Military Archive Research
by Dr. Stuart C Blank
Member of the Orders and Medals Research Society (OMRS)
Member of the Royal Air Force Historical Society (RAFHS)
Member of the Naval Historical Collectors and Research Association (NHCRA)
Member of the Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS)
Member of the International Bank Note Society (IBNS)
Member of the International Bond and Share Society (IBSS)




Royal Navy Service Records

The Service Records for Royal Naval personnel can be divided into three main categories, namely;

(1) Officers' Service Records
(2) Officers' Service Records 1914-18 & Confidential Reports 1893-1943
(3) Ratings' Service Records 1667-1923

(1) Officers' Service Records

For researching 19th or 20th century officers the starting point is the Navy List. This will give a basic outline of their service from Lieutenant onwards. Apart from the Navy List there are three main types of record in which it is possible to find details of an officer's service.

(a) The Registers of Officers' Services (1756-1966) provide the most complete and convenient source of information about the career of an officer.

(b) The Admiralty tried in 1817 and 1846 to get officers' details compiled into "Returns of Officers' Service". Many officers did not receive these forms and others did not return them so the Returns are incomplete.

(c) Passing Certificates - These certificates were awarded when a qualifying point in their career was reached. When officers qualified as lieutenants, warrant officers or engineers these certificates were issued. They summarise an officer's career and training to date. They may have accompanying papers regarding personal or family details.

Certificates of Service (1802-1894) are records that give the service of Warrant Officers (and ratings) who applied for a naval pension or admission to Greenwich Hospital. They give a brief record of ships and dates and total time spent in employment.

(2) Officers' Service Records 1914-18 & Confidential Reports 1893-1943

Naval officers' service records are mainly on microfilm. Executive officers details are kept separately from warrant officers. Generally a service record will yield:

(a) date of birth, and sometimes the place of birth,
(b) wife's name, place and date of marriage,
(c) name and profession of the officer's father
(d) commission and promotion dates
(e) distinctions, rewards and examinations taken,
(f) appointment and discharge dates from each named ship,
(g) dates of retirement and death

Confidential reports include the opinions of commanding officers on their junior officers. Sometime these remarks can be very brutal. Officers' records for this period are not indexed so usually the starting point is the Naval List.

Warrant Officers' Service Records cover the following specialisations:

i) Boatswains
ii) Carpenters
iii) Gunners
iv) Gunners (T)
v) Instructors in Cookery
vi) Signal Boatswains
vii) Warrant Armourers
viii) Warrant Electricians
ix) Warrant Shipwrights
x) Warrant Stewards
xi) Warrant Telegraphists
xii) Warrant Writers

In addition, the records for Paymasters, Assistant Clerks, Paymaster Cadets and Paymasters are collated. Those for Schoolmasters and Surgeons are in separate record classes. The National Archives does not hold Service Records for executive officers whose service started after May 1917 and warrant officers whose service began after 1931.

(3) Ratings' Service Records 1667-1923

Tracing naval seamen prior to 1853 is mainly based upon the:

(a) muster and pay books for the individual ships he served upon.
(b) pension applications which include certificates of service. Warrant officers were more likely to receive pensions around 1800 than ordinary seamen. However after 1834 pensions for seamen became more common.
(c) in-pensioner applications to Greenwich Hospital.

Tracing sailors before 1853 can be difficult as seamen often moved between naval and merchant ships. In 1853 the RN introduced a continuous service system and this significantly helps when researching an individual. From 1853 seamen entering the Navy were given continuous service (CS) numbers. These were entered in Continuous Service Engagement Books. They list the seaman's date and place of birth, physical characteristics and a summary of service to date. 

If a rating or warrant officer applied for a naval pension, a medal or gratuity between the years 1802 and 1894 he had to give a brief record of the ships he served upon, the dates during which he served and the total times in pay. Certificates of Service were compiled by the Navy Pay Office from the Ships' Pay Books and it is possible to search these records.

The Registers of Seamen's Services give the Service Records of rating who joined the Royal Navy between 1873 and 1923. They do not cover service after 1928 for which it is recommended you see Post 1921 Service.