This collection comprises 42,000 images relating to the records of 6,000 men for the period 1838-1896 archived as WO131 in the National Archives. You will find nominal rolls of soldiers awarded pensions as well as discharge documents of pensioners. The documents recorded a soldier’s rank and regiment, enlistment date, age at enlistment, promotions, reductions, and years of service. You may also find a statement about the soldier’s conduct and notes of distinguished service.

What are Chelsea Pensioners British Army service records?

Royal Hospital in Chelsea was a retirement home for the Chelsea Pensioners and an administrative office for the British Army. It was founded in 1682 and opened in 1692 to look after wounded and disabled soldiers. The hospital catered for in-pensioners but the large majority of soldiers pensioned out of the army were out-pensioners living at their own address but receiving a pension via the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

Although the record collection name is misleading, the great majority of pensioned soldiers were out-pensioners and did not reside at the hospital itself. However, pensions were administered through the Royal Hospital at Chelsea.

Most of these soldiers were born in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. However, a significant proportion came from other parts of the British Empire. In particular, there are a number of soldiers recorded as having been born in India and the Caribbean. The pension records do not just relate to older men. Soldiers were eligible for a pension after 12 years of service, so relatively young men could be pensioned out.

British Army service records

Findmypast’s British Army service records is one of the most significant British Army collections available online. There are around 7.8 million records available. The collection includes a myriad of Army forms including attestation papers, medical forms, discharge documents, pension claims, and proceedings of regimental boards. The attestation form was completed when the soldier joined the regiment and was updated throughout his military career. This, together with other papers found in soldiers files can help piece together a very detailed picture of an individual. This search covers all available papers for each soldier.

Some of the medical reports found on attestation forms reveal how tough conditions could be for the men and how they reacted to these conditions. In the records, we discover that Reuben Booth (service number 29821) from the 10th Battalion suffered from trench foot and dental caries, but the doctor's notes state: ‘This man refuses dental treatment’. In addition, the doctor's notes of a medical report about a musician from Roden Hill, Marton, Buckinghamshire, claim that the man ‘walks with a marked limp which in my opinion is greatly exaggerated’.

The British Army service records include the names of both officers and other ranks. Commissioned officers include the ranks of general, brigadier, colonel, major, captain, and lieutenant. Until 1871, commissions (up to the rank of colonel) were purchased. The sale of commissions could lead to incompetent leadership, which became clear during the Crimean War and the ill-fated ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. It was abolished soon after. Non-commissioned officers, or other ranks, include privates, lance corporals and sergeants. Knowledge of your ancestor’s rank will help you with your search for military records. Many of the records in this collection were composed by the Royal Chelsea Hospital for pensions.

The British Army did not have a central record keeping system until the First World War. Most documents prior to 1914 come from individual regiments. The records comprise soldiers' attestation and discharge papers and form part of the War Office (WO) series of records now held at The National Archives in Kew. The War Office was the precursor of today's Ministry of Defence. Thousands of British Army records, especially from the First World War, were destroyed during the Second World War in September 1940 when enemy bombs hit the War Office Record Office, located on Arnside Street. What survived was eventually moved to The National Archives and subsequently microfilmed.