Passing For Lieutenant

“You refer to the swearing-in. No. That applies only to lieutenants – you go to the Admiralty and they read you a piece about allegiance and supremacy and utterly renouncing the Pope; you feel very solemn and say ‘to this I swear’ and the chap at the high desk says ‘and that will be half a guinea’, which does rather take away from the effect, you know.” – Jack Aubrey to Stephen Maturin, Master and Commander

Before a young man could even get to the point of being sworn in, he was first required to pass for lieutenant. The exam was usually taken around the age of 18, after the young man had acquired at least six years at sea as a midshipman. In some cases this was only six years on paper; captains would often put the young sons of friends on their ship’s books even if the boys weren’t actually on board in order to give them a head start. The exam itself was not on paper, however. Instead it was given by a panel of three captains asking a series of difficult and technical questions to judge the young man’s seamanship.

As the standard form of words approving a promotion to lieutenant expressed it, the candidate had to prove that he could “Splice, Knot, Reef a sail, work a Ship Sailing, Shift his Tides, keep a Reckoning of a Ships way by Plain Sailing and Mercator, Observe by the Sun or Star, find the variation of the Compass and is qualified to do his Duty as an Able Seaman and a Midshipman.”

In May 1805, one young man, William Badcock, was sent forward by his captain Thomas Fremantle of the Neptune to sit his exam. He was in a state of extreme nerves and the three captains on the examining board allowed him to sit quietly for a few moments so that he would do himself justice. Then they began.

I was desired to stand up, and consider myself on a quarterdeck of a man-of-war at Spithead – ‘unmoor’ – ‘get underway’ – ‘stand out to sea’ – ‘make and shorten sail’ – ‘reef’ – ‘return into port’ – ‘unrig the foremast and bowsprit, and rig them again’. I got into a scrape after reefing for not overhauling the reef tackles when reefing the sails (because unless those tackles were overhauled, the sails would not set fair). However they passed me, and desired me to come again the next day to receive my passing certificate. I made the captains the best bow I could and, without staying, to look behind me, bolted out of the room… – William Badcock, from Men Of Honour – Trafalgar And The Making Of The English Hero by Adam Nicolson

The aforementioned passing certificate described when, for how long and in what capacity the proud new lieutenant had served aboard the ships listed. The following is a transcription of another lieutenant’s certificate belonging to one Charles Cobb.

Front Face:

In pursuance of an Order from Sir John Jervis KB., Admiral of the Blue and Commander in Chief etc., etc., etc.   We have examined Mr Charles Cobbe, who appears to be more than twenty years of age, and find he has gone to sea more than six years, in the Ships and Qualaities undermentioned,

Ships
Entry
Quality
Discharged
Time
Y
M
W
D
Colossus
24 Septr 1789
Capt St
16 Octo 1790
1
3
2
Niger
30 Sept 1791
Able
14 May 1793
1
8
3
Captain
17 May 1793
Able
31 May 1793
2
1
Do
1 June 1793
Mid
31 March 1794
10
3
3
Do
1 April 1794
Mid
20 July 1795
1
3
3
6
Dido
26 July 1795
Mid
27 March 1797
1
8
3
Ville de Paris
31 March 1797
Mid
11 April 1797
1
5

He produceth Journals kept by himself in the Captain and Dido, and Certificates from Captains Reeve, Hotham, Preston and Grey of his diligence and Sobriety: He can splice, knot, reef, Sail, work a Ship in sailing, Shift his Tide and keep a Reckoning of a Ships way by plain sailing

and

Reverse:

and Mercator(?)*, Observe by Sun or Star; and** find the variation of the Compass, and is qualified to do the duty of an able seaman and midshipman

Given under our hand on board
His Majesty’s Ship the Excellent
off Cadiz the 11th day of April 1797
Cuthbert Collingwood
?…?… Tonsy(?)*
?…Geard(?)*

As can be seen, Charles Cobbe commenced his “apprenticeship” as Captain’s Servant before becoming able seaman and then midshipman.

cobbpassfront

cobbpassback

Courtesy of Joyful Molly and The Welsh Regiment.

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