British Military Database - Finding Chelsea Pensioners

Posted By Ann Rabinowitz

Jewish 38th Royal Fusiliers Marching Through LondonDaily Mail, February 5, 1918
(Courtesy Martin Sugarman, Archivist of the AJEX Jewish Military Museum)

The subscription database has announced one of its most significant database additions since the 1911 British Census. This is the Chelsea Pensioners database composed of all British Army attestation and discharge papers for the period of 1760-1913, both for those who served and those who were pensioned out of service. This pensioning out was accomplished at the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, although those pensioned out were not necessarily inmates at the hospital.

Approximately 270,334 of the total of 901,000 records have been put on-line to date which cover the years 1883-1900. They come from the series of records at the National Archives which are designated WO97 (War Office 97). The schedule for putting the records on-line is provided by as follows:

The Chelsea Pensioners were mainly those who pensioned out after service as early as twelve years or those who had been injured. Many were pensioned out after twenty-one years of service with some having an enlistment at the age of fourteen which meant they got on with their life at the age of thirty-five.

Some of the many things which can be learned from these records are the following:
  • Name
  • Age
  • Enlistment/Discharge – place, dates
  • Medical History – Injuries, Illnesses, Treatments
  • Family/Address – parents, siblings, wife
  • Service History – countries of service, dates, awards, conduct
Major theaters of conflict that are covered by these records are some of the following which were provided by
  • 1775 – American War of Independence
  • 1793-1802 – British involvement in French Revolution
  • 1795 – British capture of Ceylon
  • 1798 – Irish Rebellion
  • 1803-1815 – Napoleonic Wars, including the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 which concluded 22 years of war with France
  • 1854-1856 – The Crimean War
  • 1857-1859 – Indian Mutiny
  • 1880-1881 – The First Anglo-Boer War (also known as the "Transvaal War")
  • 1899-1902 – The Second Anglo-Boer War
A search of the records can be very fascinating, especially utilizing the name of COHEN which is one of my favorite last names due to the difficulty in researching it. The following are some of the Cohen recruits and what they accomplished during their service. It is possible that some of these may not be Jewish or have not retained their Jewish observance. Sometimes the records specify the religion or ethnicity of the recruit and sometimes not.

DANIEL COHEN – He was born in 1862, Warren Point, County Down, Ireland, and was a laborer. At the age of nineteen, he enlisted in the Royal Irish Fusiliers on October 6, 1881, at Newry, Ireland. There was no history of his service and no discharge date. His mother was specified as Jane Cohen.

MARCUS COHEN – He was born 1849 and enlisted at the age of fourteen on August 7, 1863 and was assigned as a drummer boy in the 87th Regiment. As he was under age, he was not entitled to accrual of pension benefits until August 7, 1867. He was quite small too at 4’8” tall. He served in the home counties (United Kingdom), and in Malta, Halifax, Bermuda, Egypt, and East India, and was discharged on December 22, 1884. His wife was Catherine Dorbigjer, whom he married on August 8, 1874, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

MORRIS COHEN – He was born in 1879 in Leeds and was eighteen when he enlisted on September 15, 1897. He served only forty-one days until October 25, 1897. The records do not show why he had such a short service. His father was Jacob Cohen, 31 Adeline Street, Cheetham, Manchester, Lancs., England.

MOSES COHEN – He was born in 1869 in Swansea, Glamorganshire, Wales, and was a dentist. He enlisted at the age of eighteen years and three months in the Medical Staff Corps on October 6, 1887 at Aldershot. He had four accidental injuries and thirty days in hospital and was discharged on February 12, 1889 as unfit for service. His father was Louis Cohen of 4 Castle Street, Macsted, Swansea, Glamorganshire, Wales.

NATHAN PHILIP COHEN – He was born in 1874 in St. Nicholas, Brighton, Sussex, England, where he was a journalist/clerk. At the age of nineteen, he enlisted at Gosport on March 17, 1893, in the Kings Royal Rifle Corps. There was nothing given as to why he was discharged or when. His father was Jacob H. (Herman) Cohen, Compton House, 49 Buckingham Place, Brighton, England.

Further search in the 1891 British Census reveals that Jacob Herman Cohen and his wife Sarah Dinah were headmaster/mistress of a boy’s boarding school in Brighton. Living with them were Jacob’s sister Henrietta Cohen, age 53, a cook, and their children: Herman Joseph Cohen, age 30, a literary man and author; Hannah R. Cohen Samuel, age 29, married to Lewin Lazarus Samuel, age 34, an insurance broker and brother of Herbert Montague Samuel, age 36; Flora Cohen, age 28, Lillah Cohen, age 27, and Samuel Henry Cohen, age 18, a stockbroker’s clerk. Two of the students of the school were David Heller, age 12, and Joseph Heller, age 9, both from South Africa.

WOOLF COHEN – He was born in 1862, Bishop Gate, London, Middlesex, England, where he was a clicker (this is an old occupation which refers to an employee in charge of making lace holes in shoes or actually who cuts out the tops and uppers of the boot or shoe). See list of other old occupations <> which are useful in determining what your ancestor might have made a living at. This is further confirmed in the Census records by the fact that his brothers were also working in the shoe industry as boot clickers. He was listed as a member of the Church of England. He joined at Woolwich on January 5, 1880 in the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers.

He was discharged on April 25, 1889, with the rank of corporal. His parents were Falk and Mariam Cohen and his siblings were Daniel and Hannah Cohen. His description at time of discharge was given as age 27 years 9 months, height 5’8-1/2”, sallow complexion, brown eyes, brown hair, trade was as a clicker, and intended place of residence upon discharge was 8 Grafton Street, Mile End Road, London E.

It was noted that he had a scar on the back of his right arm close to his elbow. His conduct was good. He was found medically unfit for further service. His medical record was most interesting particularly as he had a variety of illnesses such as influenza, itch, eczema, a contusion, sun stroke, several bouts of gonorrhea, primary syphilis and boils which amounted to sick time of approximately 214 days in hospital. It was not unusual to see the soldiers falling prey to the usual diseases of the day, especially since they lived in such close and possibly unsanitary quarters.
As an interesting addendum to this information, the doctor who discovered the causative agent for gonorrhea was a German Jewish physician Dr. Albert Ludwig Sigesmund Neisser (1855-1916).

Dr. Albert Ludwig Sigesmund Neisser

His research took place about the time that Woolf Cohen was suffering from his bouts of the disease. It was unfortunate that the antibiotic treatment for it was not to become available for many years in the future.

Many of the soldiers were listed on their medical record as having vaccinations which they received in childhood. This remarkable accomplishment came about due to much agitation for childhood vaccination during the period of 1802-1880 and resulted in the 1880 Vaccination Act. This public health agenda probably saved the lives of many individuals in the military.

Due to British Census data and vital records, one can further trace the soldiers in the Chelsea Pensioners’ Database such as the family of Woolf Cohen. His father was Falk Cohen, who was listed as a glazier from Poland in 1861 and by 1871, he had children David, Esther, Hannah, Woolf, Louis, and Morris. By 1883, Falk had passed away. In 1895, Woolf Cohen had married Martha Barnett and by 1901 he had a daughter Ethel, age 4. So, with the information given in his military record as a start, it was possible to trace this Jewish soldier into the 20th Century.

One of the things that I noticed in these records is that a recruit may be listed as circumcised (example Woolf Cohen) and/or Jewish on their medical record. Another example is David Levy, who is listed as circumcised and a Jew on his enlistment papers. This makes it a bit easier to determine which individuals are Jewish or of Jewish origins.

Otherwise, determining Jewish origins may be difficult as a number of the soldiers who have Jewish names are listed as Church of England or Roman Catholic such as in the case of Isaac Goldstein of 25 Fernie Street, Cheetham Hill, Manchester, who is listed as Church of England, and his mother as Annie, from Russia, and sisters Betsey and Leah. Or, Isaac Rosenberg, who is listed as Church of England, whose parents were Myer and Ada and siblings were William, Harry and Fanny, living at 22 Davis’s Avenue Whitechapel. Yet other examples are Alfred Greenberg, listed as Church of England, but whose mother was Esther Greenberg; and Isaac Greenberg, Church of England, whose father was Marcus Greenberg.

The possibilities are that their parents converted, one parent might have been non-Jewish, or, they themselves, decided to assume a Christian identity whilst in the military. Sometimes, as with Woolf Cohen, his parents and siblings have Jewish names. As his parents were from Poland, one can therefore safely assume they were Jewish.

Other interesting entries in the Chelsea Pensioner’s Database are the Irish Jews as they are listed quite early and a number of them are definitely not going by their religious affiliation in the records. One such was Max Goldberg of Dublin whose siblings were Abraham and Lewis.

It can be seen that military service conveniently enabled some young Jews of the time to move into the mainstream and discard their religious affiliation, especially those who were sent to fight in far-flung wars of the Empire or who were stationed in remote areas. Perhaps it was more likely that those who were able to serve in the home counties of the United Kingdom were able to retain their cultural identity as their relatives could visit them and they might be posted in places close to Jewish communities.

Another aspect of the records which is worth mentioning is that a number of the recruits were discharged due to misstatements regarding their age on their enlistment papers. The discharge documents; however, do not state what the actual real age of the recruit was. At the time that these recruits were joining the military, this may have been one of the only means they had of gaining a regular job or a means of escaping the grinding poverty of the slums of the large cities in the United Kingdom. It is easy to see why they might have lied about their age in order to join up.

All in all, these records are a remarkable cache of information on ancestors who served in the British military. As more records are added, this database will become even more valuable, especially for those researching their ancestors who served in the Boer War in South Africa or in other more recent military engagements prior to World War I.

For even further information on Jews in the British military, you can visit the site of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX) <>. The organization has a searchable database entitled the Record of Honour which is quite easy to use. In addition, the site Moving Here <> also discusses Jews in the British military. Also, the Imperial War Museum provides information on all those soldiers who fought in 20th Century conflicts.

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