FOCUS ON: ARMY MUSTERS
With the anniversary of Waterloo upon us, Phil Tomaselli looks at how muster records can reveal the lives of your military forebears
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.
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.
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.
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 at www.nationalarchives.gov. 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