How to look for records of... Royal Navy warrant officers

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

This is a guide to the records of Royal Navy warrant officers held at The National Archives. A warrant officer was a sailor who became an officer by being awarded a warrant. Warrant officers are junior to commissioned officers and senior to ratings and their ranks include master, purser, engineerboatswain, gunner, carpenter, surgeon, armourer, chaplain, cook, master at arms, sailmaker and schoolmaster.

Service records of warrant officers who joined the Royal Navy since 1931 are still held by the Ministry of Defence.

How to get started

Which records it is best to search for first will depend upon the years of service of the officer and whether or not you can visit us in person at Kew to access records unavailable online.

In general, the most detailed records are service records so it’s usually best to target these first but before 1830 they are incomplete and patchy as there were no central service registers for personnel. In lieu of or in addition to a service record, your next best bet are records created for the application and award of pensions, which can include certificates of service and admission papers. To gain access to the full range of pension records you will need to visit us in person.

For service in the First World War you should start with the free-to-access Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea database. Though this does not provide images of records it does provide transcribed information from them and may help you pin down a service number – which could prove helpful when searching for other records.

Online records

Service records 1756-1931

Search Royal Naval officers’ service records (ADM 196) on our website by name for records of most of the warrant officers who joined the Royal Navy between 1756 and 1931, though there are far fewer records before 1830.

Warrant officers would have served as ratings before being awarded a warrant so it may also be worth searching ratings’ service records for career and basic biographical details.

Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea database

Search the Royal Navy First World War Lives at Sea database by name, service number and other criteria for free-to-access information relating to all the Royal Navy officers and ratings that served in the First World War.

The database is compiled largely from records held at The National Archives and is a joint project between The National Archives, The National Maritime Museum and the Crew List Index Project.

Certificates of service 1802-1894

Search at Ancestry.co.uk (£) by name for certificates of service 1802-1894 (ADM 29) issued to warrant officers who applied for a pension, gratuity or medal. The date range covers the dates of issue of the certificates rather than the dates of service (the certificate may have been issued many years after a seaman finished his service).

Pensioners’ admission papers 1790-1865

Search for pensioners’ admission papers 1790-1865 (ADM 73/1-35) among the Royal Navy service and pension records on Findmypast.co.uk (£). These papers supported warrant officers’ applications for admissions as in-pensioners to the Royal Greenwich Hospital. Some applications include details of service dating from the mid 18th century, 40 years or more prior to the application. They provide the officer’s age on joining and leaving the navy, the name of the last ship served on, details of character and sometimes the date of admission to Royal Greenwich Hospital.

Search our own catalogue listings of this series by name to obtain transcriptions, for free, of the dates of service and of admission to the hospital.

Navy Lists

Navy lists contain seniority lists of officers and the ships to which each officer was assigned.

Published Navy Lists (a set of which is available at The National Archives at Kew) date back to 1782 but shorter spans of the lists are available online at Ancestry.co.uk (£) for 1888-1970 and at Findmypast.co.uk (£) for 1827-1945.

First and Second World War Confidential Navy Lists

Browse through the range of Confidential Navy Lists from the First and Second World Wars (ADM 177) in our catalogue and select lists by date for download (£). These lists were, at the time, for official use only and indicate where individual officers were serving, with the names of ships and establishments.

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 Ancestry.co.uk (£). These rolls do not usually contain biographical information. Digital microfilm copies of these records are also available to download from our website and browse free of charge.

Battle of Trafalgar database, 1805

Search the Trafalgar ancestors database by name for transcripts of the records of Royal Navy seamen of all ranks who served in the Battle of Trafalgar.

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 (£).

Pension records

In addition to those listed above, The National Archives holds numerous other kinds of naval pension records, dating as far back as the early 17th century. They were created and maintained to record officers’ applications and qualifications for pensions, as well as registers and other documents recording the granting and receipt of pensions. For a comprehensive break down of these records see our guide to Royal Navy officers’ pensions.

Passing certificates 1660-1902

Some officers sat an exam to assess their suitability for a particular rank and were awarded a certificate if they passed. These certificates, which can provide information about a man’s service prior to the exam, usually recorded the age, date and place of birth of the officer as well as the names of the ships he had served on. They may be supported by other papers such as birth or baptismal certificates.

Examinations for different ranks were introduced at different times and the surviving passing certificates cover a range of different years, depending on the rank, though they tend to cover year ranges within the 19th century. For:

  • engineers, search by name in ADM 13 (records cover 1863-1902)
  • masters, search for ‘masters passing certificates’ in ADM 6, ADM 13 and ADM 106 (records cover 1660-1863)
  • surgeons, search for ‘surgeons qualifications’ in ADM 106 (records cover 1700-1800)
  • other officer ranks, search for ‘passing certificates’ and the name of the rank in ADM 6 and ADM 13 (records cover different year ranges depending on the rank)

Returns of officers surveys 1817-1861

Between 1817 and 1861 the Admiralty sent out a number of surveys for officers to complete and return. Though many officers did not receive or return their forms, some returns do survive for:

Black books 1741-1815

The Admiralty kept ‘black books’ to record the names of officers guilty of misconduct and who were not to be employed again. Consult ADM 11/39 for the black book covering warrant officers 1741-1815.

Courts martial records

Courts martial records range from detailed records of proceedings to only the briefest details. The majority are held in ADM 1. Read our research guide on Royal Navy correspondence and papers for advice on how to find records in ADM 1 using the indexes and digests in ADM 12.

Leave books 1783-1846

Leave books usually record the date an officer applied for leave, for what period of time, in what service or to what place and a date of return. Select leave books by year range from the following sets of document references:

  • ADM 6/200-206 for officers granted leave to go abroad while on active duty between 1804 and 1846
  • ADM 6/207-211 for masters, pursers and surgeons granted leave while on half pay between 1783 and 1846

Seniority lists 1780-1886

Seniority lists are arranged by rank and provide the dates on which warrant officers received their first warrant (or commissioned officers their first commission) to a rank. You can search for the official, printed seniority lists in ADM 118. For warrant officers 1780-1844 browse from ADM 118/186 to find a document by year and rank.

Browse through ADM 104/51-87 to select seniority lists by year for surgeons and other medical officers from 1780-1886.

Records in other archives and organisations

Service records 1931 to present

Visit the GOV.UK website for information about how to request a summary of a service records from the Ministry of Defence. These are not available to members of the general public, though next of kin may request access to them.

Other resources

Published and printed Navy Lists

Consult the published Navy Lists (a set of which is available at The National Archives at Kew) to follow an officer’s career. Navy lists contain seniority lists of officers and the ships to which each officer was assigned.

There have been several versions of the Navy List covering different periods:

  • Steele’s Navy List, 1782-1814
  • Navy List, the official list from 1814 to present day
  • New Navy List, an unofficial but reliable list from 1841-1856

From 1810 the official Navy List also shows ships with the officers appointed to them and from 1841–1856 the unofficial New Navy List gives potted biographies, often stretching back decades before 1841.

Other books

The following books are available at the National Archives’ library in Kew:

Bruno Pappalardo, Tracing Your Naval Ancestors (The National Archives, 2003) – an invaluable reference book that covers almost every possible source of material at The National Archives for warrant officers and other ranks alike, including records not covered by this guide.

Christopher Donnithorne, Warrant officers of the Royal Navy 1695-1751 (List and Index Society, 2013)

Search The National Archives’ bookshop for other titles.