How to look for records of... Royal Navy ratings before 1853

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

View online

How many are online?

  • None
  • Some
  • All

Order copies

We can either copy our records onto paper or deliver them to you digitally

Pay for research

Use our paid search service or find an independent researcher

Visit us

Visit us in Kew to see original documents or view online records for free

This is a brief guide to researching records of Royal Navy ratings before 1853. It can be difficult to trace Royal Navy personnel in this period but the majority of relevant records for ratings are held at The National Archives.

What do I need to know before I start?

rating is the most junior class of seaman in the Royal Navy – lower in rank than both commissioned officers and warrant officers.

Types of rating included:

  • Able seaman or Ordinary seaman
  • Petty officer
  • Quartermaster

The Royal Navy did not keep individual service records on ratings before 1853, nor did it maintain comprehensive registers of personnel, so records for ratings during this period are incomplete and patchy.

Try to find out:

  • the type of rating the person served as
  • the name of the ship the person served on
  • the date range, whether approximate or exact, within which the person served in the Royal Navy

Which records can I see online?

Certificates of service (1802-c.1894)

Search for ratings’ certificates of service (ADM 29) by name on Ancestry (£) for certificates issued up until 1894 (includes warrant officers up until 1919).

Some seamen were issued with certificates of service years after they joined the Royal Navy and certificates do not necessarily cover all the service to date. If a Continuous Service (CS) or Official Number (ON) is given you should find further details in Royal Navy ratings’ service records 1853-1928.

Please note, although these records are available to view on Ancestry (£) you can also search for them by name in our catalogue. Though you cannot view images of the records themselves in our catalogue, you can view detailed descriptions of ADM 29/1-73 free of charge. Therefore you may wish to start with a search of our catalogue.

Medal rolls (1793-1972)

Search by name for information about the award of campaign, long service and good conduct medals in the Royal Navy medal rolls (ADM 171) using (£). These rolls do not usually contain biographical information.

Digital microfilm copies of these records are also available to download and browse from our website free of charge.

Which records can I only find by visiting The National Archives at Kew?

Battle of Trafalgar database (1805)

Search the Trafalgar ancestors database for information on a rating who served in Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. The search will give you the relevant National Archives document references.

Allotment registers (1795-1812 and 1830-1852)

Use the advanced search in Discovery, our catalogue, to search within series ADM 27 by forename and surname for ratings who allotted part of their wages to next of kin. These records provide the following information:

  • name of ship on which the seaman served
  • first names of next of kin
  • number of children
  • place of residence
  • date of allotment
  • pay book number

Ships’ musters, ledgers, pay books and description books (1667-1878)

Search our catalogue for a muster or pay book for a particular ship to find lists of ratings serving on the ship (ADM 31-ADM 39, ADM 41, ADM 115, ADM 117, and ADM 119).

From 1764 a man’s age and place of birth should be included, but not always.

From the 1830s onwards it is possible to find description books (most of which are found in ADM 38), which may contain the following information on a person:

  • age
  • height
  • complexion
  • scars and tattoos

Search below by name of ship, excluding HMS or other prefixes.

Pension and next of kin records (1789-1894)

Search our catalogue by name for ratings‘ pension records and next of kin records.

These include:

  • ratings’ applications for admission into Royal Greenwich Hospital in ADM 73/1-35
  • Greenwich Hospital School applications for children, often orphans, of seamen in ADM 73/154-389

Search below by forename and surname (ADM 73).

To access these records you will either need to visit us, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy (£).

What records can I find in other archives and organisations?

Records held elsewhere

Discovery, our catalogue has details of collections held by The National Archives and over 2500 archives across the UK. Search our catalogue using keywords; you can refine your results using the filters.

What other resources will help me find information?


Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list.

The books are all available in The National Archives’ reference library. You may also be able to find them in a local library. You can buy from a wide range of history titles in our bookshop.