Royal Navy ratings: survivors from the HMS Serpent, 1890 (catalogue reference: COPY 12/404/37)

What are these records?

Available here are over 600,000 Royal Navy service records for ratings who joined the service between 1853 and 1923. Some of the records cover periods of service up to 1928.

The original records are in two 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 1923, in series ADM 188

How do I search the records?

You can search the records in Discovery, our catalogue, by filling in the form below.

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

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

Date of birth (yyyy):

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
  • 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)

The registers of seamen's services, from series ADM 188, may also reveal:

  • continuous service numbers (which can be traced to records of service in the earlier continuous engagement books)
  • service records of men who served in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), mainly during the First World War, denoted by service numbers prefixed with the letter 'F'

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 examples below 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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Click on the image below to see three later examples. They are on pre-printed forms, with the details listed in headed columns:

Some ratings may have records in both series ADM 139 and ADM 188, while some may have two records of service within series ADM 188. In these cases we have linked these together, so both are attached to the same download.

In ADM 188, you can find the CS number in the 'date and period of CS engagement' box, usually in the top left hand corner.

The 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 you find a Y-prefixed official number, the rating may have volunteered for service in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve without being called up.

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.

Related guidance

Royal Navy ratings 1853-1923
Royal Navy ratings after 1923
Royal Navy ratings before 1853