It should not necessarily be particularly startling to find that overwhelmingly there are more records devoted to commissioned officers than any others in naval service. It might be more surprising though to learn that records recognised as service sheets (in the modern sense) were not generally available, even for officers, until the mid nineteenth century. And, even when they were produced, they remained rather haphazard and often missing much. Nevertheless, there are numerous other records that can be studied, but it must be pointed out that these were working documents for administrative uses and are therefore, not necessarily laid out in a manner at all helpful to 21st century researchers. And, the changes in record keeping do not fit neatly in either with the arithmetic notation of centuries, or even major historical events.
From around the Restoration of the 1660s to the end of the Napoleonic Wars 1815
Without even going to original records, there have been various listings of commissioned naval officers. Apart from those that are only held by a few archives, as of 1782 there was Steel’s Original and Correct List of the Royal Navy and Honourable East-India Company’s Shipping that ran to the end of this period.
The main classes of original records for commissioned officers’ service in this period are passing certificates for lieutenancy, surveys (taken post Napoleonic Wars), commission and warrant books and appointment books. Additionally, there are other sources for constructing service, such as succession books, pay ledgers (for full and half pay), applications for employment, candidates for promotion (variously from the Napoleonic Wars) and leave books.
Other details can be added from numerous sources. For instance there were various records relating to pensions, for time done, wounds and death (for widows and orphans). Records of misconduct can also be found, in the shape of black books.
The century of ‘Pax Britannica’ 1815 to 1914
In 1814 the official Navy List was first published and gives good indications as to changes within the Royal Navy’s officer corps. With the introduction of additional branches of service, came new lists, such as for engineers. Even for the executive branch supplementary lists appeared near the end of the period. Also, as naval reserves came into existence, primarily the Royal Naval Reserve in 1861 and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1903, their officers were shown. It should also be mentioned that other privately published listings appeared from time to time.
As before, commissioned officers’ service can be ascertained from passing certificates for lieutenancy, surveys (taken post Napoleonic Wars) and increasingly from mid 19th onwards service registers, including confidential reports for senior officers. Other types of records were phased out, with new ones coming into existence. An example of the latter related to the issuing of campaign medals.
Overwhelmingly, the records that had developed in the past continued in use in the twentieth century. It should be mentioned that many more lists appeared though, especially for those holding temporary commissions during wartime and reservists. Consequently, for those without a good grasp of the complexities, use of the Navy List can be bewildering.
Presently, the only 20th century service records that have been released for public scrutiny are for those in the R.N. in the First World War. Nevertheless, this includes some officers that also served in the Second World War.
Others can now be applied for, either through the Freedom of Information Act, or as related family members. Requests should be made through the Ministry of Defence.