Royal Naval Records from the late Seventeenth to mid Twentieth Centuries
- A realistic guide to what is available
to those looking into the careers of officers and men in naval service
including the seagoing reserves
by Len Barnett
As a professional maritime researcher, with a sound knowledge of sources useful to those seeking genealogical information, for those both in armed and/or mercantile service on British vessels, I receive enquiries of a great variety. Sometimes only armed with a person’s name, happily I am able to provide a wealth of information from original documents. At other times, even with more information to hand no records survive and I have to tactfully explain that there is nowhere to go.
There is no doubt that genealogy has become a popular pastime. There certainly seems to be evermore people using the facilities of museums and archives to trace their ancestors. The media too has realised this. A number of television documentaries and ‘how to’ programmes have recently been aired on British screens. Often these tell amazing tales, with polished ease.
For those who have spent days trawling through tens of thousands of entries, red-eyed and tired, in the vain hope of finding one single piece of information, it is realised that research can be distinctly hard work! So, the following is based on years of working on various classes of original records and is meant as an aid to people who are interested in finding out about their mariner forebears (in this guide those in the Royal Navy). I cover the main state documentation of the various boards, as well as the other principal collections of other classes of records. The more specialist collections I mention, but do not dwell on.
It must be stressed that there have been strong connections between the armed navy and those in mercantile service, even if these were not particularly warm in nature. So, reference to my other guide on merchant service (if not covered by the internal website links) might be beneficial for some.
How to use this web-site
Immediately following is a very brief history of the Royal Navy and an explanation as to the changing rank and rating structure through the last few centuries. With this background information the next section, hopefully, leads readers to the pages relevant to their own research. Some of the subjects are highly complex and for these there are additional links to separate pages with more detailed information. I conclude with some basic advice into further records, that is operational and administrative, as well as some recommendations for social histories dealing with naval subjects. Please note, not all classes of records have been dealt with here. Apart from any other reason, the sheer volume of surviving naval records is staggering. Some of these require specialist knowledge in their own right (that at this time I do not necessarily have) but at the same time are essentially esoteric, or are so fragmentary as to be essentially useless to all but a few. There are also others that while of great interest to historians cannot be accessed easily for genealogical purposes.
People within the United Kingdom who are easily able to travel around the London area may then want to conduct their own searches. As these often take a considerable time and therefore can cost much in time, money and effort, people from further away may want to invest in the expertise of a professional researcher. This is especially pertinent for people from overseas, where a trip to the U.K. may well cost a great deal of money.
Of course engaging a researcher is a matter of choice and requires trust. Some of the main institutions mentioned have lists of researchers. A number of researchers advertise that they are expert in a number of fields, both military and civil. However, as some of these bodies of records are immensely complicated personally I find it difficult to believe that these people can be truly ‘expert’ in all these areas. For this reason even though I have occasionally looked at records prior to the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793 to 1815) I have little expertise in the intricacies of the earlier record keeping. Therefore I have decided to decline commissions for work for the 17th and 18th centuries. In relation to the Royal Navy I specialise in records dealing with the careers of officers and men from 1793 until the mid 20th century. I also have an additional expertise on naval operational documentation of the First World War era, since this is within my area of personal research and can also tackle other operational research. I can also research members of the Royal Marines and Coastguard, but up to now have only done this for already established clients. For those potentially interested in my services, I can be contacted at email@example.com. Please note that I earn my living as a freelance researcher and therefore charge professional fees.
Please note that some that the basic classes of records are increasingly being put online. As these projects are ongoing and ever-changing I have not mentioned when and where these classes are. Due to the ‘politics’ within individual institutions this in itself has become complicated: hideously so in the case of state records once the responsibility of The National Archives, Kew. Nevertheless, I can and do discuss this with clients.
The understanding of naval records is far better than that of mercantile documents. Even then some conscientious academic studies show that the general perception of the Royal Navy is frequently far from accurate and the accepted ‘knowledge’ is nothing of the sort when investigated with contemporaneous evidence. Of course, often it has been propagandists within the navy establishment that have continued to push all the hoary old myths that are often highly sentimental and nationalistic.
For such a popular subject there are surprisingly few research guides. Basically there are two, written in totally different manners. One, written by N.A.M. Rodger, a professor and true academic expert (of the 18th century navy) who spent around fourteen years on the staff of the then Public Records Office, Kew, is entitled Naval Records for Genealogists. The current version was published in Richmond, Surrey through P.R.O. Publications in 1998. This takes an academic approach, explaining in detail the often Byzantine nature of naval structures and administration. There are two slight downsides for those not already au fait with naval records. The first is that the format is rather truncated, making ready reference not particularly simple. Secondly, there are some typographical errors that may also cause some real difficulty. The other guide, Tracing Your Naval Ancestors, is by Bruno Pappalardo and has also been published by the Public Records Office, as of 2002. Bruno is presently a staff member of the National Archives (Public Records Office) Kew. This is pitched more at those not necessarily expert in naval affairs and also covers operational records. In taking a more general approach and attempting to simplify systems some misunderstandings may arise and some information is not necessarily absolutely accurate in a few places - especially arising, once again, from typographical errors. In conducting this exercise I have also noted further problems though. One, put simply, is poor cataloguing at the P.R.O. As an example, some records have been described as having external indexes and even although they have been within the reach of the general public for literally decades, no apparent checks have been made to see if the indexes actually refer to these records. (I have brought any I have discovered to the notice of the relevant officials.) My online guide is based on the terms used in Professor Rodger’s work although I have also used Mr. Pappalardo’s work in relation to some elements, such as lower deck wills, where Bruno is clearer. I would also like to impress on readers that my guide is merely an overview and does not purport to be an all-encompassing work.
A brief historical essay up to and including the Second World War
Many claims have been made as to the origins of the Royal Navy, including as far back as concurrent with the late 11th century Norman invasion of southern England. Some people rather incredibly even regard Anglo-Romano naval activity similarly. Certainly by mediaeval times there were armed ships belonging to English monarchs and defence commitments required of the Cinque Ports.
The highly militaristic Tudor King Henry VIII can be seen as important in the forming of a true monarch’s (or royal) navy in England. As well as increasing the investment made by his father Henry VII in royal owned armed merchant ships, building began on the first three royal dockyards at Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham in the 1540s. What is more a Council for Marine Causes also came into being during this decade. In many respects the forerunner of the Navy Board (that dealt with important aspects of shore administration including shipbuilding and repair). This allowed for something of a standing force, rather than a pure reliance on ad hoc merchant hulls acquired when wanted. This council apparently also dealt with matters of Admiralty - that were at this stage purely the appointments of sea officers and the deployments of vessels. (Incidentally, this should not be confused with the High Court of Admiralty that had dealt with maritime legal disputes since at least the 14th century.) Also, even though admirals had long been placed in command of groups of ships, there was little of the modern sense of command and control, something that can be seen in the later Elizabethan operations: especially against the grand Spanish Armada in 1588.
Pre-dating Henry VIII’s naval exploits as shown above was the formation of an armed Royal Navy in Scotland under King James IV. With French building expertise this force was already taking shape by 1502. Although a naval arms race followed with the English and there was some combat in the earlier part of the 16th century, relations between the two countries became less violent. As a result of this, under James V the Scottish Navy withered away to nothing.
Anyway, through marriage rather than warfare, in 1603 the Scottish Stuarts eventually gained the English throne on the death of the barren Protestant Elizabeth I. Under James VI of Scotland and James I of England, it is often stated there was less emphasis on naval affairs. If the case, this would not have been entirely surprising, considering the politics of the era. So the charge of interest waning at the highest levels leading to indifferent administration and corruption is not entirely unnatural. Often overlooked was the building of excellent ships though. His son, Charles I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, also oversaw the upkeep of these and improvements in the Royal dockyards. In relation to operational direction, Lord High Admirals were appointed: although this position fell into abeyance after 1628 when the incumbent was murdered.
By 1642 those on the king’s ships were far from contented, with a number of concerns including greatly outstanding pay (even by the standards of the era). When the civil wars broke out that year both ships and personnel of the standing navy, under the talented Earl of Warwick, went over to Parliament almost in their entirety - 1st to 6th rated vessels and their commanders. Almost completely forgotten historically, this force was an important element in Parliament’s victory over the monarchy. Although disputed by newly raised Royalist vessels, generally ‘command of the sea’ was maintained around these islands in denying the Crown potential continental military support. And, there was also naval support to parliamentary military operations ashore.
Although not free from its own problems by any means, interestingly, for a ‘royal’ navy, it was through the Puritan Commonwealth (1649-59) that the State’s armed vessels began to act as a genuinely disciplined seagoing navy though. Not particularly auspicious during the civil wars, severe reverses experienced in the First Anglo Dutch War (especially in 1652) required real improvements. Not only was a code of discipline first promulgated in 1653 (to become the Articles of War in 1661), so too was a too was the tactical doctrine of fleet action, which was becoming necessary with the development of ships specifically built for the prosecution of war. It can be said that the Cromwellian generals sent to sea engendered something of the spirit of the New Model Army afloat. Even so, there were retrograde steps as well. Under the military dictatorship that the Commonwealth effectively developed into, the established boards of shore administration and admiralty were abolished (although the functions were subsequently carried out by naval and admiralty commissioners).
With the Restoration (of the monarchy) in 1660 came a period of far reaching naval reform: even if not down to Charles II as such. Admittedly through powerful patronage, Samuel Pepys was instrumental in this. Initially he had been appointed clerk of the acts to the reconstituted Navy Board that was then the executive body under James, Duke of York. Later Pepys became the first secretary to the Admiralty from 1673. A highly important aspect of holding a naval commission was from 1677 a requirement of professional examinations for the rank of lieutenant. One of Pepys’ most outstanding accomplishments, this sprung from his desire to forge a professional officer corps. In particular he wished to curb the excesses of officers with patronage but little expertise, while giving ‘tarpaulin’ officers (those skilled but without social advantages) a better chance for promotion and such examination can be seen as revolutionary in its day.
Apart from the trade wars with the Dutch, through the latter half of the 17th century there had been a number of other hostilities with the main European players - France and Spain. Often bewildering to anyone other than experts, one time enemies not only made up their differences, but often then became allies in conflict against their own past friends as the regnalistic, political, religious and economic situations changed. These continued through the 18th century, with Britain never having a period of even twenty years when not fighting one or more rivals. (In 1707 there had been the final formal Act of Union between England and Scotland.) By mid century these conflicts were being conducted across the globe and the Seven Years War (1756-63) can be seen legitimately in terms of a ‘world war’. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) that followed on from all the rest were inherently different in spirit, but the apparent maximization and utter ruthlessness of these struggles were merely the end result of military processes that had been growing for a very long time.
Through these almost never-ending wars leading to 1815 the Royal Navy had developed greatly. As well as operating collectively as fleets in battle and blockade, tactics evolved for evolutions such as cruising and fighting single ship and small actions. Trade defence had been regarded as highly important and merchantmen were convoyed to and from the colonies. And, amphibious operations, including gunfire support operations, were part of the traditional way of war fighting. (Another, at a political level, was paying allies to conduct land campaigns out of the direct reach of Britain.) These tactics had been hard learned, often with reverses and embarrassments in the interim.
Often gunnery is given pride of place in explaining British naval supremacy. The reality is actually far more difficult to determine and probably more accurately relates not to the superiority of the British, but the inferiority (for many reasons mostly political) of her enemies. Interestingly, recent research by Professor Michael Duffy into gunnery training prior to the battle of Trafalgar (21st October 1805), shows that there was not the relentless practice that has been traditionally claimed. Nevertheless, generally the British were better trained, employing highly destructive tactics such as firing into hulls rather than into sails and rigging; employing multiple shotting causing extreme splinter damage; as well as being capable of firing at faster rates than their opponents. But, in modern military terms there was also considerable ‘blue on blue’ at Trafalgar - more readily understood by the general public as ‘friendly fire’. This caused not inconsiderable British casualties and while commented on at the time, has not been dwelt upon since.
Ashore, the administration and direction of the monarch’s ships also developed. While after the Restoration it was the Navy Board that basically ran the navy, this had fundamentally altered over a century. Again Lord High Admirals had been appointed from 1708, but at this time the board of commissioners of the Admiralty was not seen as necessarily heading the service. But under capable men such as Admiral Lord Anson by mid century the administrative changes had accumulated, leading to a form where the Admiralty conducted it’s core of direction of naval policy and directed the various boards that dealt with specialist aspects. By this time the Navy Board saw to the, design, building and maintenance of warships, the running of the royal dockyards and providing and maintaining the complex naval stores for warships. Naval finance, including the payment of officers and men was the responsibility of the Treasurer of the Navy. While nominally a member of the Navy Board acted partially independently in spending the funds variously acquired, although the offices of this board handled most of the day-today accounts. Victuals were handled by the Victualling Board that had its own shore facilities. Guns, ammunition and the like were the authority of the Ordnance Board. The Commissioners for Sick and Wounded Seamen (or the ‘Sick and Hurt Board’) operated naval hospitals and other medical responsibilities and also oversaw the keep of Prisoners of War.
As per normal after major conflict, the Royal Navy was run down after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. Some organisational rationalisation followed in 1832, with the Admiralty subsuming all the subsidiary boards. There were periodic departmental changes subsequently, such as having ordnance controlled by the War Office for some time later in the century and the addition of new departments, the Naval Intelligence Department being one. Nevertheless, the organisation remained relatively constant and unfortunately, many of the ancient ways of conducting business continued, including the rather convoluted votes system.
Contrary to popular belief there had traditionally been a keen interest in the employment of new technology within the navy, one example being the mass machine production of blocks in the 18th century. In the long period of peace post 1815 the policy changed to partially that of a watching brief. So, while there was substantial experimentation, often this was on the back of trends already developing in the outside world. So, iron-framed hulls necessary for mounting steam engines, the engines themselves, along with paddles then screws were introduced relatively rapidly. By mid century ordnance was changing and experiments were being carried out on wrought iron as armour. The mis-named Crimean War (1853-56) first indicated how effective mine warfare might be, with Anglo-French naval actions significantly hindered. The American Civil War (1861-65) really showed how naval warfare might develop and not necessarily in favour of the great powers. Interestingly, in a background of severe budgetary limitations in the 1870s there was an acceleration in experimentation resulting in numerous warship hybrids (especially as the French Navy was once again in a position to impinge on British hegemony). The 1880s brought the British military takeover of Egypt, a war scare with Russia and political lobbying for increased naval spending (partially through efforts of some naval officers). This proved effective as the next decade brought about increased building programmes of battleships and cruisers: just as the French Jeune Ecole prophesied the end of large warships through the use of torpedoes launched from small craft. This however proved rather premature, as early torpedoes lacked speed and endurance. So, some varieties of British cruisers and battleships generally became ever larger and weightier, deploying heavier and heavier weapons in bids to keep ahead of both the French and Russians. By the turn of the century there was already something a ‘fusion’ between the large armoured cruisers and smaller battleships: especially in the mind of Admiral Sir John Fisher. With the continued building programmes, the ‘all big gun’ warship became inevitable, as articulated in the Dreadnought battleships and battlecruisers (although already previously designed and promoted by the Italian Vittorio Cuniberti). Increased power was required to shift these massive warships and not only were turbines used in these, oil fuel was beginning to be used as an auxiliary fuel in a number of types of ships. By this time the main perceived threat came from the German Imperial Navy. And so the building went on...
Without delving too deeply, many other types of war fighting craft had also been developed. As well as many differing sizes of cruisers required for various roles, torpedo boat destroyers were aimed to counter the small torpedo craft. Submarine design had already evolved significantly. Mine warfare, both in offence and defence, was also becoming more sophisticated. And, even aircraft were beginning to be regarded as interesting in some naval quarters before 1914. Even so, big ships and battle fleets were seen as of overriding importance in maintaining ‘command of the sea’. By this doctrine, often simplistically associated with an American naval officer named Mahan but in reality already in vogue, such ‘command’ would allow for one’s own use of the sea, both military and civilian, while denying this to one’s opponent(s).
The acid test of war between 1914 and 1918 proved that there were many basic weaknesses in the R.N. though. Far from ‘ruling the waves’ and in spite of a great deal of propagandist rhetoric maintaining Britannia’s might that still assails the British public, the performance of much of the Royal Navy can be regarded as barely adequate and even poor much of the time. In essence, instead of major ‘Dreadnought’ victory followed by a bold exercise of the ‘command of the sea’, each side assumed strategic defensives, with occasional sweeps and at least earlier in raids carried out by the Germans. In areas of ‘disputed command’ (a term used by the British strategist Sir Julian Corbett) all around the British Isles, throughout the North Sea, in the Mediterranean and the Aegean (as the main areas of British naval operations) the fighting was unrelenting. But this was conducted by all sorts of small craft, from destroyers, through submarines, fishing boats and even motor yachts (never mind the more esoteric vessels in ‘special service’) and merchantmen. Saliently, it was not the pukkah R.N. that was involved in the majority of this combat (with the exception of some destroyer work and air operations later) Instead, this was relegated to merchant mariners and fishermen both in civilian employ and in the Royal Naval Reserve, along with the amateurs of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.
One incredibly important facet of British ‘defence’ policy that had been badly handled from the mid 19th century through to the war was in trade defence. Undoubtedly, lessons were learned, but it was not until late in 1916 that the Admiralty began to take merchant sinkings at all seriously. Even after earlier periods of unrestricted submarine warfare conducted against merchantmen from early 1915 onwards, it still took the R.N. a depressingly long time to employ tactics to effectively combat the sustained U-boat assault from the spring of 1917 onwards. And, it was not really until the final three months of the conflict that the situation was turned around satisfactorily and this was brought about just as much from governmental reorganization and outside pressure than from purely naval input.
The inter-war period was once again one of retrenchment, both in terms of matériel and tactical thought. In a world suffering badly from the effects of the mass industrialised slaughter, not surprisingly there was little interest in lavishing money on maintaining armed forces and in most countries (not still in conflict) these were massively cut back. Thus the R.N. in many respects returned to pre World War doctrines.
With exceptions, for those of the officer corps that were retained the old reliance on the battleship continued undiminished. In time the Japanese were regarded as the principal future enemy, but tactical planning was unrealistic, partially but not exclusively due to the money available. Air power might have been seen as the way forward, not just because of the new theories abounding, but also since the navy had been very active in developing this in the Great War and this had proved a not insignificant factor in conducting combat operations - especially against submarines. Of course, this failure to develop sensible air policy was to a significant degree down to the politics of the era, with a lack of cooperation with the newly formed Royal Air Force and even when some responsibilities were returned to a Fleet Air Arm there was not the money to develop this effectively. (The R.A.F. had it’s own problems though. Seen as a ‘cheap’ way of policing the Empire compared with the army, bombing operations in Somalia, Iraq and the North West Frontier, otherwise known as Afghanistan, took up much of it’s resources. But, from the mid 1930s air defence for the home island started to be taken seriously - finally countering the past self-fulfilling prophesy of ‘the bomber always getting through’ caused by the very lack of research and development into air-defence capabilities.) Amphibious operations, as recently researched by Professor Richard Harding, was another area that suffered for the same lack of funding and the R.N.’s inability to interact effectively: primarily with the army there. Even in relation to anti-submarine warfare there were weaknesses in A.S.D.I.C., although as shown by a currently serving naval officer, Lieutenant G.D. Franklin R.N., these were not anywhere as bad as was maintained post war by the official naval historian, Captain Stephen Roskill.
For all their problems the Royal Navy fought fiercely in the Second World War. There were a number of real disasters down to poor warship design and associated tactical concepts - the losses of the HOOD, PRINCE OF WALES and REPULSE probably being the most remembered. Stretched to it’s limit and beyond in a war that far from being conducted close to home and in the Mediterranean (as was basically the situation during the First World War), was this time on a truly worldwide basis. Really hammered at times, such as during the battle of Crete in 1941 when German aircraft in particular inflicted grievous punishment on cruisers and destroyers, somehow they managed to carry on. And, not all the lessons had been forgotten from the First World War either (in some parts of officialdom at least). Trade defence this time was seen as absolutely essential and serious investments were made, in escorts and aircraft, to keep the flow of goods going. In time both the Italian and German naval threats were largely negated. (Nevertheless, according to one expert, Lieutenant-Commander Malcolm Llewellyn-Jones Ph.D., R.N. (Retired), the Germans were developing very sophisticated submarines that could potentially have wreaked havoc on Allied convoys.) By May 1945, although recognisable as a junior partner to the United States’ Navy, the Royal Navy was far from beaten. Air power was by then an inherent element of the order of battle and the British had numerous aircraft carriers in the Pacific.
Structures of Ranks and Rates
Naval structures of ranks and rates have always been complicated and prior to the Victorian era may appear totally alien to individuals otherwise familiar with the R.N. These in particular require explanation.
In the days of yore warships, as already mentioned, were merely mercantile vessels acquired as and when necessary: sometimes with ‘castles’ constructed fore and aft as platforms for soldiers to fight from at close quarters. Since these became military units captains who were in charge of the soldiers took overall command. The seamen were there to handle the vessels and were commanded by ships’ masters.
With the growth of cannonry and ships specifically built for war, in time, there were fundamental changes in command. An executive branch evolved, whereby the military commanders were also seamen and these men held commissions from the monarch of the day. They were known as sea officers. By the late 18th century these ranks had developed as follows. Flag officers, that is those commanding fleets or squadrons (at sea) headed the list. If appointed, the highest rank was admiral of the fleet, followed by admirals, vice admirals, rear admirals and commodores. This last rank was temporary, whereby captains were given authority of rear admirals, but did not contribute to seniority in any way. Captain, or post-captain to quote the proper term, was next and designated men in command of sizeable warships. The next in seniority were commanders. As a rank this did not exist officially until 1794, although many officers held this as a title. All officers commanding warships were commanders, whether post-captains in first rate battleships, or at the other end lieutenants in minor vessels such as mortar ketches. Lieutenants were one rank below that of commander and this was then the lowest truly commissioned rank. As understudies to commanders such men had their own pecking order, the first lieutenant often being second in command, the second lieutenant third in command and so on. As already mentioned lieutenants could also be in positions of command. In this situation they held more authority than others with the same rank and consequentially they could be known as the ‘lieutenant in command’, or ‘lieutenant commander’.
Even with an executive organisation, a number of essential specialists were required for the efficient running of men-o-war. These men held warrants from the various boards and were also sea officers. Although commissioned officers qualified in navigation, on all but the smallest vessels an expert navigator was employed. These warrant officers were known as masters and gained their qualifications from Trinity House, but were responsible to the Admiralty. They took quarterdeck watches and could even command H.M. vessels other than warships. In this case they were known as ‘master and commander’. Gunners were regulated through the Ordnance Board and looked after ships’ guns and ammunition. Carpenters were very important in the ‘wooden world’ and were concerned with the maintenance of ships’ hulls, masts and spars. Although appointed by the Admiralty, often they had previously been dockyard workers employed by the Navy Board and were responsible to this latter board. Boatswains, again appointed by the Admiralty but responsible to the Navy Board, by this time were in charge of rigging and ground tackle as well as the storage of sails, cordage and the like.
Surgeons were also warrant officers and were appointed by the Navy Board until 1796. Before appointment they too were examined until 1745 by the Barber-Surgeons’ Board, then the Surgeons’ Board until 1796. The Sick and Hurt Board then took over both roles of examination and appointment, at least temporarily. Pursers were different, inasmuch as they were not professionally examined. But, as partially State employed businessmen, they had to put up financial guarantees and were appointed by the Admiralty. Their role was to deal with supply, particularly of victuals, slops (clothes) and consumable stores of many (but not all) varieties.
Next, there were ‘inferior’ officer classes and confusingly, some of these also held warrants, but were rated as petty officers. Armourers and gunsmiths (the latter in large ships only) were accountable daily to the gunner and responsible to the Ordnance Board. Masters-at-Arms, frequently once army or marine sergeants, were warranted by the Admiralty to instruct in small arms. Sailmakers, worked understandably for ships’ boatswains and received their warrants from the Navy Board. These specialists had learned their trade as dockyard artificers and very late in the 18th century caulkers, ropemakers and coopers also apparently began going to sea in this way. Cooks were once warranted through the Admiralty, but from 1704 by the Navy Board. Chaplains and schoolmasters when carried, were also in this category. Both received their warrants from the Admiralty, the former being examined by the Bishop of London and the latter by Trinity House (in navigation).
The other group of ‘inferior’ officers were also rated petty officer, by ships’ commanders although only through recourse to higher authority. It might be surprising to some, but midshipmen at this time were within this category. By the end of the 18th century generally this senior petty officers’ rate was for ‘young gentlemen’ on their way to taking their lieutenants’ examinations, but not entirely. Master’s mate was very similar. As commissioned officers required knowledge of navigation, often aspiring officers would take this rate, although many including some ‘young gentlemen’ took warrants as masters instead. Yet more in this rate did not seek either warrants or commissions and were merely experienced seamen. Incidentally, both masters’ mates and midshipmen were generally referred to as ‘mates’.
The rest of ships’ companies were made up of the ‘people’. Some of these were also rated (and disrated) petty officer by ships’ commanders. Seamen petty officers included quartermasters and their mates and boatswains’ mates. Idlers, that is men who did not keep watches, also had petty officer rates such as armourers’ mates, pursers’ stewards and captains’ clerks.
Those without petty officer rates were often referred to as ‘private men’. Unofficially at this point, there were others, such as captains of tops, who although only rated able seamen were in half way positions of authority. Further complicating matters some of these, such as quarter gunners received slightly more pay. For seamen, there were then able, ordinary and landsmen rates depending on their skill and experience. (Please note that there are inconsistencies in published works as to when the rate of landsman was introduced.) For youngsters, until 1794 there were the rates of captain’s servant, or servant. These ‘servant’ capacities were then replaced by three varieties of ‘boy’. Those in the first class were rated ‘volunteers’ and were would be officers; Boys 2nd class were young seamen aged 15 to 17; and Boys 3rd class were those intended as seamen but still employed as domestics.
As for the other ‘private men’ who were not watchkeepers, there were all sorts of rates for those at the bottom of the heap. These included the steward’s mate, cook’s mate, captain’s cook and yeomen of the boatswain’s store.
Perhaps an obvious point to some, nevertheless, one that needs making is that holders of commissions and warrants (not just ‘inferior’ officers either), will have previously spent time as private men of some variety or other. Also, it should be noted that often there were plenty of other people onboard. Among these could be wives of some sea officers as well as their offspring, adding already to the youngsters as part of ships’ companies.
Being an evolving organisation it should hardly be surprising that inherent changes occurred from time to time. One of these was in officer entry. So, before going onto these the situation in the late 18th century should be outlined. Apart from joining through the patronage of individual commanders (especially those more senior) as servants (if only in name), there had been other ways for young gentlemen intent on a life as commissioned officers. As of 1676 there had been volunteers per order, or ‘King’s letter boys’ as they were known. In 1733 the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth came into existence (renamed as the Royal Naval College in 1806) and this replaced the old system of ‘King’s letter boys’. On completion of three years studying there, youngsters then went to sea as midshipmen ordinary. However, this affected a very small percentage and in 1838 or 1839 the R.N.C. closed. In 1843 a new rank of naval cadet came into use, altering in nature with changed recruitment and educational requirements through the century and beyond.
In time other commissioned officers’ ranks appeared as well (with some terms, such as master and commander disappearing). Without going into some of the complexities, in 1840 the rank of mate was formally introduced as a commissioned officer rank below lieutenant. This was changed to sub-lieutenant twenty years later (re-using a term sometimes used since the 18th century for inferior officers second in command of vessels so diminutive that their establishments only allowed for one single commissioned officer onboard). It should also be explained that the rank mate was resurrected once more in 1912, for ratings advanced to commissioned status. This differentiation was done away with only in 1931, when they too were termed sub-lieutenants. A rank between lieutenant and commander was introduced in 1914 - lieutenant-commander. This was gained automatically on serving eight years as a lieutenant. Apparently this was to generally fall into line with army ranks, but it also formalised the half-ring already worn by ‘lieutenants of eight years or more seniority’. Much further up the career scale, commodores were put on a better footing in 1805 with two classes of the rank, although they remained temporary ranks. Sometime post 1945 this was simplified to one single rank of commodore. Admirals’ ranks also periodically changed slightly, which is to be expected due to massive differences in order of battle from one period to the next. One noticeable change, was in 1805 when an additional rank of admiral of the red was introduced. In 1864 this disappeared with one of many reorganizations.
The status of warrant officer ranks altered dramatically through time as well. The first important act was in 1808 and affected masters, pursers, surgeons and chaplains. Through this they became ‘Warrant Officers of Commissioned Rank’ and generally allowed into the wardroom. This began the gentrification of these roles, while at the same time reducing the status of the others such as carpenters, gunners and boatswains. In 1843 at least some masters became navigating lieutenants, only to disappear into the Executive Branch in 1872. (Entry and promotion within the navigating branch was far more complex than is commonly understood though. Masters, from the lower-deck were still being warranted as late as 1866, while there had been navigating sub-lieutenants from at least 1863 in what would appear to have been through an ‘officer entry’ route.) Pursers were also commissioned in 1843 as paymasters and pursers, with ‘purser’ being dropped from their rank in the 1850s. Surgeons were also elevated to commissioned rank in 1843. Chaplains were given commissioned status in 1859, but in time their position was to become rather hazy. On the other hand, until the end of the Second World War carpenters and boatswains remained as warrant officers, as the highest ranking ratings (with carpenters being re-rated as warrant shipwrights in 1918). (It should also be noted that there were commissioned carpenter ranks as well by the First World War era.) Gunners fared relatively better, while remaining as warrant officers, relatively few were to allowed to become commissioned gunners much later. The ‘inferior’ warrant officers (not already dealt with), either disappeared completely, or were re-designed more formally within the systems of petty officer rates devised from the 1860s onwards.
From working on original documents it has become apparent that, at least in the case of masters and as late as the mid 1850s, not all had been commissioned. This may also have been the case with other warrant officers. Also, specialist navigating lieutenants remained in existence for a considerable period after 1872.
Recruitment on the lower deck also changed inherently in the 19th century. Although it is not apparent from some accounts there had been genuine volunteers for the monarch’s warships. The reasons for such ‘people’ wanting a life at sea on men-o-war were as complex as at any other time, although sometimes this was due to something akin to modern nationalism (that did not generally exist in mainland Europe until mid 19th century). It is clear from some research that commanders, especially the landed gentry, took large numbers of individuals to sea from their own localities, or even estates. Whether for the lower deck or ultimately quarterdeck, this was a way hopefully of increasing numbers of followers (as part and parcel of the games of patronage and advancement). Of course, there were large numbers forced into the King’s service, not only through the press, but also in other schemes such as the Quota. To explain, during 1795 the judiciary had been authorised to send to warships ‘rogues, vagabonds, smugglers, embezzlers of naval stores and other able-bodied, idle and disorderly persons exercising no lawful employment and not having some substance sufficient for their support and maintenance’. Others, poor young lads who could be orphans, runaways and those just regarded as ‘suspect’ were sent through the Marine Society to merchantmen and warships. But, for reasons already mentioned in the historical essay, by the 1830s the old ways were becoming less workable. In relation to this between 1835 and 1857 a whole series of experiments were made by the British State in keeping tabs on the entire British merchant service, with the aim of forcing specific classes into the Royal Navy in time of war. These exercises, normally known as the ‘ticketing system‘ failed for a whole raft of reasons. But, it is clear that the raison d’être for this was becoming non-existent anyway. On the back on an earlier limited programme (also begun in 1835), increasingly from 1853 engagements of continuous service for ratings were introduced. Nevertheless, twenty-five years later this process was still far from complete and well into the 20th century there were some groups that were not allowed engagements of continuous service.
Needless to say, through the 19th and 20th centuries, as technology developed new branches were introduced. Again there are lots of anomalies, such as in the Engineering Branch where officers for a long time were very much looked down upon by the Executive Branch as social inferiors.
Naval reserves also came into being, the Royal Naval Reserve, drawn from professional civilian mariners as of 1859; and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, that originally were interested amateurs from 1903. There was also the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve from 1903 and other organisations such as the Royal Fleet Reserve are also outlined in the above linked page. The Coastguard was also a direct Admiralty responsibility from 1857 to 1923, although there had been relatively deep ties for some time before.
As has been hinted at from the background information already given, naval documentation was complicated. (If anything this is something of an underestimate.) Therefore, as there are a great deal of records to discuss, this section will be split into three with linked pages. Also, please note, in order to make this site at least slightly manageable I have tended to use examples for smaller ships, or stations and entries with more limited information. Therefore, the information recorded especially in ‘big ships’ can be far more extensive than shown. And, although some of the administrative and financial records seem clearly enough defined in the guides (especially in Professor Rodger’s) when actually confronted with these ledgers they appear completely mixed up, with all sorts of entries all higglety-pigglety.
Commissioned Officers (and for ease mates, midshipmen and naval cadets) from the earliest surviving year until the inter-war period forms one sub-section. Standing warrant officers (when they were sea officers) forms the second; and the ‘people’ or ratings as they developed into will be the third.
Unless otherwise stated, all these records are to be found as part of the National Archives, at the Public Records Office, Kew, Surrey, Richmond, England. The only other institution of real relevance in this is the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, but overwhelmingly only for commissioned and warrant officers of the sail age.
Of course, as well as the personnel records of prime interest to genealogists, there are also masses of surviving operational and administrative records. Again a large percentage of these are at Kew, although there are other collections elsewhere. The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich holds a substantial collection of papers, not only relating to Admiralty business, but also of the Navy, Transport, Victualling and Sick & Hurt Boards. (The N.M.M. also has a small collection of original ‘personnel’ papers catalogued as ‘single documents. These span 1589 to 1958 and relate to holders of commissions and/or warrants. As well as commissions and warrants, there are also certificates of service, orders of discharge, tickets of leave, pursers’ bonds, at least one surgeon’s log, appointments and customs authorisations. Some of these deal with the famous, such as Drake, Raleigh and Nelson. Incidentally, not all are for the pukkah R.N. Among these are a handful of R.N.V.R commissions and warrants. For those getting very deep into the wider subject of naval administration there are also naval records elsewhere in county records offices and academic institutions. Locations of these can be found via the National Register of Archives. Their website is at http://www.hmc.gov.uk. However, a word of warning might be apposite. Entry to some academic institutions, such as the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, can prove very difficult indeed: even for academics.
There are also mountains of publications on the Royal Navy, for all levels of study. These cover all sorts of topics. So, for genealogists wanting to understand something more of the conditions that their forebears lived in, the following list of social histories might be of interest and use. Nevertheless, some are better than others and in my own research I have found that some topics, such as the introduction of continuous service for the lower deck is not well handled by those mentioning it.
N.A.M. Rodger: The Wooden World - An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (London: Fontana Press, 1986)
Brian Lavery: Nelson’s Navy - The Ships, Men and Organisation 1793-1815 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1990)
Michael Lewis: A Social History of the Navy 1793-1815 (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1960)
Michael Lewis: The Navy in Transition - A Social History 1814-1864 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1965)
Henry Baynham: Before the Mast - Naval Ratings of the 19th Century (London: Hutchinson, 1971)
Henry Baynham: Men from the Dreadnoughts (London: Hutchinson, 1976)
John Fabb (Commentaries): Victorian and Edwardian Navy from old photographs (London: B.T. Batsford, 1976)
Christopher McKee: Sober Men and True - Sailor Lives in the Royal Navy 1900-1945 (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 2002)
Brian Lavery: Hostilities Only - Training the Wartime Navy (London: National Maritime Museum, 2005)
One absolutely fascinating work that I have discovered in passing relates to poor social conditions on the lower-deck and resentment towards the quarter deck, largely during the 1940s (but referring back to earlier times as well). Having myself served as a rating in the 1970s and 1980s I could see real differences, but unfortunately, also similarities. While the accommodation had improved substantially afloat and ashore (with exceptions such as on some small craft and at DOLPHIN where some of us were still billeted in virtually unconverted stables and other substandard accommodation). The food was obviously far better by my day (again with exceptions), but other areas remained as poor as they had been earlier in the century. For instance, the disciplinary system was still as unfair as it had ever been, such as ratings judged as guilty on being charged, with little (if indeed any) genuine chance of proving innocence. Similarly, particular commissioned officers in the view of the lower-deck frequently were guilty of similar offences as ratings, but were seemingly never disciplined in any way - leading to not unnatural resentment. Anyway, the post Second World War title is:-
Hannen Swaffer: What would Nelson do? (London: Victor Gallancz Ltd., 1946)