by J. S. Guard
(Note: This example of covers a man's service before and during WW1. The certificate
remained essentially unchanged until, at least, many years after WW2. It may well still
be essentially the same even in the computer age but, having no first hand knowledge of
this, I write in the past tense)
Form S 549, Certificate of Service, was exactly what it says. It certified the man's service
in the Royal Navy with all the necessary relevant facts. It was handed to the man on his
leaving the service and was, amongst other things his reference to show a prospective
employer. It was a legal document on long lasting parchment and while alterations, though
discouraged, were possible in some circumstances, erasures were strictly prohibited except
in the entry for Next of Kin. On the face of it, a boring piece of official paper, but it once
meant a lot to the subject and the practised eye can read much between the lines.
Let us consider this example in detail.
First note the triangle in the top right corner, which states 'The corner of this certificate
is to be cut off if the man is discharged with 'Bad' character or with disgrace'. In
theory this meant that a prospective employer was immediately warned that the man had
a bad service character. The joke was that if it applied the warning had been cut off!
However, probably employers who might take on ex-servicemen probably knew about such
The first thing to note at the top of this example is the notation "True Copy from
Admiralty Records". The reason for this is immediately apparent from the record of the
man's ships on page 2. The first entries are all in the same handwriting, so clearly the copy,
27 May 1915, the day after he left the battleship Majestic. In fact, one could say that
Majestic left him - she was an elderly battleship taking part in the attempt to force the
Dardanelles by naval power alone, she survived this but was sunk by U21 on 27 May 1915.
She sank in 7 minutes but only 40 of her company were lost. The original Service
Certificate went down with her.
Returning to page 1 we find that our man is William Rigby of St Helens, Lancashire,
born October 1887. On entry he was 5ft 4in tall and his chest was 34 ½ in, brown hair and
blue eyes. We start to have a picture of him. He was short and wiry (and probably
nicknamed 'Tich'!). Such a physique was common among miners in the Lancashire
coalfield, but he was not a collier - his 'Trade Brought Up To' was mason.
His Port Division (or depot) was Devonport, as it was for most Lancastrian recruits. The
three Port Divisions, Chatham, Portsmouth and Devonport, were for ratings almost like
separate navies. Each ship was manned solely from one division, which had training
schools for all but the highest-level courses and men returned to their depot barracks
between ships. Chatham was HMS Pembroke, Portsmouth HMS Victory an Devonport
HMS Vivid until renamed HMS Drake in 1934. The system was very like the 'tribal'
regimental system of the British Army.
His religion has not been filled in. With the responsible Admiralty Department busily
engaged in the laborious process of reconstructing hundreds of lost certificates it is not
surprising that they left this to others, but his later officers should have completed it.
The Can Swim is also blank and it is likely that he could not, few of his kind could in
those days. Most seaman and signalmen joined as boys and had longer training, including
swimming instruction, but stokers had to make a conscious effort to learn and few did.
Men who could swim would have the notation PPT (Passed Provisional Test) or PST
(Passed Standard Test). The Provisional Test involved swimming three lengths of the pool
(or three times between the lower booms of the ship) followed by remaining afloat for
three minutes. The Standard Test was the same but wearing a boiler suit.
His Next of Kin is noted as his wife and was entered in 1916, some time after this copy
was made. She may have changed her address then but this suggests that he married then.
We next see that he signed on 26 May 1906, aged 17½, for '5+7 years'. This was the
Special Service engagement, indicated by his official number bearing the prefix SS. Since
the introduction of continuous service in mid-19th Century the standard (CS) engagement
had been for '12 years from the age of 18 or entry if later with option of re-engaging for a further 10 years
to qualify for pension'.
Special Service, then a fairly recent introduction was for 5 years with the fleet followed by
7 years on the Royal Fleet Reserve (RFR), liable for recall at any time. Most stokers were
on this engagement. While RFR the man was paid an annual bounty, not much, but a useful
addition to his civilian wages. The proportions of the SS engagement were later reversed
to 7 years with the fleet followed by 5 years RFR.
Finally, we learn from page 1 that he was awarded the standard three WW1 medals,
1914-15 Star (or Mons Star), War Medal and Victory Medal, which he collected from the
(Army) Regional Pay office, St Helens, on 11 February 1920, probably on production of
We now move on to details of the man's service. He had probably never been farther than
Blackpool so the circuitous rail journey to Plymouth must have been something of an
adventure. One wonders if some friends joined with him.
May-Oct 1906 was spent under training at Devonport barracks. In addition to his stoker
training he would have done quite a lot of parade ground drill and musketry. This was the
age of the naval brigades, in which stokers served alongside seamen. He remained in Vivid
rather longer than the standard new entry training - perhaps retained until he passed his
He may have hoped to go abroad in his first ship. If so, he was unlucky. He was sent to
the 2nd Class cruiser Arrogant in the Atlantic Fleet, so probably got no farther than
Gibraltar. He did a long spell of three years in her. Then, after a month in the depot went
to the heavy cruiser Europa, just commissioning from reserve to join the Home Fleet. Six
months later he finally achieved a more interesting draft to another armoured cruiser,
Gibraltar, also Home Fleet Devonport but he seems to have joined in time for a cruise to
Australia escorting two new destroyers. Then two months in another cruiser in Devonport,
Andromeda, before being discharged to shore into the Fleet Reserve 25 May 1911. No
doubt he did not expect to serve again but his annual bounty for his seven years reserve
service would be useful.
So much for the bare bones of his service, but what was he like? Was he happy in the
Navy? Probably not - turn to page 4 Conduct.
Page 4 -- Conduct
The main part of this page is the yearly assessment of Character (that is conduct) and
Ability (or efficiency).
Character was graded VG (Very Good), Good, Fair, Bad (men assessed as Bad were
discharged). Officers were allowed no judgement in this. A man started each year as VG,
if he was awarded certain laid down (and quite serious) punishment(s) this was reduced to
Good, and so on. There was one special assessment. The Long Service and Good Conduct
Medal (and the accompanying gratuity) was awarded for 15 years continuous VG Conduct
at annual assessment. If a man was coming up for this but had spoiled his record with one
year reduced to Good, it was realised that this had probably been a much-regretted youthful
indiscretion and, once only, A Good could be changed retrospectively to VG - shown as
VG*. For Continuous Service ratings, this page might also bear the notations RMG -
Recommended for (Long Service and Good Conduct) Medal and Gratuity RR -
Recommended to Re-engage (to Complete Time for Pension). The annual assessment had
to be filled in and signed personally by his commanding officer - quite a chore in a
battleship with a complement of several hundred. Early in the year when all certificates
were complete each man was permitted to inspect his own for a few minutes to check
How does our man show up? Regrettably, not well - see top left of the page. From
21Aug(?) 1907 - 4 March 1908, while in Arrogant, he was in the Second Class for
Conduct. This was a severe punishment, involving extra work or drill and drastic
restriction of shore leave. It was awarded to persistent offenders who showed no sign of
improvement after a number of lesser punishments over a period. Then, soon after
finishing this (look down the page), 21 Aug 1908 he was awarded 14 days cells - again
quite a severe punishment. At the end of 1908, therefore, his assessment is Good. In fact,
this Admiralty copy is wrong, he must have been assessed as Good for 1907 - one could
not be Second Class for Conduct and VG Character!
I get the impression of a young man, disappointed in not seeing the world, bored in a
rather static ship, probably falling into bad company (stokers were a rough lot) and perhaps
getting into trouble ashore. However, after his time in cells he seems to have a got a grip
on himself and he completed the necessary three years VG for his 1st Good Conduct Badge.
We cannot know what his offences were, these were recorded on his Record of Offences
Sheet but this was destroyed when he left a ship and a new one started - a just and humane
The second column, annual assessment of ability is not really filled in, this being the
replacement copy certificate, but implies that it was at least Satisfactory.
Returning to Page 2
After three years on shore he was recalled in July 1914 as part of the partial call-out of
the reserves to man the reserve fleets as a practice mobilisation and for a review. At the
end of this they were famously not dispersed as planned but remained in their ships, which
were thus manned and ready when war broke out on 4th August for the confidently expected
titanic clash of the fleets.
His movements, or those of his pay account, are a trifle odd - Mars 13-23 July;
Victorious 23-25 July; Doris 26 July - 1 Aug; Majestic from 2 Aug. One can imagine that
in a major mobilisation exercise such as this things were somewhat chaotic for a few days,
reservists arriving at all hours, by no means all of them sober, some unfit, some lacking
essential kit, some with good compassionate reasons to be excused - then defects being
found in ships. Mars and Victorious were aging pre-dreadnought battleships, Doris a 2nd
class cruiser of similar vintage which had been converted to a depot ship for torpedo boat
destroyers. Finally, as the exercise changed to 'real' as war approached he moved to
Majestic, another pre-dreadnought.
Rigby was probably none too pleased to be one of those called out for the peacetime
exercise but, in fact, he was lucky. When full mobilisation on the outbreak of was
complete, the Admiralty had many more stokers than it needed and the 'spare numbers'
were sent to the newly-formed Royal Naval Division to fight as infantrymen, which is
another story. As we have seen, all stokers had done a fair amount of military training and
so started ahead of the majority of the volunteers who flocked to join Kitchener's armies.
As we have seen, our man served in Majestic until she was sunk in the following year.
To be noted is that on 31 December 1914 his Ability was assessed as Superior (Supr.) for
the first time. At the time there were five grades, Exceptional, Superior, Satisfactory,
Moderate, Inferior - Exceptional was abolished in 1928.
After Majestic was sunk there follows two years in his record which are very puzzling
- perhaps his descendants know the answer.
He returned from the Mediterranean to Devonport Barracks (Vivid II) and stayed on the
books for two whole years May 1915 - May 1917. and for both of those years he was
assessed as Superior but, surprisingly, not advanced to Leading Stoker. One possibility is
that he managed to keep his head well down in a quiet corner and dodge the draft. In
wartime conditions this was not impossible (Chatham Barracks was notorious for it in
WW2) but if he managed this he would certainly not have been classed as Superior. He
might have been unfit for sea, but in this case also he would be unlikely to be Superior and
there would almost certainly be some indication of the fact elsewhere in his papers. He
may have served in very small craft, such as minesweeping trawlers, based at Plymouth,
or possibly even in Q-Ships (submarine decoys). However, there is a clue in the fact that
he was in Gossamer May - Aug 1917 before returning to Vivid August 1917 - March 1918.
This ship was an old torpedo gunboat converted for minesweeping, so probably all this
period was spent in minesweepers based at Devonport.
His conduct remained VG and in due time he was awarded his 2nd Good Conduct badge.
Finally, before demobilisation in January 19 he served in the Torpedo Boat Destroyer
Marvel based at Scapa Flow. He had not quite finished with the Navy, as noted on page 2,
he was re-enrolled in the Royal Fleet Reserve until 31 May 1921, to complete his seven
years reserve service. He would not have minded this, it was wildly improbable that he
would be called again and the Reserve Bounty was always welcome.
Finally, we see near the foot of Page 2 that in February 1921 he was paid £11-13s-4d as
his share of the Naval Prize Fund. Unlike in previous wars, all prize money earned by HM
Ships was put into a central prize fund and distributed to all who had served in the war, pro
rata for rank/rating and length of war service. This does not seem a lot, but it was
equivalent to almost £400 in today's money. There was a second, smaller distribution a
year or two later, not visible in this example.