First views of the British Army Officers database

A workshop run by Drs Kevin Linch and Simon Quinn held on 17 July 2023 gave historians, archivists and family historians exclusive early access to a database of the careers of British Army officers.

This workshop provided first sight of a database that reconstructs the careers of 40,000 individuals who served as officers in the British Army between 1790 and 1820. Based on transcriptions of the printed annual Army Lists, the database uses cutting-edge technology to match records.

Participants got the chance to search for individual ancestors or units they were interested in and to explore how the technology assesses and combines historical records.

This is such an incredible body of information and the database offers many rich avenues for research.

The workshop highlighted the transformation in searching and analysing officers’ careers offered by the database. It takes awkward-to-use PDF files of printed books that are organised by year with no search function and allows users to find individuals and cohorts across 30 years of data.

I really like the link rating system and the ability to see the ‘workings’ of the database – ie being able to see if it’s rated as a probable good match or if it’s less clear, so you know to do your own extra research.

Participants at the workshop were particularly enthusiastic about the database’s technology for linking together records, especially the ability to view the probability of the match.

In contrast to existing search tools used in finding related records, this aspect of the database was transparent about the confidence that a user could have in the results.

This was particularly appreciated by the family historians, as it meant they could then focus their attention on cases that needed them. Additionally, exploring this matching technology has opened opportunities for use with other records held by archives.

Statistics by Sanath Sha, an undergraduate student on a placement with the project as part of the Q-steps scheme, were also presented and discussed. They showed the size of the officer corps over the years 1790 to 1815, and its different composition by ranks.

The workshop team were a mixture of PhD students, archivists and historians (both working at universities and outside them) and family historians. It included participants from The National Archives; West Yorkshire Archive Service; the University of Northampton and York St John University; the National Army Museum; and the University of Leeds Special Collections.

This workshop was part of the ‘Re-archiving the Individual’ project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which is working in partnership with The National Archives.

Read more on the project page.