The Naval General Service 1793-1840 Medal Rolls, Past and Present

By John Hayward

'Why are young men told to look in ancient history for examples of heroism when their own countrymen furnish such lessons'?

William Napier's words could easily be applied to so many acts of courage and devotion to duty shown by Officers and men of the Royal Navy during the numerous maritime engagements fought against this country's enemies around the world between 1793 and 1815. Most of the great sea battles, ship to ship actions, and 'cutting out' operations were generally against the naval forces of France, except for the brief Treaty of Amiens period of 1802-03, as well as some noteworthy exchanges with warships of the United States during a disagreement with that country from 1812 to 1815.

It would take little effort to fill page after page with wonderful and emotive stories about the men, of their achievements, of the ships, the battles and the glory but alas I have been asked to write a few lines about a dependable roll for the Naval General Service Medal 1793-1840, a retrospective award, only considered for issue to those veterans still alive to claim their medal 33 years after the close of play at Waterloo.

For nearly four years from 1847 to 1851 an Admiralty Board of Flag Officers, known as the Medal Committee, together with a team of naval clerks, laboured to validate large numbers of survivors' applications that came in answer to the London Gazette advertisements for the medal, which collectively offered no fewer than 231 different medal clasps. Up to the advertised close of the Medal Committee's business on 1 May 1851 (London Gazette 28.1.1851) some 21,000 claims had been approved- this number including those for Algiers 1816, Navarino 1827 and Syria 1840.

These brief introductory notes to my observations on privately published Naval General Service Medal rolls past and present do not even begin to address the seven years of intense political activity that led to the issue of both the Naval and the Military Medal nor do they fully acknowledge the valuable work carried out by the Naval Medal Committee. Those interested in the comprehensive finer detail on both subjects - the seven year wrangle and the sterling work of the Committee of Admirals - may wish to refer to the introductory 28 pages of the Douglas-Morris Naval General Service Medal roll.

The Official Roll

The Naval Medal Committee was sent over 23,000 written applications for the medal with clasp/clasps and on receipt each veteran's name was arranged alphabetically with the nature of the claim and corroborative details. This data was then entered into the Application Receipt Book and number coded. All the information was then rearranged for inclusion into the 'Clasp Rolls', which recorded each single clasp of each claim under its own action heading together with the claimant's name, forenames, rank/rate and ship at time of action. The validity of each clasp claim was checked by the Committee and the relative entry on the 'Clasp List' was marked 'Yes' or 'No'. In the latter case, the reason, ie 'Ran', was sometimes given.

All the application letters except for one, all the Application Receipt books and all the 'copper-plate' written rolls prepared for Royal Mint use, which were almost certainly the most accurate and most complete records made, were weeded and destroyed. Three 'Clasp Claimants Lists' are the only official lists that have survived - a fourth 'Egypt' volume, although seen and thankfully recorded by Colonel Hailes RM in 1910, went missing in the late 1930s. Perhaps so much important medal-related material was destroyed because officialdom assumed that the then four 'Clasp Lists', annotated, signed and initialed throughout by the Senior Flag Officer of the Medal Committee, were the records to retain together with the mis-spelt names, 'bent-line' entries, new entries squeezed between old entries with ditto marks and, of course, no cross references etc etc. These documents are now all that is left with which to construct a useful Naval General Service Medal Roll 1793-1840. The three remaining volumes were transferred from the Admiralty Medal Section to the Public Record Office in the 1960s.

The Unofficial Rolls

The Hailes Roll:

Colonel A.D. Hailes pioneered and completed the first meaningful N.G.S. roll 1793-1840 in July 1910. He applied his considerable transcriptional expertise to the surviving four volume 'Admiralty Clasp Rolls' and painstakingly reorganised and, most importantly, nominally cross-referenced the awards into the research model upon which future medal enthusiasts were to add their own brand of expertise. The Hailes Roll originally produced in manuscript has been re-written and copied in typescript so many times and has been distributed through many outlets.

Such was Hailes' ability to cross-reference the multiple clasp awards from the raw Admiralty Lists that later 'roll compilers' assumed that the Colonel must have had access to the original archival material - Application letters, books or Royal Mint lists - this was not so. The Hailes Roll, so often adopted, adapted and sometimes improved, was all the Colonel's own work and I am pleased to say I own Colonel Hales' original 1910 manuscript roll which is a joy to behold - and of course reveals his modus operandi.

For the record, the advent of the Hailes Roll in 1910 put paid to a great deal of haphazard unofficial adjustments to the Naval Medal and clasps but those engaged in such activities were now able to supply an upgraded 'Syria' clasped award with a replacement rare clasp and were able to proclaim 'John Smith' to be 'On the Roll' - he was, together with 50 other John Smiths. Syria, Algiers and Navarino upgrades were not the only 'elevated' awards - not by a long chalk.

The Newnham Roll:


This is a useful roll of 558 single-sided typescript pages published in small duplicated quantities by A.J. Newnham of Portsmouth. Although the contents, cross-referencing and layout clearly originate from the Hailes work, some deficiencies were obviously made good and a number of original transcriptional errors were corrected and explained. Additional notes on other contemporary or later awards, if known, were added to a number of entries and an odd biographical note appears here and there. A good clasp index precedes the main work.
Even today a copy of Newnham is worthwhile, especially when full of old collectors' notes. On the appearance of the first published printed roll in 1982, an old auctioneer friend 'weeded' his Newnham roll into his forthcoming medal sale. A good Naval G.S.M. on offer in the same sale catalogue didn't pass muster, not in the 'new roll' anyway. A quick word to my friend ensured the future of the discarded 'Portsmouth Edition' and I hope he still has it. My own heavily annotated copy reminded me of this episode.

The Douglas-Morris Roll:


The much heralded privately published Naval General Service Medal Roll by Captain Douglas-Morris R.N. made its debut in 1982. It was printed on fine quality paper and limited to an edition of 250 numbered pieces. Those who subscribed to one copy were later able to purchase an additional unnumbered working copy. Another edition was printed in tandem with the special volume but on cartridge paper and without certain preliminary pages; this was retained and distributed later after the premier work had had its run. Given the extent of the circulation of this roll, copies can still be acquired quite easily unlike those by Hailes and Newnham.

As mentioned earlier in these notes, the comprehensive and erudite introduction to the roll provides a thorough insight into the genesis of the medal and the workings of the Committee of Flag Officers. The Captain tackled the various deficiencies of previous rolls with the intention of providing the definitive work. He laboured for some years to this end. He naturally took as his base the framework of the Hailes roll and together with the Admiralty Clasp Lists proceeded doggedly towards the completion of his magnus opus. My old Naval rolls still bear the pencil checkmarks of his early workings. Over a period of some years, those who knew him learnt so much about bent entries, inadequate clerks, misplaced inaccurate dates and his almost day-by-day revelations. After publication of 'The Roll' it became obvious that the Captain had revealed a significant number of multi-clasp awards and other errors.

However, consistent use of the new roll gradually revealed two serious irregularities:

1. Despite the Captain's multi-clasp discoveries from single-clasp listings, it became clear that many others had not been identified. The Clasp Lists' coded numbers used to cross-refer the entries had surprisingly been only partially applied. An initial foray into the new roll quickly revealed that 336 single, 26 double and two triple clasp entries should have read 134 double, 34 triple and six quadruple clasp entries, and a number of known complete entries had been overlooked completely. To the Captain's credit, when an omission on his roll related to a medal or a clasp that required confirmation the Captain issued a "Certificate of Worthiness". These documents became quickly known as "The Captain's Chitties".

2. The Captain introduced into his roll a new concept - the 'verified aboard not on roll' (VANOR) man and gave his rationale for so doing. In the introduction to his roll he says: 'To try to overcome some of the faults of the clerks, the immediate service histories of all such men awarded a Frigate action or Boat Service action clasp have been sought in the relevant ships' Muster Books. This has led to a large number of extra entries on the new Roll with the notation 'Verified Aboard. Not on Roll' for what may or may not have been additional claims'. However, serious problems were created by this methodology. To paraphrase the argument, despite the Captain's own comment that these 'may or may not have been additional claims', he included them in his totals of each clasp awarded. 'These presumptive and categoric' totals were then transferred to an analytical table at the back of the roll, even though the evidence from extant medals shows that though some bear the 'verified aboard not on roll' clasps, many more do not. Thus Captain Douglas-Morris increased the total of 'Pelagosa' clasps awarded by one sixth, while some smaller 'award' totals have been augmented by as much as one hundred per cent. Unfortunately these inaccurate numbers have gained common acceptance and regularly appear in some auction catalogues and dealers' lists.For all its faults nothing can detract from the immense contribution that Captain Douglas-Morris made to our knowledge of Naval Medals.

The Message Roll:

Colin Message adopted a completely new approach with his 1996 compilation. Doing away with the traditional clasp-by-clasp listing, he produced the first published completely alphabetical list. As with all previous rolls, the base for the work was the Admiralty Clasp Lists, relying naturally upon the complete coded reference numbers against each entry, which have all been reproduced in this roll. Thus a number and name appearing twice or more indicates a multi-clasp award. The complete alphabetical nominal list indicates immediately the number of common usage names in the whole roll, e.g. if five medal recipients named John Robinson appear on the roll for say Syria (and they do) or Algiers, I would prefer to pursue a Trafalgar award to a different recipient - say Henry Schroone - an unusual name!

It goes without saying that research for this roll was computer aided and this produced the largest crop of multi-clasp awards from single clasp medals to date. The Message roll can rightly be considered the definitive list of which