COVID-19, lockdowns and limited or no access to The National Archives has not stopped our volunteers from cataloguing. The restrictions over the past year have meant having to look at other ways to catalogue our records. One of these was to use digital microfilmed copies to enable remote or off site volunteers to capture information. WO 25 officers’ records of service was an ideal series for volunteers to work on as the descriptions in Discovery needed re-cataloguing and amending.
The card index
We are always asked for advice on finding officers, non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and ratings during the 19th century. For records of officers and NCOs the advice we usually give is to search Discovery by name, use the Army Lists, and search WO 25 and WO 76 for returns of officers’ records.
These records include officers, paymasters, adjutants, quartermasters, surgeons and assistant surgeons. The records provide details of length of service, where served, and in some cases marriage, retirement and death.
Searching Discovery finds varied information for officers’ service. The descriptions in the records were taken from a card index produced in the 1980s. In turn this index was produced from a number of other sources from the early 20th century. An early cataloguer was an employee of the Public Record Office, Miss Fairbrother, who produced indexes to various records in the 1920s. These handwritten bound indexes were incorporated in to the card index.
This card index was added to Discovery in the early 2000s. Each piece in Discovery is indexed with between 30-40 officers. In most cases names are listed by initial, such as J S Houston, or abbreviated name, such as Saml Bircham. The descriptions vary, with name, rank, a regiment and possibly date(s) of service. These descriptions do come with a warning:
‘Descriptions relating to individuals have been created using information from a nominal card index relating to Army Officers’ service compiled in the 1980s, which is not comprehensive and may contain some errors.’
During the summer of 2020 a project to re-catalogue some of these records was started using remote volunteers. The digital microfilm copies were upload to Fromthepage.com, a website designed for remote or online volunteer transcription. The pieces chosen initially were WO 25/780-805, returns of officers’ service originally collected in 1829. They include service during the Napoleonic and Peninsular Wars.
A form was set up to capture the information, with forename, surname, regiment, date and place of birth, first and last ranks mentioned with dates of appointment, and genealogical information including wife and children’s names where given.
The project started in May 2020, and by February 2021 all these pieces were completed. The data was downloaded as an Excel file, and required sorting and checking before being added to Discovery. We were fortunate, as a volunteer who was usually on site had some spare time at home and was willing to do this part for us. The checking included adding the full name of the officer. The Army Lists are freely available from the National Library of Scotland 1 and WO 65, downloadable through Discovery.
Corrections and amendments
A check of the downloaded files highlighted 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 over the 26 pieces. The descriptions gave name, rank and regiment and date(s) of service. This information was taken from the card index and may explain some of the inaccuracies.
The project found piece WO 25/781 had a total number of 124 officers – approximately 86 more than listed on Discovery. This means the project has now added approximately a further 3,800 officers’ records to the catalogue.
Another question answered was the oddity of finding the description for an officer but not the record on the microfilm. The initial indexing gave the regiment stated on the form. John Laurie was Ensign without purchase in the 26th Foot, later a Lieutenant by purchase in 41st Foot. His record of service states the 41st Regiment of Foot, but the record is found within the 26th Foot records, WO 25/790/38.
The aforementioned J S Houston is now catalogued as [James Steele] Huston, and Saml Bircham is catalogued as [Samuel] Bircham. Names identified with [ ] round them indicate we used a further source to correct the entry.
Occasionally a note is added, such as date of retirement or death. Causes of death include committing suicide by self-inflicted gunshot wounds dying from Apoplexy 2, murdered by the local tribesmen, or following a siege or battle. We have not included cause or place of death in the descriptions.
The Peerage for Godfrey William Wentworth, 4th Baron Macdonald, makes no mention of his service as Cornet from 1830-1832, when he retired to take up the Baronage on his father’s death 3.
The records are listed as 1829 but may be earlier or later, such as if the officer had retired his commission, or continued in service. John (13th) Lord Elphinstone was appointed Ensign in 1823, and by 1837 was a Captain. The record notes he was appointed Governor to Madras in 1837.
The other main change was adding the full regiment name according to the 1829 Army List. The 1 Foot is now catalogued as the 1st (Royal) Regiment of Foot.
Where possible we added the wife’s name. In some cases the name is given as just ‘Miss’ and the surname. Volunteers used genealogical websites to add the forename, so Miss Smith is now [Jane] Smith. Children’s names and births are also included, but not place of birth.
Volunteers added birth and death dates for the officer and in some cases his wife. This was not stated on the form. Another volunteer identified a portrait found on Ancestry.co.uk. Unfortunately we cannot include the majority of this information. The updates to our catalogue will hopefully help research officers and the campaigns or battles served such as the Peninsular War, or a note regarding prisoner of war such as Buenos Aires or Montevideo, 1806-1807.
All these have enhanced the catalogue descriptions. An example is Captain Martin Orr. The original Discovery description was:
His corrected entry now shows:
This part, covering 26 pieces, has now been completed, and whereas before we had about 1,075 descriptions, we now have more than 4,900 officers listed.
A further project to catalogue parts of WO 76 is ongoing, and also further parts of WO 25. These may include officers who went on to serve in the First World War. 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 medal card is in WO 372/18/224375. These may not include records of earlier service in the Militia. The Royal Engineers (Militia) Submarine Miners, Thames Division record in WO 76/22 record him as being born 13 May 1871, and a 2nd Lieutenant from 13 April 1896, progressing to Major on 5 August 1914, at the start of the war.
We will continue to find pieces which are suitable for remote or off site transcription. This includes WO 76. WO 76/1-23 have been added and the pieces WO 76/15-23 are now complete and on Discovery. These are smaller pieces, and the cataloguing was reasonably good to start with, but we have used the same formula as the WO 25 project. This has added approximately 750 further descriptions to the catalogue.
Where the record is included, we will aim to catalogue the succession lists (dates of promotion) – examples can be found in WO 76/1-4. This information is invaluable for tracing the dates of service, as the record of service does not always state dates of succession or promotion.
The next stage is to include non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and other ranks from the WO 25 records. This is not as simple or straightforward. The information for each piece varies, and the layout changes. This will be challenging for The National Archives. We will need to be adaptive in writing the instructions and designing the correct template for volunteers.
We are starting with pieces from WO 25/340. This includes information such as dates of appointment and age on appointment, place of birth, occupation, physical description and length of service.
When the records were added to Discovery, tags were added. This means in the future you can search restricting to forename, surname, date or place of birth, and regiment. This will mean finding those with a first name such as ‘Morgan’, without having to sift through the surname ‘Morgan’, or finding those who are a ‘Baker’ but not a baker.
Another recent ‘find’ was the record for His Imperial Highness the Emperor of Russia Nicholas II, who became the Colonel-in-Chief of the Scots Greys on 8 December 1894.
One last interesting find to note: do not think it is all about soldiers, officers and their families. WO 25/270 lists the descriptions, date of joining, and from whom purchased and sometimes date of death for each horse of the 7th (Royal Princess) Dragoon Guards.
- Army Lists available from National Library of Scotland: https://digital.nls.uk/british-military-lists/archive/88735803. ↩
- Apoplexy: unconsciousness or incapacity resulting from a cerebral haemorrhage or stroke. ↩
- Godfrey William Wentworth Bosville Macdonald, 4th Baron Macdonald of Slate. ↩