A guide to the naval records in the national archives of the UK

Introduction

This is a guide to records in The National Archives of the UK (TNA) about preparing, supporting and conducting naval warfare and naval activities. It includes, but is not limited to, records created by the Royal Navy and the government departments which directed and supported it. Its object is to lead researchers to all records which are substantially concerned with naval affairs. Particularly in the twentieth century World Wars, when the machinery of central government reached into most areas of national life and was mostly directed towards the war effort, there are few public records which have no possible naval connections, but this guide limits itself to those which bear directly on the Royal Navy or naval activity. Even so the quantity of records which it covers is very large, and the information has had to be severely compressed.

Naval warfare is one of the most popular subjects of research in TNA, but readers are frequently frustrated in their search for information, and a high proportion of the relevant records are seldom consulted – partly because of the widespread misapprehension that the record group ADM (for ‘Admiralty’) contains all the naval records. The public records are in principle arranged according to natural archival conventions, that is to say with the division of the records into groups and series exactly reflecting the organisation of the administrations which created them. In this way the arrangement as well as the content of the archives provides the historian with essential evidence. This is unquestionably the proper and natural way to organise any archive, but in practice it leaves two serious obstacles in the way of very many researchers. First, it is inherent in the archival approach that the researcher needs to be familiar with the administration which created the records which bear on his or her subject. It would be an excellent thing, no doubt, if historians amateur and professional did prepare themselves to use the national archives by immersing themselves in the history of bureaucracy, but in practice not many do. Even academic historians often know little administrative history, are not persuaded that they need to learn any, and are more accustomed to thinking of documents in terms of the subjects that they deal with than the manner in which they were created. What is worse, those who do understand the administrative history more often than not find that the vicissitudes of time, archival mismanagement and governmental reorganisation have so severely disrupted the natural archival structure of the public records that their knowledge is of limited use. It is a commonplace of research in the naval records to find a single archival series accidentally divided between several widely scattered locations, or a single function of government passing through the hands of five or six successive ministries in the course of the twentieth century.

The intention of this guide is to help all researchers to understand the naval records and to find what they want, regardless of how much or little administrative history they know, or want to know. The method has been to re-assemble the records, on paper, as nearly as possible into an ideal structure in which the records of each administrative unit are gathered together in a list or lists. These lists combine records drawn from many TNA groups and series, and they have been indexed in detail. A short administrative history provides background information for those who desire to understand how the administration grew up, and what responsibilities of government gave rise to which records. Throughout this guide, numbers in square brackets refer to the numbered lists.

The guide includes public records deposited outside The National Archives in the National Maritime Museum and the Post Office Archives. It also refers to some documents which have strayed from official custody and are now in the British Library, Cambridge University Library or the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and which are known to fill gaps in the records. These references are not in the least comprehensive, but what relevant knowledge is to hand has been incorporated.

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Guide to Naval Records (pdf)

This publication is made available on the internet in accordance with the terms of the Arts & Humanities Research Council grant which made its compilation possible.

Purchase the guide

A paper copy of the guide can be purchased online from The National Archives.