How to look for records of... Royal Navy ratings up to 1913

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

This is a short guide to finding records of Royal Navy ratings who enlisted after 1667 and covers records for service up to 1913, before the First World War. The Royal Navy did not keep individual service records on ratings before 1853, nor did it maintain comprehensive registers of personnel, so records before 1853 are particularly patchy.

Men serving in the Royal Navy were rated according to skills they had and the tasks they performed, hence the term ‘rating’. Types of rating included:

  • Able Seaman or Ordinary Seaman
  • Petty Officer
  • Quartermaster

How to get started

For service in the 17th and 18th centuries your best bet will probably be to consult ships’ muster rolls and/or pay books, with which you can trace a seaman’s service both backwards and forwards. To do so you will need to know the name of at least one ship on which a rating served, with a rough date. For service from 1853, when the records become more detailed and generally easier to find, your first port of call should be the service records.

To find details of where specific ships were in the world and when, you should follow the advice in our guide to Royal Navy operations and correspondence 1660-1914.

Online records

Service records (for ratings who enlisted 1853–1928)

From 1853 seamen enlisting in the Royal Navy were given a continuous service (CS) number. These were entered in Continuous Service Engagement Books, now held in series ADM 139. Then, from 1873, this system was modified with the introduction of the Registers of Seamen’s Services, located in series ADM 188.

Search across all ratings’ service records 1853-1928 and download copies (£) from our website. Details of the information these records contain are on the search page.

Certificates of service (1802–c.1894)

Certificates of service books (also called ‘Time Books’ or ‘Records of Service’) were compiled by the Navy Pay Office from ships’ pay books. They were used for the granting of pensions, gratuities or medals and served as proof of a seaman’s service on ships, with dates, and the period of time in pay.

Search for ratings’ certificates of service (ADM 29/1-96) by name on Ancestry (£) for certificates issued up until 1894 (includes warrant officers up until 1919).

Alternatively, you may wish to search by name within ADM 29 in our catalogue to view, free of charge, detailed descriptions of the records in ADM 29/1–73. You cannot view images of the records themselves in this way.

In the early 1800s pensions were more likely to be paid to warrant officers than ordinary seamen, but after 1834 pensions, and therefore certificates of service for ratings, become more common.

Certificates could be issued and recorded whilst a man was still serving, and where later certificates were issued, this is noted in the books. If a Continuous Service (CS) or Official Number (ON) is noted, there should also be a service record.

Allotment registers (1795–1812 and 1830–1852)

Search for allotment registers (ADM 27) by name or vessel at  (£). Descriptions from the same registers are available free of charge in our own online catalogue – search ADM 27 by name or vessel for these descriptions.

These records provide the following information:

  • name of ship on which the seaman served
  • first names of next of kin
  • number of children
  • place of residence
  • date of allotment
  • pay book number

Read Bruno Pappalardo’s blog on allotment registers for more information on these records.

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 (£). These rolls do not usually contain biographical information.

Digital microfilm copies of these records are also available to download and browse from our website free of charge.

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 (£).

Ships’ musters, ledgers, pay books and description books (1667–1878)

Ship’ musters were taken every month or quarter for pay and accounting purposes. Effectively they were crew lists and, along with pay lists, musters are the closest thing to everyday seamen’s service records kept by the Navy until 1853.

Search our catalogue for a muster or pay book for a particular ship to find lists of ratings serving on the ship (ADM 31–ADM 39, ADM 41, ADM 115, ADM 117, and ADM 119).

Search below by name of ship, excluding HMS or other prefixes.

The information in musters is often vague or inaccurate but it may give clues which can be followed up in parish registers. From 1764 a man’s age and place of birth should be included, but not always. From the 1830s onwards, description books (most of which are in ADM 38) may be included with musters. They can contain the following information on a person:

  • age
  • height
  • complexion
  • scars and tattoos

Pension and next of kin records (1789–1894)

Search our catalogue by name for ratings‘ pension records and next of kin records.

These include:

  • ratings’ applications for admission into Royal Greenwich Hospital, 1790-1865, in ADM 73/1-35 (can contain service records as well as admission papers)
  • Greenwich Hospital School applications for children, often orphans, of seamen in ADM 73/154-389 (some men that appear in these records were dead at the time of the application)

Search below by forename and surname (ADM 73).

Battle of Trafalgar database (1805)

Search the Trafalgar ancestors database for details of ratings who served in Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. Details should include:

  • age on 21 October 1805
  • birthplace
  • ship’s name
  • rating and rank
  • an ADM reference for the original record

Records in other archives and organisations

The National Archives’ catalogue contains collections and contact details of local archives around the UK and beyond. To locate these records, search our catalogue with keywords and refine your results to ‘Other archives’ using the filters.

Other resources


See the recommended book list in our library catalogue. Some or all of these books may also be available in local libraries. You can buy from a wide range of history titles in our bookshop.