The ‘People’ and Ratings


1690s to 1853


It should be hardly surprising that the ‘people’ at the bottom of the societal heap should be worst served in relation to State records. As already outlined in the ‘Structures of Ranks and Rates’ section on the main page of this naval guide, the people who crewed the warships came from a wide variety of sources, but that in the main, came from mercantile service. Certainly until 1853 when engagements of continuous service began to be introduced in a serious way (but not for all ratings) the chances of tracing mariners on the Royal Navy’s men-o-war are far from good.

Wills and certificates of service, from the Napoleonic Wars, can allow for easy entry into men-o-war’s pay and muster books. It is far from certain that individual people will be found in either the first mentioned sources though. Other sources, such as those relating to Greenwich pensioners, Chatham Chest and campaign medals can also be good starting points.


Ratings from 1853 until those entered in 1923


Contrary to the accepted wisdom, the introduction of engagements of continuous service for ratings in the Royal Navy was not swiftly done in 1853. For a start, there had been an earlier experiment in 1835 relating to the entry of some boys and seamen, but it would appear that no ‘service registers’ as such were compiled in relation to this. Also, in this same year the Royal Navy also began a series of experiments generally known as the ticketing system. This apparently attempted to keep tabs on all Britons in mercantile service, with the intention of forcing wanted classes of men into the R.N. in times of war. (Also see my section on the press especially since my understanding of this is changing and further research will be carried out on original policy documents if surviving.) Overwhelmingly this is seen in isolation, but if taken in conjunction with the first experiment in encouraging the people to sign on for set engagements, shows the Admiralty’s thinking to have not been as reactionary as is often maintained. Having said that, I suspect that there is a great deal more in archives that has been untouched and may give deeper understandings. By the time the mercantile experiments were discontinued in 1857, the Marine Department of the Board of Trade had taken control of this. And, between 1845 and 1854 register tickets had been issued, not only to merchant mariners, but also those on the monarch’s warships.

Anyway, the Act ‘... to make better Provision concerning the Entry and Service of Seamen, and otherwise to amend the Laws concerning Her Majesty’s Navy’, passed in 1853, certainly widened and deepened this, but only affected boys and seamen then entering. It was not even until 1862 that this was made mandatory for those joining the seaman branch. Others, such as stokers, might, if seen as a benefit to the Service, be offered engagements of continuous service. But, there was nothing definite in this.

And, what is more there were a considerable number of rates that were specifically forbidden the security of engagements of continuous service. There was quite an assortment of these, from butchers and bakers, literally, to lamp trimmers, musicians and many more.

As far as I can determine, from study up to now, this situation remained relatively stable (for what became junior rates) until the latter part of the decade. However, especially in 1868 where there a lot of work was put in, from then on there was a gradual development of the system of continuous service. This was not entirely straightforward however. In some cases, with changes in technology for instance, there were brand new rates (such as signal boys) and continuous service was mandatory. Circa 1870 there were two recruiting systems operating for ratings some branches. Those under the ‘old system’ were not on continuous service, but those on the ‘new’ were. And, there were even more complications, such as in the case of stewards. In the 1860s it is obvious that these ratings were actually writers, since there was a requirement for new entries to read and write: unlike boy seamen who were not. Writer rates were apparently introduced in the early 1870s, but were not allowed continuous service. Within ten years, writers were on engagements. What is more there were new steward rates coming in, in role of ‘plate layer’ (using a modern lower-deck term), partially but not completely replacing the traditional ‘domestics’. Some of these stewards’ rates were allowed continuous service, others were not.

Sometime around the end of the century the rate of change slowed, but this lasted well into the twentieth century. In fact, there were still non-continuous rates in the R.N. post 1945.

With the historical background of this aspect outlined and the weaknesses noted, for those on engagements of continuous service there were service registers as of 1853. While the style of these changed, with more information being recorded as of 1870, essentially this makes researching a larger percentage of naval ratings a routine matter.

Unfortunately, partially through nineteenth century changes in administration changing musters and pay books (although there were ships’ ledgers subsequently) and also Luftwaffe bombing destroying documentation) it may be virtually impossible to trace most on non-continuous service after 1885. Nevertheless, for those whose sea time was not recorded in service registers, there is a chance that they may be found within certificates of service, at least until 1894 when they were discontinued.

The structure of rates also changed, with new layers introduced. Initially limited to seamen as of 1862 the rate of leading seaman was introduced, slotted between able seaman and petty officer. The petty officer rate itself was split into first and second class petty officers. This same decade chief petty officer rates also began to come into existence, above the petty officers. And, in the new scheme heading up the lower deck were warrant officers.

The old ‘inferior’ classes of warrant officer were also integrated into the new order: variously in petty officer rates. While the old boards that they had been responsible to had been subsumed into the Admiralty, the requirement for professional certification remained.

Although engagements of continuous service brought about pensionable time for ratings as of 1859 (paid after twenty years man’s time), few of the records have been released. And, over the century Greenwich Hospital’s role slowly withered.

There are also casualty reports, beginning with the Anglo-Russian War 1854-56, as well as medal rolls for this and subsequent wars.


Ratings joining after 1923


The service records of all R.N. ratings, no matter what rate they subsequently held, have not yet been released to the public properly. Nevertheless, as with other classes of servicemen, applications for ratings’ service records need to be made through the Ministry of Defence.



Go to tracing commissioned officers

Go to tracing warrant officers

Go to the main Naval Page