How to look for records of... Royal Navy commissioned and warrant officers: further research

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

1. Why use this guide?

If you have already read our introductory guide on Royal Navy commissioned officers, use this guide to find additional sources of information on an officer’s career.

For information on officers’ pensions please read our Royal Navy officers’ pensions research guide.

2. Essential information

Information about Royal Navy officers are within various Admiralty records (ADM) detailed below. The records mentioned supplement those in our introductory guides on Royal Navy commissioned officers and Royal Navy warrant officers so please read these guides first. They will direct you to various digitised collections including the Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea database which you might find useful.

Many of the records below you cannot search by name. You will either need to search by rank and date, or consult name indexes where available.

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 are available at The National Archives, Kew.

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 several versions of the Navy List covering different periods:

  • 1782-1814: Steele’s Navy List
  • 1814 to present day: official Navy List

and overlapping with the 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.

Some of the lists are available online at (£) for 1888-1970 and at (£) for 1827-1945.

4. 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. However, many officers did not receive or return their forms.

When searching it is useful to know the rank of the officer.

Commissioned officers

Surveys which survive for commissioned officers are within ADM 9. For the 1817 and the 1846 survey you will need to use the printed name indexes in the ADM 9 series list available in the reading rooms at Kew. (The exception is ADM 9/1-9 which covers part of the 1817 survey. You can search these by name on our catalogue).

To use the index:

Step 1: choose the right index for the year you are researching; either 1817 or 1846.

Step 2: Find a name within the index. A folio number will be alongside; note this number. For 1817 you will find a name and rank.

Step 3: Go to the part of ADM 9 the index covers. Choose the document for the relevant year (and if for 1817 the relevant rank.) You will see the files are arranged by ranges of folio numbers.

Step 4: Choose the number range which covers the folio number noted in step 2.

Other officers

A number of other surveys occurred in different years. Use the table below to find out where to find them and if there is an index to the records.

Rank Year Document reference Index
Masters 1822-1833-5, 1851-1855, 1861 ADM 106/3517, ADM 11/2-3, ADM 11/7-8, ADM 11/9 no indexeach document contains an indexindexed by ADM 10/6-7 no index
Gunners, boatswains, carpenters 1816-18 ADM 11/35-37 no index
Pursers 1836-1852 ADM 6/193-196, ADM 11/42-43 index in ADM 6 series list each document contains an index
Paymasters 1852 ADM 11/42-43 each document contains an index
Chaplains 1833-4 ADM 11/41 no index

5. 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.

The main record series are ADM 6, ADM 13 and ADM 106-7.

If you are searching for an engineer you can search by name within ADM 13.

For most other ranks you can only search by rank and date. Click on the following series references to search for records within each respective series:

  • search for keywords: ‘passing certificate’ and the rank of the officer. For example ‘boatswain passing certificate’
  • search within ADM 6 and ADM 13
  • enter a date range

Please note if you are searching for:

  • masters also search within ADM 106
  • surgeons search within ADM 106 only

For lieutenants consult Royal Navy Lieutenants’ Passing Certificates 1691-1902 (List and Index Society vol: 289-290) which gives a complete name index to passing certificates for lieutenants and will help you identify the relevant record.

If you cannot find the relevant document reference, consult the following book:

To view the actual certificates you will need to visit The National Archives, Kew.

6. Courts martial

Court martial records range from detailed records of proceedings to ones providing only the briefest detail.

The majority of courts martial records are held in ADM 1 which are accessed via indexes in ADM 12. Read our research guide on how to search Admiralty records using ADM 12.

7. Black books (1741-1815)

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.

Records cover the period 1741 to 1815 and are in ADM 12/27B-27D (with an index in ADM 12/27E) for officers, and in ADM 11/39 for warrant officers.

8. Leave books

Sources of information relating to officers’ leave applications are as follows:

  • 1762-1764: list of captains and lieutenants on leave in ADM 106/2972
  • 1783-1846: records of officers granted leave while on half pay in ADM 6/207-211
  • 1804-1846: lists of officers granted leave to go abroad while on active duty between in ADM 6/200-206

9. Examinations

Examination results from the Royal Naval College, Greenwich are in ADM 203/21-40 for the period 1876-1880 and in ADM 203/41-44 for 1907-1957.

Further information relating on officers’ training see Bruno Pappalardo’s Tracing Your Naval Ancestors.

10. 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

These usually contain names and dates of seniority to a particular rank.

11. Further reading

Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list.

The books are all available in The National Archives’ reference library. You may also be able to find them in a local library. You can buy from a wide range of history titles in our bookshop.

Ian Waller, My Ancestor was in the Royal Navy (Society of Genealogists, 2014)