Hierarchies among 18th century British sailors.


I’d like to know if there were hierarchies among 18th century British sailors. I’m interested to know what their different duties were.
I look forward to your feedback

You really need to clarify the question.

Were there hierarchies in a ship? Of course, “where there’s a captain, sailors don’t give orders” might have been said for the first time in a language so old we don’t have any records of it. Were there the same hierarchies in every ship? Of course not, nor in merchant vs navy vs fishermen vs pleasure boats.

If you’re interested in knowing the labels attached to different jobs in a ship, they will vary by ship size, ship type and whether it was merchant, navy, long-range fishermen, short-range fishermen, pleasure boats…

Well, you had Officers with Commissions:

Captain, Lieutenant. The Lieutenants were ranked as to First Mate, 2nd mate, etc

Then Warranted Officers:

Sailing Master (More or less a Lieutenant in many ways). Surgeon, Purser, Boatswain, Carpenter, and Gunner. They had a Warrant from the Admiralty, which was a pretty big deal. They couldn’t be flogged or demoted by the Captain. A Bosun could even stand watches along with the Master’s mates.

Maybe a Parson. Merchant ships would have a Supercargo.

Midshipman= Young officer trainee/intern. Status was odd. A gentleman, but not quite a officer. Older Midshipmen, especially "passed’ Midshipmen (Passed means they had so many years at sea, had passed Lt exam but were waiting for their actual comm.) were often used as officers, and could even be made acting Mates.
Other Petty Officers: Boatswain’s Mates, Sailmakers, Cooks, Armourers, Surgeon’s Mates, Carpenter’s Mates, Clerks, Schoolmasters, Quartermaster (manned the ships wheel, steersman).

ABle Seaman
Ordinary seaman
ships boy, servants.

But if one was a gentleman, there was a difference. For example a Gentleman might sign on as a Master’s Mate, but his next step would be Commission as a Lieutenant, not a Warrant as a Master. Many warranted Masters would serve until retirement with no thought of promotion, unless they were a gentleman or somehow did something amazing during a battle.

Hi, davidmich.

Listen to the song Friggin’ in the Riggin’, as the answers to your questions are in the lyrics. :smiley:

Also, is this a homework assignment, or a research question for a school project?

I hate to jump to conclusions, but I do have my suspicions.

To get a good idea of life in the 18c navy, I suggest you read some of O’Brian’s books, like Master and Commander.

On all things nautical, and to improve my understanding of the background to the novels of C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian, I’ve found the Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea invaluable:


Apart from the ratings system of ranks, yes there was most definitely a system of hierarchy.

There was no way at all that someone from the lower levels of society would make it as an officer, and to make any of the higher ranks then a junior officer had to build up a support network or have a sponsor.

Nelson’ rise through the ranks was based partly on the assistance of John Jervis who was socially well connected - given that the latter became an Earl. Sometime this was repaid in the form of a form of loyalty when an aspiring young commander would cut their mentor in the share of prize money.

This was not seen as a corrupting system, in fact it was often viewed as a pretty objective incentive system, since a mentor might benefit from the exploits of their prospects. In others words it was not worthwhile to move incompetents up the ranks, you made more money by spotting talent and bringing it on.

Not true. There was even a specific term for it, being promoted through the hawsehole.


Thank you all very much. I do have a question regarding the achievement of officer rank. On a general level as long as someone had the right connections social mobility was not as
restricted as many people imagine. Captain Cook was the son of a Scottish farm labourer. So his low birth didn’t prevent Cook’s rise through the ranks.


“Most renowned of the officers involved was Captain James Cook, born in lowly circumstances in Yorkshire in 1728.”

“Cook rose from the lower deck of a North Sea collier to become one of the Royal Navy’s most prestigious explorers, navigators and captains of all time, “second in the line of the three greatest seamen of British history—Drake, Cook, and Nelson.””


“James Cook was born on 27 October 1728 in the village of Marton in Yorkshire and baptised on 3 November in the local church of St. Cuthbert, where his name can be seen in the church register.[1][2] He was the second of eight children of James Cook, a Scottish farm labourer from Ednam near Kelso, and his locally born wife, Grace Pace, from Thornaby-on-Tees.[1][3][4] In 1736, his family moved to Airey Holme farm at Great Ayton, where his father’s employer, Thomas Skottowe, paid for him to attend the local school. In 1741, after five years schooling, he began work for his father, who had by now been promoted to farm manager. For leisure, he would climb a nearby hill, Roseberry Topping, enjoying the opportunity for solitude.[5] Cooks’ Cottage, his parents’ last home, which he is likely to have visited, is now in Melbourne, having been moved from England and reassembled, brick by brick, in 1934.[6]”

Cook started out in the Merchant marine, and then became a sailing Master. This was a Warrant, not a Commission and yes, not too hard for a non-gentleman to work his way up to.

He was noted for his superior navigation, surveying and cartography skills. For this, he was hired by the the Royal Society to command a survey of the transit of Venus in the Pacific.

The RN rather grudgingly gave him a Commission based upon the RS petitioning GIII. The RS actually wanted Dalrymple but the RN refused to give a commission to a landsman, no matter how well educated. Cook was a compromise.

So, Cook was actually a Warrant officer, promoted thru the ranks, as usual, who got a shot at a commission due to the influence of a Scientific society, political maneuvering, and a compromise. Cook wasn’t much of a naval officer as far as battles went, but he was just about the best navigator of his time.

Thanks Dr Deth. Very helpful.

Here’s a chart that shows the hierarchies, etc… in the Napoleonic era Royal Navy.

One thing nobody’s mentioned so far is that the warranted officers were attached to the ship- they stayed with the ship through (potentially) multiple ship’s companies and commanding officers.

The commissioned officers were assigned to different ships and commanding officers throughout their careers, not unlike today.

This is a historical relic- originally the standing officers were the actual ship handlers, and the ship’s company were just that- a company of soldiers who’d fight on the ship and were commanded by a captain. As ships got larger, the naval captain rank went up in relative prestige and authority relative to the army rank of captain, even though they’d started out as the same thing.

That’s also why the Royal Navy of that point still had the standing warrant officers and a ship’s company of sailors and officers that came and went throughout a ship’s time in service.


“Many people today believe that all British Royal Navy officers of the 18th century were gentlemen raised out of wealthy noble families of Britain. While this was in many cases true, the Navy was the branch of service which gave men the highest chances of promotion through experience rather than social status. Noblemen were often assigned to command infantry and cavalry units as a sort of ‘symbol of power’, while experienced junior officers actually commanded the battalions and companies of men. However, it was far more likely that the British government was going to assign a seasoned veteran of a high seas to command a complex vessel rather than an inexperienced nobleman.”

Or, quite possibly, of any time.

British seamen of all ranks were very much motivated by prize money. “Shares in prizes were based on rank: the more senior the officer, the larger his share. An admiral could receive between 1/8 and 1/4 of all prizes taken by his squadron, a captain usually received 1/4 of the prize he captured, with the other officers sharing 1/4, and the remaining crew sharing the rest.”

“The capture of one single merchant ship laden with cargo could set a captain for life. At a time when an admiral of the fleet might earn £3000 per year, some admirals
amassed £300,000 of prize money.”

You will find this interesting: http://www.sfu.ca/~allen/navy2.pdf

On the social class of the officers, as **davidmich **has pointed out the Navy was the one of the few areas of 18th century life where someone from a poor background could advance to a higher social station. Unlike most professions you didn’t need money to get into the Royal Navy - in the army you bought your commission and paid more for each step up the ranks - and you could, just about, live on your pay. This is why most naval officer from the gentry and aristocracy were younger sons - it was a cheap option for their father! The other big difference from the army was that you actually had to know something to receive your warrant or commission. You really did have to pass your examination to be made a lieutenant, you had to know how to hand reef and steer a ship and well as basic navigation, unlike the army where a new ensign or even a captain did not have to prove any knowledge at all.

Obviously, 18th century society being what it was the bulk of officers were from at least the middle ranks of society, apart from anything else they needed to be able to read and write, but N A M Rodgers, whose book *The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy *is the definitive text, estimates (with lots of caveats) about 9% new lieutenants came from the lower social classes between 1745 and 1757 and that several of these went on the post rank.

Yes, by and large the Peers and sons of Peers went into the Army. The RN was for the most part the sons of Gentlemen, professionals, 4th sons of destitute lesser barons, and what not.

This was partly due to class snobbery but also due to education. Being a Commissioned Officer required some reasonable skill with higher mathematics for navigation, a decent writing skill, etc.

So, the 2nd son of a Physician who tended to the Upper class would get a Midshipman’s berth. If he showed promise, then a real Commission.

So, a minor favor got you in, skill and learning got you to LT, then either patronage from Admirals or luck in battle got you a command.

It really was a decent system for the time.

Also the novelization of the historical HMS Bounty incident, by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, not only because it’s a good read but also because there’s a handy list of all the officers and crew and what their jobs were.

If N A M Rodgers “The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy” is the definitive book on the Royal Navy what in your opinion would be the definitive book on the Georgian British Army?

Not sure about British it may be different. But US it is Hawspipe.