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OFFICERS in the Royal Navy
17th century Officer Ranks in the Royal Navy
With the Board of Ordnance and the Navy Board providing the ships and
their guns, the next crucial task for the Admiralty was to decide who would
use these ships, who was to command in their name. The promotion system
of the Navy provided them with a group of men who could link them directly
to the constantly moving fleets; these were the admirals.
ADMIRAL. Promoted automatically by seniority
from the rank of' captain, the admirals were all experienced men who had
started their life at sea as midshipmen They had proved their seamanship
and fighting qualities, but knowledge and spirit were not always enough
to commend them to Their Lordships. The Admiralty needed men whom they
could take into their confidence, men who could understand their overall
strategy and men who could be trusted to carry out their policies with
intelligence and single-mindedness. Unlike the other seagoing ship's officers
the admirals were almost sure to have met Their Lordships and talked for
long hours with them in Admiralty House. The Admiralty had to know their
admirals personally before entrusting them with direct responsibility,
and, once they knew them. they could allocate tasks suitable to the capabilities
of each man. Some men were better suited to administration ashore, some
were given command of shore establishments, others were appointed as governors
of British colonies. Since admirals held their rank for life the Admiralty
had to find tasks for some very old men. or else talk them into voluntary
retirement. Finally, they decided upon the admirals who would be in command
of the ships at sea.
Selecting the best men for the job was made easier by having a large
number to choose from. Once there had been only nine admirals but by 1807
there were 166 flag-officers (admirals flew their own flags and were often
referred to as flag-officers).
In each fleet, the lowest ranking flag-officer was RearAdmiral of'
the Blue anti the highest was Admiral of the Red.
The Admiral of the Red was known as the Admiral of the Fleet. His salary
was about £1,900; rear-Admirals received about £800 a year.
Nelson was made Rear-Admiral of the Blue in 1797, Rear-Admiral of the Red
in 1799, and in 1801 he was ViceAdmiral of the White. At Trafalgar he was
flying the White Ensign which was later adopted as the only Royal Navy
Ensign, the Red Ensign being adopted by the Merchant Navy.
A seagoing admiral controlled a large number of ships but he did not
command a ship in the same way that a captain did. Instead, an admiral
chose a suitable ship from amongst his fleet and this became his flagship;
his admirals flag was flown from this ship when he was aboard. He could
change his mind at any time and move his flag to another ship. A large
first-rate had plenty of space to provide a great cabin for the benefit
of an admiral, but on most other types of ship the unfortunate captain
of the vessel chosen had to abandon his living quarters to the admiral
and his staff.
Worse still, he had to handle his ship and control his men under the
stern eye of his superior officer. Life for officers and men on a ship
chosen as flagship was uncomfortable and tense.
POST-CAPTAIN. Although it was nota
title of rank it was, and still is, common practice to call any officer
in complete charge of' a ship 'Captain'. A Lieutenant Jones, for example,
in command of a small sloop Ariel, would be called 'Captain Jones' by his
crow and port officials. ale would be called 'Lieutenant Jones, Captain
of the sloop Ariel' by his follow officers but the Admiralty would be likely
to address him as 'Lieutenant Jones, Commander of the sloop Ariel'. The
actual rank of captain was obtained when the Admiralty promoted an officer
to be a postcaptain.
Once appointed by merit of his past experience and capabilities, any
officer who became a postcaptain was settled on a guaranteed path. He was
firmly placed' in the seniority list, which meant that no one could be
'jumped' over him in promotion and that he moved up the list as senior
officers above him either died or left the service If he lived long enough
and did not disgrace himself, he could become Admiral of the Fleet simply
by waiting his turn.
With all doubts about his future removed the captain could expect command
of a small frigate at least, then perhaps a fifthrate and so on until he
commanded a first-rate. From time to time he could be given command of
a small squadron of ships and carry the temporary title of commodore. Post-captains
commanded almost all of the fighting ships of the Navy and it was on these
men that the Admiralty heavily relied for carrying out instructions with
common sense and initiative.
A captain was responsible to his admiral. or to the Admiralty, if acting
alone, for the condition of' his ship, guns, stores, the conduct of his
crew and officers, and their fighting efficiency. In battle he was expected
to fulfil his general orders regardless of any risk to his life and also
to use his initiative if circumstances changed. Since the captain held
full responsibility he was given absolute control over his men.
In accord with the regulations laid down by Their Lordships a captain
held the power of life and death over his officers and men. He was, therefore,
a powerful and feared figure aboard his ship. No seaman or officer spoke
to him unless on ship's business and they cleared the starboard side of
the quarter deck whenever he came from his cabin and did not approach him
unless he called them. Guarded by an armed marine at the door of his stateroom,
the captain lived an isolated life in his well-appointed accommodation.
His salary varied according to the size of ship he commanded. On a
first-rate he would earn f 32 4s Od per lunar month and on a sixth-rate
f 16 16s Od.
MIDSHIPMAN. With only a few exceptions,
all the officers of His Britannic Majesty's fleets came from middle- or
upper-class families. They were usually sons of country squires or naval
officers. The only method of becoming an officer in the Navy was by
patronage. This meant that someone in the boy's family or a close friend
of the family had to know a serving captain well enough to ask him to take
the youngster aboard his ship. Once accepted, usually about the age
of 11 or 12, he joined the ship as captain's
servant and awaited the first vacancy as a midshipman. Once appointed
as midshipman he was paid £1 13s 6d per lunar month and after two
years service he could receive £2 15s 6d in a first-rate or £2
0s 6d in a sixth-rate.
There was a six-year minimum sea-service requirement before he could
sit his lieutenant's oral examination and two years of this service had
to be as a midshipman. During this time the boy studied navigation, seamanship,
shiphandling and seawarfare and received certificates of conduct and 'officer-like
qualities' from the captain. The number of midshipmen carried varied from
twenty-four in a first-rate to three or f our in a small frigate. At battle
stations they assisted the lieutenants and captain, acting as messengers
and signalmen, and helping with the great guns; experienced 'middys' could
have charge of up to six guns.
Once his sea-service had been completed, the midshipman had to await
the captain's pleasure for his promotion. Although only the Crown, via
the Admiralty, could grant commissions. it was up to the captain to present
candidates. There was no other way to become a lieutenant. A midshipman
who was not presented as a candidate for the examinations by his captain
could make no official complaint, he could only wait, and hope.
SUB-LIEUTENANT. This was a posting
not a rank. It was taken by officers who had passed their lieutenant's
examinations but had not yet received Their Lordship's commission and so
were really awaiting promotion. A sub-lieutenant was a purely temporary
LIEUTENANT. This was the first fully
commissioned rank for naval officer but further promotion was not guaranteed
and some men remained lieutenants all their sea-going careers. Promotion
from lieutenant depended on luck, patronage, and ability. It was possible
for intelligent and capable seamen to become lieutenants, but without social
connections with senior naval officers they could rise no further.
The chances for an ambitious lieutenant were varied. He could become
a junior lieutenant on a flagship and work under the direction of the admiral.
A ship-of-the-line carried nine lieutenants and he could work his way up
to the position of first lieutenant, which meant he was second in command
to the captain. If he proved his worth, was in the right place at the right
time, and some senior officer remembered his name, he could be given command
of a sloop or a bomb vessel, or temporary command of a prize ship. Since
lieutenants were in charge of the various sections of the ship, such as
the forecastle, main deck, gun decks and signals there were plenty of opportunities
to show their mettle.
For an officer desirous of promotion the time spent as a lieutenant
was a nerve-racking period. Since he was always striving to appear smart
and officer-like, most of his pay went on uniforms and weapons. With the
exception of first lieutenants on flagships, who received £9 2s,
all other lieutenants were paid £8 8s per lunar month and when ashore
awaiting a new ship they went on half pay. At any time a lieutenant could
be dismissed or see luckier and younger men promoted over his head.
All the officers mentioned so far were either of commissioned rank
or expecting to become commissioned officers. They all had the right to
walk the quarter deck and use the wardroom. Between them and the crow existed
a strict barrier of rank reenforced differences. There were however some
positions of responsibility that placed the men who held them among the
commissioned officers sharing their privileges, even though some of them
were not considered to be in the same social class. These were the warrant-officers
of wardroom rank who used the quarter deck, dined with the officers, and
often gave them expert advice: hut the authority of the commissioned rank
was never in question.
Warrant-officers of wardroom rank
THE MASTER. The master was an expert
navigator holding his post by his proven ability to navigate with accuracy
and safety. He usually carried his own charts, books, sextant and other
instruments, and could offer advice to the captain, but could not insist
on his advice being followed. Most masters were captains from merchant
ships who had volunteered for Royal Navy service and had satisfied the
Admiralty as to their capabilities in navigation and ship management.
SURGEON. The surgeon was in charge of
the general health of the whole crew and his most important role was in
battle when he took charge of the cockpit and attended to the wounded.
Since amputations were carried out without anaesthetic he was unpopular
with the crew and, like doctors ashore, was considered by the officers
as a type of tradesman. He too had to supply his own instruments.
PURSER. He was the ship's 'shopkeeper'
controlling all articles sold on board and taking a commission on each
sale. He was in charge of the 'slops' (cheap ready-made or second-hand
clothing) and issued dungaree, needles and thread for the sailors to make
or mend clothes. At battle stations he helped in the distribution of powder.
Since his position offered opportunities for deliberate falsifying of account
books he had to pay Caution Money before taking up his post. He paid £1,200
on a first-rate, £1,000 on a second-rate, £800 on a third-rate
and £600 on fourth- and fifth-rates. If found guilty al misconduct
he was dismissed and lost his Caution Money.
CHAPLAIN. This post was not always filled,
especially on small vessels. The chaplain was spiritual advisor to the
whole crew and at battle stations he assisted the surgeon in the cockpit.
Since, socially, the Church was a 'respectable' profession he was usually
accepted by the commissioned officers as a 'gentleman'.
All marines had taken an oath of loyalty to the Crown and one of their
functions was to maintain the established authority (usually the captain's),
if that authority was acting according to the prescribed regulations. Their
loyalty was never in question. As long as the marine officer knew that
the captain was acting in the interests of the Crown, support was certain,
even for shooting members of the crew who panicked during a battle. On
the other hand the captain knew that marine officers would also arrest
him if they received orders from a more senior officer.
All leaky ships carried a marine detachment and at least one officer.
In first-rates there was a captain of marines and two lieutenants. Since
marine officers held the King's commission they were socially on a par
with the naval officers.. During battle the marine officer was usually
stationed on the poop with a dozen or more of his men.
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