British Military Recordsby Jay Hall
Director, Global Research Systems
A Division of The Everton Publishers
In this article, I want to explore some of the records available for genealogists as they research their ancestors who served in the British Army during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Obviously, this will not be an exhaustive study of the subject of British military records, nor even of all the record types discussed here. But it is intended to be a beginning point for those who wish to research their British military ancestors.
For those wishing to delve into the matter somewhat deeper, I have appended a list of sources containing a great deal more information than can be included in one magazine article. Most of the record types noted in this article are available at the Public Record Office in Kew, Surrey (the Public Record Office holding the majority of the military records), and many are available on microfilm through the LDS Genealogical Library in Salt Lake City, or at one of its 1,500+ branch libraries worldwide.
Generally, an army's human components are viewed on two levels; officers and enlisted men. This division continues in the record keeping of biographical data. Of course, there were far more enlisted men than officers, and officers' records are usually more complete than those for those in the lower ranks, but even the records for the enlisted men contain quite a bit of information, and will be useful for any family historian. In this article, we'll discuss records available for the officers who served in the British Army.
Most of the records for the British military are arranged along regimental lines, so the usual starting point is to determine which regiment your ancestor belonged to. If this is already known, the regimental files can be examined directly. However, If you don't know which regiment your officer/ancester was assinged to, a good place to begin is with the Army Lists.
Earlier commisions can be traced using Charles Daltons' English Amy Lists and Commision Registers, 1661-1714 and his George I's Army, 1714-1727.
The Army Lists begin with a list of the officers by rank, generals through lieutenants, giving their name and the date they received their commision to that rank. Following this the officers and their assignments are shown by regiment, beginning with the cavalry and following in order through the regiments of foot. The regiment listings include the number and name (or names) of the regiment, the names and ranks of the officers, and the dates of their commisions in the Army and their assignment to that regiment. Beginning in 1766 these Army Lists are indexed, and begining in 1798 they include the location of the regiment at that time. These Army Lists are available at the Public Record Office (in War Office (W.O.) files 64, 65 and 66), or at the LDS Family History Library.
The Statement of Service from volume 61, for the Surrey (70th) Regiment of Foot covers two pages and contains a wealth of information on the officer. His full name is given at the top, along with his birth date and place, regimental assignment, and his age at the time of his entrance to the Army. Information on the ranks he attained, pay, regimental assignments, instances of distinguished service, medals, wounds, and foreign service are all provided in some detail. Genealogists will especially appreciate the sections of the Statement form devoted to the details of his marriage, and the names and birth data concerning the officer's legitimate children.
Certificates of birth, marriage and death for both officers and members of their families can also be found in War Office file number 42.
Using the details from the service record, a family historian can go directly to the appropriate registers of the parish in which the officer was born for information on his parentage. If the officer was married, the service record's indications of the marriage date and place, as well as the birth information on his children, will prove equally valuable.
A Guide to the Regiments and Corps of the British Army, by J.M. Breton includes much of the same information, although the information on battles and campaigns is sketchier. Closer to Farmer's volume is Arthur Swinson's A Register of the Regiments and Corps of the British Army. As with the other two books, this one is organized by precedence of the corps, beginning with the cavalry regiments and proceeding through the foot guards and regiments of foot. Again, the regimental listings include both the formal titles and nicknames borne by the regiment, a chronological list of the major campaigns and battles fought, and a short history of the regiment.
To locate the proper regiment, you begin with what is known about your ancestor. This could be the fact that he took part in a certain battle, or wore a certain type of uniform, or belonged to a regiment with a certain nickname. Then, you go through the regimental listings seeknig for one (or more) that would conform the the facts as you understand them.
For example, if your ancestor was posted to Gibraltar in the early part of the eighteenth century, he may have served in the 30th (or Cambridge) Foot Regiment. This regiment was stationed on Gibraltar during 1704 and 1705, and at the time was known as Colonel Thomas Sanders Regiment of Marines. Nicknames included The Triple X's and The Three Tens, both of which were obviously based on the number of the regiment.
Once you have determined the regiment in which your ancestor served, you will want to search two sets of records; the Muster Rolls and the Regimental Description Books.
There are several series of these Muster Rolls, bearing War Office (W.O.) numbers 10 through 16. The three most comprehensive are; W.O. 10, containing Muster Rolls for the artillery for 1708-1878, W.O. 11, Muster Rolls for engineers for 1816-1878, and W.O. 12, the general series, with Muster Rolls for the cavalry, foot guards and regiments of foot for 1732-1878.
These Description Books begin with an index (using the first letter of the surname only), and follow with the entries in chronological order. The entries contain quite a lot of detail, filling 39 columns across two pages. Each entry begins with the full name of the soldier, the number of the company in the regiment he was assigned to, his height (both at the time of enlistment and at age 24), and his age (in years and days) at the time of his enlistment.
The next four columns describe the soldier's complexion, the color of his eyes and hair, the form of his visage, and whether he had any physical marks. The country or town and parish of his birth are given (but not the date), and any occupation he had outside of the military is noted. The date, place, and period of enlistment are all given, along with the name of the person by whom the soldier was enlisted. Details of any previous military service and dates of promotion are also noted, as well as the details of desertion, transfers, discharges, and if applicable, where and when the soldier died. The final column is reserved for comments on the soldier's character and conduct while in the service of his country.
The mobility indicated in these books can be amazing. An example is John Kennedy, a brass-foundry worker who was born in Dublin. In 1808 at the age of 19, John Kennedy enlisted in the 1st Foot Regiment on the Isle of Wight after serving eight months with the 17th Light Dragoons (later known as the 17th Lancers). He served in the seventh company of The (Royal) 1st Regiment of Foot until 1831, when he was pensioned at York. Presumably he also accompanied the regiment during its tours of duty in Europe, Iberia, America and India.
In short, service records for the enlisted man can provide far more than the bare facts of his birth, enlistment, and discharge from service or death. They can also give an accurate personal description of his physical condition and character, and chronicle both his military service and his civilian occupation. For the descendant of a British Soldier they are in invaluable.
Like many of the other records concerning British Army personnel in the early part of the nineteenth century, the pension records discussed in this article are organized along regimental lines. So, to use them efficiently, you must know which regiment your ancestor served in before you can begin.
Here again, we find an excellent picture of the soldier, in this case, at the time of his admission to the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. The register book includes his full name, date of admission to the hospital, his age, rank(s), time of service, and the rate of pay. The column noting his "complaint" (reason for hospitalization) often includes mention of where the illness was contracted, of the wound was suffered. Finally, the registers give the town and county of birth, civilian occupation, and miscellaneous remarks.
The Regimental Registers can also be found at the Public Office in W.O. 23, with extensions to 1876
Here, the data is recorded on seperate sheets for each man, rather than in a register format as the records in W.O. 120. The 1,279 volumes in the series are arranged alphabetically within each regiment, covering a period approxiamately from 1760 through 1872.
The form itself is used to chronicle the soldier's service, and to provide proof of his discharge from the military. Among the information included in his full name, town and county of birth, date, place and term of enlistment, and the period of his service (in years and days) from the time of his eighteenth birthday. This allows for an easy calculation of the exact date of his birth.
His service record notes all of the regiments in which he served, with both beginning and ending dates, ranks attained, and the total service rendered, again in years and days, in each rank and regiment. Service in either the East or West Indies is noted seperately. The reason for his discharge (illness or wounds) is given, as are remarks on his general conduct while in the service, and notations on his height, complexion, eye and hair color, and civilian occupation. The form is dated and signed by both the discharged soldier and his commanding officer.
As with the Regimental Registers, these Soldiers' Documents can be obtained on microfilm through the LDS Family History Library and its Family History Centers, with the originals being deposited at the Public Record Office.
Although the exact contents of each bundle varies somewhat, it is possible to find statements of service and commission for the deceased officer, as well as certificates of birth, marriage or death. In the absence of civil certificates (which began in 1837), there are usually signed statements certifying legitimate marriages and births. Of course, these certificates ans statements include the names of the persons involved, with the date and location of the birth (or baptism), marriage, or death (or burial) indicated.
As is the case with the Regimental Registers and the Soldiers' Discharge papers, these Pension Applications can be consulted at the Public Record Office in Surrey, the LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City, or at an LDS Family History Center.
In this article on British military records, I've been able to cover several collections and their contents, but by no means have I exhausted the list of such records available for research by genealogists and historians. If you wish to go into the records available at a greater length, you should consult the list of sources at the end of the article. Of special interest are Hamilton-Edwards' In Search of Army Ancestry, and Records of Officers and Soldiers Who haved served in the British Army, an excellent booklet published by the Public Record Office.
Certainly seeking information on military ancestors is not always a bed of roses, but the records available can make the study fascinating, while providing a variety of unexpected rewards for the diligent researcher.
A Guide to the Sources of British Military History, by Robin Higham (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, England, 1972).
An Annotated Bibliography of the British Army, 1660-1914, by A.P.C. Bruce (Garland Publishing Inc., New York, 1975).
A Register of the Regiments and Corps of the British Army, by Arthur Swinson (The Archive Press, London, 1972).
Army Records for Family Historians, by Simon Fowler (Public Record Office Publications, Public Record Office, CHancery Lane, London WC2A 1LR, England, 1992).
British Army, 1660-1914: A Bibliography, by A.P.C. Bruce (Garland Publishing, New York - London, 1975).
English Army Lists and Commision Registers, 1661-1714 (6 volumes) by Charles Dalton (Francis Edwards Ltd., London, England, 1960).
In Search of Army Ancestry by Gerald K. Hamilton-Edwards (Phillimore & Co. Ltd., Chichester, Sussex, England, 1977).
Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, c/o The National Army Museum, Royal Army Road, Chelsea, London SW3 4HT, England.
LDS Genealogical Library, 35 North West Temple Street, Salt Lake City, UT 84150.
Public Record Office, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU, England.
Records of Officers and Soldiers Who Have Served in the British Army (Public Record Office, London, England).
Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office by Jane Cox and Timothy Padfield (Her Majesty's Stationary Office, London, England, 1984).