The 14 best websites for Royal Navy family history

By Guest, 20 November 2019 - 12:42pm

Jonathan Scott explores online resources for researching the personnel of the Royal Navy from the Napoleonic Wars to the 20th century

Royal Navy family history
The crew of a Royal Navy vessel in the 1870s (Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

For genealogists with Royal Navy officers or ratings (personnel below the rank of officer) in their family tree, there are many useful websites to choose from.

These include general histories describing the conditions and day-to-day life above and below deck, as well as famous battles.

There are many record sets available via The National Archives and maritime research bodies.

Read the full version of this article and much more expert family history advice in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine December 2019

For 20th century personnel you can hunt for service records, medal rolls and pension records.

If you’re researching the 18th or 17th centuries, you will be after ships’ musters, ledgers, pay books and description books.

Musters were taken every month or quarter for pay and accounting purposes, and were effectively up-to-date crew lists.

1. First World War - Lives at Sea

Lives at Sea

This free resource enables you to search First World War-era service records of Royal Navy officers and ratings.

A collaboration between The National Archives, the National Maritime Museum and the Crew List Index Project, it follows in the wake of 2015’s Crew Lists of the British Merchant Navy.

Due for completion in 2021, the database is capturing birthdate; next of kin; service number; place of birth; occupation; ship, submarine or shore establishment served in; medals awarded; where buried or commemorated; rank; and cause/date of discharge.

At time of writing 25,678 service records were online.

2. Royal Navy Log Books

Royal Navy log books

This vast, encyclopaedic website is maintained by a team of specialist contributors.

There are numerous sections on Navy operations, honours/awards, battles, dispatches and lots more.

This specific address leads to crowdsourced transcriptions of First World War log books from Navy vessels. From this page you can click the name of the ship that interests you to read the transcriptions.

There is also a brief description of each ship together with details of its service and at least one photograph.

3. The National Archives

The National Archives Royal Navy

TNA has produced a wealth of material explaining its Royal Navy holdings. Scroll down, click ‘Military and Maritime’, then select the ‘Royal Navy and Royal Marines’ checkbox. That gives you 39 research guides to choose from.

You can filter the results further by ticking the ‘Show only guides with all records online’ checkbox.

Some records are free, some are paid downloads, and others are on external websites.

4. Navy Lists

Royal Navy Lists

This useful resource for anyone researching Royal Navy officers is available free of charge via the National Library of Scotland.

This is the parent page to the library’s British Military Lists – including Army, Air Force and Navy lists, alongside weekly casualty lists from the First World War.

You can explore each of the Navy volumes via the website’s own viewer, or download a PDF, simple text or Kindle version of the material, all for free.

There are only officers on the active list, so it will not include any references to ratings.

5. Officer and Rating Service Records

Ancestry Navy

Ancestry’s roster includes Naval Medal and Award Rolls (1793–1972); Naval Officer and Rating Service Records (1802–1919), which include musters and pay registers; Commissioned Sea Officers of the Royal Navy (1660–1815); and ratings’ certificates of service. This example is Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services (1848–1939), which includes birthdate, birthplace, vessels served on, and dates of service.

6. Expert's choice: The Trafalgar Ancestors Database

Battle of Trafalgar

The demasting of the HMS Belleisle at the Battle of Trafalgar (Credit: Culture Club/Getty Images)

Chosen by Simon Wills, editor of Tracing Your Seafaring Ancestors:

"The free Trafalgar Ancestors Database can save genealogists a lot of work.

"It identifies more than 18,000 people who served on the British side at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805: about one-sixth of the Navy’s entire workforce.

"Each entry tells you the person’s name, age, place of birth, rank or role, the ship that they were serving on, and whether they survived.

"However, there are more extensive career histories for some individuals, listing previous ships served upon and changes in rank.

"Crewmen involved in the battle range from Thomas Wilcott, aged just eight years old on HMS Neptune, to Michael Leonard, an ordinary seaman on HMS Temeraire who was 62.

"Once you’ve located an ancestor in the database, you can use other TNA records to explore their careers.

"For example, contemporary Royal Navy musters and paybooks for your ancestor’s ship will tell you which vessel they served on next, and where they had served beforehand.

"You can use this information to get earlier and later musters, and so map out an ancestor’s entire career until their death or discharge.

"You can find a muster by typing a ship’s name into TNA’s Advanced Search facility and restricting the search to references ADM36 or ADM37. However, you will have to visit TNA to see musters.

"Besides the excitement of finding an ancestor at Trafalgar, this database also helps you locate many men whose Navy careers started in the 18th century.

"It’s sometimes difficult to do this without the head start that this database provides."

Go further

7. The 1805 Club

This website includes a searchable database of Royal Navy officers in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815).

8. The Battle of Jutland

The Imperial War Museums’ website has pages, articles and charts dedicated to the major naval battle of the First World War.

9. Findmypast

Findmypast’s Royal Navy collections include Ships’ Musters (1739–1861), Royal Navy & Royal Marines Service and Pension Records (1704–1919), Navy Lists (1827–1945) and WW1 Ships Lost At Sea (1914–1919).

10. Forces War Records

This site includes records relating to the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, the Royal Marines and Royal Navy officers’ medal rolls.


Here you can request a summary of a service record for individuals who joined the Royal Navy after May 1917 from the Ministry of Defence.

12. National Maritime Museum

Browse or search the museum’s collections, archives and library.

13. Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Find out more about the National Museum of the Royal Navy, and other attractions such as HMS Victory and the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.

14. Royal Navy Research Archives

This extensive ‘virtual museum’ mainly focuses on material from the First World War onwards.


Read the full version of this article and much more expert family history advice in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine December 2019

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