Last updated: 19 April 2012
The May edition of 'Who Do You Think You Are?' magazine features the National Army Museum's collection of soldiers' effects ledgers. These records contain invaluable information about soldiers' careers, deaths and next of kin.
Soldiers’ effects ledgers were created by the War Office to record the monies owing to soldiers who died while serving in the British Army. The National Army Museum holds the records from 1901 to 1960, covering the latter stages of the Boer War and, of course, both World Wars.
Although these documents are no substitute for an individual’s service record, they do contain pertinent information that can be particularly valuable for family and social historians.
The ledgers list a soldier’s name, rank, regiment, date (and sometimes place) of death, but perhaps most importantly they give you the name of the deceased’s next of kin. Family historians can often be faced with trying to research several men with the same name in order to work out which is their ancestor. This is most often the case with First World War soldiers, as so many of their service records were lost during the Second World War bombing of the National Archives. By providing the name of the next of kin, the soldiers’ effects records can sometimes provide the only existing evidence of this crucial family link.
The sheer number of volumes alone provides a stark reminder of just how many men were lost during this devastating period in world history. The monies awarded to a soldier’s next of kin consisted of his balance of pay, plus a gratuity that was paid out after the war. These amounts are incredibly small to our modern way of thinking, sometimes even just a couple of pounds or a few shillings.
Payments would be awarded to a soldier’s widow first, and if he was not married, to one of his parents. Some are even split between several siblings or other relatives, all individually named. A significant majority of the First World War payments however go to soldiers’ mothers. This not only points to how many widows there were in Britain at the time (as the money would usually be awarded to a soldier’s father first if he was alive) but also perhaps to the general youth of the British Army, with so many going to war never having married.
One of the interesting things is that the earliest records from 1901 to 1913 list a soldier’s trade on enlistment, providing a fascinating glimpse into the history of early 20th-century employment. Amongst the labourers, stonemasons and blacksmiths we find moulders, riveters and draper’s assistants. Some of the more eye-catching examples include a tea packer from Wigan and a flannelette finisher from Lancashire!
The ledgers are fragile and weigh several metric tonnes. As a consequence they are held in off-site storage. For researchers wanting transcripts and images of the records, there is a fee of £10.25 per search to cover the Museum’s costs.