The Gazette as a source for naval and military biography

Michael Hargreave Mawson explains how you can build a picture of an individual using The Gazette.vintage photos

It could start with a medal, an old letter or family photograph – or even a family tradition. You may have little more to go on than a name, regiment or ship. But if you are interested in researching the life of someone who served in the Royal Navy or the British Army during the 19th century, you will want to consult The London Gazette. 

If the subject of your search was not an officer, there may be little to find – but what little there is may be revealing, and even thrilling.

Imagine, for example, that you have inherited a family medal from a relative. The medal bears the head of Queen Victoria on one side, and a picture of a Roman soldier being crowned with a wreath by a Winged Victory alongside the word ‘Crimea’ on the other. The rim is impressed ‘Maj. James Daubeny, 62nd Regt’. How would you approach searching The Gazette for more information on this individual?  

Starting your search

The advanced search facility offers a great deal of flexibility with regard to search criteria. The archive is immense, so you should endeavour to select every limiting factor you can, and work outwards from known facts.  

Consider what we know. We know the subject's name, his rank, and that he served in the Crimea during the war of 1854 to 1856. We also know his regiment, which will be useful as a filter, in case there are two or more men of the same name active in the period. 

To start with, let us select a narrow range of dates, allowing some overlap – say, from the beginning of 1853 until the end of 1857 – and type “James Daubeny” in double quotation marks into the text box (see result). (Typically, names are given in full in 19th century issues of The London Gazette.) When the results appear, click on the drop-down menu entitled ‘sort by’, and sort them by date, with the oldest appearing first.  

The search engine generates two hits from The London Gazette and a duplicate hit from The Edinburgh Gazette – in this instance, the scan of the text of the duplicate is scrambled, though as luck would have it, Daubeny's name has been correctly rendered in the middle of a string of illegible text. [This is because pre-1998 archive content is captured as image-based PDF files to support free text searching, which may, on occasion, contain optical character recognition (OCR) anomalies.]

The first hit has ‘Brevet-Lieutenant-Colonel James Daubeny, 62nd Regiment’ in a list of ‘KNIGHTS’ (Gazette issue 21909); scrolling back a few pages using the left arrow reveals that he is being granted permission to accept and wear the insignia of a Knight of the French Legion of Honour. The second hit finds him in the middle of another list of names (Gazette issue 21955); scrolling back to the previous page reveals that these individuals have all been appointed Companions of the Bath. So from now on his name will appear with the post-nominals 'CB'.  

Revising and refining your search

We may now expand the period covered by the search. As a field officer and Companion of the Bath in 1857, our subject is unlikely to be younger than 30 or older than 60. It follows that we may extend the earliest date to around 1817 and the latest date to around 1927 and be sure of covering the entire period of his life. (Don’t forget to click the ‘update results’ button once you have changed your search criteria.)  

Our revised search gives us 31 hits, the first of which has gentleman cadet James Daubeny appointed to an ensigncy in the 24th Foot in 1845 (Gazette issue 20485); we can also see that in 1846 he purchases his lieutenancy (Gazette issue 20599), and exchanges into the 62nd in 1848 (Gazette issue 20914). The next hit after his exchange as a lieutenant shows him as a brevet lieutenant colonel in 1856 (Gazette issue 21909). Clearly, there are a number of career steps missing here.  

In such cases, one can rely on the fact that at this time officers were promoted into vacancies left by others, and that the standard formula for such announcements includes the surname of the officer creating the vacancy. Searching this narrow period for the phrase “vice Daubeny” brings up the page in a Gazette of July 1855 (Gazette issue 6506), where the promotion of his successor to the rank of captain is recorded, and a few lines away, we see his own promotion to a majority, and the reason why this did not appear as a result of our earlier search: for once, a 19th-century Gazette has failed to use a full name. 

This discovery prompts us to run a search on “J. Daubeny”, which brings up his promotion to a brevet lieutenant-colonelcy in November of the same year (Gazette issue 21808). But where is his promotion to a captaincy? It must have happened at some point between 1848 and 1855, so as a last resort, we can try a search on just his surname for that period of time. We are in luck. A memorandum in a Gazette of 1852 notes that his surname had been incorrectly rendered as “Daubeney” in a recent announcement (Gazette issue 21344). Searching “Daubeney” in 1852 provides us with the information that he is promoted captain on 6 July of that year (Gazette issue 21336). We now have every step in his career outlined from 1845 to 1857 and can return to the results of our second set of search criteria. 

Moving forward, we find that Daubeny is granted permission to accept and wear the insignia of the fifth class of the Ottoman Mecidî Nişanı (rendered ‘Imperial Order of the Medjidie’ in The Gazette) in 1858 (Gazette issue 22107). In 1862, he receives a brevet colonelcy (two years later, the effective date of this promotion is adjusted by 10 days, for reasons that are not explained) (Gazette issue 22883).  

In 1865 he retires on temporary half-pay (Gazette issue 22964), and another James Daubeny, an army surgeon, starts to appear in the search results. The absence of the post-nominals CB makes it easy to discard results relating to this man; indeed, now we know that we have found all there is to find prior to Daubeny's appointment as a Companion of the Bath, we could filter out such false positives by amending our search term to “Daubeny, C.B.”  

In 1875, our man is promoted major-general (Gazette issue 24241), this promotion being antedated to June 1868 (without any back-pay), and in 1876 he is appointed a travelling inspector for the Contagious Diseases (Animals) Act of 1869 (Gazette issue 24309), a post he holds until 1 January, 1879 (Gazette issue 24665).  

In 1880 he is promoted lieutenant-general (Gazette issue 24857), and the following year is placed on the retired list with the rank of general (Gazette issue 24999). In 1890 he is appointed to the colonelcy of the King's Own (Yorkshire Light Infantry) (Gazette issue 26115), and on his death in 1893, we see that this appointment passes to another (Gazette issue 26448).

The last sight we have of General Daubeny is a request that any creditors of his estate should make themselves known to his executors (Gazette issue 26480). This brief paragraph in a Gazette of 1894 provides his home address, his wife's full name, the name of another Daubeny executor (most likely a son, or a younger brother) and his exact date of death – all useful pieces of information that can be used to conduct further searches elsewhere.

In addition to the types of information found in our example, 19th-century issues of The London Gazette also include citations for a number of gallantry medals (including the Victoria Cross), casualty rolls, official despatches and a variety of other announcements. These all help to illuminate the life of an individual and provide the researcher with valuable clues to opening up new avenues of research.

About the author

Michael Hargreave Mawson is an independent scholar, author, lecturer and broadcaster, and is best known for the book ‘Eyewitness in the Crimea’. He is a member of the Society for Army Historical Research, the Orders and Medals Research Society and the Crimean War Research Society, on the committee of which he served from 1996 to 2005. The Crimean War Research Society is the only organisation dedicated to the study of the war with Russia of 1853-56.