British Royal Navy Crews
When signed on to a ship's books, a man was given
a rating according to his experience.
Freshmen to the sea were known as landsmen, those
with limited experience were ordinary seamen, while
knowledgeable sailors were rated able seamen.
or Warrant Officers
From the pool of able seamen came the candidates
for promotion to higher duties.
Petty Officers and Warrant Officers included mast
captains, gunner's mates, quartermasters, master-at-arms,
carpenter, bosun and cooper, the ship's master, chaplain
Midshipmen were effectively on board a
ship to help lieutenants control the crew. If good
enough, they could take command of small boats or
prizes. Winning promotion to lieutenant was the aim
of most young midshipmen who entered service in their
early teens. Some, however, were still in their lowly
rank in their 30s, 40s and even older.
Lieutenants were the backbone of a ship's
command structure, despite only being on the first
rung of the commissioned officer classification. As
a lieutenant, officers could expect a regular half-pay
income, if put in reserve by the Admiralty, but had
numerous tasks to fulfill for the security. They would
command small boats, gun divisions in battle, oversee
a watch, and were most likely to lead dangerous boarding
or cutting-out parties. Depending upon the rating
of a Royal Navy vessel, there could be up to six lieutenants
The next step up from lieutenant was the rank
of commander. Usually on remote duty, a commander
was effectively a captain in all but official
The absolute ruler on his ship, a captain
had the power of life or death over the crew. Some
made ship-board life hell for all, while others inspired
a love from those they commanded. The captain was
responsible for the well-being of the crew, ensuring
there were enough of them to have the ship ready for
service, and even paying for extras to keep them happy.
Elevation to admiral was pretty automatic for captains
and depended only upon seniority based upon their
date of commission.
A commodore was a captain promoted temporarily
to take charge of a detached naval squadron. Commodores
on active service were usually the ones the Admiralty
had earmarked for the most senior ranks.
Unemployment on half-pay was often the lot of
a British admiral. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars
fewer than a quarter of those available were on duty.
If an admiral went to sea, his flagship was usually
that of the fleet's junior captain.