A Brief Guide to Men and Officers in Aubrey’s Royal Navy

Current scholarship (thanks in part to the title of N. A. M. Rodger’s influential book) often refers to the ships of Aubrey’s Royal Navy as “the wooden world”. This is a highly accurate description of a complicated self-contained society with strict rules of conduct and hierarchy. Entire articles can be and have been written about each position aboard a ship of the era, as they were all remarkably complex pieces of the intricate puzzle of the wooden world.

Still, there is something to be said for simplicity. This is just a quick guide to some of the main positions available to the men of Aubrey’s Royal Navy, with equally quick descriptions to give you a basic idea of a few of the cogs in the wooden world’s machine (seriously bad mixed metaphor there but hopefully you know what I’m talking about).

Cabin Boy

Cabin Boy
Ship’s boys were usually aged between 12 and 16 years. Some came from poor families, others who had been convicted of petty crimes or vagrancy were recommended by magistrates. They were at the bottom of the naval hierarchy and were tasked with such menial duties as cleaning the pigsties and hen coops.

Sailor

Sailor
Sailors were assigned to various jobs according to their skill. There were topmen who worked on the masts, forecastle men who looked after the anchors and gunner’s crews. At the end of one voyage they might be drafted straight away to another ship and were often at sea for several years. Before 1857 there was no uniform for seamen who usually wore baggy trousers with a short blue jacket, their hair tied in a pigtail.

Cook

Cook
Ships’ cooks were usually disabled seamen but were ranked as warrant officers. They were not appointed for their culinary skills, but produced the seaman’s standard diet of boiled beef or pork and the ubiquitous ship’s biscuit. This cook is wearing the typical cook’s dress of the Royal Navy.

Carpenter

Carpenter
The ship’s carpenter was one of the most important warrant officers on board and had to pass an examination at Shipwright’s Hall before he could go to sea. His duties included inspecting the ship for defective timbers and examining the state of the masts. After battle, he repaired any shot holes and other damage.

Bosun's Mate

Bosun’s Mate
Although the print shows a bosun’s mate in his best shore-going rig, it does give an impression of the sort of clothes worn by sailors of the period. Bosun’s mates were petty officers promoted from within the ranks by the ship’s captain. They were responsible to the ship’s boatswain for the supervision of the seamen in their everyday duties about the ship and practical seamanship. They were also responsible for the punishment of the men in the form of flogging.

Purser

Purser
To become a purser, a man had to have served at least one year as a captain’s clerk, helping the captain with his correspondence and records. The purser was in charge of the stores and accounts on board ship. He was not well paid but had many opportunities to cheat the seamen by embezzling the crew’s food. Dishonest pursers could become quite rich.

Midshipman

Midshipman
Midshipmen were usually the sons of wealthy or aristocratic families training to become commissioned officers. They usually joined the Navy at the age of 12 to 14 and can be easily identified by the white patch on the collar of their uniform which is still in use today. They were taught navigation, astronomy and trigonometry by the ship’s schoolmaster as well as undertaking watches on deck when school hours were over.

Lieutenant

Lieutenant
Midshipmen had to pass an examination to be promoted to the rank of lieutenant who were usually about nineteen years old. Lieutenants were in charge of deck watches, and in action commanded a battery of guns. They were also often dispatched on shore in charge of press gangs.

Marine Captain

Marine Captain
The marines aboard any Man of War were not sailors but soldiers. One could view them as the “ground troops” in any naval battle. Unlike many of the sailors, they were trained in the use of personal arms such as firearms and swords, and many of them functioned as sharpshooters. They were outside the traditional naval hierarchy and answered specifically to the Captain of the Marines. As the Captain of the Marines was subordinate to the ship’s captain, the marines themselves were beholden to the commissioned officers of their ship as well.

Captain

Captain
The captain was responsible for fitting out his ship for sea and had ‘to use his best endeavours to get the ship manned’, by fair means or foul which usually meant the press gang. At sea he was responsible for the ship and for all on board. The powers of the captain were so great that some behaved like tyrants thus inciting their men to mutiny. However, many, such as Nelson (and Jack Aubrey!), were very popular and their men would follow them from ship to ship.

Admiral

Admiral
Fleets were usually divided into three squadrons which formed the van (forward), the centre and the rear. The rear was commanded by a rear-admiral who was subordinate to the vice-admiral commanding the van. The admiral commanded the centre squadron and had overall command of the whole fleet. The rear- and vice-admirals reported to him. The ship of an admiral was recognized by flags and thus known as a flagship.

Caricatures by Thomas Rowlandson and courtesy of the NMM. Text courtesy of Port Cities.
Image: A Marine and a Sailor of the Pallas by Gabriel Bray.

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3 Comments on A Brief Guide to Men and Officers in Aubrey’s Royal Navy

  1. A good article in the Naval History blog today about Boatswains in the early 1800’s US Navy.
    http://www.navalhistory.org/2010/10/07/a-good-boatswain-is-hard-to-find/

  2. The Dear Knows // October 7, 2010 at 9:22 pm // Reply

    I think the difference between the US Navy and Royal Navy of this time period is really interesting, rather characteristic of the countries. That article mentions that the assistant gunner was given a midshipman’s warrant for bravery and eventually rose to the rank of captain. This was extraordinarily difficult in the Royal Navy… While some men from the regular ranks, or even the ranks of warrant officers other than those on the path to commission, were sometimes elevated to the rank of midshipman or lieutenant, very few (we’re talking single digits here) ever became captains. A lot of this had to do with class distinctions as well as patronage etc. In the US Navy such promotions were still rare but much less so, partially because of the ideals on which the country was built but also because the Americans for the most part had no class (haha). There was a definite hierarchy but nothing so strict as in British society at the time.

  3. Well, a few important differences between the RN and the US Navy at this time. The US Navy was in its infancy at this point all volunteer. Captains in the US Navy were not from privileged classes in general, where it was almost required for officers in the RN to be from the upper class like you said. We yanks were forming a democracy, where all men were created equal right! Why not promote someone from the gundeck for bravery? We may have been classless but we did make great frigates :)

    I think we’ve talked before about one of the RN’s officers that was promoted from the gundeck. I found this from The Telegraph about the battle flag presented to one such man.

    “James Clephan, from Fife, achieved the extraordinary feat of rising through the ranks after being press-ganged into the Royal Navy and eventually became a captain of his own ship – one of only 16 out of about 300,000 sailors forced into the navy to do so.”

    I’m not sure that the number of volunteers to the gundeck making midshipman would be much higher than the press ganged number.

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