baptism.
Passing certificates are arranged by rank and date amongst the files from the Admiralty. The ranks and main relevant record series are as follows:
- boatswain ADM 6 and ADM 13
- carpenter ADM 13
- clerk and assistant clerk ADM 13
- engineer ADM 13 (also contains a name index)
- engine room artificers ADM 13
- gunner ADM 6 and ADM 13
- lieutenant ADM 6, ADM 13, ADM 107
- master ADM 6, ADM 13, ADM 106
- paymaster ADM 13
- purser ADM 6
- surgeons ADM 106 (a card index to these records is available at The National Archives site in Kew)
For a comprehensive list, by rank, of document references and name indexes, use Bruno Pappalardo's Tracing Your Naval Ancestors. The same author's Royal Navy Lieutenants' Passing Certificates 1691-1902 gives a complete name index to passing certificates for Lieutenants (see further reading section for publishers).
To view the actual certificates you will need to come to The National Archives site in Kew, but you may be able to identify the relevant document reference before you visit. To do this, click on the links to the relevant ADM series above and browse through the list of documents in that series.
Alternatively, you can try searching our catalogue to find references for certificates as shown below.
Using the advanced search option in the catalogue:
- enter the term 'passing certificates' in the keyword options fields
- if you know the officer's rank, type AND (in capitals) followed by the rank in the same field as above (e.g. passing certificates AND boatswain)
- enter the date range if appropriate
- search within department code ADM (which restricts the search to records created by the Admiralty)
- click on search
You should note that a catalogue search is less effective in some instances than in others, and if you cannot find the relevant document reference you should use the books mentioned above.
8. Courts martial
To view courts martial records you will need to come to The National Archives' site in Kew.
Further information on how to use the registers is in Bruno Pappalardo's Tracing Your Naval Ancestors.
9. Black books
Black books were kept by the Admiralty to record the names of officers who had misconducted themselves and who were not to be employed again.
10. Leave books
Sources of information relating to officers' leave applications are as follows:
Further information relating to officers' training can be found in Bruno Pappalardo's Tracing Your Naval Ancestors.
12. Certificates of service
Certificates of service for the period 1802-1894 can be found in ADM 29. These records give the service of Warrant Officers who applied for a naval pension or admission to Greenwich Hospital. They give a brief record of ships and dates, and total time in paid employment.
You can search ADM 29 using the officer's name below:
13. Further reading
Some or all of the publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives' bookshop. Alternatively, search The National Archives' library catalogue to see what is available to consult at Kew.
Bruno Pappalardo, Tracing Your Naval Ancestors, (Public Record Office, 2003)
Bruno Pappalardo, Using Navy Records (Public Record Office, 2001)
Bruno Pappalardo, Royal Navy Lieutenants' Passing Certificates 1691-1902 (List and Index Society, volumes 289-290)
N A M Rodger, Naval Records for Genealogists (PRO Publications, 1998)