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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.