How to look for records of... Royal Navy operations and correspondence 1660-1914

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • None

1. Why use this guide?

The advice in this guide will help you find records at The National Archives covering:

  • naval battles
  • orders and instructions issued by the Admiralty Board to commanding officers
  • naval strategy and policy at times of war and peace
  • correspondence sent between branches of the Royal Navy

The guide does not cover records of personnel. For these records see our guides on Royal Navy ratings before 1853, Royal Navy ratings 1853-1923, Royal Navy commissioned officers, Royal Navy warrant officers.

None of the principal operational records of the Royal Navy for this period are available online.

2. Administration of the Royal Navy

There have been various administrative bodies at the head of the Royal Navy since the 16th century. Details of naval operations are found largely in the records of these bodies and an understanding of their respective roles and overlapping responsibilities may help you in your research. These are the three most significant:

2.1 Board of Admiralty

The Board of Admiralty, the body in command of the Royal Navy for most of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, consisted of up to seven members, known as Lords Commissioners or Sea Lords, headed by the First Lord of the Admiralty. Often referred to simply as ‘the Admiralty’, the board acted as the political representatives of the Navy, its members were mostly politicians themselves.

2.2 Secretaries of State

From 1689 to 1782, especially in wartime, broad naval strategy and policy rested with the two Secretaries of State. At times they also dealt with naval operations.

2.3 The Navy Board

Established in 1546, the Navy Board was responsible for the administrative affairs of the naval service and advising the Board of Admiralty.

Until the mid-17th century it covered all aspects of naval administration but its role was gradually reduced until its responsibilities focused largely on:

  • the building and repair of ships
  • running the dockyards and administering supplies, though not armaments

In 1832 the Board’s duties were absorbed by the Admiralty.

3. Starting your research

More detailed search advice is given below, however, it is best to start with a search for brief descriptions of documents in Discovery, our catalogue.

Almost all the records for Royal Navy operations for this period are filed within our ADM (Admiralty) department code. Use the advanced search to narrow your search to ADM records, and try searching using the following kinds of keywords:

  • naval station (for example, ‘Portsmouth’ or ‘Chatham’)
  • theatre of operations (for example, ‘Egypt’)
  • ship (for example, ‘HMS Megaera’ or just ‘Megaera’)
  • war or conflict (for example, ‘Boer War’)
  • expedition (for example, ‘Nile expedition’)

Many of the operations records, however, are not described in detail in our catalogue and some have only generic descriptions, such as “In-letters”. In these cases you should either search only by date or browse. See our Discovery help pages for more advice on whether to search or browse.

A successful search or browse will provide you with document references for the records described. To view the records themselves you will need to either visit The National Archives at Kew or pay for copies to be sent to you. Alternatively, you can pay for research.

You may also want to consult our guide to Royal Navy ships’ log books. Though ships’ logs are not the best records for details of operations, they do include some information on particular incidents.

4. Board of Admiralty, c1698 – 1976

The most important source of information on all the activities of the Royal Navy is the correspondence sent to and from the Board of Admiralty found in record series ADM 1, ADM 2 and ADM 13.

4.1 In-letters

The earliest surviving letters received by the Admiralty date from approximately 1698 and are filed in records series ADM 1, Admiralty Board in-letters. ADM 1 includes:

  • reports of proceedings – these are the official records of activities submitted by the commanding officers of ships to the Admiralty either monthly or quarterly in both wartime and peacetime
  • letters from flag officers and from commanding officers of HM ships, vessels and establishments (please note, letters from lieutenants before 1791 and from miscellaneous correspondents, categorised as “promiscuous” in Admiralty files, before 1801 were lost by enemy action)

Use our guide to finding naval correspondence in ADM 1.

There is another significant collection of Board of Admiralty in-letters held at the National Maritime Museum.

4.2 Out-letters

Use our guide to finding naval correspondence to search the following series for Admiralty out-letters covering the following dates:

  • 1660-1688 in ADM 2 – duplicated and supplemented by records in the Pepys Library
  • 1689-1859 in ADM 2 – includes formal orders, both to sea officers afloat and naval officers ashore. From 1746 the letters are divided into ‘Public Offices and Admirals’, and ‘Secretary’s Common Letters’
  • 1859-1869 in ADM 13
  • 1869-1976 in ADM 1 – though the records in ADM 1 are in-letters, copies of replies are included with the in-letters for these dates

4.3 Cases

In about 1847 the Admiralty began the practice of collecting together and binding up all the papers (in-letters, out-letters, minutes and so on) on a particular subject, thereby creating a ‘case’.

Search for case papers in one of the following two ways:

  • Click on the following series references – search by keyword, including ships’ names in ADM 7 and ADM 116. You can also search using ‘case’ as one of your keywords
  • Use the ADM 12 indexes and digests; consult the advice on finding case files in our guide on finding naval correspondence for more details

4.4 Minutes

Records of decisions taken at the Board, but not of the discussions which preceded them or the motives which directed them are in:

  • ADM 3 – minutes of Admiralty Boards and Lord Admirals’ Councils 1689-1802 and ‘rough minutes’ (working papers) 1793-1839
  • ADM 167 – Board minutes from 1869

Browse these series by date or use our guide to finding naval correspondence for advice on how to search ADM 3 using the indexes and digests in ADM 12.

5. Secretaries of State correspondence, 1689 – 1782

Correspondence of the Secretaries of State regarding the Royal Navy are in the State Papers series SP 42.

While some papers have been catalogued and can be found by searching or browsing in Discovery, many have not. For indexes to this series consult the Calendar of State Papers Domestic of the Reign of William and Mary, the Calendar of State Papers Domestic of the Reign of Anne and the Calendar of Home Office Papers of the Reign of George III, all available at The National Archives library at Kew.

6. Navy Board correspondence, 1546 – 1832

The correspondence of the Navy Board in ADM 106, though chiefly concerned with the administration of the Navy, contains much material bearing on operations, especially in the 17th century. Click on the series reference to search by keyword within series ADM 106, a large part of which has been described in considerable detail.

Search by keyword in ADM 354 and ADM 359 using the embedded search boxes for detailed descriptions of Navy Board out-letters. The letters themselves are held at the National Maritime Museum.

7. Miscellaneous correspondence, 1563 – 1956

Click on the series reference to search the Admiralty miscellanea by keyword within ADM 7. They contain a variety of correspondence including:

  • lists of convoys
  • papers on Arctic expeditions
  • the slave trade

8. Station and fleet records

Station records vary greatly in character and completeness but usually consist of:

  • correspondence exchanged between the station and the Admiralty, other branches of the Royal Navy and ships
  • reports of proceedings

Use the table below to find record series for individual stations and fleets.

Station Dates Series Indexes
Africa 1797 onwards ADM 123 ADM 124
Atlantic 1902-1910 ADM 145 ADM 146
Australia 1855-1896 ADM 122
Brazil (South East America Station) 1871-1904 ADM 147
Channel 1867-1907 ADM 144
China 1828 onwards ADM 125 ADM 126
East Indies 1808 onwards ADM 127
Ireland (correspondence) 1816-1912 ADM 149 ADM 150
Ireland (orders and memoranda) 1821-1825 ADM 148
Mediterranean 1843 onwards ADM 121
Nore 1805 onwards ADM 151 ADM 152
North America & West Indies 1810-1913 ADM 128 ADM 129
Pacific 1843-1858 ADM 172 ADM 155
Plymouth (correspondence) 1842 onwards ADM 131 ADM 143
Plymouth (orders and memoranda) 1859 onwards ADM 130
Portsmouth 1880 onwards ADM 179

9. How to find the stations and movements of ships

There are various kinds of records that reveal the station, movements and sometimes names of officers of HM ships.

If you know the years of service of a ship, you should be able to find out where in the world it was in service by searching the series below.

Where these records consist of more than one document, search or browse them by year in our catalogue. You should also consult our guide on ships logs.

Type of document Date range Catalogue reference
Abstracts of ships’ journals 1736-1795 ADM 7/569-575
Board minutes 1869-1894 ADM 167/1-27
Board room journals 1796-1829 ADM 7/229-296
Board room journals 1842-1880 ADM 13/105-179
Daily returns to the First Lord 1812-1830 ADM 7/502-538
List books 1673-1893; 1903-1909 ADM 8
Muster books 1741-1759; 1772-1804 ADM 7/413-501
Stations of ships 1696-1714 ADM 7/550A
Stations of ships 1802-1804 ADM 7/557
Stations of ships 1812-1822 ADM 7/560, ADM 7/561

10. Shipbuilding and repair

10.1 Construction and repair

Browse ADM 180 in our catalogue for descriptions of progress and dimension books, containing date, cost and nature of building, repair and refitting work undertaken on HM ships 1620-1912.

Click on the following series references to search for ships’ books, outlining the history of a ship’s maintenance, by ship’s name in:

  • ADM 135 for 1807-1873
  • ADM 136 for 1854-1962 (contains only a small selection)

10.2 Ships’ armaments

Browse WO 55 for details of ships’ armaments in the Ordnance Board miscellanea, arranged in our catalogue by year only.

10.3 Ships’ specifications and designs

Browse ADM 95/23-82 for reports of ships’ sailing qualities, draught and other particulars 1743-1847.

Go to the National Maritime Museum for the following records previously held at The National Archives:

  • ships’ draughts and ships’ covers formerly in ADM 138
  • ship building specifications formerly in ADM 168 and ADM 170

11. Further reading

All of the publications below are available at The National Archives’ Library in Kew. Some may be available to buy from The National Archives’ shop.

Andrew Lambert, ‘War at Sea in the Age of Sail’ (Cassell, 2002)

N A M Rodger, ‘The Admiralty’ (Terence Dalton, 1979)

N A M Rodger, ‘The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain’ (Penguin, 2006)

Randolph Cock and N A M Rodger, ‘A Guide to the Naval Records in The National Archives of the UK’ (Institute of Historical Research, 2008)