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

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This is a guide to finding records of Royal Navy ratings who enlisted before the First World War, covering enlistments all the way back to 1667, when the earliest records for individual ratings in our collections begin.

The term ‘rating’, used in the Royal Navy to define roles for seamen rated according to the skills which they performed, encompasses:

  • Able Seaman or Ordinary Seaman
  • Petty Officer
  • Quartermaster

How to get started

If you’re looking for records of ratings who joined 1667-1852

The Royal Navy did not keep individual service records on ratings before 1853, nor did it maintain comprehensive registers of personnel, so for service during this period you are largely confined to the following records (advice on how to search for them appears later on in this guide):

  • Ships’ musters and pay books: among the best records for a full picture of a ratings’ time in the Royal Navy. Once you have located a seaman in a muster roll or pay book you can trace his service both backwards and forwards from that date using other musters. Before you start you will need to know the name of at least one ship on which a rating served, with a rough date.
  • Certificates of Service: compiled by the Navy Pay Office from ships’ pay books to support applications for pensions, gratuities and medals.
  • Pension records: in the early 1800s pensions were more likely to be paid to warrant officers than ordinary seamen, but after 1834 pensions become more commonplace. Some Royal Navy pensioners lived at Greenwich Hospital – they are known as in-pensioners.
  • Allotment registers: from 1795, seamen could allot a portion of their wages to be paid directly to their families. These registers record the details.

If you’re looking for records of ratings who joined from 1853

For service from 1853, new records were kept and expand the number of possible records you may find for a seaman. In addition to those listed above you can search for:

  • Continuous Service Engagement Books: from 1853 seamen entering the Royal Navy were given a continuous service (CS) number, recorded in these books
  • Registers of Seamen’s Services: from 1873 the system of registering new seamen was modified, with the introduction of official service numbers, and these registers replaced the Continuous Service Engagement Books

Tracing a ship

To find details of when and where specific ships were in the world, you should follow the advice in our guide to Royal Navy ships’ log books.

Online records

Service records, 1853 onwards (Continuous Service Engagement Books and Registers of Seamen’s Services)

Ratings who enlisted between 1853 and 1872 should appear in Continuous Service Engagement Books, held in series ADM 139.

Ratings who enlisted from 1873 onwards should appear in Registers of Seamen’s Services, held in series ADM 188. Details of ratings from the discontinued Continuous Service Engagement Books were transferred over to these registers.

Use the search fields in our guide to Royal Navy ratings’ service records, to search for records of individuals in ADM 139 and ADM 188 and download copies (£). The guide also contains details of what these records reveal.

Pension records, 1704 onwards

Royal Navy pensioners were either in-pensioners (spending their retirement years at the Royal Greenwich Hospital) or out-pensioners (who lived elsewhere).

Search for Royal Navy pension records by name or service number at (£).

These records include:

  • ratings’ applications for admission into Royal Greenwich Hospital, 1790-1865, from ADM 73/1-35(can contain service records as well as admission papers). Detailed transcriptions of these records are available free of charge in our catalogue. Search ADM 73 by name to locate a transcription.
  • out-pension pay books, 1781-1809, from ADM 73/95-131
  • registers of candidates for admission to Greenwich Hospital, from ADM 6/223-266
  • registers of applications to Greenwich Hospital for out-pensions or other relief, from ADM 6/271-320
  • Greenwich Hospital pay books of out-pensioners, 1814-1846, from ADM 22/254-443

See also, our guide to Royal Navy ratings’ pension records.

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. There were two sets, one of which was sent to the Admiralty and another sent to Greenwich Hospital.

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 transcriptions of the records from ADM 29/1–73. You cannot view images of the records themselves in this way.

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.

Appendix – Service numbers issued between 1894 and 1923

From January 1894 service numbers were no longer issued in a simple sequential order and were instead assigned according to the branch of the service in which the individual served. The following table shows 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