Explore information on the Royal Navy's administrative records
Most official records and service lists of the Royal Navy are held at The National Archives. However, the Archive and Library at the National Maritime Museum has rich holdings of both primary and published material relating to the central administration of the Navy.
This guide outlines these resources, grouped under the various bodies that have been in charge of the Navy since the 16th century.
The Board of Admiralty, made up of seven members, was first commissioned to perform the functions of the Lord Admiral (later termed Lord High Admiral) during the reign of Charles I (1625–1649). It was again commissioned between 1689 and 1701 and from 1709 onwards. Board members, almost always Members of Parliament, acted as political representatives of the Navy. They were responsible to the public for obtaining supplies from parliament and disbursing them efficiently. Acting on the advice of the Navy Board, the Admiralty could only carry out a broadly supervisory role since (apart from the Admiralty Secretary) it was not permanent and often changed with a new political ministry.
The Admiralty was not responsible for naval operations or senior appointments. Operations were handled by the senior Secretary of State. Operations and senior appointments were discussed in Cabinet, which included the First Lord of the Admiralty, and often with the monarch. Orders and instructions were issued through rather than by the Admiralty. But the Secretary of State sometimes dealt directly with Commanders in Chief, for speed and secrecy. The Admiralty, therefore, though executive head of the navy, was not a monolithic entity but part of a largely decentralised administrative structure.
Records held in the National Maritime Museum Archive:
ADM/A/1758 – 3115, Admiralty orders and In-letters to the Navy Board, with occasional letters to the Treasury, 1688-1815 (1,356 volumes). It should be noted that the preceding series is held at the National Archives (ADM 2/1-1755, covering 1660-1683, and ADM 106/69/B&C, covering 1688).
The first of the boards set up to administer the Royal Navy was the Navy Board, established in 1546 in the reign of Henry VIII. Its job was to organise the business of the Navy and advise the Lord Admiral, one of the Officers of State. Until the mid-17th century it covered all aspects of naval administration. But as various specialised departments also developed, the Navy Board concentrated on building and maintaining Navy ships and advising the Board of Admiralty. Members of the Navy Board tended to be professional men drawn from the service, either officers or former shipwrights. In 1832 the Board’s duties were absorbed by the Admiralty.
Material in this series covers finance, medicine, the hospitals at Haslar and Stonehouse, transports, shipbuilding, pre-repair ship surveys (often with cost estimates), disciplinary matters, dockyard industrial relations, and experiments in preserving ship timbers and seamen’s health. There are also lists of ships in commission, parliamentary estimates, Navy debts, accounts of the Course of the Navy (navy bills) and schemes for disbursing parliamentary grants.
ADM/B; ADM/BP: Navy Board in-letters to the Admiralty, 1738-1831 (126 volumes). As the Board was chiefly concerned with the day-to-day running of the Navy, this collection is the richest source for research, even though it includes much mundane material. ADM/B/126/198 Calendars to these volumes are available via the National Archives’ online catalogue and described at piece level. They are referenced as ADM 354 (ADM/B)and ADM 359 (ADM/BP) within the National Archives catalogue. For example, the letter to the right is the 198th piece in ADM/B/126, and is described on the National Archives catalogue as ADM/354/126/198.
Before 1684 the fleet was supplied with food and drink by private contractors. The office of Assistant Controller of Victualling Accounts was created in 1691 and abolished in 1731. These duties then transferred from the Navy Board to a separate Victualling Office.
ADM/C: Admiralty Orders, In-letters, to the Victualling Board, 1707-1815 (400 volumes); ADM/D and ADM/DP: Victualling Commissioners, In-letters, to the Admiralty Board, 1703-1822 (51 volumes)
From 1653 the Sick and Hurt commissioners held office only during wartime. In peacetime its duties came under the Navy Board. In 1740, the Sick and Wounded Board was created. Until the Seven Years War (1755–1763), there was no permanent medical organisation and invalids were put in the care of private contractors. In the 1740s and 1750s hospitals at Haslar and Stonehouse were developed. Of particular research value is the material regarding French prisoners of war.
ADM/E: Admiralty Board, In-letters, to the Sick and Hurt Board, 1707- 1806 (54 volumes); ADM/M: Admiralty Board, In-letters, to the Sick and Hurt Board, 1743 – 1783 (28 volumes); ADM/F and ADM/FP: Sick and Hurt Commissioners, In-letters, to the Admiralty Board, 1742 – 1806 (35 volumes and loose papers)
Manuscripts concerned with naval administration can be found throughout the artificial collections. The most significant are:
PST/49: These are bound photocopies of documents held in the National Archives (catalogue reference ADM/180). They date mostly from the 18th century, and list building and repairs of all classes of naval vessels usually with time, place and cost of building, docking and undocking, graving and cleaning, fitting and refitting. Some survey information is also included. Progress books were first used c.1710, (references to ships of earlier date are backdated information), but there are serious omissions before 1725. Between c.1730 and 1780 details are very full, but are increasingly imprecise after the end of the War of American Independence, and by 1800 items may be grouped together or omitted entirely. There is an index to ships' names available.
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB
Tel: +44 (0)870 444 1500
Private and official correspondence of statesmen and government officials contains much useful information. The Army and Navy Papers of the Duke of Newcastle and the Earl of Hardwicke are particularly relevant to mid-18th century naval administration. The Liverpool Papers are useful for the period 1764–69, especially for naval finances. The BL indexes indicate a wide scattering of material across its collections.
The National Archives
Surrey TW9 4DU
Tel: +44 (0)20 8876 3444
Collections complementing administration records at the National Maritime Museum:
Treasury Papers also contain some useful papers and returns. T Series.
Other guides in the series which may be useful for researching the Royal Navy:
For general research help see:
Although care has been taken in preparing the information contained in this document, anyone using it shall be deemed to indemnify the National Maritime Museum from any and all injury or damage arising from such use.