Questions about the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars

I recently watched the TV adaptation of Horatio Hornblower and it raised some questions in my mind about the operations of the Royal Navy at that time.

  1. What social classes did officers belong to? Horatio was not aristocracy, just the son of a doctor, but he was an officer. Was it at all possible to become an officer even if you were lower-class? I know there was an examination to become a lieutenant, but if you were a particularly adept lower-class young man, could you take an exam and become a midshipman?

  2. How frequently did young boys join crews? What were their jobs? What was the minimum age to join?

  3. Did any bathing at all happen on these ships?

  4. How did they store enough fresh water?

  5. Was there ever any significant unrest at the fact that class determined whether you were an officer or a seamen, and that the seamen were treated so poorly by officers and had the worst jobs? (even the best of officers on the tv show treats even the best of seamen like servants). I just kept feeling sorry for the likes of Styles and Matthews, having to constantly grovel, bow and scrape and being brutally punished for minor offenses . . . all because they were born to the wrong families.

Any other info you would be interested in providing on the workings of the Royal Navy at the time would be really helpful. Also if you had any resources (preferably web-based) to learn more about the RN that would be great too. Thanks!

I think years ago commisions in the RN were bought. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen the hornblower series but I liked them. Young lads were used as cabin boys and powder monkeys (delivering gun powder to the cannons) and I supposed worked their way up.

I’m sure there were lots of SOB captains/officers but I can’t see them all being A-holes, A-holes tend to fall overboard.

Barrels of water/rum were carried and replenished as needed/available

The RN never offered commissions for sale, that was something which occurred in the Infantry, Guards and Cavalry regiments.

The navy was - to a certain extent - a route for social advancement. While peasants and proleterians could not become officers, people from quite modest middle-class backgrounds certainly could, and in times of war it was also possible to become extremely rich as a naval officer, which does wonders for your social standing.


  1. Most officers would have come from the gentry class ( which includes aristocracy and the nascent professional class such as doctors, lawyers and clergy — which class however were still only just regarded as honorary gentlemen — generally only the younger sons of the aristocracy would have settled for a naval career ) but, as throughout history even in highly stratified systems [ although generally in military, or holy orders, or finance ], sometimes merit could force up from the lower classes. Captain Cook was the son of a farm labourer. Only extreme luck ever got anyone out of the lower classes regardless of merit.

2/ As mentioned above the crew included many young boys maybe from 11 to 12 there may have been a high turnover bearing in mind the hardships of such work on kids The officers all started as midshipmen and captain’s servants, from an equally young age — if they failed to make lieutenant, some remained midshipmen for their lives at sea.

  1. Of course they washed. Seafaring was a dirty arduous life with plenty of disease in the tropics and sub-tropics.

  2. The RN had mutinies to the end of the 18th century, and whilst influenced by the Grande Revolution, these did not deal with class conflict much ( any more than the bourgeoise Grand Revolution did in practice… ); being more narrowly specified to arrears of pay and broken promises. Leaders still got hung though.

Basically, back then most people, in Europe, Asia or the Americas, accepted the orders of classes and didn’t worry overmuch about the unfairness of command — even when they resented it. One doesn’t see a whole lot of anarcho-syndicalist theory in today’s workforce either.

Did the other branches not offer this? And how does a naval officer become rich (I assume not through his salary) . . . plundering other ships or bases that they take?

I thought of this relevant passage from the Oxen of the Sun chapter of Ulysses, and perhaps someone could verify its “received explanation.”

It is written in the style of Addison and Steele, and is thus current (if Joyce is on his mark) to the first decades of the 18th century.

… [he] now appeared in the doorway as the students were finishing their apologue accompanied with a friend whom he had just rencountered, a young gentleman, his name Alec Bannon, who had late come to town, it being his intention to buy a colour or a cornetcy in the fencibles and list for the wars.

The author of the standard annotations text to Ulysses, Don Gifford, has written that

The “fencibles” were military units organized and maintained for home service only. A “colour or a cornetcy” was the commissioned officer who carried the colors in a troop of cavalry, the lowest-ranking commissioned officer in the troop. Commissions in the British military were obtainable by purchase until the reforms of 1871.

Any thoughts?

(I am compelled to cite one alternative sense of the passage, that (with other hints in the novel) that “colour” and “cornetcy” maybe remnants of rhyming slang, with alliteration (?), for the word “condom.” Welcome to Joyceland, the happy hunting ground.)

  1. Through Royal Navy Prize money. There was far less oppurtunities for this on land fpor obvious reasons. Looting was a capital offence.

  2. People could and did rise through the ranks on meirt in all services especially during periods of sustained war. While the British aristocracy system was fairly restrictive, it was notably less so than others, in Europe. The military and naval services as well as professions like the Bar, the Clergy and the academia provided oppurtunities for talented boys to rise. Another way was to go to the colonies.

And I’d add that the RN was (somewhat) more egalitarian than the army, precisely because you couldn’t buy commissions, and because the whole business of more and less socially prestigious regiments had no real analogue in the navy.

I’ve not got the dates memorised, but I think that by the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the officers were selected from the aristocracy. The socially mobile had been squeezed out. If you were a particularly adept young man, you could become a midi, but you stopped there. There was no chance of promotion if you were of the wrong class, and even then you needed sponsership.

I think that the Hornblower series misrepresents this situation, but hey, maybe I’ve got my dates wrong.

The youngest boys on board would have been the babies. They were not, of course, paid anything, but at least one did become eligible for a pension, on the basis of being on board, on the crew list, during a critical campaign. The government had, in typical manner, anounced a pension plan just when it became cheap and worthless, because all the old sailors living in poverty had already died, but the young lad of x months was still a survivor.

Midshipmen would have started at 12-13? A bit younger than Hornblower. If I remember the books correctly, his age at commencment was already a bit older than optimal.

Many before you have commented on how acquiescent the working classes are to the aristocracy. Since that’s an observable fact, the other side of the question is, what are the requirements for revolution?

Nelson was the son of a clergyman. Duncan the son of a city magistrate. Collingwood was from a family with nautical tradition. The Pellew brothers were a military family. Not poor. Nowhere near aristocratic.

4. How did they store enough fresh water?

Water was stored in casks. People like to talk about strategies and such, but for the real world militaries, logistics is always an issue. On long trips, supplies of food and water would often run short. They couldn’t drink straight sea water and had no way to purify it, but they could mix a certain amount of sea water in with their fresh water and still have it be basically drinkable, and this was done on occasion.

Water casks were brought up from storage and opened on deck. The currently open water cask on deck was called the scuttlebutt, and just like folks today gather around the water cooler and gossip, sailors would gather around the scuttlebutt and gossip as well, leading to the term scuttlebutt being used to mean gossip.

Keeping the fresh water fresh was an issue as well. In earlier days, sailing ships would carry large supplies of beer to mix with the water and make it drinkable. After the British captured Jamaica in the mid 1600s they switched from beer to rum. The diluted mixture of rum and water was called grog. The mixture of foul water and heavily diluted rum didn’t taste all that good, so they started mixing lemon juice or lime juice into it to make it a bit less nasty. They didn’t understand it at the time, but the vitamin C in the juice had the effect of preventing scurvy. Even though they didn’t quite understand the why of it, they realized that their sailors were healthier than other sailors because of it and kept doing it. Sailors from other countries would call them Limeys, which is how that slang term came into being.

If you read Forester’s books, he talks a lot about fresh water and the trouble in keeping the supply up. Water kept long in casks trended to turn green with aklgae and taste bad. In one book his steward disguises the taste by squeezing lemons into it. He also talks (in the last, unfinished Hornblower book) about a water-hoy used to ferry water out to the ships on blockade – a special craft built only for the purpose of carrying water.

He also wrote about the difficulty of advancement in the navy. Some men remained lieutenants into old age. It often required the “push” (or 'pull") of some highly-placed sponsor to help you advance through the ranks, especially on the transition to Post Captain. These often required family connections, so it was far easier for the aristocracy and the wealthy (often the same group) to advance, rather than those without connections. Hornblower’s own case of “making post” was the result of a fortuitiously timed retirement, although in the unfinished last book there was a suggestion that it might also have been due in part to a dangerous secret mission he agreed to undertake.

For all sorts of info on the RN of the time, I like this book, published in 1905 by someone who had sailed tall ships around the world and knew the ropes.
He later became Poet Laureate and wrote
“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”

And, while Captain Cook’s father was a farm labourer initially, by the time Cook was a teenager his father had been appointed farm manager, so he was fairly well brought up, if not well-to-do.

IIRC, even back in Samuel Pepys time there was the issue of the commisioning of officers. Something I read, I think said there was a training academy/program to produce “good” naval officers to assist the aristocratic figureheads and ensure the navy ran smoothly. Even then, it was a running battle with the aristo-snobbery class to maintain the standards for how knowledgeable a commissioned officer needed to be.

(A stupid army officer would simply get a lot of his unit killed; a stupid bullheaded naval officer could much more easily lose a very expensive ship… and its crew; even in peacetime, bad decisions in the wrong weather could be expensive.)


My impression, from reading the other Napoleonic Navy literary adventure series, and comments on it, is that by 1800 or so, it was still barely possible to get promoted in the Royal Navy without lots of influential relatives, but it was much harder than previously, and starting to get to the point of near impossibility. So a young potential officer in 1812 faced different circumstances than Nelson did at the same point in his career.

Aboard HMS Victory at Trafalgar there were 31 boys out of about 821 crew. The youngest 12 and the oldest 19. 21 were midshipmen, the rest were servants and powder monkeys.

Later in in his career, being married to the Duke of Wellington’s sister didn’t hurt his advancement. :slight_smile:

I am not sure this was ever the case.

In any event Napoleonic era Admiral Nelson was the son of a minister and Admiral Jervis was the son of a lawyer.

Nelson was related to nobility on his mother’s side (she was grandniece of Robert Walpole), but that did not make
him or her an aristocrat.