Naval Biographical Database



Why undertake such a huge project?   Original research into local history  at Portsmouth, revealed many names, few of which featured in the Dictionary of National Biography or other standard references.  Whilst any individual can make a significant contribution to contemporary events, the importance of their standing amongst their peers, whether social or otherwise, is essential if such a contribution is to be judged against the evidence and events of the day. 

The need to determine who was doing what and when was obvious.  Not quite so obvious, perhaps, was the requirement to determine the actual dates in office - the significance of a letter from, say, the First Sea Lord written the day after he left office would be very different from one written two days earlier.  Thus a collection of succession lists was started; a collection which was by no means restricted to the Navy. 

The work was given a new urgency when reports were received, from within naval circles, that some ‘Honours Boards' - probably more correctly called ‘Succession Lists' - were being burned, thrown away or painted over, and a start was made to record those available locally, supplemented by written sources.  There should be no great surprise in this apparent vandalism - as the Navy has reduced from 750,000 in uniform at the end of  WWII, down to the present 40,000 or so, there is a practical limit to the staff effort which can be directed towards preserving our historical record.

Many of the Boards do relate to what today we refer to as ‘Naval Officers' and a number survived of the more senior post-holders.  But, to take Portsmouth as an example, whilst no Board has been located for the Commander-in-Chief, Boards do exist for the Dockyard Commissioners, Superintendents, Master Attendants, Master Riggers, Storekeepers and Police - and others are known to exist. 

The amount and ‘quality' of information contained on these Boards varied enormously but every board seen to date has contained at least one unique piece of information. This has been found to be particularly true of the more recent data which are generally accurate and often give three key pieces of information; the actual date of succession, the date on which the title of the post-holder changed, and the new title.  Additionally, when a particular office was only held for a short period of time, there has been difficulty in tracing the information in any other way.

A case in point is a beautifully illuminated list which hangs in a corridor in the new Victory building at Portsmouth.  It is grossly inaccurate, providing an interesting reflection on the ego of later post-holders. However one entry refers to a man who spent a single day in office.  This has subsequently been verified but without this list as a starting point, the appointment would have been difficult  to recover in any other way. And even the Navy Lists, although not themselves notoriously accurate, have provided a progressive reduction in detail. 

Once indexing began on a small pilot scheme, it became apparent that a large scale data gathering exercise was required.  Although the data from the Boards could be invaluable, it was only a starting point of variable accuracy, and most of the information required checking from primary sources.  It therefore seemed possible and logical to provide a research tool of much broader significance, given that there was no comprehensive listing of our people.  So the project began.

      © CHD 2014