Naval Biographical Database



As with any such project, I have had to make use of a number of conventions in the building of this database.  If they should appear idiosyncratic - mea culpa.  They represent the way I have built and continue to populate the database.  Many items are only relevant (and make sense) to those with access to the live database, but are include here for those who seek a deeper understanding of what I am doing.

Admiral of the Fleet

I have yet to determine when this term was routinely applied.  The appointment for the senior man was normally as 'Admiral and Commander in Chief of the Fleet'.  In most such appointments, no rank was given in the preamble but as late as 1705, Sir Cloudesly Shovell was appointed as such, as an Admiral of the White.  I have entered these early appointments as 'Commander in Chief, Fleet', noting the actual wording of the appointment elsewhere.



Normally denotes the term 'appoint...' has been used or the absence of the term 'Commission' or 'Warrant' in the relevant preamble.  Generically it has been used for Commissions, Warrants and Drafts.

For all commission and warrant dates, for appointments to ships, I have attempted to record the 'rate' of the ship concerned.  This information is seldom noted in key primary sources [such as ADM6 series] and, being derived from elsewhere, should be treated with the normal caveats.


 Brackets '[....]'

Indicates edtorial comment



Commission or Warrant Officers, regardless of rank, appointed to command a ship; i.e. those referred to as 'the Captain' at the primary conning position.  In many of the early sources (and Commission books), the terms 'Captain of' and 'Commander of' are used interchangeably - invariably entered as 'Captain of' for records of this period.


Commission (ship)

In the period covered to date, ship commissions or commissioning dates are seldom related to the appointment of the Commanding Officer.  Likewise the term 'paid off' does not necessarily imply 'decommissioned'.   Ships appeared to commission on first use, recommission on change in status (e.g. 'recommissioned as fireship'), and decommission when taken out of service (e.g. put out of commission at ...).  To date I have used the term generically, but avoided use in the specific sense unless so noted in the primary source.

From the mid 19th Century, Navy Lists routinely note commissioning dates indicating a change in use of the term and, today, we seem to use and misuse it in a rather different way.  We refer to the current commission, but 're-dedicate' rather than 'recommission'.   Research continues.



Dates are displayed in a standard way with one exception. To avoid the confusion and mistakes which often accompany earlier dates, these are displayed in the pre-1752 format but sorted as if the modern date had been entered.  Thus, for example,  the display is 17 Mar 1742/3 but the sort is based on 17 Mar 1743.  Most reports provide the full dates but, in some instances, short dates (giving the year only) are specified. 


Master dates

When conflicting dates are found in the sources, all are recorded but I choose one as the 'master'.  If subsequent better information is received, it is a simple matter to update the 'master' if appropriate.


Uncertain dates

Many early Warrant appointments give useful information about the current or previous appointment. Unless the actual dates are available from other sources, I have used the following convention which obviously has a bearing on some discharge dates:

  • Individual currently serving in one appt has a new warrant to the next.  Month and year of warrant used for the discharge date from current appointment.

  • Individual noted as 'late of' or 'formerly of' ship - the terms were used interchangeably.  The year only of the new warrant used for discharge date from previous appointment unless other information to hand suggests otherwise.

In a slightly different context, when dates are encountered indicating the individual is 'in post' , the date is recorded as found but noted 'I' (for in post), rather than 'E' (for entry) or 'D' (for discharge).  Used extensively, but not exclusively, for Standing Warrant Officers.  To avoid confusion, such dates do not appear in standard reports.  



Commission dates (individuals).   Instances have been found with differences between primary Admiralty source and London Gazette dates.   Unless other and better primary source material is to hand, the Admiralty date is entered as the 'master'; the London Gazette date being recorded within the database but not shown in reports.

Warrant dates {individuals).   In some primary source manuscripts, separate dates are recorded for Admiralty and Navy Board warrants for the same appointment.   If both dates are present, the Admiralty date is treated as the 'master' with the Navy Board date being recorded within the database, but not shown in reports.


    Dimensions of ships

From the start of the chosen period (1660), rebuilds caused significant changes to a ship's dimensions.  Most rebuild measurements are recorded but only the initial figures are shown in standard reports.

The List of Ships [ADM180/20] and subsequent more detailed Manuscript Navy List series [AL MSS 302], both of which were compiled in the Surveyor's Office, are taken as the source of dimensions for the period.  The measurements are routinely recorded in red and/or black ink.  The former indicate provisional figures, either as taken off the draught or recorded in the water on capture &c.  The latter appear to be the actual figures recorded by the professional dockyard officers, possibly with the ship out of the water.  When available, the black figures are recorded; 'R' or 'B' being used to differentiate. If, as sometimes happens, two sets of black figures are available, the most up-to-date have been taken. 


Names (people)

I have an inbuilt system which allows me to differentiate between two individuals of the same name.  Additionally, for ease of search, the system tracks the earliest and latest record held for each individual.  Thus for example, instead of being faced with multiple entries of ‘John Smith', a typical search might show ‘John Smith, 1717-1746'.   Although great care is taken at entry, mistakes can happen and, just as likely, even primary sources can be mistaken or misleading.  It is therefore entirely possible to end up with an appointment attributed to the wrong man - a simple matter to rectify by the change of one number.

Equally John Smith and John Smythe may turn out to be the same person - and how is duplication avoided?  The answer is that there is no totally foolproof system but I record differences of spelling of a specific name as they are encountered in the sources.  Thus a search for John Smythe might show two individuals, neither of which fit the bill.  A search of alternatives will give a pointer to a John Smith sometimes spelt Smythe if such a spelling has been encountered.  I tend to use the spelling in common use at the start of a man's career as the standard.  Thus, for example, Admiral Allen, whose DNB entry demands the spelling ‘Allin', is entered ‘Allen' with the alternative ‘Allin'.  A similar system helps with the quick identification of titled individuals (usually entered under the family name) and aliases.



In many instances, either the source or other pointers make the connection between successive appointments easy.  In other circumstances, connections are not nearly so obvious without much deeper research, which would only serve to slow the input process.  When I have considered it reasonable or safe to do so, I have linked some such entries, inserting a suitable note ('link tbc'), but make no claim to infallibility.  If further information comes to hand clarifying the matter, it is a simple process to update the record.  


Names (ships)

Ship identification is by no means straightforward, particularly with multiple use of the same name. Some cases are simple enough and easily resolved, such as PORTSMOUTH and PORTSMOUTH (Sloop), but others are more elusive.  I have therefore included two dates after the ship name.  The first indicates when built, hired, purchased or taken.  The second indicates end of useful life, normally break-up, loss or sale. Occasionally when a ship lingers without change of name after the introduction of a new ship of the same name, an arbitrary end date is used to ease data entry.

Change of use, such as from 1st to 2nd rate, or 'cutter' to 'sloop', is not changed in the title (but is recorded in the ship 'milestone').

To date all ships entered have been in RN use, and the 'HMS' prefix is considered superfluous.  Future entries of Merchant or Ships of other navies will require some suitable 'differencing'.



Changes in the name of various post-holders has been endemic for many centuries.  In the interests of avoiding fragmentation of entries, these have simplified where possible without losing track of the actual titles. Thus, the 'Secretary of the Admiralty', whose title alternated between 'Secretary' and 'First Secretary' throughout the 18th Century, will be headed 'Secretary of the Admiralty', with the actual title being recorded on the database but not shown in standard reports.



Up to French Revolutionary War, the routine entry of rank/rate has only proved necessary by exception.  The 1790's saw the introduction of promotion of individuals without a corresponding appointment, and from this period, rank/rate and seniority will be routinely entered. 

Exceptions in the earlier period include:

  • Captains of ships have rank noted as  'Cdr' when actual commission appoints the individual as 'Master & Commander'.

  • Actual rank used in the appointment of  'Midshipmen Extra' - (Captain & Lieutenant noted).

  • Entries encountered when the 'Captain' is noted as a 'Lieutenant'.

Additionally when early commissions for Lieutenants note the individual as 'Mr' rather than 'Lt', the inference may be of first appointment as a 'Lieutenant', and 'Mr' is recorded but not, obviously, as a rank.



Sources are stored under such generic headings as Primary Manuscript and Secondary Printed.  A 'short' title, hopefully self-explanatory, is used in standard reports - see 'abbreviations' for detail. In many instances, when the whole source has been entered it is only necessary to record the source and folio/page.  In other instances, more detail has been recorded when, for example, an isolated list is encountered in a ‘multi-subject' source.  This additional information can be made available but does not appear in the standard reports.

For certain serial publications it is more practicable to enter edition rather than page information.  A typical case might be information about a ship extracted from a Navy List. In this instance, the edition and year are recorded, e.g. 01/18 for January edition, 1818, the century being obvious from the event date.  Likewise, entries from paybooks normally refer to the line number rather than source page.

For some users, the difference between MS and MSS (for Manuscript and Manuscripts) is important. Here, where the key requirement is to identify the sources as clearly as possible, I have stuck rigidly to the convention used by the holder of the original documents. 

Some manuscripts contain page numbers within alphabetical sections. Thus 'p.c8' indicates 'page 8' within the alphabetical section 'c'.

I am frequently presented with the results of family research, often carried out to a high standard.  Sometimes this work even includes copies of original manuscripts but lacks any note of the source(s).  Very occasionally,  I have included such material in the data-base (with the source noted as 'FR' for 'Family Research'. Such information should be treated with the normal caveats.

In abbreviated form, the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) are (is?) referred to as 'TNA'.  Here, I have followed the convention used by the Society for Nautical Research, i.e. 'NA'.



Normally the formal appointment of a Warrant Officer.  There were other uses, such as the warrant authorising some Commander-in-Chief to hold Courts Martial, or the grant of a professional qualification.  This is not a straightforward area and research continues. Use is normally self-apparent from the context.

See also date anomolies above.


Master rate

The use of the term 'Master', such as in the title 'Master Shipwright', has a connotation entirely lacking in the early warrants for sea-going appointments. Thus for example, the term 'Gunner' and 'Master Gunner' is used interchangeably, and would be entered on the database as 'Master Gunner'.

             © CHD 2015