Naval Officers: Self-made gentlemen

  Naval Officers: Self-made gentlemen

Thomas_Luny_-_A_Frigate_of_the_Royal_Navy_leaving_Cork_HarbourThe 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.

5941Hopefully 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.

Midshipman_Augustus_BrineMidshipmen 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.

Captain_Gilbert_HeathcoteNaval 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.



Regency Life


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A Background on War.  Regency Collection: Boyle, Laura.(2001) Jane Austen Centre On Line Magazine.  

Advancement in the British Army  Boyle, Laura.(2001) Jane Austen Centre On Line Magazine.

Collins, Irene. (1998)  Jane Austen, The Parson's Daughter . Hambledon Press.

Day, Malcom. (2006) Voices from the World of Jane. Austen David & Charles .

Downing, Sarah Jane.  (2010). Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen.  Shire Publications

Entry into the Officer Corps Boyle, Laura.(2001) Jane Austen Centre On Line Magazine.  

Holmes, Richard.  (2001).   Redcoat, the British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket W. W. Norton & Company

Le Faye, Deirdre.  (2002).   Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams

Militia.  Regency Collection :<>

Prices of Officer’s Commissions Day, Malcom. (2006) Voices from the World of Jane.

Southam, Brian  (2005). Jane Austen in Context. Janet M. Todd ed Cambridge University Press

Tomalin, Claire.  (1999).  Jane Austen, a Life.  Random House

Watkins, Susan . (1990).  Jane Austen's Town and Country Style. Rizzoli 





by Maria Grace Copyright 2015, all rights reserved

1 comment

    • Susan Kaye on November 2, 2015 at 10:03 am
    • Reply

    The book, The Wooden World, Anatomy of the Georgian Navy is one of the best books on this topic. It is a book of statistics and the author has a great way of translating those dry facts into usable knowledge. But, the best education concerning the Regency Navy is still the 21 volumes of Patric O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturian novels.

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