Naval Officers: Self-made gentlemen
The navy offered greater potential for social mobility than most institutions in Regency era society. Generally only the sons of gentlemen or perhaps wealthy middle-class parents could enter the path to becoming an officer, but the way was not entirely closed to others. Once a lieutenant, a man could rise through his own merit to a high position, even above those with higher origins.
Unlike army officers, naval officers did not purchase their commissions, they earned them. Thus, the navy offered greater potential for social mobility than most institutions in Regency era society. Boys would start in the navy as young as 12, as a midshipman, and would attach to a captain—usually a relation or family friend.
Hopefully the boy would then earn the captains good opinion and help in attaining promotion. In order to become a lieutenant, the lowest grade of officer, a midshipman had to serve a minimum of six years at sea. On presenting himself as a candidate for commissioning, he would also be asked to show his personal log books for the ships in which he sailed. Then he would take an examination on the topics of writing, mathematics, astronomy, navigation, seamanship and gunnery. Not all midshipmen passed the test.
Midshipmen passing the examination would then have to apply for commission as a lieutenant on a specific ship. The influence of a powerful friend or family member could open the way for commissioning. If he did not receive a post on the ship he applied for, he would remain a midshipman until he once again applied for a post and received it. Many men were never commissioned. Once a man made lieutenant, the prospect of further promotion, all the way up to Admiral was possible.
Naval service was dangerous with nearly 100,000 casualties between 1793 and 1815. Battle at sea accounted for less than 10% of naval casualties. Accidents and disease accounted for 80%. Scurvy, caused by lack of vitamin C, tropical fevers like malaria, typhus, typhoid fever dengue, and yellow fever, dysentery (the flux) took a heavy toll of sailors.
Naval wages, even for Captains were notoriously low. Prize money was the only way to wealth and came in various forms. If an enemy ship was sunk, 'Head and Gun' money (calculated by the numbers of men or guns on the enemy vessel) was awarded. Until1808, a 3/8 share went to the captain and the remainder was divided on a diminishing scale, according to rank, among the other officers, commissioned and non-commissioned, and the ordinary members of the crew. After 1808, a slight change was made to the allocation of these shares.
If they captured an enemy ship, the Admiralty was often prepared to buy it from them and resulted in higher rewards. The best payouts came if the captured ship was carrying a valuable cargo. This kind of prize money was divided up so officers received more than the ordinary crewmen. It was possible for officers to earn substantial wealth in prize money.
Articles in this Series
- Social Class, Gentlemen and the Gentlemanly Professions
- Vicars, Curates and Church Livings
- To be an Officer and a Gentleman
- Naval Officers: Self-made gentlemen
Barristers, solicitors and clerks
Coming Soon: Doctors, surgeons and Apothecaries
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