How to look for records of... Royal Navy ratings’ pensions 17th-20th centuries

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

1. Why use this guide?

This guide provides advice on how to find pension records of Royal Navy ratings and of some merchant seamen who served in Royal Navy employment. These records may prove useful if you are searching for information on an ancestor who served with the Royal Navy.

The biographical information in these records varies considerably, depending on the type of pension and the type of record but can include:

  • dates of service
  • place of birth
  • age on entry to the Royal Navy
  • date of death
  • names of widows and children of seamen killed in service

Most of the records covered by the guide are from the 18th and 19th centuries but they date back as early as 1653; a few others cover First World War service and beyond.

2. Where do these records come from?

These records are now held at The National Archives, primarily under the department code ADM. However, they were originally created by a variety of charitable and government bodies responsible for the payment of naval pensions at the time they were granted. The three most significant were:

  • The Royal Greenwich Hospital
Founded in 1694 as a home for pensioned seamen, the Royal Greenwich Hospital admitted its first pensioners in 1705. As well as admitting a fixed number of in-pensioners, who lived in the hospital, from 1763 small out-pensions were paid to large numbers of applicants who had served in either the Navy or Marines. Although claimants of out-pensions had to have served in the Navy or Marines, there was no bar to them holding other employment: many out-pensioners of the hospital were in full employment as the pensions were scarcely sufficient to live on. It was possible for both in- and out-pensioners to re-enter the Navy, at which point their pensions lapsed until their discharge.
  • The Navy Pay Office
The accounting department and paymaster of the Royal Navy.
  • The Chatham Chest (later The Greenwich Chest)
Founded in 1581, this charity, supported by the monthly deduction of sixpence from officers’ and ratings’ pay, paid pensions to ratings wounded in naval service. Management of the Chatham Chest was taken over by the Royal Greenwich Hospital in 1803 and in 1814 it ceased to be a separate source of pensions, its funds melting into the wider Greenwich Hospital pension pot.

From the late 19th century, various other government departments became involved in the payment of naval pensions, such as the Paymaster General (PMG), and the Ministry of Pensions (PIN). For pre-19th century records it may also be worth checking for petitions for pensions in the records of the Secretaries of State (in SP) and the Privy Council (PC).

3. Who was entitled to a pension?

It was not until 1859 that pensions for service were granted automatically to all ratings who had served for 20 consecutive years in the Royal Navy. Up to 1859 there was no guarantee that a rating would receive a pension for service. Before then, pensions were rarely awarded to ratings unless they had been wounded or killed in action or on duty.

The majority of ratings entered as boys, signing their first engagement at 18 and therefore retired at 38, or 43 for those who signed on for a ‘fifth five’. This left a man with much of his working life remaining and naval pensioners were often still in employment, many of them in dockyards and other naval establishments.

4. Records covering First World War and later service

As for other periods, there are a hotchpotch of different pension records that survive for seamen who served in the First World War:

4.1 Selected First World War pension award files

A sample of disability pension awards from the First World War are held under references PIN 26/16684-17178. Search these records by name or number using the PIN 26 series search in our catalogue.

4.2 First World War widows’ pension forms

A random sample of First World War widows’ and dependants’ pensions forms were selected for preservation and are now held in record series PIN 82. They represent around 8% of all First World War armed services pensions. For more details see our research guide to disability and dependants’ pensions in the First World War or read the PIN 82 series description.

4.3 Pensions paid to widows and dependants between 1921 and 1926 for ratings killed in action

4.4 Merchant seamen in Admiralty employment

Allowances to widows, children and other dependants of merchant seamen killed during ‘warlike operations’ while serving on merchant ships and auxiliary craft commissioned into the service of the Royal Navy are in:

  • PMG 56 – the records date from April 1914 to March 1928 and contain:
    • name and rank of person killed
    • name of ship/submarine
    • name and address of claimant
    • rate of pension
    • widow’s age (not always given)

Other similar records include:

  • Pension grants 1918-1925 to officers and men of the mercantile marine killed or injured in Admiralty employment in PIN 15/1733-1736
  • Claims to pensions 1919-1925 by seamen of the Royal Naval Reserve in PIN 15/209-211

4.5 Seamen who died in service but not in conflict

Look in the register of applications for pensions 1911-1933 of seamen who died in service but not in ‘warlike operations’ (ADM 166/14) – the register includes an index.

5. Superannuation pensions, 18th and 19th centuries

A superannuation pension is a pension granted upon retirement of the individual.

5.1 Candidates for Greenwich Hospital pensions or other relief

Date Range Record type Catalogue reference
1789 – 1859 Registers of applicants ADM 6/271-322
1813 – 1834 Numerical list of candidates (with an index) ADM 6/267-269

5.2 Registers of candidates for admission to Greenwich Hospital

Date Range Catalogue reference Name searchable in the catalogue? Online version
1737 – 1752 ADM 6/223 No (£)
1752 – 1763 ADM 6/224 Yes (£)
1781 – 1784 ADM 6/225 Yes (£)
1815 – 1840 ADM 6/226-247 Yes (£)
1841 – 1859 ADM 6/248-266 No (£)

5.3 Greenwich Hospital in-pensioners admission papers, entry books and registers 1704-1869

Many of the records listed in the table below are from record series ADM 73, a series which contains a variety of other related record collections. Use the catalogue to browse the contents of the whole series or use the series search to search by name for admissions papers 1790-1865 which include dates served and date of admission to Greenwich Hospital.

Date range Record type Catalogue references Online version Free content, searchable on the catalogue
1704 – 1846 General entry books of pensioners ADM 73/36-41 (£)  None
1704 – 1863 Rough entry books of pensioners ADM 73/51-62 (£)  None
1782 – 1822 Letters relating to the admission of pensioners to Greenwich Hospital ADM 65/83-97 Not available online  None
1764 – 1869 Entry books of pensioners ADM 73/63-69 (£)  None
1779 – 1866 Registers of pensioners and their families ADM 73/42-50 (£)  None
1790 – 1865 Admission papers ADM 73/1-35 (£)  Name, dates served, date admitted
1813 – 1834 Numerical list of candidates for Greenwich Hospital ADM 6/267-268 (£)  None
1868 – 1870 Register of Greenwich Hospital pensions WO 23/24 (£)  None

5.4 Greenwich Hospital out-pensions 1781-1809, 1814-1869 and 1879-1921

Date Range Record type Catalogue reference Online version
1781-1809 Out-pension pay books ADM 73/95-131 (£)
1814-1846 Out-pension pay books ADM 22/254-443 (£)
1819-1821 List of Greenwich Hospital temporary pensioners ADM 6/321 Not available online
1842-1862 Periodical returns of pensions paid or payable to out-pensioners of Chelsea and Greenwich Hospitals and of mercantile marine pensioners WO 22 Some returns of payments to out-pensioners of Greenwich Hospital can be found in the British Army service records collection on (£). Select series WO 22 on the search page.
1845-1854 Royal Greenwich Hospital pensions WO 4/887-891 (£)
1863-1869 Entry books of pensioners ADM 73/63-64 (£)
1879-1921 Pensions of seamen and marines living abroad PMG 71/5-13 Not available online

6. Certificates of service, 1802-1894

Certificates of service, issued by the Navy Pay Office, were used as proof that a rating qualified for a pension. The certificate was an abstract of successive postings derived from the ships’ musters. Before the introduction of continuous service registers for ratings, in the mid 19th century, these certificates formed the only official evidence of the careers of ratings. Collections survive of both the original certificates as received by Greenwich, and the Pay Office’s entry books of the certificates as issued.

Certificates of service provide the following information on seamen:

  • rating (rank/job description)
  • ships served on
  • length of time on each ship

Search for ratings’ certificates of service (ADM 29) by name on Ancestry (£) for certificates issued up until 1894 (includes warrant officers up until 1919). However, you can find service details (such as rank, dates served and date of birth) for some ratings from the descriptions for a number of ADM 29 documents in our catalogue. Although they do not include images of the records themselves, the descriptions are free to view. To search for a seaman’s details in this way, either browse through ADM 29/2-73 or search by name using the ADM 29 series search.

Some seamen were issued with certificates of service years after they joined the Royal Navy and certificates do not necessarily cover all the service to date. If a Continuous Service (CS) or Official Number (ON) is given you should find further details in Royal Navy ratings’ service records 1853-1928.

7. Wounds and disability pensions, 1653-1799

Pensions for permanent disablement or grants to wounded ratings were paid by the Chatham Chest (later The Greenwich Chest), up until 1814, on production of a certificate known as a smart ticket.

Browse through ADM 82 by date in our catalogue to search for the records of payments to pensioners 1653-1799 from the Chatham Chest.

8. Widows’ and dependents’ pensions, 1675-1917

8.1 Pensions paid from the Chatham Chest, 1695-1779

The pay books of the Chatham Chest record payments of pensions to widows of ratings who died in service, 1695-1779: see ADM 82/12-119.

8.2 Royal Bounty payments

A lump sum of one year’s wages known as the Royal Bounty was payable to widows, dependent children or mothers (aged over 50) of ratings killed in action. Papers submitted to claim the bounty often include marriage and death certificates, with other documents attesting the age, relationship or poverty of the applicants.

Date Range Catalogue reference How to search for a record
1675 – 1722 (with gaps)  ADM 106/3023-3025 Use the name index in the printed version of our catalogue, available only at The National Archives building in Kew
1747 – 1752  ADM 106/3026-3027 Use the name index in the printed version of our catalogue, available only at The National Archives building in Kew
1805 – 1822  ADM 106/3028-3035 Use the name index in the printed version of our catalogue, available only at The National Archives building in Kew

Pay lists of the Royal Bounty, 1739-1787, giving name, address and relation of the payee, the name, quality and ship of the dead man, and the sum paid, are in ADM 106/3018-3020.

8.3 Greenwich Hospital pensions, 1882-1917

Search through the registers of Greenwich Hospital pensions and allowances paid to widows and children 1882-1917 in ADM 166/1-11.

8.4 Pension applications and awards 1892-1917 for men killed in conflict (but not in First World War)

Date Range Type of record Catalogue reference
1892 – 1911 Indexed register of applications for pensions of seamen and marines killed in warlike operations ADM 166/13
1901 – 1917 Indexed register of pensions awarded to widows and children of seamen and marines killed in warlike operations, but not in the First World War ADM 166/12