How to look for records of... British Army soldiers up to 1913: further research
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
1. Why use this guide?
This guide expands on the advice found in our British Army soldiers up to 1913 guide. It provides further and more in-depth information on the kinds of records you can consult at The National Archives to find out about soldiers who served with the British Army before the First World War. It includes information on how to:
- trace British Army soldiers’ discharge papers, 1760 to 1913
- trace British Army soldiers’ pension records, 1702 to 1913
- find out which regiment or corps a British Army soldier served with
2. Essential information
2.1 What information do you need to trace a soldier in this period?
For those records that have been digitised, it is possible to search for a soldier by name only, though you will usually need some way of distinguishing him from other soldiers with the same name, such as his date of birth. Where records have not been digitised you will need to know which regiment he served in. This is especially so if he was, like most soldiers, not discharged to pension.
2.2 Army pension records: in-pensioners and out-pensioners
Some of the most detailed documents of soldiers for this period are pension records and discharge papers. Many of these were created by the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin and the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London. Some ex-soldiers became residents of these veterans hospitals and were known as in-pensioners. Most, however, were out-pensioners, receiving a pension administered by the hospitals but not actually residing in them. Both in-pensioners and out-pensioners are often referred to simply as pensioners, or sometimes Chelsea pensioners.
3. Searching for a soldier by name only
The records described in this section can be searched online by name. In most cases a successful search will allow you to view the record itself online (£), while in other cases a search online will provide only a catalogue reference which you can then use to view the original document at The National Archives in Kew.
3.1 Soldiers discharged from the Army 1760-1913: pension records
Search and download pension records (£) from findmypast.co.uk for men receiving pensions from the Royal Hospital Chelsea and the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (WO 97). These pension records also include those for men who served in foreign regiments 1816-1817 (WO 122).
Before 1883 these service records are usually only for men who were discharged and received a pension. From 1883 to 1913 the series includes soldiers who were discharged to pension and those who were discharged for other reasons, such as termination of limited engagements or discharge by purchase.
The following records are not usually found in WO 97:
- records of soldiers who died in service
- documents of soldiers who were discharged by purchase
3.2 Soldiers discharged from the Army 1787-1813: certificates of service
Search and download certificates of service (£) from findmypast.co.uk for men discharged from the Army between 1787 and 1813, and awarded a Chelsea out-pension (WO 121).
3.3 Soldiers discharged from the Army in Ireland 1783-1822: certificates of service
Search and dowload certificates of service (£) from findmypast.co.uk for men awarded out-pensions by the Board of Kilmainham Hospital (WO 119)
3.4 Soldiers admitted to pension 1838-1896: certificates of service
Search and download certificates of service (£) from findmypast.co.uk for soldiers awarded deferred pensions from 1838-1896 (WO 131).
3.5 Soldiers in the Household Cavalry 1799-1920
Search and download (£) service records of the Household Cavalry (including the Life Guards, Royal Horse Guards and Household Battalion), 1799-1920 from our catalogue. They were previously held by the Household Cavalry Museum and are now in The National Archives series WO 400.
3.6 Soldiers in the Imperial Yeomanry, South African War 1899-1902: attestation and discharge papers
Search and download attestation and discharge papers (£) from findmypast.co.uk for men serving in the Imperial Yeomanry during the South African War (WO128).
4. How to find out which regiment a soldier served with
4.1 Using name searchable records
All of the records described in section 3, searchable by soldier’s name, provide the name of the soldier’s regiment.
4.2 Using discharge papers
If a rough date of discharge is known, it may be possible to trace the regiment in which a soldier served by using various registers of discharges. Trying to trace an individual soldier in this way can be time-consuming, with no guarantee of success. The registers are not complete but they are a useful potential source of information. A number of these pieces contain information on soldiers whose discharge document would not be in WO 97.
|Year of discharge||Method of discharge||Catalogue reference|
|1817-1829||By purchase||WO 25/3845-3847|
|1830-1838||By own request||WO 25/3848-3849|
|1830-1856||With modified pension||WO 25/3850|
|1838-1855||Free or free deferred pension||WO 25/3851-3858|
|1856-1861||Free permanent pension||WO 25/3859-3861|
|1861-1870||Free permanent pension, modified/deferred pension, or purchase||WO 25/3863|
|1852-1870||First period, incorrigible, ignominy, penal servitude, or 21 years with militia||WO 25/3869-3874|
|1856-1857||Regiment under reduction||WO 25/3879|
|1866-1870||Limited Service Act||WO 25/3883|
|1863-1878||On return from India||WO 12/13077-13105|
|1871-1884||General register||WO 121/223-238|
|1882-1883||Gosport discharge depot musters||WO 16/2284|
|1883-1888||Gosport discharge depot musters (index available)||WO 16/2888-2916|
|1884-1887||Without pension (gives address to which discharged)||WO 121/239-257 (name indexes in WO 121/254) Search and download these records (£) from findmypast.co.uk|
4.3 Using registers of next of kin
If you think the soldier may have died in service, try the records relating to payments to next of kin of dead soldiers. There are gaps in these records but they are arranged alphabetically and are name indexed, so are easy to use. They are original records that need to be viewed at The National Archives at Kew. The registers of authorities to deal with the effects (possessions) of dead soldiers, 1810-1822 (WO 25/2966-2971) are searchable by name in our catalogue, and give the regiment, period of death, amount of effects and credits, date of order to agent, agent’s name, person applying (usually next of kin) and his or her address.
Less informative but still helpful, as they give the regiment, are: an index of effects, 1830 (WO 25/2974); a register of effects and credits, 1830-1844 (WO 25/2975); and record books of effects, 1862-1881 (WO 25/3476-3490, indexed by WO 25/3491-3501).
5. Searching for a soldier by pension dates
The records series in this section are searchable either by date of admission to pension or by the dates during which an ex-soldier was in receipt of an Army pension. If you know when an ex-soldier was drawing his pension, or, even more usefully, if you have a rough idea of when a soldier was first granted his pension, these records may be of use.
5.1 Soldiers admitted to pension 1702-1933: various records
To be eligible for admission as an in-pensioner at the Royal Hospitals at Chelsea or Kilmainham, a man had to be a life pensioner of the army (that is, in receipt of a service or disability pension), aged 55 or more (unless in receipt of a disability pension) and free from the responsibility of supporting a wife or children.
The records are arranged as follows:
|Pension||Date range||Description||Catalogue reference|
|Chelsea||1702-1789||Muster rolls||WO 23/124-131|
|1795-1813||List of in-pensioners||WO 23/134|
|1824-1917||Admission books and rolls||WO 23/162|
|1837-1872||Alphabetical register||WO 23/146|
|1858-1933||Index of in-pensioners||WO 23/173|
|1864-1865||Muster rolls||WO 23/132|
|1799-1892||Sample of pensioners’ certificates||WO 900/9-38|
|Kilmainham||1704-1922||Admission books||WO 118|
|1798-1817||Sample of pensioners’ certificates||WO 900/39-42|
5.2 Soldiers discharged from the Army 1715-1913: pension admission books
Pension admission books come in two series, each arranged by year of examination or claim, and provide name, rank, age, total service, rate of pension, foreign service/stations, character report, place of birth, and trade. Later volumes give medal allocation. The books are in the following series:
For 1830-1844 pension admission books are duplicated by registers in WO 23/1-16, where in addition the intended place of residence is given: they have indexes from 1838-1844.
5.3 Soldiers who served with the Artillery 1770-1913: Ordnance pensions
Artillery pensions were paid by the Ordnance Office until 1834, when the Royal Hospital Chelsea took over. The records are in the following series:
|Date range||Description||Catalogue reference|
|1770-1808||Vouchers for artillery pensions||WO 18/1-147|
|1808-1834||Pension minutes||WO 47/2760 -2851|
|1816-1844||Registers of Ordnance pensions||WO 54/338-493|
|1822-1855||Pension minutes||WO 55/540-572|
|1833-1913||Royal Artillery pensions||WO 116/125-185|
|1834||Registers of current Ordnance out-pensions||WO 23/141, WO 23/143-145|
5.4 Soldiers who served with foreign regiments 1801-1817: out-pension awards
Registers of pensioners from the King’s German Legion, 1801-1815, are in WO 23/135.
Reports of medical boards on invalids, recommendations for pensions and discharge documents for soldiers of foreign regiments, 1816-1817, are in WO 122. Search and download (£) these records from findmypast.co.uk
5.5 Soldiers who served in British colonies 1817-1903: out-pension awards
The records for colonial pensions consist of:
- admission books for pensions payable in the colonies, 1817-1875, in WO 23/147
- lists, registers and admission books of black and Cape Corps pensioners, 1837-1879, in WO 23/153
- an admission book of ‘native’ and colonial pensioners, 1880-1903, in WO 23/160
- registers of Indian army pensions, 1849-1868, in WO 23/17
- a list of out-pensioners discharged between 1821 and 1829 who had served in tropical climates, in WO 23/25
5.6 Soldiers who served c.1715-1857
These registers of admissions to pensions (in WO 120) are in several series, covering c.1715-1857, with deaths noted up to 1877. There is a name index for 1806-1836 only, and the volumes for 1839-1843 each have an index included. The registers are duplicated and extended to 1876 in WO 23/26. A similar series of registers and pensions being paid in 1806 is in WO 23/136.
6. Searching for a soldier by pension registration district 1842-1883
If you know the place where an ex-soldier died (for example, from a death certificate) or was living (for example, from a census return), it may be worthwhile using the registers in WO 22. They are also useful for soldiers who retired in the colonies, and for colonial troops. The registers are arranged by payment district or country, and provide:
- the pensioner’s name
- rate of pension
- date of admission to pension
- district to which or from which he had moved
The returns for UK payments cease in 1862, but returns relating to pensions overseas and in the colonies extend into the 1880s.
7. Searching for a soldier by regiment, brigade or battalion
Until 1855 ordnance troops were the responsibility of the Board of Ordnance, not the War Office.
Supplementary records of services are preserved for soldiers in the Royal Artillery, 1791 to 1855, and the Royal Horse Artillery, 1803 to 1863, in WO 69.
You can search by name in our catalogue within WO 69.
This series also contains other useful material, up to 1913.
8. Searching for a soldier in the Boer (South African) War (1899-1902)
The British forces in South Africa during this conflict consisted of units of the regular army, militia units, the Imperial Yeomanry (a volunteer mounted infantry regiment set up largely for service in South Africa) and forces recruited locally in South Africa itself.
Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search by unit for soldiers recruited locally (within South Africa) in:
For records of the Imperial Yeomanry serving in South Africa search within:
- WO 129 – registers and casualty books arranged by regimental number. Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search these
- WO 128 – available online on findmypast (£) to search by name
Please note that many soldiers and officers who served in the British Army during the Boer War also served in the British Army during the First World War (1914-1918). When this happened, then pre-1914 record of service (including Boer War) is more likely to be among First World War service records.
You can search and download campaign medal rolls (WO 100) at Ancestry.co.uk (£). They list militiamen who received the Queen’s (or King’s) South Africa Medal or the Queen’s Mediterranean Medal, while serving with the regular army.
9. Records of soldiers’ effects
The ledgers were created as a list of the monies owed to soldiers who died in service. They do not list any personal items that may have been returned to the next of kin. The information they typically contain is: full name, regimental number, date of death and sometimes the place, next of kin and monies paid to the next of kin. The records from 1901-1914 also detail the date of enlistment and trade.
10. Background information
The Royal Hospital Kilmainham and the Royal Hospital Chelsea were established by Charles II in 1679 and 1681 respectively. The hospitals in Ireland and England reflected the separate army establishments for the two countries, which did not become joined until the Act of Union in 1800. From the late 17th century, soldiers who left the army with a disabling injury or as invalids or after completing an agreed term of service, were entitled to a pension from one of these two army veterans hospitals. In December 1822 the payment of Kilmainham out-pensions was taken over by Chelsea Hospital, whilst in-pensioners remained in Kilmainham until 1929, when the last transferred to Chelsea.
11. Records in other archives
Except for the Guards regiments and the Household Cavalry, regimental museums do not hold records of service of their men and officers, although they often hold other records which can be useful to people researching their military ancestors.
11.1 Guards regiments
Records of the Guards regiments (Coldstream, Grenadier, Irish, Scots and Welsh Guards) are accessible by writing to the Guards Regimental Headquarters, Wellington Barracks, Birdcage Walk, London SW1E 6HQ. Some of these records were destroyed by enemy bombing whilst stored in the Guards chapel during the Second World War.
11.2 Household Cavalry
Microfilm copies of WO 400 (see section 3.5) are held at the Household Cavalry Museum, Combermere Barracks, Windsor, Berkshire SL4 3DN. Written enquiries are welcomed but enquirers are recommended to contact the museum for access conditions before visiting in person.
11.3 Records of soldiers’ effects
12. Further reading
Amanda Bevan, Tracing Your Ancestors in the The National Archives (The National Archives, 2006)
Christopher Chant, The Handbook of British Regiments (Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1988)
Norman K Crowder, British Army Pensioners Abroad 1772-1899 (Genealogical Publishing Co Inc, 1995)
Dan Cruickshank, The Royal Hospital Chelsea: the Place and the People (Third Millennium Publishing, 2008)
Jeremy Gibson and Mervyn Medlycott, Militia Lists and Musters 1757-1876: A Directory of Holdings in the British Isles (Federation of Family History Societies, 2004)
Ian S Hallows, Regiments and Corps of the British Army (Arms and Armour, 1991)
E A James, British Regiments 1914-1918 (Naval & Military Press, 2001)
J M Kitzmiller, In Search of the ‘Forlorn Hope': A Comprehensive Guide to Locating British Regiments and their Records (Manuscript Pub Foundation, 1988)
M E S Laws, Battery Records of the Royal Artillery 1716-1859 (Royal Artillery Institute, 1952)
Gerry Murphy, Where Did That Regiment Go?: The Lineage of British Infantry & Cavalry Regiments at a Glance (The History Press, 2009)
Mustor (muster) Books and Pay Lists (List and Index Society, 1984)
Roger Perkins, Regiments: Regiments and Corps of the British Empire and Commonwealth 1758-1993: A Critical Bibliography of Their Published Histories (Roger Perkins, 1994)
Robert Pols, Dating Old Army Photographs (Family History Partnership, 2011)
Return of the Names of the Officers in the Army Who Receive Pensions for the Loss of Limbs, or for Wounds (Naval & Military Press, 2002)
William Spencer, Army Records: A Guide for Family Historians (The National Archives, 2008)
William Spencer, Records of the Militia and Volunteer Forces 1757-1945 (Public Record Office, 1997)
Waterloo Medal Roll: Compiled From the Muster Rolls (Naval & Military Press, 1992)