Researching Army Ancestors 2 -  Before World War One

Records of the British Army exist back to the 17th century though before the middle of the 18th century they are patchy and contain limited information, particularly for “other ranks”. This short introductory paper lists record sources which the beginner to military research is likely to encounter. There is a wide variety of material available and listing is beyond the scope of this introduction. Those conteplating research into a military ancestor are recommended to read one or more of the publications listed at the end of this paper. This paper considers research into soldiers before WW1. For WW1 soldiers see the companion paper.

The Importance of the Regiment
Many of the most valuable sources of information are organised by regiment. If you do not know in which regiment your ancestor served, you are likely to have considerable trouble finding anything of relevance. There are a number of ways in which this vital information may be discovered:

Soldiers’ Papers
When a soldier enlisted, a form called an attestation paper was completed. Likewise, if he was discharged to pension, a discharge document was completed. The papers were held by the Royal Hospital, Chelsea who administered his pension (hence “Chelsea Pensioner”, a term which applies both to those living at the hospital -“in pensioners” - and those receiving cash payments - “out pensioners). The papers are now at the Public Record Office in Class WO97. The papers for soldiers discharged 1760-1854 are indexed and the index can be accessed via the TNA on-line catalogue which can be searched by name. Later records can only be searched in person at the PRO. The papers provide details of birthplace and age, physical description and an outline of service history. Later records may also record the names and addresses of next of kin. The papers will also identify the regiment which is needed to access muster books and pay lists and other regimental records. It is important to note that papers will only be available for soldiers who were discharged to pension. They will not survive for those who died in action or deserted never to return (though incidents of desertion were no bar to a pension).

The Beckett Index
An alternative way to access information about soldiers discharged to pension 1806-1840 is the Beckett Index. Copies of this index to admissions to pension (based on the registers in PRO Class WO120) are held at the PRO, Kew and by M&LFHS.

Description Books
When a soldier joined a regiment his name, age, birthplace and physical description were recorded in description books. This provided a record by which to identify him if he subsequently deserted. Surviving description books are deposited at the PRO but many have been lost, particularly for earlier years. A good outline list of surviving books is recorded in “My Ancestor was in the British Army” by Watts & Watts.

Army Lists
There are lists of officers from as early as 1702. These will usually name the officer and the regiment to which he was attached. They will also record the date he received his current commission and when he retired to the “half-pay” list (there were no pensions for officers), this will usually be noted. The Army List can provide the key to accessing the various documents relating to his appointment and service which will generally be held by the PRO in various collections in the WO (War Office) Class. There is an extensive collection of Army Lists at the PRO but copies may be found in larger libraries.

Regimental Musters and Pay Lists
These were the principal working records of the regiment. The musters list the names and ranks of soldiers as present on a month-by-month basis and the pay lists the pay they received. The two may be combined in a single volume. Although little personal data is recorded, it is possible to determine when a soldier joined and left and the manner of his departure (discharge, death, transfer or desertion). The books also show periods of leave or absence on recruitment duties and periods in military hospital or prison. The books also record where the regiment was stationed so a soldier’s movements can be followed.

Regimental Registers
The marriages of soldiers and the baptisms of subsequent children were often performed by a regimental chaplain. The registers are deposited at the PRO and indexes on microfiche are available ion the MLFHS Resource Centre or can be seen at Greater Manchester County Record Office (GMCRO) in Marshall Street. The indexes identify the regiment and the place where the event took place.

The Police Gazette - Deserters
Desertion was not uncommon. When a soldier deserted, his description was published in “Hue and Cry” a newspaper circulated to Justices of the Peace, parish constables and later police forces. This subsequently became the “Police Gazette” and was published 2-3 times a week. Details of those named in the Police Gazette 1828-1840 have been published by M&LFHS* but for other periods a tedious search may be necessary. If a desertion date is identified from a regimental muster book, a search of subsequent issues of the Police Gazette may be worthwhile. The details published mirror those in the description books and are invaluable where the latter have been lost.

Other Sources
Soldiers may be recorded in a wide variety of sources. Their names may appear in parish baptism, marriage and burial records or in other records such as bastardy records (where charged for the costs of illegitimate children). They will often appear in the census, if in the UK at the time, and it is often a census entry with the description “Chelsea Pensioner” which alerts the researcher to an ancestor’s military past. Discharged soldiers might take up employment in police forces (following their establishment in the 1850s) and appear in police staff records. Discharged soldiers who had fallen on hard times might appear in records of overseers of the poor or workhouse records.

Useful Reading

Beginners to researching military ancestors may find it useful to do some preparatory reading. The following titles may be helpful:

My Ancestor was in the British Army (M. J. & C. T. Watts) Society of Genealogists Publications

The British Army (Iain Swinnerton) *

Army Records for Family Historians (Simon Fowler) Public Record Office *

Records of the Militia 1757-1945 (Garth Thomas) Public Record Office *

The National Archives publish a number of useful reader guides which can be obtained either from TNA at Kew or from their web site.

* Available from the Manchester & Lancashire FHS Online Bookshop

Amended 3 January 2011 - John Marsden