Playing at command midshipmen and quarterdeck officer (I)

In 1800 Midshipman Lord William Fitzroy, fourth son of the Duke of Grafton, passed his examination for lieutenant and entered the ranks of the Royal Navy’s commissioned officers. Though only eighteen, a full two years shy of the minimum age required to become a lieutenant, Fitzroy’s political and social interest superceded Admiralty regulations and propelled his career forward. Rapid promotion continued and Fitzroy received his step to post captain in 1804. A series of uneventful commands did not prevent Fitzroy’s appointment to the new, thirty-eight gun frigate HMS Macedonian in 1810. As “plum” an appointment as the Royal Navy could offer at the time, Macedonian represented the opportunity for independent cruising in the increasingly hostile American shipping lanes. She also presented Fitzroy his best chance of making prizes from the vastly reduced fleet of French merchantmen plying the Atlantic trade in the wake of Trafalgar. Macedonian’s newly completed crew of more than three hundred mariners and Royal Marines experienced a taste of Fitzroy’s temperament with the enforcement of his first standing order that required the men address him as .my Lord. rather than “.Captain”. Fitzroy’s next order condemned a seaman to forty-eight lashes for the very sailor like offense of getting drunk,. a sentence four times the standard punishment traditionally allowed a captain outside a court martial. By March 1811 Fitzroy stood before his own court martial facing charges brought by Macedonian’s sailing master who accused him of falsifying expense reports on ship’s stores and profiting from the difference. The findings of the Admiralty court, however, focused on Fitzroy’s brutality towards the men as much as the charges of fraud, citing .False Expense of Stores . “Tyranny and Oppression” as the basis for his dismissal from the service. Five months later, Fitzroy reappeared in the navy list, fully reinstated without loss of seniority. Political and social weight had, once again, intervened in Fitzroy’s favor, proving that connections could trump Admiralty law, even when that law supported the best interests of the service. Despite Fitzroy’s public flouting of naval authority, he continued to profit from the Royal Navy’s rigid system of promotion.

Beyond the rank of post captain, seniority alone controlled advancement and elevation to flag rank. Although discreetly denied active command after 1811, Fitzroy progressed inevitably up the naval ladder, becoming an admiral and drawing an admiral’s pay until his death in 1857.

Fitzroy’s story reflects two important trends evident in the Royal Navy during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. First, it exemplifies the increasing weight ascribed to aristocratic and political connections in both the selection of young officers for sea service and the pace of their promotion. Second, it reveals a growing concern on the part of the Admiralty for the treatment of seamen whose protests commanded greater attention in the wake of the 1797 mutinies.

In the years after the Peace of Amiens, high-ranking contemporaries including First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl St. Vincent and Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, Viscount Horatio Nelson, voiced their concerns for the influx of aristocratic and politically-favored boys into the service. Their concerns addressed the issue of social precedence and its corrosive effects on naval professionalism. They understood too, that the root of the problem lay with the entry-level quarterdeck ranks .with those boys who entered the service, typically between the ages of nine and nineteen, with the express aim of becoming sea officers. Known officially as “young gentlemen,” this title encompassed a variety of epithets that fell in and out of favor during the course of the Great Wars. Midshipman, Captain’s Servant, Volunteer First Class, Boy First Class, were all used to indicate boys being groomed for command. While N. A. M. Rodger argues that .the eighteenth century Admiralty had almost no control over the recruitment of its officers,.4 something changed during the course of the French Revolutionary Wars such that the 1803 mobilization saw nearly four times as many “Honorable” midshipmen, that is the sons of baronets or higher, pass the examination for lieutenant than during the 1793 mobilization. While a .strong middle-class element continued to flourish in the navy’s corps of junior officers, the sons of noblemen and high-ranking gentlemen represented a rapidly growing minority during the Great Wars.

Synchronous to this trend were broadening concerns for the treatment of seamen. The fleet-wide mutinies of 1797 highlighted the potential for anarchy, if not in the minds of mariners then in the consciousness of officers whose numbers represented a tiny portion of the complement of any man-of-war. The precariousness of the social structure that sustained the power of the quarterdeck had become all too clear. Officers who brutalized seamen without justification felt the wrath of an Admiralty keen to avoid further uprisings from the lower deck. For midshipmen and quarterdeck boys, the curtailing of disrespectful or unnecessarily authoritarian behavior took different forms, all of which tended to limit their authority.

The apparently conflicting social dynamics that produced a more aristocratic and gentlemanly midshipman.s berth and at the same time hobbled its authoritative status provide the two thematic approaches for this study. The factors that produced these shifts, whether internal or external to the Royal Navy, offer a key to understanding developments in the attitudes of both the Admiralty and the men of George III.s navy.

The general trends apparent within the service also present a microcosmic view of wider patterns in English society at large during the Great Wars.

Two Critical Events for the Georgian Navy

A direct correlation can be drawn between the rising social status of a naval career and the level of political and social interference in the appointment of young gentlemen.

The decision to take a boy to sea as an officer-in-training traditionally resided with individual captains; however, the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries saw a variety of pressures intrude upon that prerogative. During Pepysian days when a naval career ranked among the lowliest, least-desirable of professions, the Royal Navy and her commanders enjoyed a substantial measure of operational independence, distanced as they were from the kinds of political and social influences so prevalent in army recruitment and promotion. As Pepys noted in his Naval Minutes, .have any of our Heralds allowed in express words the seaman for a gentleman?

During the last quarter of the seventeenth century, royal attempts to correct this situation led to a greater separation between .gentlemen and .tarpaulin officers,. Those of humble origin raised from the lower deck as thorough-going professionals. The emergence of King’s Letter Boys or volunteers per order, genteel young recruits seeking a naval career, represented the political push to create a new corps of well-bred and professional officers. But the effort begun during the reign of Charles II had gained only a little momentum by that of George I and a “pronounced .social mix” in the commissioned ranks of the Royal Navy. remained a prominent feature of naval life. The process of stereotyping young officers according to their lowest common social denominator continued well into the last quarter of the eighteenth century, bolstered by the fact that in the .unnatural world. of the Royal Navy, .the order of civil society was subverted. Distinctions of dress, accommodation, diet, and most importantly, the deference afforded by noble birth, blurred in the dank confines of the midshipman’s berth and upon that great social leveler, the quarterdeck. Aboard a man-of-war, naval rank superceded social rank. Between the American and French Revolutionary Wars, however, the equation began to change.

The first important event to affect general opinions of a naval career occurred in 1779 when George III sent his third son, Prince William Henry, to sea as a midshipman with the instructions, .the young man goes as a sailor, and as such, I add again, no marks of distinction are to be shown unto him; they would destroy my whole plan. Exactly what this plan might have been is open to speculation. As the first Hanoverian to proclaim himself an Englishman first and foremost, George’s commitment of a son to the sea service tendered proof of his patriotic zeal. It also reflected a belief in the need for princes to acquire first-hand knowledge of naval and military institutions, as prerequisites for informed and empathic leadership. The decision was, however, a .socially radical, even revolutionary step which instantly improved public perceptions of the Royal Navy and elevated its officers to an unprecedented level of social acceptability. In the following decades, the rising social status of officers in the Royal Navy encouraged the sons (not always the younger) of aristocratic families (not always impoverished) to seek positions as young gentlemen aboard men-of-war. Yearly editions of Steel’s Navy List from the French Revolutionary Wars show an increasing number of “Honorable”midshipmen becoming lieutenants, indicating the growing popularity of a naval career.

For the French Revolutionary Wars, this trend peaked in 1797, the year of the illustrious Battle of Cape St. Vincent for which Sir John Jervis earned his eponymous earldom and Nelson rose to international fame.

1797 also marked the second great watershed for social dynamics within the Royal Navy. A series of mutinies beginning with the Channel Fleet at Spithead, followed by ships stationed at the Nore, then by the North Sea Squadron at Yarmouth, sent shockwaves through naval command, rudely reminding both the Admiralty and Parliament that order depended entirely on the consent of the seamen who worked their ships.
These two events affected both internal and external perceptions of the Royal Navy and forced senior officers to reevaluate their methods and their men in order to preserve discipline as much as the functionality of the service. Disdain for young, aristocratic incompetents like Lord William Fitzroy mounted, prompting St. Vincent to remark in 1806 that .this vast overflow of young nobility in the Service makes rapid strides to the decay of Seamanship, as well as Subordination. . . .. St. Vincent’s concerns for the professionalism of officers and the maintenance of discipline and order aboard ship summarized two of the crucial issues involving midshipmen and quarterdeck boys during the Great Wars.

Part I of this study addresses the selection of officers-in-training between 1793 and 1815 and indicates the extent to which wider social, political, and cultural trends infiltrated the Royal Navy and encroached upon the independence of captains in their selection of young gentlemen destined for command. The result of such intervention was a mounting tension between sea officers who originated from the .middling ranks of society and a corps of aristocratic young gentlemen whose influence confused the line between social and naval subordination.
Part II addresses the concern voiced by Lord St. Vincent and other senior officials for the professionalism of future naval officers. Over the course of the Great Wars the nature of the authority wielded by young gentlemen changed in order to remedy abuses and as a response to the new social dynamic between lower deck and quarterdeck. The cultural and institutional constructs that enabled inexperienced boys to command veteran able seamen altered subtly as a result of the 1797 mutinies. Internal sources of authority generated by a ship’s captain, and ultimately by Admiralty law, were also tempered by external influences such as revolutionary political and social instability, education, and religion. Both sets of influences produced occasionally conflicting results, at times limiting and at times reinforcing the authority of midshipmen and quarterdeck boys.

While signs of a changing social equation within Britain in the last decade of the eighteenth century appeared in the altered character of a petty officer.s authority, an increasingly aristocratic midshipman’s berth and a narrowing field of selection for entrylevel officers reflected wider social and political currents that, in fact, supported the maintenance of an ancien régime in British society. The conflict inherent in the position of the quarterdeck boy embodied the dueling forces within the Royal Navy and within society at large “between old-order traditions and social mobility”. The ability of the service to absorb the effects of both and to emerge as a strong, professional institution that flourished late into the nineteenth century provides evidence of the flexibility and resilience of the Royal Navy as a sub-culture of Georgian society.

Testing Social Theories Using the Royal Navy Model Characterizations of English society as either a “dynamic state” or an “old order” draw principally on the works of two scholars with opposing views on the nature of eighteenth-century society. Paul Langford challenges all notions of stability, classifying the long eighteenth century as a period of massive and universal change. Expanding on the contemporary view that agricultural and industrial developments “wrought a fundamental alteration in the English people”. Langford focuses on the growing middle classes and their pursuit of “polite”  status in all its forms including wealth, social rank, and political power as the catalyst for social evolution. The idea that “the debasement of gentility is one of the clearest signs of social change” became manifest in the operational standards of the Royal Navy of the early-eighteenth century. Here was an institution that effectively opened professional opportunities to boys of the lower to middling orders. From the 1730s until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Royal Navy command represented a largely unchallenged meritocracy and one of the best enablers of social mobility. The impartial handling of midshipmen who originated from a broad spectrum of social ranks reflected the navy’s disregard for traditional social hierarchies in its command structure. It also reflected the Admiralty’s recognition of the need to build an officer corps based on ability and skill. According to Langford, by the close of the eighteenth century, the broadening middle classes, which included even modest artisans and producers of commercial goods, represented an “increased threat to traditional notions of a hierarchical society”. Young naval officers elevated from humble backgrounds only contributed to that threat.

A culture of freedom and mobility, influenced by the liberalism of Romantic radicals, found support from opposition Whigs and Dissenting ministers who touted the constitutional “rights of Englishmen” applicable to all regardless of social rank. The Royal Navy’s appreciation of democratic principles sharpened in the wake of fleet-wide mutiny, an event that sparked a new social conscience among officers whose vulnerability had become all too obvious. In the first decade of the new century Captain Alexander Ball noted that “no body of men can for any length of time be safely treated otherwise than as rational beings.” . .. Midshipmen who attacked these “newly rational” mariners, either physically or verbally without sufficient justification, found themselves whipped, mastheaded, disrated, or dismissed from the service.

The relationship between lower deck and quarterdeck altered as the new balance of power within the Royal Navy forced officers to confront the old precept of rule by consent. More humane approaches to the management of crews and the fostering of patriotic fervor amongst the lower deck echoed elements of a dynamic social equation and the transmutation of democratic revolutionary ideology into a far safer form “ that of enlightened nationalism. In these developments the Royal Navy example supports” Langford’s theory of sweeping social change. But while change undoubtedly occurred over the course of the long eighteenth century, its manifestations both within the Admiralty and aboard its men-of-war diverge from Langford’s unidirectional model of social progress.

In contrast to Langford, J. C. D. Clark champions the notion of England as an ancien régime. Clark argued that throughout the Great Wars, England remained a “preindustrial,.aristocratic””.confessional state” in which the twin foundations of society “law and religion” maintained a state of “patrician hegemony” over a broad social spectrum. While this diversity spurred conflict, from socio-economic discord to religious upheavals, Clark argues that the ability of English society to absorb these shocks, to settle on middle ground, and to assimilate rather than revolt grew from a fundamental social consensus: that the dominance of the patrician elite was justified by laws both natural and revealed. Clark acknowledges that by the close of the eighteenth century, “some degree of mobility into (and out of) the patrician elite was possible in England,” an observation that broadens his definition of “.aristocracy” to include members of the gentry who possessed significant political and financial clout.Clark.s argument, that “contemporary perceptions of the power and influence of the nobility and gentry were legion,” builds upon the social theories of David Hume who understood that true authority could not be .imposed by deception or force. but depended “on the willingness of the many to obey the few because they saw in the few a certain embodiment of their aspirations”

In naval terms, Clark’s model is supported by traditional notions of a rigid shipboard hierarchy, whereby every man minded his place, and honored the system of ranks and privileges out of a combination of duty and resignation, hope and tradition.

During the Great Wars, the increasing number of midshipman’s appointments granted on the basis of noble birth and/or political influence also supported the notion of an ascendant elite. In the last decades of the eighteenth century selection favoring those with social rank, parliamentary favor, or at the very least, connections to a high-ranking naval officer, superceded the navy’s position as an open meritocracy and thus reflected a renewed state of patrician hegemony in naval command. N. A. M. Rodger relates this trend to a reaction against the revolutionary ideas circulating in the wake of regicide in France: “just as the French navy abandoned its tradition of choosing officers from the nobility in favour of the career open to talent, the British Navy started moving in the opposite direction”

The widening gap between quarterdeck and lower deck which, by 1815, looked more like a chasm, supports Clark’s theory of a dominant patrician element. While theparticulars of shipboard society evolved during the late 1790s, the general hierarchy remained, becoming more firmly rooted in traditional social systems with each new generation of notable Royal Navy recruits. It is undeniable that, by the turn of the nineteenth century, the relationship between officers and men depended more heavily on expectations of professionalism and mutually respectful conduct; however, the old codes of paternalism and deference within shipboard society remained firm. With the new century, the Royal Navy came to mirror the social make-up of a greater patrician society, one in which birth, political connections, and/or wealth determined opportunities for advancement.

Complications arose, however, with the influx of young officers whose appointments and promotions came primarily as the result of .interest.. A process of advancement that subordinated skill, motivation, or instinct for command to qualifications of birth and connection threatened the implicit contract of professionalism between officers and seamen. Unworthy junior officers were hardly revered by mariners and subsequently struggled to maintain real authority. From the quarterdeck perspective, reassertion of the old social order wrought havoc on the chain of command. By the start of the Napoleonic Wars, the pressure on captains to take up aristocratic boys who were not cut out for naval life increased. Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood complained of one noble youth aboard his flagship: .. . .” he is of no more use here as an officer than Bounce is, and not near so entertaining” Bounce was Collingwood’s dog. While it did not necessarily follow that all aristocratic boys lacked talent, or a real desire to serve at sea, the problems raised by the presence of socially-superior boys aboard Georgian men-of war posed a serious threat to the effectiveness of naval subordination. Officers of less exalted status than Collingwood often moderated disciplinary measures against the sons of notables, aware that in the prevailing political climate, their actions might receive career-damaging censure. As shown in Part II of this study, lieutenants directly in charge of quarterdeck boys became particularly conscious of whose interest their juniors represented, as promotion to commander and post captain relied, to a large extent, on the political favor of the Admiralty. In this way, the gentrification of the midshipman’s berth threatened the professionalism of the quarterdeck and justified concerns for the future of naval seamanship.

The Royal Navy’s ability to avoid destruction from competing internal and external forces “ from political influences on appointments, to social tensions affecting shipboard hierarchies and the distribution of authority” is best explained using Clark’.s concept of assimilation, whereby social tensions were absorbed into a system based on patrician hegemony. Roy Porter supports Clark’s notions of .”elasticity”. and “.resilience” in English social hierarchies as they reinforced the old order. Such qualities emphasized the fact that while English society was “inegalitarian and oozing privilege”. . it was neither brittle nor rigid.. It is a description that accurately characterizes the naval command structure.

The precedence given to boys with aristocratic and political influence, at the expense of open entry and rewards based principally on merit, did not substantially impede the Admiralty’s ability to maintain operational effectiveness throughout the Great Wars. The manoeuvring of aristocratic young gentlemen, often through promotion into less crucial roles, as in the case of Lord William Fitzroy, provided a respectable yet effective outlet for young men unsuited to sea command. For those who remained afloat, the paternalistic duty that demanded expertise and infallibility from superiors echoed the expanding reputation of the service. The decisive and popular victory at Trafalgar in 1805 pressured junior officers to shape up, spurred by the threat of public ignominy and professional humiliation if their conduct failed to meet expectations.

While elements of Langford’s theory of social dynamics appear relevant to the 1797 mutinies and the more humane handling of seamen that resulted, interpretations of old-order utilitarian motivations are equally apparent on either side of the 1797 uprisings.
The failure of the Admiralty to fulfill its basic duty of sustaining the health and welfare of its seamen collided with the need to keep mariners contented if the Royal Navy’s fleets were to remain functional. Mutual need uncovered middle ground and the opportunity for conciliation within the existing social and institutional structure. Mariners “ appreciation for strong and effective command did not dwindle with the institution of more restrained approaches to authority and the use of discipline. The professional pride of lower-deck men tended, in fact, to favor the type of authoritative command that conducted a “tight ship”. Such attitudes only reinforced the old shipboard hierarchies. Demands for a higher level of professionalism from the quarterdeck encouraged even greater separation between officers and their men, providing further evidence of Clark’s social ancient régime.

Langford’s vision of an increasingly open English society driven by merit might appear more relevant to the reduction of the navy at the close of the Napoleonic Wars.

The process of paying off hundreds of ships and beaching thousands of young officers allowed the Admiralty to keep only the cream of career officers and those who thrived on the new dynamics of shipboard life. Yet, the lasting effects of officer gentrification on the navy of the mid to late-nineteenth century favor Clark’s explanation of a continuing patrician hegemony. Rodger acknowledges the social polarization of lower deck “.commoners” and quarterdeck “.gentlemen”, a phenomenon that became glaringly apparent by 1815.

Aristocratic and political demand saw a greater number of positions for boys diverted to the sons of the elite, producing, by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, a more socially homogeneous officer corps than had existed at the close of the Seven Years. War.

Rodger emphasizes a vision of the Royal Navy as a microcosm of English society, reflecting wider trends and developments that took place in the long eighteenth century:
“. . . for all its undoubted peculiarities, the Navy resembled the society from which it was recruited in many more ways than it differed from it.” While Paul Langford’s dynamic state describes the naval example up until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the evolutions of the 1790s through the 1810s reveal limitations in the application of his theory. As the quarterdeck increasingly became the realm of the gentleman, Clark’s notion of a patrician ascendancy more accurately represents the developments taking place in George III’s Navy. Resilience and flexibility within a traditional social hierarchy characterized the naval institution of the nineteenth century, allowing it to survive the strains of complex social and political times.

Clark notes evolutions within the “hegemonic set of ideas which provided the ideological framework within which the changes happened”.. It was an ancien régime that embraced fluctuations in the social order (eschewing notions of stasis) to produce a state that represented “hegemony rather than consensus”. The social changes that took place in the Royal Navy of the Great Wars support the conclusion that “modernity”. did not mean the end of “Old England”. The application of Clark’s theory to the changing processes of selection and to evolutions in the authority of midshipmen and quarterdeck boys provides the framework for this study.


To be continued