How to look for records of... Royal Naval Reserve service records 1860-1955

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • All

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 (service numbers which include L) and reservists in the Royal Naval Reserve Trawler Section (RNR [T] – service numbers which include DA, E, SA, SB or TS). RNR seamen’s records are prefixed or suffixed with these and other letter codes – for further details on RNR service numbers read K J Douglas-Morris, The Naval Long Service Medals (pp.282-283).

The RNR was established with the Naval Reserve Act of 1859 as a reserve force of seamen, extended to include officers in 1862, and men from deep-sea merchant ships who could be called upon during times of war or crisis to supplement the forces of the Royal Navy. 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, including reservists who saw service in the Second World War, and are therefore not open to public inspection. These closed records can still be identified using the search below but they cannot be downloaded. More records are made available for download each year as the 100 years since date of birth passes.

Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 you can request a review of a closed record 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 and download the records of seamen born over 100 years ago in Discovery (£) by filling in the form below.

You do not need to fill out every field to search these records. When searching by service numbers which include letters, leave a space between the numbers and the letters if you are unsure whether the letters should be a suffix or a prefix.

Details of individual:

What information do the records contain?

The information in these records can include:

  • name
  • date of birth as given by the seaman
  • address
  • parents’ full names
  • physical description
  • date of enrolment
  • training undertaken
  • names of ships served on, with dates of joining and discharge from each ship (may also give details of service on merchant vessels)
  • period of time actually served
  • any engagements not completed and the reason for this
  • retainers paid

Seamen with more than one record

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 not online and are only available in the reading rooms at our building in Kew, as they may show the multiple service numbers of a reservist. For example, indexes show John Cooper (b1874) 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. These indexes also contain references to reservists who do not appear in BT 377/7.

Read K J Douglas-Morris, ‘The Naval Long Service Medals’ (pp.282-283), 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 there is no card. 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 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


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