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England Sailors Records for Family History (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Records Useful for all Sailors (cont.)[edit | edit source]

Certificates, Declarations and Pensions[edit | edit source]

Certificates and Declarations for Placing Widows of Officers of the Royal Navy on the Pension List

A fiche index to 760 entries concerning officers who died 1845-1860 from ADM 1 (Promiscuous Letters) is available from Catty (see her article Royal Navy Ancestry: A New Source. Cockney Ancestor (East of London FHS) Vol 53 page 8-9.). It is also on FHL fiche 6344773.

Pensions for Disabled Sailors[edit | edit source]

At The National Archives (TNA) there is a sample collection of alphabetically-arranged personal files of 5,000 injured seaman and soldiers who received disability pensions prior to 1914.

The Royal Greenwich Hospital was set up in 1694 as a home for wounded and infirm navy pensioners, and also provided employment for seamen’s widows as nurses. It was funded through sixpence pay deductions from all mariners forwarded to the delightfully titled Receiver of Sixpences until 1869. The many surviving records for in-patients include:

  • ŸApplication papers 1737-1859 Ÿ
  • Entry books 1704-1869 Ÿ
  • Admission papers 1790-1865 Ÿ
  • Hospital church registers (mainly deaths) 1705-1864

Out-patients were mainly ratings, but more and more officers were recipients during the 19th century. Surviving records for out-patients, of which there were a thousand in 1738 and 2,350 by 1782 living all over the British Isles and abroad, include:

  • ŸRegisters of applicants 1789-1859. Ÿ
  • Pay books 1781-1809, and then alphabetically for 1814-1846. Ÿ
  • Registers of officer recipients 1814-1842, 1846-1921.

The Royal Hospital School, Greenwich was established shortly after the hospital itself to provide an education for the children of disabled or deceased Royal Naval Officers. Boys were admitted at 13 years of age, and they were rarely from commissioned officers’ families. In 1798 the Royal Naval Asylum was founded in Paddington, London under the title of British Endeavour, to maintain and educate younger orphans and destitute children of sailors and marines. It came under royal patronage in 1806-7, transferred to the building now housing the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and amalgamated with the Greenwich Hospital School in 1821. At this time a separate school was established for the sons of commissioned officers. Records include:

  • ŸSchool admission papers 1728-1870 are available in ADM 73, calendared (under first letter of surname) and give marriage and birth/christening information as well as father’s naval service and other information. A later series (1883-1922) is in ADM 163. Ÿ
  • Registers of applications from 1728 onwards. Ÿ
  • Church registers, mainly deaths. Ÿ
  • Lists of staff and servants.

Consult Turner’s book Royal Hospital School Greenwich for more historical information.

Royal Bounty[edit | edit source]

When a navy man died in the course of his duty the Royal Bounty, equal to one year’s wages, was payable to his mother, or widow and children, in addition to any pension received. An index to the entries from ADM 106 is on FHL film 0824518. A transcript of an entry from the Royal Bounty List for my ancestors is shown below. The amount for a child was enough to educate or apprentice them; the boy Joseph DASHWOOD was apprenticed to the good quality trade of watch making in 1762 for the sum of £31.10.0, only slightly more than the bounty provided.

CHART: Royal Bounty List
Bills made out for His Majesty’s Bounty to the Widows, Mothers and Children of Persons Slain in Fight ADM 106

Columns Information
Item Number
Bill Number and Date
374 1 June 1748
375 1 June 1748
Person having a Right to the Bill in being made out in their Name
Mrs Ann Dashwood widow of
Mr Jas Hirtzell* in Trust for Jos. and Ann Dashwood orphans of
Name of the Party Killed or Slain
Jos. Dashwood
In what Ship and when Slain
Prince George [no date]
To whom delivered
Paul Mclares for Sir Charles LeBlon attorne. Assigned and delivered 22 May 1749 Geo Fortescue for James Hirtzell.

*James Hirtzell was married to Joseph Dashwood’s sister Katherine and hence was widow Ann’s brother-in-law.

Medal Rolls[edit | edit source]

Campaign and war medal rolls are in ADM 171, and gallantry medal rolls in ADM 1 and ADM 116, but neither seems to have been filmed.

Naval Wills[edit | edit source]

Sailors were required to make wills and many used the standard forms provided for this purpose. Robert Dashwood’s will, probated 1743 in the Archdeaconry Court of Dorset, is headed with the royal coat of arms with a medal-like imprint of a head on the left inscribed GOD SAVE KING GEORGE II and the obverse on the right reading PRAY GOD PRESERVE THE FLEET and SIGILLUM OFFICIUM NAVALE (official seal of the navy) surrounding three anchors. The standard text with blanks to fill in reads in its original spelling, (but punctuation added), as shown below.

CHART: Sailor’s Will of Robert Dashwood 1743

In the Name of God Amen, I, Robert Dashwood of His Majesty’s Ship the Sandwich Marriner”, being in Bodily health and of Sound and disposing Mind and memory and considering the Perrils and Dangers of ye Seas and other uncertaintys of this Transitory Life, (Doe for avoiding controversies after my decease), make publish and declare this my Last Will and Testament in manner following, (That is to say): First I recommend my Soul to God that gave it and my Body I commit to the Earth or Sea as it shall please God to Order, and as for and concerning all my Worldly Estate I Give, Bequeath and Dispose thereof as followeth.
That is to say (there is a space here for any specific bequests) All Such Wages, Summ and Summs of Money, Lands, Tenements, Goods, Chattels and Estate whatsoever as shall be any ways due, owing or belonging unto me at the time of my Decease, I doe Give Devise and Bequeath the same unto my loving brother Thomas Dashwood of Sturminster Newton Castle in the County of Dorset Maltster. And I doe hereby Nominate and Appoint the said Thomas Dashwood Sole Executor of this my Last Will and Testament, hereby Revokeing all former and other Wills, Testaments and Deeds of Gift by me at any time heretofore made. And I doe ordain and Ratify these presents to Stand and be for and as my Only Last Will and Testament.
In Wittness Whereof to this my said Will I have set my hand and Seal the Twenty first Day of June Anno Dom 1742. And in the Sixteenth Year of the Reign of his Majesty King George the Second over Great Britain Etc..

[Signed] Robert Dashwood {Seal Signed, Sealed, Publish’d and Declared in ye presence of us Will: Barry John Hayter

Prior to about 1750 some Royal Navy wills can be found in the Commissary Court of London, but most sailors’ wills, at least before 1815, were proved at the PCC (Prerogative Court of Canterbury) since it had authority over all the wills of all seamen who had at least £20 owing in back pay. A typical entry in the PCC probate indexes for a sailor will be in the services section and include the abbreviation Pts instead of a county of residence. This means in foreign parts and indicates residence anywhere outside the British Isles, including on a ship. The index entry for William Dartnell 1761 A+W is an administration with will annexed in Pts (Service) Mar 89 PROB11/863, and indicates that he is a bachelor and belongs to HMS Chesterfield, Julian Legge Esq. Commander, but is presently loaned as Captain’s Clerk on board HMS Trident in HM Navy.

Large numbers of copies of wills of officers and ratings were collected by the Admiralty in the course of processing pensions, grants and applications by their dependants for the back pay of men killed in service. These wills are particularly helpful in tracing names and residences of next of kin; and even more so when coupled with the death duty registers from 1796-1903. Most sailors’ wills can be found in ADM 142, ADM 48, and ADM 44-45. So far surnames A-C are available on 52 FHL films starting at film 1942131 in Seamen’s Effects 1757-1860 ADM 44, and Seamen’s Wills 1786-1882 ADM 48 are all on 44 FHL films starting at film 1941959.

Miscellaneous Units[edit | edit source]

HEICS Navy[edit | edit source]

The East India Company operated both merchant and war ships and the British Library, Oriental and Indian Office Collections holds many records of their officers and crew as well as information about the ships and their voyages. Herber’s book Ancestral Trails has a good summary.

Sea Fencibles[edit | edit source]

In the early years of the Napoleonic Wars fishermen and other home-based boatmen in the south of England volunteered to form units for local defence similar to the militia; many perhaps as a surety against the press and the ballot for the militia! Records are in ADM 28 for 1798-1810 and indexes of the Sea Fencibles 1805 are being produced by Defence of the Realm Indexes. The history and action of the Sea Fencibles is described by Harding (Corps of Sea Fencibles Teignmouth to Rame Head District. Devon Family Historian # 95 page 7-10).

Dockyard workers[edit | edit source]

The English Royal Navy dockyards in Portsmouth (the earliest starting in 1496), Woolwich, Deptford, Chatham, Portsmouth, Sheerness and Plymouth employed thousands of artisans, clerks and labourers. There were also RN dockyards abroad in Gibraltar, Port Royal in Jamaica, and Halifax in Nova Scotia. Up until 1832 they were controlled by the Navy Board and after that by the Admiralty thus records are held at TNA. Paybooks for the larger yards 1660-1857 are in class ADM 42 and paybooks and musters for smaller ones are in ADM 32, 36 and 37. Description books for artificers 1748-1830 in ADM 106 have physical descriptions, and pension records can be found in various classes. Dockyard workers were often free of impressment, the records for this are in ADM 7 for 1794-1815. Many dockyard officers had seen prior service in the navy, and others such as shipwrights and sail makers were also likely to have served afloat, so they can be found in navy records as well.

Reserve Forces[edit | edit source]

In 1859 the Admiralty established a reserve of seafaring men who could be called upon in times of emergency to serve in the Royal Navy. Smith, Watts and Watts 1991 (Records of Merchant Shipping and Seamen.) , describe the records at TNA, and there are leaflets on the main divisions, the Royal Naval Reserve (M37) and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (M71). I have an example of an officer in the RNVR using an alias during WWI. On 31st Dec 1918 Clarence Henry Baker Tucker, aged 41 and bachelor son of Stephen Baker Tucker gentleman, married Grace Isabel Hawkins, spinster aged 31 in Burstow, Surrey. He describes himself by this name and adds in brackets (professionally known as and holding the King’s Commission as Lieutenant R.N.V.R. in the name of Herbert Tracey) then he signs with both names.

Nautical Training Schools[edit | edit source]

In 1756 John Fielding established the charitable Maritime Society where destitute boys picked off city streets, especially those who had been in trouble with the law, could be given discipline and a trade in the Royal Navy. This was the forerunner of nautical training schools such as the several ships called Arethusa, starting in 1874 and run by the Shaftesbury Homes. A similar venture was the Marine Society with ships called by this name and latterly Warspite. A more modern one is the Chichester off Greenhithe, Kent. There were also three reformatory ships, Clarence (1856), and Akbar (1864) in the River Mersey, and Cornwall (1859) at Purfleet on the Thames. Most of these boys would have gone on to serve in the navy or merchant fleets.

Women in the Royal Navy[edit | edit source]

Until 1917 no women served in the Royal Navy except as nurses at the Royal Greenwich Hospital, and later elsewhere. Navy nursing was properly organized in 1883 with the establishment of the professional Naval Nursing Sisters, in 1902 changed to the Queen Alexandra Royal Naval Nursing Service. The Navy List from 1884 includes the highest ranking nurses, and TNA class ADM 104 has service records for nurses 1884 -1918 and succession books 1921-1939. The Women’s Royal Naval Service was established in 1917 and now women had other roles in the navy; their records in ADM 318 and ADM 321, including appointments, promotions and resignations, are available after the usual 75 years. Information on women sailors can be found in TNA leaflet M56, and in Wood (British Prisoners of War and Their Records. Family Tree Magazine. Vol 17 #8, page 55-56) who also reviews a book about them by Stark entitled Female Tars.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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