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Victorian wars: What wars took place during the Victorian era, and how can you research them?

Jonathan Scott reveals how to trace ancestors who fought in Victorian wars

Victorian wars British soldiers crossing a river during the Boer War, c.1900
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Published: January 26, 2022 at 2:01 pm
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Although the Victorian age didn’t see conflict on the scale of the First and Second World Wars, there were a number of smaller-scale Victorian wars. An ancestor who served between 1837 and 1901 may have seen action in a number of places. As well as the best-known and bloodiest clashes of the Crimean War, the Anglo-Zulu wars, the Second Boer War and the Indian Mutiny, conflicts may have taken your forebears to Afghanistan, Egypt, China or even New Zealand.

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Our top website this month is perhaps the best place for getting to grips with the broad strokes and finer details of Victorian military history. However, thanks to the widespread interest in redcoats, life in the Royal Navy and famous British actions, and to the obsessive knowledge of collectors of medals and militaria, there’s no shortage of information elsewhere. And since many military sources spanning this period – mostly preserved at The National Archives in Kew – have been digitised, much genealogical research can be carried out remotely. Via Ancestry, for example, you can trawl campaign medals, service records, Second Boer War casualties, records of Chelsea Pensioners, and records of service from the Household Cavalry and Imperial Yeomanry.

Victorian wars: The best websites

1. BritishBattles

British Battles Victorian wars

This excellent site is not aimed at genealogists but is a source of in-depth information on major battles throughout British history. Scroll down, keeping an eye on the left-hand column, until you find ‘Wars of 1800’ for a list of battles grouped by conflict, up to the Boer War. Each battle page gives the headline facts – date, place, combatants and commanders – alongside narratives, illustrations and hand-drawn maps, most written, compiled and created by the website’s creator, John Mackenzie, who also presents a fascinating podcast featuring straight-bat spoken narratives placing the action within its context. Episodes 69–71, for example, focus on the Second Boer War sieges of Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking.

2. The Ogilby Muster

The Ogilby Muster Victorian wars

The Ogilby Trust parent site is the best place to find out about the numerous regimental and corps museums scattered across the UK. The museum directory alone provides a useful bookmark for researchers, but The Ogilby Muster is a huge step forward: a new centralised hub where you can search digitised material from across its members’ collections, ranging from official documents, private papers and diaries to old photographs and maps. You can search by name or keyword, then filter results by date range or ‘Era’ (such as the First Afghan War, for example), or within a regimental collection.

3. The National Archives

The National Archives Victorian wars

These pages give a quick rundown of some of the British Army and Royal Navy sources available within The National Archives at Kew. Some are available free via its online catalogue Discovery; others have been digitised by commercial partners. You can currently download, free of charge, digital microfilm copies of admission books from the Royal Hospital Chelsea for pensions awarded to soldiers for length of service between 1823 and 1913 (WO117), for example. Remember that if a soldier died in service, and did not receive an army pension, then it is much less likely that there will be any detailed record of his service.

4. Families In British India Society

FIBIS Victorian Wars

The Families in British India Society wiki is a great source of information detailing, among many other topics, the numerous resources that relate to the Indian Mutiny that began in the town of Meerut on 10 May 1857. The campaign medal was awarded to officers and men in British and Indian units who fought in the suppression of the mutiny. Here you can find the society’s medal-roll database listing more than 50,000 names of British Army soldiers. This sits alongside a list of Madras Artillery and staff awarded the medal for the First China War (or First Opium War) in 1842.

5. National Army Museum

The National Army Museum Victorian wars

From the NAM’s collections landing page you can explore digitised highlights or search the online inventory. The latter contains details of more than 100,000 objects and is growing all the time as the existing catalogue is improved and new acquisitions added. The ‘Advanced Search’ page allows you to drill down into type of object, or to search by regiment or conflict. The museum also holds records of soldiers’ effects dating back to 1901, detailing money owed to soldiers who died in service; some of these records are available via Ancestry in the collection ‘UK, Army Registers of Soldiers’ Effects, 1901–1929’.

6. Expert’s choice: AngloBoerWar.com

Anglo Boer War Victorian wars

Chosen by Kevin Asplin, professional military genealogist at Forces War Records:

"The Anglo Boer War website was created in 2004 by Dr David Biggins, a prolific author on the conflict, and his late brother Chris. The aim of the free-to-use site is to make available information on the Second Boer War (1899–1902) and other conflicts in South Africa between 1779 and 1906, and to provide a forum for discussion about the many aspects of these conflicts.

"The website contains large amounts of data, medal records, books, articles and discussion pages, with contributions from experts in various fields of study. I am one of the contributors, but the site is also my first stop when I am conducting research into regimental histories of the battalions (Regular, Militia, Volunteer and Colonial) that took part in the Second Boer War.

"The website features a simple-to-use search engine and a myriad of original paperwork extracted from The National Archives at Kew, particularly with regard to the men who were enlisted in South Africa, both locals and others from all around the globe (of which those hailing from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK, the USA and the Scandinavian countries predominate).

"David is constantly updating and adding material to this vast resource, which can be used for both a one-off individual research project or a more sustained investigation into a regiment, a battle or the conflict as a whole. I would fully recommend anyone who has an interest in this period to take a look. You might even want to volunteer to contribute yourself, or make a donation towards the cost of running the site."

More like this

Victorian wars: More websites

7. British Concentration Camps of the South African War

Search a database relating to British concentration camps of the Second Boer War.

8. British Medals Forum

Visit this forum if you’re having difficulty identifying a medal, clasp or other piece of militaria. Registration is required but free.

9. Irregular Correspondence

This site collects some 276 letters from the Crimea, India, Hong Kong and Nova Scotia between 1855 and 1865.

10. Lives of the Light Brigade

Explore details of men who fought with the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.

11. Register of the Second Anglo-Boer War 1899–1902

This pay-per-view database lists more than 370,000 people involved in the conflict.

12. Second Anglo-Afghan War

This site focuses on the conflict fought between 1878 and 1880.

13. The Martini Henry Society

This website focuses on the rifle that was the British Army’s weapon of choice from the 1870s.

14. The Sandhurst Collection

Search registers of cadets, cemetery records, photographs and other records.

15. Victorian Military Society

This site is one of several by specialist groups focusing on military topics of the Victorian era.

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Jonathan Scott is the author of A Dictionary of Family History

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