How do you trace ancestors who served as naval reservists?

By Guest, 13 June 2018 - 2:37pm

If your civilian ancestor worked as a sailor, he may have belonged to the Naval Reserve. Simon Wills explains how to locate and search these useful records

Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve First World War
Seamen in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve have their kit inspected in London in 1914 (Credit: Simon Wills)

The Royal Navy has been a vital component of Britain’s military authority for centuries. However, governments have always struggled to finance it. Maintaining a full-strength seagoing fighting force in peacetime is expensive in terms of ships and equipment, but most particularly in terms of personnel.

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After impressment became illegal, a different approach was tried. Starting in 1835, the Government introduced various registration mechanisms for keeping track of merchant seamen – a group with most of the nautical skills that sailors in the Navy required.

The idea was that these sailors might be quickly identified and potentially enlisted to fight if conflict threatened. But the registration systems became an administrative nightmare, and were abandoned in 1857.

Eventually it was proposed to create an official, permanent body of reservists, and the resulting Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) was born in 1859. Reservists were paid a small retainer to receive regular military training, particularly in subjects such as gunnery, so that if war loomed then some ready-trained seamen would be available. RNR men had to already have maritime experience, so in practice most of them were merchant seamen or fishermen. This means that if you lose track of a civilian seafaring ancestor, then RNR records can be one method to relocate him.


The National Archives (TNA)

Most service records related to the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR), Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) and Royal Naval Division (RND) can be accessed via TNA’s Discovery website, where there is a charge of £3.50 to download each record in full. They are formatted differently for each service, and documents for ratings and officers are also different. However, taken collectively they tend to describe an individual’s rank, role and conduct, with a dated list of where they were stationed and trained. Disciplinary action, awards and wounds or illnesses are also often included. Each online record set can be searched by name.

RND service records

Held in series ADM339, the RND service records are particularly detailed and easy to read, because they were typed. They often identify name and address of next of kin. For ratings, the man’s occupation before enlistment is given, as well as address, date of birth, religion and a physical description. The records can also be found on Findmypast and Ancestry

RNR officers

Two systems were used for service records, and you should check both. RNR officers were included with RN records (ADM340) for c1840–c1920. However, many of the records haven’t been digitised, and you need to visit TNA to see the missing ones. There was also a separate system for RNR officers (ADM240) covering 1862–1964. It can reveal date of birth, address, wife’s name and comments about character and skills.

RNR ratings

Service records for 1908–1955 (BT377/7) and 1860–1908 (BT164) can be searched here. They include a description, next of kin, date of birth, and address. However, be aware that many BT164 records have been lost.

RNVR personnel

Officer and rating service records are found together in series ADM337, dating from 1903 until about 1920. Ratings’ records usually indicate date of birth, former occupation and a physical description. This information is not given for officers, but next of kin is commonly stated. RNVR officers can also be included in the ADM340 series mentioned above.  


Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website and limit your search to ‘Royal Navy’ to find reservist casualties in either of the world wars.



Reservists were entitled to campaign medals, and there was also a medal for long service with good conduct for the RNR and RNVR. The recipients of all these medals are identified in The National Archives (TNA) series ADM171, which covers 1793–1972 and has been digitised by Ancestry. There are also details of RND officer and rating casualties during the First World War and up to 1924 that have been digitised.


The Navy List

Many reservist officers were featured in this regular official publication together with their rank and station. Editions for both world wars are free to download from the National Library of Scotland. Ancestry also has a good collection for subscribers.



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