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Your ship was the centre of your world and everything depended on your captain. Discharged at end of each voyage. Men were grouped by trades - all sailors had trades. Changes after 1890, still organised the same but the technology was very different.

  • 1790 - topmen (sails), sailmakers, gunners, carpeters
  • 1890 - torpedos, engineers, stokers, nurses, wireless telegraphy

Navy officers could come through the ranks or be rom a poor background (unlike most in army) / could start at 8 years old as a midshipman or trainee officer / warrant officers / Ratings - able seamen, not officers, were the muscle and maybe join at 14 years old / Boy 1st and 2nd class / Ordinary seaman (the basic) then Able seaman (slight promotion)

Royal Marines where soldiers who served at sea. Had army ranks. Maintained order on the ship, wre the landing parties and manned gun turrets.

Dockyard workers records ar hard to use, employed civilian workers, TNA ADO80(?), ADM42.

All naval establishments have a ship name and will appear in the records as that, even if on land. eg: HMS Pembrook = barracks at Chatham or _____.

"Tracing your Naval ancestors" by Simon Fowler.

Royal Navy

Consult The national archives’ website and online guides for service records, including royal navy registers of Seamen’s services 1853-1924 (ADM188) and 1925-1929 (ADM362); Royal Navy Seamen’s services Continuous record cards 1925-1939 (ADM363); Officers’ Service records (ADM196); Officers and ratings who served up to 1919, including sailors who served during the first World War and who were awarded pensions after 20 years’ service: Officers and ratings Service records Series II (aDm 29). Some can also be found on Ancestry and FMP.

For ancestors who served in the world wars of the 20th century, see Royal Navy First World War - Lives At Sea and Royal Navy (RN) Officers Unit Histories for biographies.

O’Byrne’s Naval Biographical Dictionary is available online through Google Books. Published in 1849, this covers naval officers alive at the time, as it was mostly compiled from information supplied by the entrants, the details are not always reliable.

Contemporary newspapers - use online databases, such as Welsh newspapers Online or the British newspaper archive for ships captured, public announcements, and appointments.

Pre 1914 Royal Navy

TNA - officers / ratings / ships / Royal marines / dockyards / merchant seamen / ADM196 code / Continuous Engagement Books 1852-c.1928 (more for ratings) / Ratings wills 1786-1882. Use the resource guides.

TNA but not online - Navy Lists / Passing Certificates (for officers up to WWI, used to get promotions) / Allotments ADM27/4/123 which cover payments to families / ship logs (navigational more than personal)

Ancestry (and some FMP) - service records / medal rolls / Dictionary of Naval Biography (no. after the ship refers to the no. of guns on board) / Published lists 1660-1815 Commissioned Sea Officers / Continuous Engagement Books 1852-c.1928 / pension records basd on men who applied for medals, dates not always exact as men relied on their memory.

Other - British Battleships website / Wikipedia / HMS Richmond (US site for re-enactors but good for social history) / Naval Biographical Dictionary (not free, best for 1660-1750) / Naval / BNA can have articles on individual soldiers / London Gazette lists promotions /

Trafalgar database for Napoleonic wars, is on the TNA website. 1 in 6 men at the rime where at Trafalgar.

Muster rolls for ships will say when men joined. Similar to pay lists.

More than Nelson website at offers. This site aims to achieve biographies of 1,200 officers who rose to the rank of admiral, or achieved success, fame or notoriety as post captains, during the period 1776-1815.

Merchant Navy

Not the Royal Navy, had civilians on civilian ships. No complete set of records and not easy to use. Use reserach guides at TNA.

1835-57 FMP (Britain Merchant Seamen). Pre 1914 TNA material has been digitised. Some later dates at TNA (not online).

Rolls give the number of ship (which are in Lloyd's List).

Agreement Crew Lists:

  • Muster books 1747-1834 at TNA as BT98.
  • A&C lists 1835-1860 are BT98. Also A&C lists 1861-1938?
  • About 70% are with the Memorial University of Newfoundland, 10% TNA, 10% National Maritime Museum and 10% elsewhere.

TNA for WWII is BT395. Also have WWI but don't have number.

To reserach a ship you need the official number - go to Guildhall Library London for Lloyds List or Ship

FMP a major source / Seamen's Registers 1835-1857 and 1918 - 1941 / CLIP crew index project / Lloyd's List / Nourmahal, of Liverpool for ships in Australian waters / Australian 'Trove'

Many records have not survived but it is not impossible to discover details of careers. See the cLiP database for information about the records of British merchant seafarers mainly from 1863 to 1913.

Main collection of records were compiled by the registrar general of shipping & seaman (TNA) in the records of the Board of trade [BT]). USe the TNA reserch guide -

No official registration of merchant seamen between 1858 and 1913. For this period look into the ship(s) on which the seaman served, focusing on its registered port and official number. Find the number at the crew List index Project Use this number on tna website - - to search agreements and crew lists (BT99) for 1861-1938.

Digitised indexes of UK apprentices 1824-1910 (TNA BT151/152), as well as shipping and seamen WWI and WWII rolls of honour (TNA BT339) can be searched on Ancestry.

FMP for registry cards of merchant seamen employed between 1918 and 1941 (Bt 348/ 349/350); registry of shipping and seamen: register of seamen, special index, alphabetical series (CR10) (BT350), which include a portrait photograph; Ireland Merchant navy crew Lists 1863; and registry of shipping and seamen: registers of seamen, combined numerical index (CR1, CR2 and CR10 series) and alphabetical index (BT364).