In this article the author looks at those pension reference systems used by the Ministry of Pensions, with specific reference to Chelsea and the Pension Issue Office, across the period of 1914 to the 1920s.

Within the monolith that was the Ministry of Pensions, the two largest departments were Chelsea, which dealt with all pensions for disabled soldiers, and the Pension Issue Office which paid the pensions calculated by the various awarding departments of the Ministry.

Above: Figure 1: Pension Office Staff. Page 480, War Pensions Gazette, August 1920.

To allow these departments to properly undertake their respective administrative roles each of them utilised various claims reference systems, and it is these references which are shown on the pension cards, ledgers and service records. The background to the reference systems used by these two departments, at least 8 across the war years, shows that it was not only the War Office who liked regular changes in referencing systems.

In the beginning – before the Ministry of Pensions

The route to understanding the pension reference systems of WW1 must start with a look at Chelsea. The Royal Hospital at Chelsea had administered disability pensions since long before WW1 and continued to do so in to WW1, before becoming a founding part of the Ministry of Pensions. Due to its long tradition, it always retained the name ‘Chelsea’ in common parlance.

The staffing of the department started off relatively small but was expanded rapidly to try and meet the needs of the discharged men[i]. The massive number of claims necessitated major changes in the way they operated and there was often a struggle to keep awards on track. The method of dealing with a disability pension was initially not too different to how it had been undertaken in peacetime, and this soon proved to be unsuitable.

The pension references used by Chelsea during the war fell into4 main tranches, D, E, F and H, however only the first three of them are relevant at this point (see Figure 2). Each of the three tranches of Chelsea references started at #1 and increased sequentially until the tranche ceased. To differentiate the numeric references, which could be duplicated between the different tranches, each tranche of references was given a suffix – D, E and H.

Above: Figure 2. Chelsea pension by tranche

It is not known with certainty why tranche D ceased when it did in May 1916. It does however correspond with a change in the awarding system due to delays, and the granting of a temporary allowance whilst a man was waiting for his pension entitlement to be calculated[ii].It would appear most likely that the E tranche was introduced as part of these changes so that the new cases could be easily differentiated.

The H tranche, put in place at the beginning of 1917, corresponds with the Ministry of Pensions Act 1916 being enacted and it, therefore, appears to have been another administrative move[iii]. The H tranche would remain in place until April/May 1918 before it was again changed.

At this point, to understand the story of the references further, we must temporarily leave Chelsea and move to look at the workings of the Pension Issue Office.

The Central Army Pension Issue Office and their references

The Central Army Pension Issue Office, otherwise known as the Pension Issue Office or P.I.O., was the source of all of the payments made to those men who had been granted a pension. This office was formed by the War Office with two staff in January 1915, but by October 1916 - despite a massive staffing increase - they could not adequately cope with the workload they were placed under, and the payment system was placed under severe strain[iv]. To try and deal with this the government asked Sir Horace Woodburn Kirby, a well-known accountant to temporarily step in and reorganise the department[v].

Sir Woodburn Kirby’s reorganisation split the Pension Issue Office into a system of 6, primarily geographic, regions - A, B, C, D, E and F - with each of the regiments and corps in that region being dealt with by a specific part of the office. Each region was then further sub-divided into alphabetical teams starting from A. For each of these further sub-divisions, each claim was then numbered in order. Regions E and F appear to have taken any units that did not fit easily into other regions. Every Pension Issue Office reference was additionally prefixed with S, for soldier.

On the map below region, A corresponds to Red, B to Green, C to Blue, D to Yellow, E to Purple (London) and F (not coloured) covered various corps and units without a specific geographical area (See Figure 3).

This referencing system, for example, meant that SAA/500 was the 500th claim in the A sub-division of region A, or the Royal Irish Regiment. SBA/500, by contrast, would be the 500th claim in A sub-division of region B, or the Northumberland Fusiliers.

The use of this regional system allowed the department to easily account for the work they had, and balance it appropriately to try and remove the long delays which had been occurring in the payment of pensions[vi].

This 6 region system would be kept in use by the Pension Issue office until 1921 when it was decided to move their system over to match the regional system that was then in use by Chelsea. We will return to this later.

Above: Figure 3: Map showing area used for each Central Army Pension Issue Office region.

Chelsea changes their references

Following his success with turning around the Pension Issue Office in 1916, Sir Woodburn Kirby was then asked to switch his attention to the delays at Chelsea, or M branch of Awards Division 2 as it was officially known. He set about this task in November 1917 but the scale of this work can be seen by the fact that it was originally expected that it would be implemented by a week’s closure of Chelsea in December 1917, yet it took until May 1918 to fully implement, with the actual changes being implemented across April and May. These changes were clearly influenced by the work he had previously undertaken with the Pension Issue Office and, similarly, he divided the work in to regions, although using a slightly different way of dividing the county up.

In the case of Chelsea, the country was divided in to 4 geographical regions, or divisions, R, B, G, V – Red, Black, Green and Violet (see Figure 4). Violet covered the London area and many of the Corps of the Army, although some Corps were divided among the other divisions. The split appears to have been made to keep a relatively even number of units between each of the divisions.

Above: Figure 4: Map showing geographical areas for Chelsea divisions

Each division was subdivided in to 5 groups, and then further in to sections. The 4 divisions were each issued references starting with the letter of their regions, R, B, G or V. This was followed by a letter in the range of A-E for groups in division R, F-J for division B, H to P for division G and Q-Z for division V. Each regiment was then allocated a numerical sequence, and a further letter of the alphabet to differentiate the section. This allowed the exact division, group and section dealing with any regiment or corps to be identified.

For example, GL1C referred to the Hertfordshire Regiment (see Figure 5). Some of the larger regiments were split in to multiple sections. The Lancashire Fusiliers were RB5E for surnames A-Z and RB6F for surnames L-Z.

Above: Figure 5: Cover sheet for Chelsea pension showing 1918 reference.

Each pension claim was allocated a sequential reference number within the regiment so GL1C/1035 was the 1035th claim within the Cameron Highlanders whereas RB5E/500 was the 500th claim within the Lancashire Fusiliers.

The introduction of this new system took place across April and May 1918, during which time the department continued to use the original style of Chelsea numbers, then in the H tranche.

Evidence indicates that cases numbered from approximately 220500/H were retrospectively renumbered in to the new system (see Figure 6).These appear to be cases that were underway whilst the changes were happening. Earlier cases do however show evidence of being re-numbered where they were still being dealt with as open claims.

Above: Figure 6: Pension card showing Chelsea claim made before the change of reference system in 1918. Also shows a later regional reference number.

With the push towards the end of the war and the demobilisation of men, the work of Chelsea continued to increase as 1918 continued towards the armistice, and beyond. Between November 1918 and April 1919, the army demobilised 1,950,000 men. Around 110,000 of these claimed a pension on discharge through the normal route, whilst another 171.000 claims were made through the Class Z scheme. Many additional claims would also be made post-discharge.

The temporary Class Z department of Chelsea

The Class Z scheme was designed to rapidly release men from the army, with the expectation that they could then be quickly recalled if hostilities broke out again. As part of this demobilisation scheme, the army created a fast-track system that allowed a man to have a shortened medical examination. They also took more steps to inform men of their ability to lodge a pension claim after demobilisation. All of these issues together created enough additional pressure on the Ministry that they set up a temporary department, Class Z, from January to June 1919 to deal with the extra rush of pension claims.

In the typical style of Chelsea, this new work necessitated a new reference system being created for the Class Z claims. These claims were given a Z reference, in the form Z / (Abbreviation of the unit) / (number of the claim), so Z/DLI/500 was the 500th Class Z claim for the DLI. In some larger regiments, an additional split was made by surname, so the reference may include A-K or L-Z, as an additional component.

Chelsea change their references again

The system of pension references introduced at Chelsea in 1917 did not appear to be suitable for their use in the longer term and in early 1919 they decided to once again change their system. This time the system was based on the 1917 system but moved more towards the system already in use with the Pension Issue Office.

The new system implemented by Chelsea is similar to the three letter code used by the Pension Issue Office but it should not be confused. The Chelsea system can be identified by the prefix being M, whereas the Pension Issue Office reference started with an S (or D and W for dependants and widows) (see Figure 7).

Above: Figure 7: Pension card showing Chelsea claim made under the 1919 reference system. Also shows a later regional reference number.

Within Chelsea, paperwork often dropped the M prefix and instead just used the second and third letters, followed by the number of the claim.

The 1916 Chelsea references were converted to the new style reference by dropping the initial R, B, G and V prefixes. The second letter of the reference and the last letter were then used in the new reference.

For example, RA1A referred to the Cameron Highlanders under the 1917 system but would be MAA under the 1919 system. Likewise the Lancashire Fusiliers were RB5E for surnames A-Z under the old system but MBE under the new 1919 system.

Chelsea and the Pension Issue Office go regional

In early 1919 the Ministry of Pensions started to debate the possibility of decentralising the department away from London and allowing processing work to be undertaken across the country in regional centres to reduce delays[vii].

A committee was formed on 14 January 1919 to discuss the decentralisation and, working quickly, reported back on 3 March 1919. The initial suggestion made by the committee was for 13 regions to be formed however this was quickly scaled back to 11 regions. Each region would have the full complement of medical, award and finance staff needed to undertake the works that were being undertaken centrally to that point.

The regional system, with the exception of London, was established by March 1920 and pension award work from Chelsea, along with staff, was slowly dispatched from London (see Figure 8). The last region, London, was finally established by June 1920 however this new system was not to last long, and by July 1926 the last of the regions had been closed and the work dealt with from London again.

Above: Figure 8: Pension regions used for the decentralised scheme.

Unlike the award branches, the Pension Issue Office work was continued in London for the whole of the UK, with exception of Scotland which decentralised the work of the office to a new centre near Edinburgh. This work was also sent back to London in July 1926[viii].

To facilitate the act of decentralisation the pension awards from Chelsea were given a new type of reference that was based solely on the region in which the man lived whilst claiming his pension.

In a change from the old separate systems of referencing for the work of Chelsea and the Pension Issue Office, this new system was shared between them so that both departments would now be using the same references, for the first time[ix]. These new references were now based entirely on the region of residence and not on the regiment or corps served with.

These new references are perhaps most visible on the pension ledgers which were introduced to deal with claims once the regional system was implemented. These were issued in the format of Region Number / ‘M’ and First Letter of Surname / number of the claim (see Figure 9). For example, Henry Wright was a resident of Chesterton and so fell in to the West Midlands Region. He was given the reference 6/MW/4865.

Above: Figure 9: Pension ledger showing the regional reference.

Article by Craig Suddick

Further Reading: 

Other Ranks Survived: The Final Release of Pension Records

Chelsea and the disabled soldier


[i] When the department was taken over by the Ministry of Pensions it had 706 staff. By August 1919 this had expanded to 3,924 staff.

[ii] It appears that the numbering ranges were typically intended to cease at 99,999, pre-war, however in this case it does not appear that 99,999 was reached before the change to the new tranche.

[iii] The numbering in both the E and H tranche was allowed to exceed 99,999 so it appears that the original plan was abandoned for reasons of practically.

[iv] The Pension Issue Office, in the week from 3rd March to 9th March 1917, reported 1,104 staff. By August 1919 this had increased to 6,208.

[v] The original way the Pension Issue Office was run, prior to the reorganisation is difficult to determine. A lecture given in April 1918 on the history and work of the Office indicated that the files were held in alphabetical order and a single clerk dealt with four or five hundred files as their case load. Nothing further is given in respect to organisation and how the cases were referenced.

[vi] The 1921 4th Report on Pensions (“The Report of the Department Committee of Inquiry in to the machinery of Administration of the Ministry of Pensions”) was scathing on the history of the Pension Issue Office. It blamed most of the issues they had as being “…due almost entirely to failure on the part of individuals, and not to faulty organisation…” and “…in our opinion the present supervising staff of the office is not adequate”.

[vii] Severe delays were beginning to build up again at the Pension Issue Office in late 1919 and early 1920 – across the year to January 1920 the number of payments nearly doubled and staff were spread over at least 7 sites. As well as trying to move staff to a single site, the office also facilitated a change in working practice so that work was organised in to different specialist sections, rather than an individual clerk dealing with the whole process. This change did not affect the actual structure of the office with regards to pension references.

[viii] There was discussion with moving the whole of the Pension Issue office to a regional basis however the 1921 4th Report on Pensions advised against this due to the cost and difficulties with staffing. The Scottish component of the Pension Issue Office appears to have been a purely political decision.

[ix]The Pension Issue Office are known to have adopted the new regional system during the year ending 31 March 1921 so it is likely this ran close, if not alongside, that of Chelsea.