Research Your Victorian Era War Heroes

Simon Pearce reveals how to trace ancestors who fought in the Victoria Era.

“I think I have an ancestor who served with the British Army during the Victorian period, but I’m unsure where to begin my research”.

Does this resonate with you? Perhaps you are curious to learn about any potential ancestors who donned the red coat of the British Army during Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901. Maybe you were captivated by the family stories suggesting a 3x great grandfather served during the Indian Mutiny or the First Anglo-Boer War. Perhaps you have Victorian medals, photographs or memorabilia at home but you are unsure how to follow up the stories behind each item. These steps can help you on your journey of discovery. 

©  Hulton Archives/Getty Images - 93rd Foot 1873
©  Hulton Archives/Getty Images - 93rd Foot 1873 

Service records are an invaluable source when researching the armed forces and mark a good starting point on your research journey. These can contain vital clues, such as the date and place your ancestor enlisted, their number, the unit they served with and where they served. A discharge date is often recorded too. This will help you to piece together your ancestor’s military service, from start to finish, laying the foundations for research into other sources. 

Before 1883, British Army service records are predominantly for soldiers who were discharged to pensions, not those killed in service or discharged without a pension. From 1883 onwards service records are more substantial and are also available for soldiers who were discharged without a pension, but still rarer for those who died in service. Remember: during this period soldiers typically enlisted for 21 years’ service with the British Army. However, in 1870 a short service option was introduced, allowing a soldier to serve for 12 years, including a period of service with the reserves. After 12 years, a soldier had the option to ‘re-engage’ for another 9 years, taking his total up to 21 years, making him eligible for a pension. 

However, for many of our ancestors, we will not have a detailed service or pension record at our disposal. Pre-First World War service and pension documents can be patchy and we therefore have to build up our knowledge of our ancestor’s military service using a variety of collections. 

To assist you with your searches, we have a series of transcribed collections available on FWR known as the Worldwide Army Indexes. These collections may help you to confirm the service of an ancestor with the British Army during the Victorian period. You may even unearth a military ancestor you were previously unaware of. 

The Worldwide Army Indexes are an important tool for researchers looking to identify their military ancestors in the mid-late Victorian era. The indexes were compiled from muster lists contained in War Office Paylists held at The National Archives (TNA), Kew; more on these shortly. 

Our members have access to the 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871 Worldwide Army Indexes which can be found at the top of our Collections List. Entries are likely to include the soldier’s name, regiment, rank and number, in addition to their regimental HQ location. You may be aware that domestic censuses were taken every 10 years, and are available from 1841 onwards. The Worldwide Army Indexes can complement the domestic censuses. For example, if the person you are researching was absent from the census or not where you expected them to be, and were of military age, you may wish to explore the possibility that they joined the army by searching the army indexes. Alternatively, a census may indicate that a person was an army pensioner, or ‘Chelsea Pensioner’, allowing you to work backwards and pinpoint military records. 

If you are struggling to find service or pension records for an ancestor who served with the British Army then the worldwide indexes are a great place to focus your searches. A positive entry could act as a springboard for further research into additional collections such as the muster rolls held at TNA. Muster rolls are monthly or quarterly lists indicating a soldier’s movements, where his unit was stationed, and often contain enlistment and discharge dates, allowing you to form a timeline of their military service. 

What about medal records?

Campaign medals were issued to soldiers for service during particular campaigns or wars. Locating a positive entry in the medal rolls helps to confirm your ancestor’s service during a particular campaign and may help you to make additional discoveries in other military collections. Search our Collections List for keywords such as ‘medal’ or ‘award’ where you will find transcribed medal rolls for the Second Boer War or gallantry awards from the Crimean War onwards. Keep in mind the Army Long Service and Good Conduct awards; awarded initially for 21 years service and good conduct (24 for the cavalry) and from 1870 onwards, 18 years.

What if your ancestor died serving with the army during the Victorian period? Burial records or headstone photos and transcriptions can provide useful information about the deceased to assist with your research. 

Many soldiers served in India during the 19th century and if this was their final resting place, you may find a burial transcription within the Burials Database of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia. The database of the Families in British India Society may also prove beneficial for tracing military casualties in India. If your ancestor died in South Africa, consult the Gravestone Picture Library of the Genealogical Society of South Africa for any potential photos of headstones or memorials. The Imperial War Museum’s War Memorials Register contains a large number of photographs of memorials which can be searched by name of deceased or specific conflict. 

Although relating to a specific window, TNA holds the Soldiers’ Effects Ledgers for 1862-1881, detailing any money owed to soldiers who died serving with the British Army. In addition, our members can search casualty rolls for the Second Afghan War of 1878-80, and the Second Boer War, covering 1899-1902; both can be found in the Collections List

How do I learn more about my ancestor’s regiment and the battles and wars they fought in? Regimental histories are a great source for adding colour and context and can build on the dates and facts you have gleaned from other sources. Consult our Historic Documents section for any regimental histories relevant to your ancestor’s military service. 

Finally, try and keep a timeline of your ancestor’s military service; perhaps attach any records or information you find to your Ancestry tree, allowing you to visualise dates from your ancestor’s military service in relation to other key events in their lives, such as their marriage, or the births of their children. 

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