How to look for records of... Royal Navy ratings’ service records 1853-1928

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • All

What are these records?

Available here are over 700,000 Royal Navy service records for ratings who entered the service between 1853 and 1928. Some of the records cover periods of service up to at least 1950.

The original records are in four series at The National Archives:

    • continuous service engagement books from 1853 to 1872, in series ADM 139
    • registers of seamen’s services from 1873 to 1924, in series ADM 188
    • registers of seamen’s services  from 1925-1928, in series ADM 362
    • continuous record (CR) cards from 1929-1950, in series ADM 363

Please note, a rating must have enlisted before 1929 in order to have a record within these series.

How do I search the records?

You can search and download the records in Discovery (£) by filling in the form below. You may find more than one record for an individual is their service spans a number of the series above.

You don’t need to complete every field to find a record.

Bear in mind:

  • the date of birth was not always recorded, so try leaving this out if you don’t get any results
  • a small number of records are not searchable by name. For more information see ‘Why can’t I find what I’m looking for?’ below
  • some official service numbers contain letters and numbers – when searching it is easier to enter the number only

Where there is no date of the birth in the original document, the record description will give the date range for this collection.

You may find more than one search result for an individual. Depending on how long they served, you many find records in the following combinations of series:

  • ADM 139 and ADM 188
  • ADM 188 and ADM 363
  • ADM 362 and ADM 363

Some may have two records of service within series ADM 188. If there are two records within ADM 188 we have linked these together, so both are attached to the same download.

In ADM 188 records you can find the continuous service (CS) number in the ‘date and period of CS engagement’ box, usually in the top left hand corner. This indicates they will also have a record in ADM 139.

What information do the records contain?

The information in these records can include:

  • year of birth (you might also find the day and month)
  • town and country of birth
  • names of ships served on, with dates of joining and discharge from each ship
  • period of time actually served
  • any engagements not completed and the reason for this
  • service numbers – known as continuous service (CS) numbers up to 1872, and official numbers (ON) from 1873 onwards

From 1892 you can find greater detail in the records, including:

  • occupation
  • good conduct badges issued (if any)
  • notes made about character and ability
  • physical appearance, such as hair and eye colour, height and tattoos
  • wounds suffered (if any)
  • date of death (if occurred in service)
  • you may also find a cross reference to the ‘new register’. This will be to one of the Continuation books in ADM 188/83-90

The continuous service engagement books, from series ADM 139, may also reveal:

  • details of any service in the merchant navy
  • official numbers (which can be traced to records of service in the later registers of seamen’s services)

What else can I learn from the record?

A record may indicate that the rating was promoted to warrant officer (for example, gunner, boatswain, carpenter or artificer engineer). You can find warrant officers’ service records in ADM 196.

If an ADM 363 record shows that the rating re-entered at a date after 1928, with a new official number, then you may find their record is still held by the Ministry of Defence.

If the service numbers is prefixed with the letter ‘F’ this means the rating served in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) during the First World War or with The Fleet Air Arm after 1920.

If you find a Y-prefixed official number, the rating may have volunteered for service in the Royal Navy but was allocated a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve without necessarily being called up.

From January 1894 service numbers were assigned according to a rating’s branch of service. Consult the table below to find which sets of service numbers were assigned to the respective branches of service:

Service numbers issued 1894-1907 Service numbers issued 1908-1923 Branch of service numbers assigned to
178001-240500 J 1 – J 110000 Seamen and Communications ratings
268001-273000 M 1 – M 38000 Engine Room Artificers
276001-313000 K 1 – K 63500 Stokers
340001-348000 M 1 – M 38000 Artisans and Miscellaneous
350001-352000 M 1 – M 38000 Sick Berth Staff and Ship’s Police
353001-366450 L 1 – L 15000 Officer’s stewards, Officer’s cooks and Boy servants

What do the records look like?

The early two examples here are from the record of George Smith, who first served on HMS Victory.

The form in the first image shows that he volunteered on 10 June 1853 and gives his birth date as 1 December 1838, along with a description of his appearance.

Royal Navy service record of George Smith

The second image shows the separate forms that were signed by boys, agreeing to serve ten years once they turn 18, and by men, agreeing to serve a fixed number of years.

Certificate for boys

The third image is a later example. It’s a pre-printed form, with the details listed in headed columns.

Pre-printed form for John James Phillips

Pre-printed form

This final image is an example of the later records in ADM 363. This image shows the first page only.

First page of a service record for Alfred Henry Conway (ADM 363/1/1)

Why can’t I find what I’m looking for?

If you are looking for records of ratings who served with armoured cars in Russia, 1915-1917; these are in ADM 116/1717. They are original documents and must be viewed at The National Archives at Kew.

The record may be amongst the ADM 188 pieces which are not searchable by name. These are the service records for ratings issued with CS numbers 1–40,000. You can find them within the following pieces:

ADM 188/1: 1–10000, including A and B suffix
ADM 188/2: 10001–20000, including A and B suffix
ADM 188/3: 20001–30000, including A and B suffix
ADM 188/4: 30001–40000, including A and B suffix

You can download these free of charge, but you will need to scroll through them to find an individual entry.

Try searching the Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea database by name, service number and numerous other criteria. As of June 2021, the database contains 32,000 records and is continually being updated. Once completed (scheduled for November 2022), it will contain information relating to all the Royal Navy officers and ratings that served in the First World War. The database is being compiled largely from records held at The National Archives and there is no charge for access. It is a joint project between The National Archives, The National Maritime Museum and the Crew List Index Project with the help of a global team of volunteers.

If the rating joined in 1929 or after, their service record will still be with the Ministry of Defence. Visit the GOV.UK website for information about how to request a summary of a service record.