Luckily, it’s easier than ever to find Royal Navy service records online – and many of them are currently available for free to download from The National Archives website.
Working-class men chose to join the Royal Navy in the 19th century because it gave them employment, taught them skills, and provided meals. Despite these attractions, it should not be forgotten that before 1820 some men were press-ganged and forced to enlist against their will. There were also many charitable institutions such as the Marine Society that took in impoverished or orphan boys and trained them for naval service.
Although it offered some security, the Royal Navy took men away from their families for lengthy periods sometimes amounting to years, and this was not always conducive to a contented domestic life.
Their seagoing careers also resulted in the deaths and injury of many men – not solely due to wars, but also because of shipwreck, accidents and disease.
There are many options available for exploring the career of a naval forebear, and this can be a problem because the sheer diversity and quantity of records may be a bit confusing or off-putting.
However, the good news is that the majority of records are kept in the same place – The National Archives (TNA) in Kew – and the most useful ones are now online.
It’s important to understand that Royal Navy personnel were divided into two types – officers and ratings – because the Royal Navy service records used by genealogists reflect this distinction.
Commissioned officers were the ship’s chain of command and included admirals, captains and lieutenants. Trainee officers were called midshipmen and they had to pass an exam to become a lieutenant, while warrant officers were seagoing specialists such as carpenters, engineers, gunners and paymasters.
The rest of the crew of a ship were called ratings and included seamen, ship’s boys, stokers, signalmen, cooks and many other roles.
How to find Royal Navy service records
TNA holds Royal Navy service records for officers from 1756 to 1931 and ratings from 1853 to 1928. It also has a collection of over 5000 officers’ service record cards and files, dating back to roughly 1880. They are currently free to search and download online following the coronavirus lockdown and typically reveal basic biographical details such as an ancestor’s place and date of birth, as well as a list of ships served upon and any changes in rank or role.
Other online records include records for the Royal Naval Reserve and the Merchant Navy, as well as the Women’s Royal Naval Service 1917-19.
Records for Royal Navy personnel serving after 1924, including in the Second World War are held by the Ministry of Defence. They are generally only accessible to the individual concerned or their next of kin. If you meet the criteria, you can find out how to request the records here.
Sample Royal Navy service record
This Royal Navy service record for Joseph Mathurist, a naval rating who started his career in 1873, is taken from The National Archives’ online records.
Here in the Royal Navy service record you will find your ancestor’s full name including any middle name(s); the date and place of their birth; a physical description including any tattoos; and their former occupation.
Date of formal engagement
Men had to be 18 to enlist, so Joseph’s prior service as a boy isn’t counted.
Ships served in
At the beginning of a career these are often training ships. Some ‘ships’ are in fact shore establishments.
Note that their role is always abbreviated. For example, “B2C” is short for a boy second class (trainee); “Ordy” means an ordinary seaman; and “AB” is short for an able-bodied seaman.
This is assessed as poor, fair, good, very good (“VG”, generally the default) or exemplary. Joseph was often exemplary.
Reasons For Discharge
“DD” means discharged dead: Joseph was killed when HMS Doterel exploded. “D” means a normal discharge (end of contract), while “Run” means that a sailor deserted.
Dr Simon Wills is an expert in nautical genealogy who has worked on many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? He is the author of Tracing Your Seafaring Ancestors and Tracing Your Merchant Navy Ancestors.