COVID-19, lockdowns, and limited or no access to The National Archives have not stopped our volunteers from doing cataloging. Last year’s restrictions have meant that we have had to look for other ways to catalog our records. One of these was the use of digital microfilm copies to allow volunteers off-site or off-site to capture information. The WO 25 officers’ service records were an ideal series for volunteers to work on as the descriptions in Discovery had to be re-cataloged and changed.
The card index
When looking for officers, NCOs and ranks in the 19th century, we are always asked for advice. For officer and non-commissioned officer records, we normally recommend searching Discovery by name, using the army lists, and searching WO 25 and WO 76 for officer records.
These records include officers, paymasters, aides, quartermasters, surgeons, and junior doctors. The records contain information about length of service, location of service and, in some cases, marriage, retirement, and death.
When searching for Discovery, you can find various types of information for officer service. The descriptions in the files were taken from a card index created in the 1980s. This index was in turn compiled from a number of other sources dating back to the early 20th century. An early cataloger was an employee of the Public Record Office, Miss Fairbrother, who made inventories of various records in the 1920s. These handwritten registers were added to the card index.
This file was added to Discovery in the early 2000s. Each piece in Discovery is indexed to 30-40 officers. In most cases, names are listed by initials such as JS Houston or by abbreviations such as Saml Bircham. The descriptions vary with name, rank, regiment and possibly date of service. These descriptions contain a warning:
“Personal descriptions were created using information from a nominal card index for the service of officers in the Army, which was created in the 1980s and which is not complete and may contain some errors.”
In the summer of 2020, a project was launched to re-catalog some of these records, using remote volunteers. The digital microfilm copies were uploaded to Fromthepage.com, a website designed for remote or online transcription by volunteers. The items originally selected were WO 25 / 780-805, Officer Service Returns, originally collected in 1829. They include services during the Napoleonic Wars and the Peninsula Wars.
A form was set up to record the information, including first and last name, regiment, date and place of birth, first and last rank with appointment dates, and family history information including names of wives and children, if provided.
The project started in May 2020 and by February 2021 all of these parts were completed. The data was downloaded as an Excel file and needed to be sorted and verified before adding it to Discovery. We were lucky because a volunteer who was usually on site had some free time at home and was willing to do that part for us. The verification included adding the officer’s full name. The Army Lists are freely available from the National Library of Scotland and WO 65, downloadable through Discovery.
Corrections and additions
A review of the downloaded files revealed two problems with the Discovery Descriptions. There were 38 descriptions in Discovery for the piece WO 25/781. In total, Discovery had descriptions for about 1,075 officers on the 26 parts. The descriptions included the name, rank and regiment and date (s) of service. This information was taken from the file and can explain some of the inaccuracies.
The project find WO 25/781 had a total of 124 officers – around 86 more than listed on Discovery. The project has now expanded the catalog by around 3,800 more officer files.
Another question that was answered was the weirdness of finding an officer’s description but not the microfilm record. The initial indexing resulted in the regiment indicated on the form. John Laurie was ensign without purchase at 26th Foot, later Lieutenant by purchase at 41st Foot. Its service log indicates the 41st Regiment of the Foot, but the log is in the 26th Foot Registers, WO 25/790/38.
The aforementioned JS Houston is now cataloged as [James Steele] Huston and Saml Bircham is cataloged as [Samuel] Birch. Name identified with [ ] around them we indicate that we have used another source to correct the entry.
Occasionally a note is added, e.g. Causes of death include suicide from self-inflicted gunshot wounds, dying of apoplexy, murdered by local tribesmen, or following a siege or battle. We have not included either the cause of death or the place of death in the descriptions.
Peerage for Godfrey William Wentworth, 4th Baron Macdonald, makes no mention of his services as Cornet from 1830-1832 when he retired to take over the baronage after his father’s death.
The records are listed as 1829 but could be earlier or later, e.g. B. if the officer withdrew his commission or continued on duty. John (13th) Lord Elphinstone was made ensign in 1823 and captain in 1837. The records state that he was appointed governor of Madras in 1837.
The other major change was the addition of the full regiment name according to the 1829 Army List. The 1 Foot is now cataloged as the 1st (Royal) Regiment of Foot.
Where possible we have added the woman’s name. In some cases the name is only given with “Fräulein” and the surname. Volunteers used genealogical websites to add the first name, so now is Miss Smith [Jane] Blacksmith. The names and births of the children are also included, but not the place of birth.
Volunteers added birth and death dates of the officer and, in some cases, his wife. This was not specified in the form. Another volunteer identified a portrait that was found on Ancestry.co.uk. Unfortunately, we are unable to include most of this information. The updates to our catalog will hopefully help the research officers and the campaigns or battles that served like the Peninsular War or a note on prisoners of war like Buenos Aires or Montevideo, 1806-1807.
All of this has improved the catalog descriptions. One example is Captain Martin Orr. The original Discovery description was:
His corrected entry now shows:
This part, which is 26 parts, is now complete, and while we previously had about 1,075 descriptions, we now have more than 4,900 officers listed.
Another project to catalog parts of WO 76 and further parts of WO 25 is ongoing. This can include officers who later served in World War I. Thomas William Farquhar Spottiswood was a major in the Royal Engineers. He has two service records for this period, in WO 339/109353 and WO 374/23622. His order card is in WO 372/18/224375. These must not contain any records of previous service in the militia. The Royal Engineers (Militia) Submarine Miners, Thames Division Record in WO 76/22 list him as born on May 13, 1871 and as 2nd lieutenant from April 13, 1896, who was promoted to major on August 5, 1914 at the beginning of the war has been.
We will continue to find pieces that are suitable for remote or off-site transcription. This includes WO 76. WO 76 / 1-23 has been added and parts WO 76 / 15-23 are now complete and on discovery. These are smaller pieces and the cataloging was quite good at first, but we used the same formula as we did with the WO 25 project. With this, approx. 750 additional descriptions have been added to the catalog.
Where the entry is included, we will endeavor to catalog the successor lists (doctorate data) – examples can be found in WO 76 / 1-4. This information is invaluable in tracking service history because the service log does not always include successor or promotion dates.
The next stage is to include non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and other ranks from the WO 25 records. This is not that simple or straightforward. The information for each piece will vary and the layout will change. This will be a challenge for the National Archives. We need to be adaptable in writing the instructions and designing the right template for volunteers.
We start with pieces from WO 25/340. This includes information such as the date and age at the date, place of birth, occupation, body description and seniority.
Tags were added when the records were added to Discovery. This means that in future you can restrict your search to first name, last name, date or place of birth and regiment. This means finding those with a first name like “Morgan” without searching through the last name “Morgan” or finding those who are “bakers” but not bakers.
Another new “find” was the record for His Imperial Highness, the Emperor of Russia, Nicholas II.
One final interesting find: don’t think it’s just about soldiers, officers, and their families. WO 25/270 lists the descriptions, date of accession and who bought it from, and sometimes the date of death for each horse of the 7th (Royal Princess) Dragoon Guard.
If you would like to get involved in this project, then visit our page and register for free or see how you can get involved in other ways.