Detail from a Royal Navy recruitment poster (catalogue reference: ADM 1/8331)

What are these records?

These are a selection of service records of ratings who served in the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) between 1860 and 1955.

There are over 148,000 records for this period. Predominantly these cover the First World War (1914-1918).

The records include Mercantile reservists, Shetland Royal Naval Reservists and reservists in the RNR trawler section (service numbers prefixed DA, E, SA, SB or TS).

The RNR was established in 1859 as a reserve force of officers and men from deep-sea merchant ships. By 1890 there were 20,000 men in the RNR.

These records are held by The National Archives in series BT 164 and BT 377.

A small percentage of these records, in BT 377/7, are for seamen born less than 100 years ago and are therefore not open to public inspection. Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, however, you can request a review either by writing to our Enquiry Service, The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU or by using our online contact form.

How do I search the records?

You can search the records of seamen born over 100 years ago in Discovery, our catalogue, by filling in the form below.

You do not need to fill out every field to search these records.

Searching is free, but there may be a charge to download documents.

What information do the records contain?

The information in these records can include:

  • name
  • date of birth
  • address
  • parents' names
  • physical description
  • date of enrolment
  • training undertaken
  • names of ships served on, with dates of joining and discharge from each ship
  • period of time actually served
  • any engagements not completed and the reason for this
  • retainers paid

Please note: each record covers a five-year term of service in the RNR, so there may be more than one record for a person. A reservist will have a different service number for each term.

For service cards from 1908-1955 (BT 377/7), a reservist's preceding or subsequent service numbers may be recorded on the card.

Consult associated indexes (BT 377/ 1-6 and BT 377/ 8-27), which are available in the reading rooms at Kew, as they may show the multiple service numbers of a reservist. For example, indexes show John Cooper (b.1874) has service numbers: x1878, QA 1737, QA 1454, QB 1328, QB 2347, C 1355 and D 2439. The letters indicate his enrolment term and position.

Read K J Douglas-Morris, The Naval Long Service Medals (p282-3), for further details on interpreting these service numbers.

What do the records look like?

For 1860-1908 the records were kept either in volumes or on cards. There is also some miscellaneous correspondence in this collection. For 1908-1955 the records are on cards only, some of which can be difficult to read.

Cards (1860-1955)

Some service records have been recorded on a single card. The image you receive will contain both the front and reverse of the card. The top of the card includes:

  • rating's name
  • date of birth 
  • place of birth 
  • physical description 
  • date of enrolment names of his mother and father

The lower section of the card entry records a list of ships served on, retainer pay and any training undertaken.

In some instances medal entitlement is also noted on the records.

To get an idea of what the records look like, see the record of Thomas John Sedgman below.

Service record of Thomas John Sedgman (PDF, 0.53Mb)

Volumes (1860-1908)

 A volume entry covers two pages and has a similar layout and contains much the same information as the card records. In some instances medal entitlement is also noted on the records. To get an idea of what the records look like, see the service record of William Sharp Cobb below.

Service record of William Sharp Cobb (PDF, 0.85Mb)

Miscellaneous (1860-1908)

The records held in BT 164/23 form a collection of correspondence and have not been individually indexed. Instead, we have made the whole piece available to download. You can scroll through the document to locate the information you require.

Why can't I find what I'm looking for?

If you cannot locate a record it could be that:

  • the record is in an index only. Some names appear in indexes but not records. The indexes are in BT 377/1-6 and BT 377/ 8-27 and can be viewed at the National Archives at Kew
  • the record is of a seaman born less than 100 years ago - you will need to complete a Freedom of Information request form to view this category of record
  • the record did not survive
  • the 1860-1908 record is not among the selected sample
  • the record is held in another series
  • the record is amongst merchant seamen service records

Related guidance

Royal Naval Reserve personnel

K J Douglas Morris, The Naval Long Service Medals (London: privately printed, 1991)

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