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RN Family History Research

By Barrie Downer

For those who are interested in researching Family History where one of your or your wife, partner, girlfriend relatives is known to have served in the Royal Navy these are a few pointers on how to find out when and in which ships or submarines your relative served.

Firstly it helps if you know a Christian Name(s) or Initials and, of course, the Surname, Date of Birth (DOB), Place of Birth POB) of your relative, his Official Number and Year joined. It also helps to know whether he was an Officer or a Rating. The Date of Birth or Year of Birth is most important and the National Archives records for Naval Ratings are divided into distinct groups.

Continuous Service Ratings joining between 1853 & 1923

Access the internet and go to www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline/royal-navyservice.asp and click on Search which takes you to a page where you can enter Surname, First Names or Initials (if known), Date of Birth (if known) or a range of dates, Place of Birth (if known) and press Enter. If he was a Continuous Service Rating (twelve years service from the age of eighteen) and some or all of the data you have entered is correct then a File should be identified confirming Full Name, Official Number, Place of Birth and Official Number. If a file does not show up try varying the spelling of the Surname to something similar which sounds the same or widen the range of dates or delete the place of birth in case the information if suspect.

Interpreting the Results:

Early Official Numbers had no Prefix but later ones have various Prefixes:

J usually means he was a Seaman or a Communications Rating
K usually means he was a Stoker
M usually means he was most likely an ERA or an EA (however in some cases he may have been a Cook or a Steward).
L means, generally, he was a Cook or a Steward.

Some times you will find the Prefix SS which indicates he was a Short Service Rating. Some times you will find the same Name, Place of Birth and Date of Birth with two different Official Numbers. These are usually where someone joined as a Seaman and later re-categorised as a Stoker (or Vice Versa) or where someone joined as a Short Service SS Rating and then 'Signed On' for Continuous Service CS and then was given a new Official Number with the JKL or M prefix.

Should you be lucky enough to find your relative you can download the full Service Record by adding the Record to the Shopping Basket and then Checking Out. Checking out can be done by Paying On Line but it will cost you £3.50 for each Service Record you download  so you need to be sure that the Record you find is the actual one you want!

The Service Record will show you where (Portsmouth, Chatham or Devonport Depots) and when he joined, Height, Weight and Chest size with details of hair colour, eye colour and complexion and details of scars and tattoos. The latter were very important for being able to identify casualties in the days before photographs. Ships and Submarines served in with dates are shown as are Advancement Dates and his Sub Ratings (or Specialisation) and Dates of Qualifying.

Early Submariners are not easy to identify as, before 1914, details of Submarines served in were not annotated. It is more likely that you will see the Submarine Depot Ships HMS HAZARD, LATONA, MERCURY, THAMES, BONAVENTURE, FORTH, ONYX, DOLPHIN, VULCAN, ROSARIO (Hong Kong), EGMONT (MALTA), CORMORANT (Gibraltar), ARROGANT, MAIDSTONE and ADAMANT between August 1901 and July 1914. If he served for approximately five years in a selection of these ships only he is likely to have been a Submariner. If there is then a break of at least two years before he served in any more of these ships then it is more or less confirmed that he was a Submariner. The early rules were no more than five years Submarine Service before returning to General Service for two years before returning to Submarines. After July 1914 things changed quite a lot with new Depot Ships - TITANIA, LUCIA, PANDORA, AMBROSE, PLATYPUS, FEARLESS, ROYAL ARTHUR, CRESCENT etc.

You may find out more than you wanted to know as the Service Record is also a Conduct Record and you may find that he was punished by 'Warrant' (sometime with details of offences) and sent to Cells or was Disrated. The Record may also be annotated 'Run' (Deserted), SNLR (Services no Longer Required) or 'DD' (Discharge Dead) – with date and sometimes the reason. The annotation 'DEE' indicates 'Discharged, Engagement Expired'.

Often Ratings leaving after 12 or 22 years joined the Royal Fleet Reserve (RFR) and would be given another Official Number similar to RFR. Po/B/12345.

If your relative served after 1st January 1929 the Record will cease at that date as his Record was transferred to card. His Record may also have ceased because he was promoted to Bosun, Mate, Gunner, Artificer Engineer or Mechanician. It is quite surprising that, in earlier years there were many Promotions from the Lower Deck to Warrant Rank and also transfers to Officer Rank.

There is other information available but as the Service Records were hand written (sometimes in several different hands) it is not always clear what some data means.

Continuous Service Ratings joining between 1923 &1938

Things now get a little more difficult as records have not been digitised but here are a few more pointers on how to find out when and in which ships or submarines your relative served. As with the previous pointers it definitely helps if you know a Christian Name(s) or Initials and, of course, the Surname, Date of Birth (DOB), Place of Birth POB) of your relative, his Official Number and Year joined. It also helps to know whether he was an Officer or a Rating.

For several years the Official Numbers of Ratings followed the general rules for Seamen and Comms which had the J prefix followed by six numbers, for Stokers with the K Prefix and six numbers and Engine Room Artificers with the M Prefix followed by the numbers. However during this period there was a need to save money owning to the slump and this resulted in a change of pay rates with new entrants being paid less than those who joined earlier. The Prefix changed by the addition of an X after the previous single letter. Thus J became JXK became KX and M became MX. Seamen thus became known as 'JiXer's'. Official Number Prefixes began to be liked with the Depot (Portsmouth, Devonport or Chatham) of the individual Rating and then began to follow the more familiar format ofP/JX ******, D/JX ****** or C/JX ******.

Those who volunteered as Submariners in this period will have served in a number of different Depot Ships. Some familiar names continue during this period HMS AMBROSE went to the Far East to be the Depot Ship for the China Flotilla (4th Submarine Flotilla) a Hong Kong to be replaced firstly by TITANIA and later by MEDWAY. Initially the Flotilla was made up of the L Class Submarines but these were later replaced by Submarines of the Oberon, Parthian and Rainbow classes.

HMS PLATYPUS became HMAS PLATYPUS in 1919 and went off to Australia with the J Class Submarines in 1919 taking out some two hundred and fifty RN Submariners on loan for two or three years. Many of these not surprisingly, stayed in Australia and some of these also manned the Australian O Class Submarines between 1926 and 1932.

Other Depot Ships in the years 1923 to 1938 included LUCIA, MAIDSTONE, FORTH, ALECTO, CONQUEST, ROSS, PIGMY, ADAMANT as well as HMS DOLPHIN. Other Tenders included MARAZION and BRUCE.

If you think your relative was loaned to or transferred to the Royal Australian Navy you may be in luck. The National Archives of Australia have digitised most of the records of their earlier Submariners. You need to go online and go to http://www.naa.gov.au. When the Home Page comes up select Record Search and thenSearch Now as a guest. When the General Search page comes up enter the details you have like Name, a Range of Dates and enter A6770 in the Reference Number Box. If you are in luck a Record or a number of Records will turn up. One of these may be the one you are looking for.

All Ratings loaned to or joining the RAN were given new Official Numbers. If you find the right man you can open and read his record card and also download it and save it to your Computer at no charge. Not like the £3.50 per record charged by the UK National Archives. However the records of seamen who entered the Royal Navy after 1923 are not held by The National Archives.

For Ratings who entered the service between 1928 and 1938 you will need to contact:

The Directorate of Personnel Support (Navy), 
Navy Search, 
TNT Archive Services, 
Tetron Point, 
William Nadin Way, 
Swadlincote, 
Derbyshire, 
DE11 0BB

Tel: 01283 227913
Fax: 01283 227942
email: navysearchpgrc@tnt.co.uk

For Ratings joining the service after 1938 your best contact is:

The Data Protection Cell (Navy),
Victory View,
Building 1/152,
HM Naval Base,
Portsmouth,
PO1 3PX.

However as many joining after 1938 and serving during WWII may still be alive you will probably be asked to demonstrate that you are either Next of Kin or have permission of the Rating you are investigating.

Many Ratings joining during WWII were Hostilities only Ratings or Short Service Ratings. Here you will find another variation of the Prefixes with Seamen being given numbers such as P/SSX ***** and Stokers being given C/SKX ***** and Tiffies being given D/SMX. Some numbers later reverted to the older Prefixes with P/J for Seaman and Comms, P/K for Stokers and P/M for Tiffies. In the early 1960s there was another change with the Chatham Depot dropping out of the picture and with Portsmouth and Devonport Prefixes starting from something like P/050000 or D 051000.

Later still the P Prefix was dropped with Centralised Drafting from HMS CENTURION leaving just the D Prefix and, when computers started to be used by Drafty the introduction of a random letter as a Suffix so all Official (or Computer) Numbers are in the format D******X. Confused? You will be!

Depot Ships during WWII included BONAVENTURE, LUCIA, MAIDSTONE, TITANIA, MEDWAY, ELFIN, ADAMANT and others. Depot Ships were phased out in the 1950's and 1960's and reliance was placed on Shore Bases One other useful source of data on Submariners is the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.

From about 1912 Submariners records started to be kept on cards at HMS DOLPHIN and, should you relative have one of these cards it will include his full name, Official Number, Depot, date of volunteering for Submarines, date of Qualifying and sometimes the percentage of his Pass. It will also include his Submarine Depot Ships and Submarines and whether he was Spare Crew these details are usually annotated with the dates served.

The man who can help is the Archivist, George Malcolmson, but you need to give him as much information as possible and also be very patient as there is not a large staff at the Museum and it is usually George who finds out the information as well. If he finds out information for you a donation to the Museum funds is always very welcome.

Otherwise you can always try putting a request on a submariners forum or facebook page or on the National Association Website. Or you can try a question on Google or one of the other Search Engines, however data found this way should always be cross checked with other sources as sites like Wikipedia can be very general and sometimes unreliable in the information found

Naval Officers

Firstly speak to relations and family friends to see if they know more than you do about the individual you are researching. Officers are generally easier to investigate than Ratings and this is down to the routine publishing of a listing of all Officers in the Royal Navy in The Navy List. From the late 18th Century this List was published on a monthly basis via HMSO (His (or Her) Majesty's Stationery Office).

The Navy List is remarkably comprehensive and prior to WWII included Royal Navy (RN), Royal Naval Reserve (RNR), Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) and Emergency List Officers.

RNR Officers generally were Merchant Navy Officers who trained regularly with the Royal Navy and who wished to make them selves available for Service in War Time.

RNVR Officers were generally part time sailors or yachtsmen or those who messed about in boats.

Emergency List Officers were those Officers who had served as RN Officers who had retired at their own request and asked to be placed on the Emergency List for recall in times of heightened tension or war.

Every six months in January and July the Navy List also included Officers on the Retired List. These Retired Officers were also subject to recall in event of Emergency.

Lists up to the 1950s also included details of Officers in the Australian, Canadian, Indian and South African Navy although the range of information on these Officers was more restricted although it did include Royal Navy Officers who had been loaned or transferred to these Navies. It is generally rumoured that all Officers in Command had a copy of the latest Navy List in his desk so that when he came across another RN Ship anywhere in the world he could find out immediately whether he was Senior or Junior to the Commanding Officer of that Ship and whether he was giving the Orders or obeying the Orders of the other Ship.

As well as listing all Officers in alphabetical order it also detailed Seniority in Rank and the Ship or Submarine that the Officer was appointed to and the date of Appointment. Officers on Training Courses were also listed with the Establishment where they were training and which Course they were attending.

So, if you know the Officers name and initials and whether they were RN, RNR, RNVR or Emergency List you should be able to find him. Once you have located the Officer in a Navy List the details in the list should allow you to track him from the time he joined the Navy until the time he was transferred to the Retired List.

Another feature was that, once you have found your Officer and which Ship he was serving in the Navy List had a section which also told you all the Officers appointed to that Ship. This is the advantage available from such comprehensive lists published on a Monthly Basis. When you bear in mind the fact that there were in some cases hundreds of ships and submarines and thousands of Officers in each of the Lists a monthly update produced handraulically without the aid of Computers or searchable data bases and with minimal errors is a most remarkable feat.

Where will you find these lists?

There are various places with complete (or nearly complete) sets of the Navy List from earliest days. Portsmouth City Library has a Maritime and Nautical Section which has an almost complete range as does the Plymouth Central Library. The Submarine Museum Archives has a set which covers the start of the Submarine Service in 1901 to the present day.

The Royal Naval Museum is also a good source of data as is the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. It is always worth asking at your local Library who might be able to arrange access via the Intra Library Loan scheme.

A new way is via www.familyrecords.com who have added two million new Navy Records to its collection including a comprehensive collection of Navy Lists from 1847 to 1945. I haven't used this source yet and am not aware of any costs involved but it promises to be useful.

In more recent years the periodicity of issue of Navy List has reduced to once per year and with a lot less information available - all the more surprising given that the availability of Computer Data Bases would make regular comprehensive updates more easily achievable. There are weekly Officers Appointing List updates but these are not easily available to the amateur researcher. The current Navy List is also downloadable from the Internet There is also an annually published Navy List of Retired Officers. Also in recent years various Navy Lists have been scanned and are available to buy via the Internet although this is something which the professional researcher would be more interested.

What other sources are there?

The National Archives have been busy in recent years in digitising information about Officers prior to 1917 as well as Ratings as described previously. Sources available are:

  1. Royal Naval Division service records (ADM 339) Service records of more than 50,000 officers and men who joined the RND, 1914 -1919
  2. Royal Naval Officers' Service Records (ADM 196) Service records of officers who joined the Royal Navy, 1756 – 1917
  3. RNVR service records from WW1 (ADM 337) Service records of those who served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the First World War

If you think your relative was loaned to or transferred to the Royal Australian Navy you may be in luck. The National Archives of Australia have digitised most of the records of their earlier Submariners. You need to go online and go to http://www.naa.gov.au. When the Home Page comes up select Record Search and thenSearch Now as a guest. When the General Search page comes up enter the details you have like Name, a Range of Dates and enter A6770 in the Reference Number Box. If you are in luck a Record or a number of Records will turn up. One of these may be the one you are looking for. If you find the right man you can open and read his record card and also download it and save it to your Computer at no charge.

One other useful source of data on Submariner Officers promoted from the Lower Deck is the Submarine Museum. If the person you are researching was listed as an Artificer Engineer, Mate (E), Warrant Engineer or Commissioned Engineer he will previously have served as an Artificer or Mechanician. Similarly if he was a Gunner, Boatswain, Mate, Signals Boatswain or a Commissioned, Senior Commissioned or Warrant Officer with one of these prefixes he will have been a Seaman or Signalman before promotion.

From about 1912 Submariners records of ratings started to be kept on Cards at HMS DOLPHIN and, should your relative have one of these Cards it will include his full name, Official Number, Depot, date of volunteering for Submarines, date of Qualifying and sometimes the percentage of his Pass. It will also include his Submarine Depot Ships and Submarines and whether he was Spare Crew these details are usually annotated with the dates served.

The man who can help is the Archivist, George Malcolmson, but you need to give him as much information as possible and also be very patient as there is not a large staff at the Museum and it is usually George who finds out the information as well. If he finds out information for you a donation to the Museum funds is always very welcome.

Otherwise you can always try putting a request on a submariners forum or facebook page or on the National Association Website. Or you can try a question on Google or one of the other Search Engines, however data found this way should always be cross checked with other sources as sites like Wikipedia can be very general and sometimes unreliable in the information found

For Officers or Ratings killed in the two world wars you should look at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Website at www.cwgc.org if you search their data base you need to know as minimum a Surname and enter that he was Navy but you can also check if he served in the Royal Navy or Commonwealth Navies.

This Data Base often gives you the date of death, Ship or Establishment served in, Next of Kin details, Rank or Rating, Service Number, where buried and which Memorial he is commemorated on. This source is very good but ideally you need to enter the fullest details Surname, Initials, WWI or WWII, Service served in and whether British or Commonwealth. One problem, if you don't have full details but have a common Surname Smith Jones, Williams etc is that you can get hundreds of results which you will need to check individually!

For Officers or Ratings served in WWI another source is the National Roll of the Great War. This was produced after the War and was compiled from details sent in by relatives of those who served including civilians involved in War Work. There are a number of books covering various areas of the country mainly based around the big cities and names are listed in alphabetical order. Some of these have been digitised and are available to buy but the Books were republished a few years ago and may be available via your local Library.

Finally, just keep you eyes open when reading newspapers (especially local papers), family history magazines or books about naval ships or naval history. Little clues crop up in the most unexpected places and when you least expect to fine them.

Good luck in your research.


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