How to find Royal Navy service records

Simon Wills reveals how family historians can find their ancestors’ Navy records – from the Napoleonic wars to World Wars One and Two

Sepia photograph of 16 Royal Navy ship's officers posed for a photograph on board ship in 1890, with the ship's cat

For a limited period of time you can download Royal Navy service records up to the 1920s for FREE! Many family historians have an ancestor who served in the Royal Navy so now is an ideal time to find out more about what they did in the First World War and earlier.

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Britain was a major naval power throughout the 19th century, and the Navy played a key role in both World Wars.

Luckily, it’s easier than ever to find Navy records online – and many of them are currently available for free to download from The National Archives website.

Read the full version of this article and much more expert family history advice in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine August 2020

Joining up

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 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.

You will perhaps identify a Royal Navy ancestor initially because their role is mentioned in a census or a will, or because you have a photograph of them in naval uniform.

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.

Officers and ratings

It’s important to understand that Royal Navy personnel were divided into two types – officers and ratings – because many 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.

Service records

TNA holds 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.

Second World War records

Records for Royal Navy personnel serving after 1924 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 service record

This service record for Joseph Mathurist, a naval rating who started his career in 1873, is taken from The National Archives’ online records

Annotated Victorian Royal Navy service record
The National Archives

1

 Personal details

Here 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.

2

Date of formal engagement

Men had to be 18 to enlist, so Joseph’s prior service as a boy isn’t counted.

3

Ships served in

At the beginning of a career these are often training ships. Some ‘ships’ are in fact shore establishments.

4

Role

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.

5

Character

This is assessed as poor, fair, good, very good (“VG”, generally the default) or exemplary. Joseph was often exemplary.

6

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.

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Read the full version of this article and much more expert family history advice in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine August 2020