How to look for records of... Royal Navy commissioned officers

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

This is a guide to some of the most significant records of Royal Navy commissioned officers held at The National Archives. 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. Commissioned officers ranks include Admiral of the Fleet, Admiral, Vice-Admiral, Rear-Admiral, Commodore, Captain, Commander, Lieutenant-Commander, Lieutenant, and Sub-Lieutenant.

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.

How to get started

Which records it is best to search for first will depend upon the years of service and rank of the officer and whether or not you can visit us in person at Kew to access records unavailable online.

In general, the most detailed records are service records (and service record cards) so it’s usually 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 is to look for pension records. To gain access to the full range of pension records you will need to visit us in person.

For service in the First World War you should start with the free-to-access Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea database. Though this does not provide images of records it does provide transcribed information from them and may help you pin down a service number – which could prove helpful when searching for other records.

Online records

Service records 1756-1917

Search Royal Naval Officers’ service records on our website (ADM 196) by name for a commissioned officer who entered the Royal Navy between 1756 and 1917. 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 officers joining after May 1917 are held by the Ministry of Defence (see below).

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.

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 a joint project between The National Archives, The National Maritime Museum and the Crew List Index Project.

Navy Lists

Navy lists contain seniority lists of officers and the ships to which each officer was assigned.

Published Navy Lists (a set of which is available at The National Archives at Kew) date back to 1782 but shorter spans of the lists are available online at Ancestry.co.uk (£) for 1888-1970 and at Findmypast.co.uk (£) for 1827-1945.

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.

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 (£).

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 (£). These rolls do not usually contain biographical information. Digital microfilm copies of these records are also available to download from our website and browse free of charge.

Battle of Trafalgar database, 1805

Search the Trafalgar ancestors database by name for transcripts of the records of Royal Navy seamen of all ranks who served in the Battle of Trafalgar.

Records available only at The National Archives in Kew

To access these records you will either need to visit us, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy (£).

Pension records

The National Archives holds numerous different kinds of naval pension records, dating as far back as the early 17th century. They were created and maintained to record officers’ applications and qualifications for pensions, as well as registers and other documents recording the granting and receipt of pensions. For a comprehensive break down of these records see our guide to Royal Navy officers’ pensions.

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.

Returns of officers surveys 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.

Search ADM 9 by name for document references for returns of the 1817 survey from admirals, captains, commanders and some lieutenants (ADM 9/1-9). For the rest of the lieutenants’ returns of the 1817 survey and all the returns from the 1846 survey (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

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.

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.

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

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.

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 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 203/44-44
  • 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

Records in other archives and organisations

Service records 1917-present

Visit the GOV.UK website for information about how to request a summary of a service record for a Royal Navy officer who joined the service after May 1917 from the Ministry of Defence. These are not available to members of the general public, though next of kin may request access to them.

Other resources

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. Navy lists contain seniority lists of officers and the ships to which each officer was assigned.

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
  • New Navy List, an unofficial but reliable list from 1841–1856

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.

Other books

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 commissioned officers and other ranks alike, including records not covered by this guide.

The above book is among our recommended books list on this subject, all available at the National Archives’ library in Kew.

Search The National Archives’ bookshop for other titles.