With the an­niver­sary of Water­loo upon us, Phil To­maselli looks at how muster records can re­veal the lives of your mil­i­tary fore­bears

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Phil To­maselli

It’s pos­si­ble to trace ev­ery­where your mil­i­tary an­ces­tor was posted and the cam­paigns he fought in

The Army muster rolls form the most de­tailed and com­pre­hen­sive record of Bri­tish sol­diers be­tween the early 18th and late 19th cen­turies. Though they’re ba­si­cally a set of unit ac­counts, com­piled monthly or quar­terly, de­tail­ing the men serv­ing and how much they were paid, they in­ci­den­tally tell us where they served, give oc­ca­sional de­tails of their be­hav­iour and state of health, and al­low us to de­duce which bat­tles they fought in.

Un­til about 1883, records of sol­diers who died in ser­vice, de­serted, bought their way out or oth­er­wise didn’t re­ceive a pen­sion were rou­tinely de­stroyed, so musters are the prin­ci­pal source of in­for­ma­tion on lots of men whose records no longer sur­vive.

Musters will be of most use for fam­ily his­to­ri­ans who’ve pos­i­tively iden­ti­fied an an­ces­tor as a sol­dier us­ing the ser­vice records avail­able on Find­my­past. Th­ese of­ten just record the date he joined a unit, how long he spent in each rank, trans­fers to an­other unit and when, and why, he was given a pen­sion. Only if he served in the West or East Indies (usu­ally In­dia) will ser­vice abroad be men­tioned.

By iden­ti­fy­ing the first muster for his first unit and fol­low­ing them over the years it’s pos­si­ble to trace ev­ery­where he was posted and the cam­paigns he fought in.

I’ve traced many sol­diers this way, in­clud­ing one who fought in al­most ev­ery one of Welling­ton’s Span­ish bat­tles, and an­other who spent years on peace­ful gar­ri­son duty in Canada be­fore fight­ing in the War of 1812.

Muster is­sues

The musters aren’t on­line or in­dexed by sol­diers’ names, mak­ing them a dif­fi­cult source for fam­ily his­to­ri­ans to use, es­pe­cially if there’s no ser­vice record point­ing to the rel­e­vant unit musters. There may be clues to help – a medal with the name and unit on it, a photo show­ing the uni­form, a tomb­stone nam­ing his reg­i­ment, or a news­pa­per story or fam­ily leg­end.

Of­fi­cers are usu­ally bet­ter recorded in other sources like the Army List, so musters are of most use in trac­ing or­di­nary sol­diers – the ‘other ranks’. Th­ese only have their first name and sur­name recorded in the muster, so great care is needed be­fore you can be cer­tain you’ve got the right man.

Where there are two men in the same unit with the same name there should be a note giv­ing their pre­vi­ous oc­cu­pa­tions and places where born in the ‘Re­marks’ sec­tion of the page, which may help you iden­tify your an­ces­tor.

In later musters there will also be a sec­tion show­ing amounts re­mit­ted by sol­diers to fam­ily back in Bri­tain with a name and ad­dress the money is be­ing sent to. From 1868 to 1883 musters may also con­tain lists of ‘men be­com­ing non-ef­fec­tive’, found at the end of each quar­ter (or the be­gin­ning for reg­i­ments sta­tioned in In­dia) giv­ing a man’s birth­place, along with his trade and date of death or dis­charge.

Later musters may in­clude Mar­riage Rolls, giv­ing de­tails of chil­dren and wives oc­cu­py­ing mar­ried quar­ters – but th­ese are only mar­riages where the army ac­cepted it had a re­spon­si­bil­ity to the wife and fam­ily.

Dis­cov­ery cat­a­logue

Hav­ing iden­ti­fied a sol­dier an­ces­tor and his unit (usu­ally a reg­i­ment but some­times a com­pany if he’s a Royal En­gi­neer or Ar­tillery­man), the musters cov­er­ing his ser­vice can be found us­ing The Na­tional Ar­chives’ (TNA) Dis­cov­ery cat­a­logue.

For a sol­dier serv­ing in the First Bat­tal­ion of 5th Foot be­tween 1809 and 1834, for ex­am­ple, Musters are be­tween WO 12/2297 and WO 12/2309. De­pend­ing upon the pe­riod, musters are ei­ther monthly or quar­terly and are com­piled by rank and then al­pha­bet­i­cally. Some­times they are di­vided up by com­pany too.

Once lo­cated in one muster, trace back­wards or for­wards through his ca­reer. Lo­ca­tion of the unit is usu­ally given on the cover but bat­tles and cam­paigns are rarely men­tioned – you can of­ten check the unit his­tory on the reg­i­men­tal mu­seum web­site.

If the sol­dier wasn’t present at a muster there’s a rea­son given –

Later musters may in­clude Mar­riage Rolls, giv­ing de­tails of chil­dren and wives oc­cu­py­ing mar­ried quar­ters

he might have been on guard duty, in hos­pi­tal, or serv­ing else­where. The ‘Re­marks’ col­umn some­times gives other in­for­ma­tion – such as death, de­ser­tion or im­pris­on­ment! Sol­diers who fought at Water­loo are in­di­cated in later musters by a prom­i­nent ‘W’ in red ink.

Early musters

The ear­li­est musters (1730 to 1878) for the House­hold Cavalry, Guards, In­fantry, colo­nial troops, for­eign reg­i­ments in Bri­tish ser­vice and de­pot troops are in TNA’s WO 12 se­ries. Royal Ar­tillery and Royal En­gi­neers musters are held sep­a­rately un­til 1878. Royal Ar­tillery musters (go­ing back to 1708) are in WO 10 se­ries and Royal En­gi­neers are in WO 11. A small num­ber of men at the Crimean War Scutari De­pot are mus­tered in WO 14. Af­ter 1878 all musters are in WO 16 se­ries but they cease in 1898.

The mili­tia and the vol­un­teers were lo­cal part-time sol­diers. Their musters, from 1780 to 1878, are in WO 13 but some musters for the mili­tia and its pre­de­ces­sors can be found in county record of­fices and other col­lec­tions, of­ten go­ing back to the El­iz­a­bethan pe­riod or even ear­lier. Dorset His­tory Cen­tre, for ex­am­ple, has musters for the Brid­port Mili­tia back to 1319! Fi­nally, there’s a very use­ful ba­sic guide to find­ing and us­ing muster rolls by TNA at­tion­ uk/records/re­search-guides/ army-muster-1730-1898.htm. Phil To­maselli is a mil­i­tary fam­ily his­tory ex­pert and the au­thor of Trac­ing Your Air Force An­ces­tors.

Above: The Bat­tle of Meea­nee, be­tween the Bri­tish Army and the Talpur Amirs of Sindh, 1843

An English en­camp­ment

in Afghanistan, 1879

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