How to look for records of... Royal Navy commissioned and warrant officers
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
1. Why use this guide?
This is a guide to researching records of Royal Navy officers held at The National Archives. We have a separate guide for advice on finding records of pensions paid to Royal Navy officers.
Historically, there were two kinds of officer in the Royal Navy, Commissioned Officers and Warrant Officers. The record sources in this guide may refer to one or both kinds of officer. It can help to know if you are looking for records of a warrant or commissioned officer.
Commissioned officer’s ranks include Admiral of the Fleet, Admiral, Vice-Admiral, Rear-Admiral, Commodore, Captain, Commander, Lieutenant-Commander, Lieutenant, and Sub-Lieutenant. Commissioned officers became officers by being awarded a royal commission, usually after passing an examination. They are different and senior in rank to warrant officers.
A warrant officer was a sailor with specialised skills who became an officer by being awarded a warrant. Warrant officers are junior to commissioned officers and senior to ratings and their ranks include master, purser, engineer, boatswain, gunner, carpenter, surgeon, armourer, chaplain, cook, master at arms, sailmaker and schoolmaster.
Service records of commissioned officers who joined the Royal Navy since 1917 are still held by the Ministry of Defence. For records of officers before 1649, you can try searching for mentions of them in State Papers Domestic 1547-1649.
Service records of warrant officers who joined the Royal Navy since 1931 are still held by the Ministry of Defence.
Published Navy lists can supply basic details of an officer’s career if other records are not available, see section 4 for more information.
2. How do I get started?
Which records it is best to search for first will depend upon the years of service of the officer and whether or not you can visit us in person at Kew to access records unavailable online.
You may be able to get an outline of an officer’s career from a published source before going to the records themselves. Searchable online databases have been created for the First World War and Battle of Trafalgar recording service details of officers and ratings. Navy lists were a published directory listing officers in the Royal Navy and can be used to trace the outline of an officer’s career. During wartime monthly lists were published. A full set is available on site at The National Archives but some volumes are also available online.
In general, the most detailed records are service records so it may be best to target these first but before 1830 they are incomplete and patchy as there were no central service registers for personnel. In lieu of or in addition to a service record, your next best bet are records created for the application and award of pensions, which can include certificates of service and admission papers. To gain access to the full range of pension records you will need to visit us in person. We have a separate guide for advice on finding records of pensions paid to Royal Navy officers.
3. Online databases and indexes
3.1 Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea database
Search the Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea database by name, service number and other criteria for free-to-access information relating to all the Royal Navy officers and ratings that served in the First World War.
The database is compiled largely from records held at The National Archives and is an ongoing joint project between The National Archives, The National Maritime Museum and the Crew List Index Project.
3.2 Index of naval officers who died between 1914 and 1920
Search the card index of naval officers killed 1914-1920 (ADM 242/1-5), including some officers of the Royal Marines and Naval Reserve, and of the Canadian and Australian navies, among the records of maritime deaths on findmypast (charges apply).
3.3 Battle of Trafalgar database, 1805
Search the Trafalgar ancestors database by name for transcripts of the records of Royal Navy personnel of all ranks who served in the Battle of Trafalgar.
4. Navy Lists, Black Books and seniority lists
4.1 Published and printed Navy Lists
Consult the published Navy Lists (a set of which is available at The National Archives at Kew) to follow an officer’s career.
There have been several versions of the Navy List covering different periods:
- Steele’s Navy List, 1782-1814
- Navy List, the official list from 1814 to present day (now known as The Navy Directory)
- New Navy List, an unofficial but reliable list from 1841-1856
Navy lists contain:
- seniority lists of officers
- from 1810 the official Navy List also shows ships with the officers appointed to them
- from 1841–1856 the unofficial New Navy List gives potted biographies, often stretching back decades before 1841
4.2 Online Navy Lists
4.3 First and Second World War Confidential Navy Lists
Browse through the range of Confidential Navy Lists from the First and Second World Wars (ADM 177) in our catalogue and select lists by date for download. These lists were, at the time, for official use only and indicate where individual officers were serving, with the names of ships and establishments.
4.4 Seniority lists 1780-1886
Seniority lists are arranged by rank and provide the dates on which commissioned officers received their first commission (or warrant officers received their first warrant) to a rank. You can search for the official, printed seniority lists in ADM 118. For sea officers and officers on half pay 1717-1846 browse from ADM 118/1 to find a document by year range.
For warrant officers 1780-1844 browse from ADM 118/186 to find a document by year and rank.
Browse through ADM 104/51-87 to select seniority lists by year for surgeons and other medical officers from 1780-1886.
4.5 Black Books, 1741-1815
The Admiralty kept ‘black books’ to record the names of officers guilty of misconduct and who were not to be employed again. Consult ADM 12/27B-27D, and the name index in ADM 12/27E, for the black books covering commissioned officers 1741-1815.
5. Service records, 1756-1931
5.1 Naval officers’ service records, 1756-1917 and 1756-1931
Search Royal Naval Officers’ service records on our website (ADM 196) by name for
- commissioned officers who entered the Royal Navy between 1756 and 1917
- most of the warrant officers who joined the Royal Navy between 1756 and 1931, though there are far fewer records before 1830
The records for the 18th and early 19th centuries are sparse but for the later period almost all of the available service records are accessible in this online collection.
Service records for commissioned officers joining after May 1917 are held by the Ministry of Defence (see below).
Warrant officers could have served as ratings before being awarded a warrant so it may also be worth searching ratings’ service records for career and basic biographical details.
5.2 Naval officers’ service record cards and files, c.1840-c.1920
Search Royal Navy officers’ service record cards and files online (ADM 340/1-150) by name for commissioned officers serving in the Royal Navy between c.1840 and c.1920.
Not all the records in this series are available online. To view the remaining records in ADM 340/151-456 you will need to visit The National Archives at Kew. Search by name for a document reference using the ADM 340 series search.
6. Certificates of Service and pensioner admission papers
Here we cover records created and retained as part of the pension applications process. For records of payments of pensions see our more detailed guide, Royal Navy officer’s pensions.
6.1 Certificates of Service, 1802-1894
Search at Ancestry.co.uk (charges apply) by name for certificates of service 1802-1894 (ADM 29) issued to warrant officers who applied for a pension, gratuity or medal. The date range covers the dates of issue of the certificates rather than the dates of service (the certificate may have been issued many years after a seaman finished his service).
ADM 29/1-73, covering dates 1802-1867, can also be searched by name in Discovery.
6.2 Pensioners’ admission papers, 1790-1865
Search for pensioners’ admission papers 1790-1865 (ADM 73/1-35) among the Royal Navy service and pension records on Findmypast.co.uk (charges apply). These papers supported warrant officers’ applications for admissions as in-pensioners to the Royal Greenwich Hospital. Some applications include details of service dating from the mid 18th century, 40 years or more prior to the application. They provide the officer’s age on joining and leaving the navy, the name of the last ship served on, details of character and sometimes the date of admission to Royal Greenwich Hospital.
Search our own catalogue listings of this series by name to obtain transcriptions, for free, of the dates of service and of admission to the hospital.
7. Passing certificates, 1660-1902
7.1 Passing certificates 1660-1902
Some officers sat an exam to assess their suitability for a particular rank and were awarded a certificate if they passed. These certificates, which can provide information about a man’s service prior to the exam, usually recorded the age, date and place of birth of the officer as well as the names of the ships he had served on. They may be supported by other papers such as birth or baptismal certificates.
Examinations for different ranks were introduced at different times and the surviving passing certificates cover a range of different years, depending on the rank, though they tend to cover year ranges within the 19th century. For:
- engineers, search by name in ADM 13 (records cover 1863-1902)
- masters, search for ‘masters passing certificates’ in ADM 6, ADM 13 and ADM 106 (records cover 1660-1863)
- surgeons, search for ‘surgeons qualifications’ in ADM 106 (records cover 1700-1800)
- other officer ranks, search for ‘passing certificates’ and the name of the rank in ADM 6 and ADM 13 (records cover different year ranges depending on the rank)
7.2 Lieutenants’ passing certificates 1691-1902
In 1677 the Admiralty introduced examinations for prospective lieutenants to test whether individuals had the necessary experience and skills. They were awarded a certificate if they passed. These certificates, which can provide information about a man’s service prior to the exam, usually recorded the age, date and place of birth of the officer as well as the names of the ships he had served on.
Find document references for passing certificates by consulting the name index in Bruno Pappalardo’s Royal Navy Lieutenants’ Passing Certificates 1691–1902 (List and Index Society Vols 289–290), available at The National Archives library. Certificates from 1677-1690 have not survived.
8. Returns of service, 1817-1861
Between 1817 and 1861 the Admiralty sent out a number of surveys for officers to complete and return. Though many officers did not receive or return their forms, some returns do survive.
8.1 Commissioned officers
For commissioned officers, search ADM 9 by name to locate returns of the 1817 survey sent back by admirals, captains, commanders and some lieutenants (they are in ADM 9/1-9). For the rest of the lieutenants’ returns of the 1817 survey and all the returns from the 1846 survey (held in ADM 9/10-61) locate the paper version of the catalogue in the reading rooms at Kew and follow these steps:
- Step 1: Find the printed name indexes in the ADM 9 folder
- Step 2: Locate the name of an officer in the index and note the folio number
- Step 3: Browse from ADM 9/10 in the catalogue (online or the paper version) to find the range of folio numbers which includes the number you noted at Step 2 – this provides you with your document reference
8.2 Warrant officers
The returns of the survey sent back by warrant officers are scattered around several series. For:
- masters, search in ADM 106/3517(1822), ADM 11/2-3 (1833-1835), ADM 11/7-8 (1851) (with an index in ADM 10/6/1-7) and ADM 11/9 (1855 and 1861)
- gunners, boatswains and carpenters, search in ADM 11/35-37(1816-1818) (no index)
- chaplains, search in ADM 11/41(1833-1834) (no index)
- pursers, search in ADM 6/193-196(1834) (name searchable in Discovery) and ADM 11/42-43 (1852)
- paymasters, search in ADM 11/44(1859)
9. Records of cadets at the Royal Naval Colleges at Dartmouth and Greenwich, 1876-1964
Among the various records that survive of cadets training to become commissioned officers at the Royal Naval Colleges are the following:
- examination results from the Royal Naval College, Greenwich 1876–1880 in ADM 203/21-40
- examination results from the Royal Naval College, Greenwich 1907–1957 in ADM 203/41-44
- lists of cadets studying at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth 1931-1942 in ADM 203/104-137
- lists of cadets studying at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth 1946-1968 in ADM 203/151-198
10. Leave books, 1783-1846
Leave books usually record the date an officer applied for leave, for what period of time, in what service or to what place and a date of return. Select leave books by year range from the following sets of document references:
- ADM 106/2972 for captains and lieutenants on leave between 1762 and 1764
- ADM 6/200-206 for officers granted leave to go abroad while on active duty between 1804 and 1846
- ADM 6/207-211 for officers granted leave while on half pay between 1783 and 1846
11. Medal rolls, 1793-1972
Search by name for information about the award of campaign, long service and good conduct medals in the Royal Navy medal rolls (ADM 171) using Ancestry.co.uk (charges apply). These rolls do not usually contain biographical information.
Digital microfilm copies of these records are also available to browse and download from our website free of charge.
12. Courts martial records
Courts martial records range from detailed records of proceedings to only the briefest details. The majority are held in ADM 1. Read our research guide on Royal Navy correspondence and papers for advice on how to find records in ADM 1 using the indexes and digests in ADM 12.
13. Service records from the last 90 years
Visit the GOV.UK website for information about how to request a summary of a service records from the Ministry of Defence. These are not available to members of the general public, though next of kin may request access to them.
14. Other resources
The following books are available at the National Archives’ library in Kew:
Bruno Pappalardo, Tracing Your Naval Ancestors (The National Archives, 2003) – an invaluable reference book that covers almost every possible source of material at The National Archives for officers and other ranks alike, including records not covered by this guide.
Ian Waller, My Ancestor was in the Royal Navy (Society of Genealogists, 2014)
N A M Rodger, Naval records for genealogists (PRO Publications, 1998)
Christopher Donnithorne, Warrant officers of the Royal Navy 1695-1751 (List and Index Society, 2013)
Search The National Archives’ shop for other titles.