Playing at command midshipmen and quarterdeck officer (II)


Identifying the Quarterdeck Boy

Michael Lewis definition of “quarterdeck” boy as opposed to “.lower deck” boy is useful in broadly identifying the difference between young men who possessed a good chance of attaining commissioned status and those whose highest aspiration might be that of able seaman or, at best, warrant officer (gunner, carpenter, boatswain, coxswain, steward, or sailing master). It also eliminates problems created by the changing conventions and rating systems that spanned the period under consideration. Before 1794 the most popular form of entry for quarterdeck boys was as “captain’s servant”. Despite the implications, there was nothing menial about the position. Captain’s servants were quarterdeck protégés, officers in the making, for whom the assignment of servile duties would have represented a serious insult and demotion. Captains were encouraged to take on as many “servants” as possible by dint of the fact that they received the pay, eighteen shillings per lunar month, of each boy under their care. Muster rolls for three of the largest ships present at the Battle of Quiberon Bay on November 20, 1759 show high ratios of captain’s servants to the total complement of Royal Navy (Excludes Royal  Marines).


In 1794 an Order in Council introduced the new rating of “.Boy First Class” or“First Class Volunteer,” theoretically abolishing all other entry-level ratings in an effort to limit the number of boys bound for the quarterdeck to the regulation four-per-hundred of the to as many “servants” as possible by dint of the fact that they received the pay, eighteen shillings per lunar month, of each boy under their care. Muster rolls for three of the largest ships present at the Battle of Quiberon Bay on November 20, 1759 show high ratios of captain’s servants to the total complement of Royal Navy men. (Excludes Royal  Marines).tal crew. As compensation, captain’s wages increased, although it was likely that the disparity saw many captains suffer financially. A comparative table showing the number of first class volunteers and boys as a function of ships. complements from three of the largest ships at the Battle of Trafalgar, October 21, 1805 demonstrates a significant change. (See Table 2)


It should be noted, however, that ways around the system were available and popular. One method of circumventing regulations involved rating quarterdeck boys as able seamen, thereby disguising their presence as far as the ship’s official muster was concerned.

Lieutenants. passing certificates from 1805 show that 20 percent of those young gentlemen who passed that year entered the service rated “able”. By this time the practice of raising midshipmen and potential officers from the lower deck had faded “[T]he forty-year-old midshipman was becoming a rarity,”as potential officers were increasingly singled out in childhood”. Although no direct financial gains came from rating additional young gentlemen as able seamen, it provided captains with a means of granting politically advantageous favors (and thus boosting their own careers) at a time when appointments for quarterdeck boys were at a premium.

Rodger suggests that the new volunteer ratings were tools of gentrification, arguing that the difference between the three classes of boy “first, second, and third” were based not on professional knowledge but on birth. According to the Order in Council of 1794, Boys of the First Class were “to consist of Young Gentlemen intended for the Sea Service . . . : to be styled Volunteers and allowed wages at the rate of ₤6 per annum”. The Second Class was “to consist of Boys between 15 and 17 years of age to be divided into watches with the seamen in order to make them such”. at ₤5 per annum” The Third Class consisted of .Boys between 13 and 15 years of age of whom Lieutenants and other officers who are now allowed servants might be permitted to recommend to the  Captains, each of them one, to be the attendants upon such officers “ at ₤4 per annum”.

As Rodger notes, “since no attempt was made to test whatever qualities [a boy] might possess, the only basis for the distinction”. . . was that implied by the wording of the Order in Council; that is between gentlemen and the rest” The Order in Council of 1794 was therefore a major indicator in the official trend towards sanctifying the quarterdeck as the exclusive realm of the gentleman. Controlling the number of official positions for officers-in-training and limiting the social groups capable of filling those positions, demonstrated the expanding influence of the Admiralty as a political body in matters traditionally held as a captain’s prerogative.

For much of the eighteenth century, the selection of boys for sea service depended on a combination of influence with and connections to individual captains, enthusiasm, and luck. A relatively democratic process of selection made opportunities available to the sons of sea officers, professional men, and the middling sort as much as to the sons of peers. During the Great Wars, however, opportunities narrowed significantly. Political and social pressure demanded that noble and notable boys receive priority placement.

The prevalence of “book entry”, the practice of entering a boy’s name in the muster years in advance of his actual appearance on board, spoke to the weight of outside influence on a captain. .False muster “ constituted a criminal offence” yet captains were very often willing to risk their careers and their reputations for the opportunity to wield patronage or advantage the son of a friend or relative. The five year-old Lord Thomas Cochrane, who would later become the 10th Earl of Dundonald, found his way onto the books of successive ships captained by his uncle Sir Alexander Cochrane. Lord Cochrane did not take up his first appointment as midshipman until the age of seventeen,36 by which time his seniority in the service was well established and most of his sea time required for the examination for lieutenant completed. As long a captain did not attempt to draw pay for the absentee “.able seaman” or “master’s mate” the Admiralty tended to turn a blind eye.
Book entry, among other abuses, was not merely the province of gentleman captains serving their own family interests. For captains of more humble origin it represented an opportunity to exercise patronage  a decision that could benefit the son of a fellow mariner as readily as the son of a parliamentarian. Yet, as the Great Wars progressed, the political, social, and financial stakes associated with accepting the sons of the elite as quarterdeck volunteers soared. The prospect of personal and professional gain combined with Admiralty pressure to select boys backed by powerful interest narrowed the field of candidates. All captains, genteel and otherwise, felt a mounting pressure from above to accommodate the sons of notables, a factor that ensured the continuation of book entry well into the first decade of the nineteenth century.


The Midshipmans Lot

The life of a midshipman or quarterdeck boy aboard a Georgian man-of-war varied from ship to ship and captain to captain. Disparities in the age and competency of individual boys produced a wide range of experiences. On the one hand, there was Midshipman Hamilton Davies, who found himself in command of a fire-brig at age ten.

On the other hand, ten year-old William Henry Dillon was overwhelmed by the noise and activity aboard his first ship, HMS Saturn. His fears resulted in a surly and “pensive mood” that required the cheerful efforts and “soothing expressions” of his father .Most cases, however, fell somewhere between these extremes. Midshipmen and quarterdeck boys of all ages generally came under the immediate supervision of a ship’s lieutenants who served as both professional and personal mentors. Lieutenants regulated the separation of their own divisions into sub-divisions, placing a young gentleman in charge of each as a means of acquainting him with the duties of command. Standard responsibilities included such tasks as running aloft to supervise seamen in setting, reefing, or furling sail; supervising sub-divisions at small arms training; attending to the swift transition of the watch; maintaining the ship’s safety by constantly checking for naked lights and lanterns below decks; witnessing visits to the purser’s, steward’s or boatswain’s store rooms; and casting the log line in order to determine the speed and, when in soundings, the position of the ship. Beyond these basics, practical duties varied greatly, often depending on the type of ship in which a young gentleman served. Rodger notes the disparities from ship to ship:
It was commonly remarked that there were different types of midshipmen in different ships: sophisticated and hard-swearing in ships of the line, slovenly and ill-bred in little sloops and brigs, but an elite in the frigates, smart and proud of facing early danger and responsibility.

Much of this stereotyping stemmed from the nature of the commissions awarded the various ships. As reconnaissance vessels, frigates generally received independent cruises, detached from a fleet and were usually exempt from banal convoy duties.

Intelligent, highly-motivated captains received these “plum” commands and typically wasted no time in seeking out engagement and potential prizes. Boys of similar mettle aspired to frigate service. By seventeen John Harvey Boteler, who later became a distinguished captain, expressed such a desire: “ . . my brother Thomas and I, having served so far in ships of the line, both wished for a more active time in frigates”. A boy’s participation in boarding actions, cutting-out expeditions, and shore raids, all of which required hand-to-hand combat with pistols and dirks, were virtually assured in frigate service. The popularity and prestige of serving aboard a “crack” frigate meant that the sons of noblemen and prominent gentlemen often found their way into these scarce and coveted positions. The four frigates present during the Trafalgar action shipped one quarter of the aristocratic young gentlemen out of a fleet of thirty-three vessels.

Yet for all the opportunities frigates presented for distinguished service and prize money, their quarterdeck boys sacrificed on comfort. Peter Cullen, a gentleman who served as surgeon’s mate aboard the frigate Squirrel, described the berth for himself, eight midshipmen, and two master’s mates which consisted of two small spaces forward of the officers’ quarters on the lower deck, where they slung their hammocks and ate their meals adjacent the bulk of the ship’s company. Genteel boys from comfortable middle and upper-class environments often expressed horror at the conditions aboard a man-of-war.
Young Frederick Chamier wrote of his coming aboard the frigate Salsette in 1809:
I had anticipated a kind of elegant house with guns in the windows . . . [but found] the tars of England rolling about casks, without jackets, shoes or stockings . . . the deck was dirty, slippery, and wet; the smells abominable; the whole sight disgusting . . . I remarked the slovenly attire of the midshipmen, dressed in shabby round jackets, glazed hats, no gloves, and some without shoes. . .

Conditions were hardly better in larger ships. First through third rates (vessels of over one hundred guns down to vessels of sixty-four guns) allowed young gentlemen separate quarters. Midshipmen and quarterdeck boys aged fourteen and older berthed on the orlop, the lowest deck above the hold in a dank space forward of the mizzen mast dubbed the “.cockpit”. At approximately five hundred to eleven hundred square feet, a ship of the line’ cockpit accommodated anywhere from twenty to thirty-plus midshipmen, master’s mates, surgeon’s mates and other petty officers,  providing a place for them to eat, sleep, and pass their free time. Situated well below the water line, the cockpit’s only light came from tallow dips, whose stench mingled with the miasma of putrid bilge water, rotting timber, and the ooze from casks of rancid food. One midshipman, remarking on the dearth of air in the cockpit, noted that it was impossible to keep a flame alight. Proximity to the hold did not help matters. Long cruises often saw the build up of toxic gases in the hold which, despite their ability to asphyxiate human beings, failed to eradicate the vermin that infested the lower reaches of a ship. Rober Mercer Wilson, a young captain’s clerk described the results of cleaning and “smoking” the hold of the frigate Unite in 1808: “Opened the hatches, found about one thousand mice dead”.

Edward Thompson Esq., a civilian commentator, lamented the conditions faced by young gentlemen who were “bedded worse than hogs, and eat less delicacies” .Midshipmen and boys, regardless of social rank, generally ate the same fare as seamen and warrant officers. Salt beef and pork, ships’biscuit, cheese, pease porridge, portable soup, and the occasional fresh vegetable, all washed down with a gallon of small beer or a pint of grog each day made it a harsh transition for the palates of well-bred boys accustomed to fine food and wine. Invitations to dine at the captain’s table or in the ward room with the senior officers often brought the only respite from a menu that was at best tasteless and at worst putrid.
“.Youngsters” or boys under thirteen, berthed with the gunner in the Gun Room.

Not quite as “.stygian” and a somewhat healthier place for an “officers’ nursery,” the Gun Room also provided adult supervision under a “teady sort of man” like the master gunner. Warrant officers were also known to bring their wives to sea despite Admiralty regulations, yet their function as surrogate mothers to the youngest quarterdeck recruits often contributed to the toleration these particular women aboard ship. Even boys lucky enough to find maternal care aboard a man-of-war endured a life of shocking rawness.

Working uniforms consisted of coarse wool or kersey round-jackets and duck or canvas trousers. The “short clothes’of the navy offered little distinction between quarterdeck boys and their inferiors. Dress uniforms introduced prior to the Seven Years. War allowed young gentlemen some outward signs of rank. Brass buttons and white collar patches on the same short wool jackets, breeches, and stockings lent some elegance to an otherwise undistinguished appearance. There were, of course, exceptions. Boteler aboard the frigate Orontes remarked, “We were considered a crack ship, and the midshipmen dressed in cocked hats, tight white pantaloons and Hessian boots, with gilt twist edging and a bullion tassel” Such sartorial splendor suggested a predominance of well-heeled boys, a far cry from Boteler’s shipmate aboard Dictator who had to make the best of his limited resources. John Jones “a young Welsh lad, very good-humoured” . . had nothing but his pay, and yet he was the neatest dressed midshipman in the ship, his “weekly account” kept so white with pipe-clay. For some quarterdeck boys, affectations of elegance drew the wrath of senior officers who equated genteel standards of costume with signs of effeminacy and weakness. James Anthony Gardner, a midshipman aboard the Edgar in 1789, recalled an incident that brought the wrath his Admiral, the Honorable John Leveson Gower, down upon a fellow petty officer. “He [Gower] was a mortal foe to puppyism, and one of our midshipmen going aloft with gloves on, attracted his eye; for which he got a rub down that I am certain he remembers to the present day” .
Such instances provided brutal reminders of the distance, both physical and symbolic, separating naval and civilian life. Aboard His Majesty’ ships young gentlemen, regardless of their background or social hauteur, worked, slept, ate, and dressed in ways that offered little of the comfort or distinction afforded by life ashore.




Noble Rot
The Earl St. Vincent.s audience with King George III, 1807:
[A]nd the King asked him: .Well Lord St. Vincent you have now quitted active service, as you say forever, - tell me do you think the Naval service is better off or worse than when you first entered it?.

Lord St. Vincent: .Very much worse may it please Your Majesty..

The King very quickly: .How so? How so?.

Lord St. Vincent: .Sire, I have always thought that a sprinkling of nobility was very desirable in the Navy, as it gives some sort of consequence to the service; but at present the Navy is so overrun by the younger branches of nobility, and the sons of Members of Parliament, and they swallow up all the patronage, and so choke the channel to promotion, that the son of an old Officer, however meritorious both their services may have been, has little or no chance of getting on..

The King: .Pray who was serving Captain of the Fleet under your Lordship?.

Lord St. Vincent: “Rear Admiral Osborne, Sire, the son of an old Officer”

The King: “Osborne! Osborne! I think there are many more than one of that name Admirals”

Lord St Vincent: “Yes Sire, there are three brothers, all Admirals”

The King: “That’.s pretty well for democracy, I think”

Lord St. Vincent: “Sire, - the father of these officers served twenty years as First Lieutenant, with my dear friend Admiral Barrington, who had never sufficient interest to get him beyond the rank of Commander. He was of necessity obliged to send all his sons to sea, and to my knowledge, they never had anything more to live on than their pay . . . they got on in the service upon the strength of their own merits alone; and Sire, I hope Your Majesty will pardon me for saying, I would rather promote the son of an old deserving Officer than any Noble in the land”

The King mused for a minute or two, and then said, “I think you’re right Lord St. Vincent, quite right.”

As apocryphal as this account appears, it nonetheless reflects opinions representative of the feelings of both the former First Lord and his sovereign about the excess of aristocratic young men in the service and its adverse effect on an institution that traditionally represented a meritocracy. St. Vincent, however, took the point a step beyond the issue of individual merit, suggesting that a naval pedigree ought take precedence over that of peerage.

Lewis. data on the social status of Royal Navy officers’ parents relative to promotion to flag rank testifies to St. Vincent’s concern. Between 1793 and 1815, sons of baronets and peers accounted for 12 percent of the total sample of 1800 officers while sons of “professional men,” those with naval, clerical, military, legal, civil, or medicalconnections, accounted for 50 percent. In the arena of promotion, however, nearly percent of baronets and peers advanced to Rear-Admirals rank or higher, while only 22 percent of professional sons managed to achieve the same success. The desirability and prestige of a naval career, boosted by Prince William Henry’.s appearance as a quarterdeck boy, effectively began a constriction of opportunities for entry-level officers based on social rank, despite George III.s ostensibly “democratic” ideals and nominal sympathies.

Changing Selection
Rodger.s survey of the Royal Navy during the Seven Years. War explores several avenues open to boys with ambitions to officer rank. Captains. servants represented those boys of “respectable families” who entered not before the age of thirteen, or if a naval officer’s son, not before the age of eleven. This theoretically allowed a certain amount of general schooling and preparation in the navigational sciences before a young gentleman went to sea. In practice, boys joined the service years earlier, taking advantage of the fact that “.the Navy [of the 1760s] was the only profession for a gentleman that did not require . indeed, did not admit” the application of money or influence. For aristocratic younger sons and the sons of impoverished nobility, as much as for sons of genteel, professional, and merchant families, adventure afloat presented an attractive option to the struggles of civilian life. For a small allowance, or in some cases no money at all, boys could embark on a respectable, if socially unglamorous profession. Over the next six years a boy might move between the ratings of able seaman, ordinary seaman, midshipman, and back to captain’s servant on the ship’s muster. Such ratings were meaningless in terms of shipboard duties, although they allowed a boy to gather the six years sea-experience required for eligibility to the lieutenant’s examination.

The second method of rising to commissioned rank during the 1750s and 1760s began on the lower deck, with those boys whose ability allowed them to vault the ranks of warrant officers and land on the quarterdeck. This method harkened back to the Cromwellian practice of elevating competent seamen to the quarterdeck via the midshipman’s berth. Throughout the Seven Years. War lower-deck promotion remained a common practice.

The final method of entry came via the merchant service. Experience gained in the East Indies, West Indies, or Baltic trades often presented young men with a chance to impress naval captains with their skill and seamanship and secure a place as a potential officer. In both the second and third instances, midshipmen and quarterdeck “.boys” tended to be older and more practically experienced. Lieutenant.’ passing certificates from 1759 reveal that 52 percent of young gentlemen passed their examination after six years of service; however, only 16 percent of the 192 men and boys passed that year entered the service at age fourteen. Twelve percent of applicants, the second largest group, were twenty-five years old at the time of passing. This represents a significant number of older quarterdeck “boys” and suggests that a good proportion of would-be officers came from ratings other than that of captain’s servant. With so diverse a pool of hopefuls, the determining factor for success in each of these officer-entry cases was ability. In the era of Anson and Hawke the maxim of merit remained firm: “without a good reputation for professional ability, even the well connected [boy] fared badly”.

By the start of the French Revolutionary Wars, the field of officer entry had narrowed. The most popular age of entry remained fourteen, as six years. experience with two of those years rated midshipmen or master’s mate were still required in order to sit the lieutenant’s examination at the minimum age of twenty.7 A shift, however, towards a younger and more socially-elevated junior officer corps became apparent with the 1794 Order in Council and with the relatively lower incidence of “.tarpaulin” midshipmen. Lewis. survey of officer entry shows that barely 3 percent of the total 3751 officers created between 1793 and 1815 came from the lower deck while 86 percent entered as quarterdeck boys in one form or another.8 In terms of age, 72 percent of the 285 lieutenants passed in 1805 entered at or before age sixteen, with 86 percent spending between six and seven years at sea before sitting their examination. These figures reflect a younger group of candidates and a more concentrated selection and grooming process for young gentlemen. As Thomas Trotter, surgeon aboard HMS Terpsichore in 1802 noted in his A Practical Plan for Manning the Navy: No person will have the hardihood to contend that a seaman’s duty can be learned in less than seven years or after 21 years of age. He must be accustomed to it from boyhood, for no adult can ever be brought to endure the privation, dangers and hardships which are inseparable from a sea life.

In January 1806 the Admiralty under Charles Middleton, then Lord Barham, issued its new Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty.s Service at Sea, a series of orders that allowed greater Admiralty intervention in day to day shipboard activities including the management, if not the selection, of entry-level officers. The regulations initiated a move towards more centralized forms of naval governance and laid the foundations for future reforms which would, by 1815, eliminate the captain’s monopoly on the selection of potential officers. The direction of 1815 which stated that .no Midshipman should be received on board and entered in the Ship’s Books unless or until he had received Admiralty Sanction,.1 instituted centralized approval of all young gentlemen. This allowed the Lords Commissioners greater say in who came aboard His Majesty’s ships and provided a means of controlling both the quantity and quality of new recruits entering an already swollen officer corps.

Of the 291 passed lieutenants in 1814, a year that saw a substantial number of ships paid off in anticipation of the peace, only 33 percent of midshipmen passed their six to seven years at sea before seeking commissioned status. The largest group by far, 47 percent, spent only three and a half to five and a half years at sea before being allowed to sit the examination for lieutenant. Of these, more than 50 percent were fourteen years old or younger at their time of entry into the service. Despite the fact that the 1808 Regulations and Instructions lowered the minimum age for the lieutenant’s examination.