Throughout Naval Fiction books many ranks are mentioned and the characters undertake various duties. This page is intended to clarify the structure of ranks and their duties in the Royal Navy during Nelson's time.
The divisions of rank were:
Admiral: The most senior flag rank officers were the Admirals who commanded fleets and squadrons, or the ships and dockyard facilities in major ports. There were Admirals, Vice Admirals and Rear Admirals divided by the colour of the flag they flew. More information on these divisions is available on the Admirals page. In large fleets an Admiral would have overall command and on remote stations such as the Mediterranean Fleet would be referred to as the Commander in Chief. In the line of battle he commanded the centre division. His deputy would be a Vice Admiral who commanded the leading division called the Van whilst a Rear Admiral commanded the rear division.
Commodore: Promotion to Admiral was strictly by seniority and was therefore dependant on those senior being killed in battle or dying of old age. A deserving Post-Captain could be given the rank of Commodore (First Class). He would then be entitled to hoist a Broad Pendant and command a fleet or squadron. Another Post-Captain would command his flagship. He might also be Commander in Chief of a small remote station if no Admiral was present. He was entitled to fly his broad pendant even in the presence of an Admiral.
The senior captain of a group of detached ships would also be entitled to call himself Commodore (Second Class) and hoist a broad pendant but he would continue to command his own ship and would haul down the broad pendant in the presence of an Admiral.
Commodores reverted to being a Post Captain when their assigned duty ended.
Post Captain: All officers in command of a vessel were addressed with the courtesy title of Captain regardless of rank so the term Post-captain was used to distinguish those who had been given the substantive rank although they were still only addressed as Captain. Once an officer had been promoted to Post-Captain, his further promotion was strictly by seniority and if he could avoid death or disgrace, he would eventually become an admiral. For this reason it was regarded as a major milestone in an officers career. Commissioned officers might be promoted to the next rank but not be appointed to a ship. Until that time they were "on the beach" and on half-pay. An officer who was promoted from Commander was a captain, but when he was given a command, his name was "posted" in the London Gazette. He "took post" or was "made post" and he usually commanded a rated vessel - that is, a ship too important to be commanded by a Commander or Lieutenant and these were known as Post Ships.
A junior Post-Captain would usually command a frigate or a large sloop, while more senior Post-Captains would command larger ships. Sometimes, a high-ranking Admiral would have two Post-Captains on his flagship. The junior of the two would serve as the flag captain and retain responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the vessel. The senior of the two would be the fleet captain, or "captain of the fleet", and would serve as the admiral's chief-of-staff. These two captains would be listed in the ship's roll as the "second captain" and "first captain", respectively.
In 1795 epaulettes, known by the slang term 'swabs' were introduced to distinguish between commanders and post-captains of various seniority's. A Commander wore a single epaulette on the left shoulder. A Post-Captain with less than three years seniority wore a single epaulette on the right shoulder, and a Post-Captain with three or more years seniority wore an epaulette on each shoulder.
Duties on board ship were to prepare the ship for sailing, check and approve inventories of stores and write reports for the Admiralty on work being done on the ship. He also had to recruit the ship's complement and record details in the muster book. During a voyage, he was ultimately responsible for the ship and crew's well being, including feeding, clothing, health and discipline, maintain the log of the ship, and delegate authority as necessary. He was also responsible for directing the ship's activities in naval engagements.
Commander: The rank was originally Master and Commander as it combined the roles of ship's Master and Captain and although the rank was shortened in 1794 Master and Commander remained in common usage unofficially for several years. A Commander was usually given command of the larger unrated vessels often sloops-of-war of no more than 20 guns.
Lieutenant: Ships carried a number of Lieutenants dependent upon their size and these were referred to as the First Lieutenant, Second Lieutenant etc. The First Lieutenant was responsible for the organisation of the ship and administration under the guidance of the Captain. He assumed command when the captain was absent, indisposed or was killed in action. On ships of the line he did not stand a watch. The other Lieutenants were responsible for standing watches, i.e. taking routine command of the deck when the ship was at sea with responsibility for maintaining discipline and navigation, had overall command of a particular mast during setting and taking in sail, commanded a battery of guns in action and had overall responsibility for the welfare of a section of the crew. They would also oversee particular evolutions such as taking in stores or weighing anchor. Lieutenants might also be given command of smaller unrated vessels such as brigs and cutters when they would be addressed by the courtesy title of captain. A Lieutenant might also be appointed as an Admirals aide when he would be know as a Flag Lieutenant as he had responsibility for signalling the Admirals orders to other vessels in the fleet.
An officer was required to have at least six years service at sea before passing the examination for promotion to Lieutenant and "appear" to be of the age of eighteen.
Warrant officers were the heads of specialist technical branches of the ship's company and reported directly to the Captain. For administration they reported to the different boards which governed naval affairs such as the Navy Board, Victualling Board and Ordnance Board. They were usually examined professionally by a body other than the Admiralty and had usually served an apprenticeship. In the eighteenth century, there were two branches of Warrant Officer, those classed as sea officers, who had equal status as commissioned officers and could stand on the quarterdeck and those classed as inferior officers (keeping no accounts). Of the Warrant Officers, five were classed as standing officers, warranted to a ship for her lifetime whether in commission or not. When in reserve, they were borne on the Ordinary books of the dockyard and employed in maintenance of the ship.
Master: The Master was the senior warrant rank specialising in navigation and when in action his duties were to ensure the navigational safety of the ship rather than the military engagement. The rank approximated to that of Lieutenant and holders were well educated as they needed to be literate and use mathematics to navigate. They were professionally examined by Trinity House and re-qualified if appointed to a larger rated ship. Masters were able to stand watches and command ships in non-combatant duties.
The Master's main duty was navigation, taking ship's position daily and setting the sails as appropriate for the required course. He educated and supervised Midshipmen and Master's Mates in taking observations of the sun and maintained the ship's compass. He was responsible for ensuring the maintenance of the rope rigging and sails. Other duties included the stowing of the hold, inspecting provisions, taking in or moving stores so that the ship was not badly trimmed or too weighted down to sail effectively and reporting defects to the Captain. He was also responsible for the security and issue of drink on board and supervised entry of parts of the official log such as weather, position and expenditure.
Surgeon: The Surgeon was warranted to the ship by the Navy Board. Their examining boards were conducted by various bodies including the Barber-Surgeons Company, Sick and Hurt Board, Transport Board and the Victualling Board. They were the only medical officer on the ship and were assisted by one or more Surgeon's Mates (inferior warrant officers). They were responsible for the sick and injured, performing surgical operations as necessary and dispensed medicine. They were required to keep a journal of treatment and advised the Captain on health matters.
Purser: The Purser was warranted by the Admiralty but did not require professional qualifications. However, some kind of financial surety was required. The duties were to oversee supply and issue of victuals, slops (clothes) and other consumables. The Purser was one of the five standing officers of the ship.
Boatswain: The Boatswain (usually referred to as Bosun) was appointed by the Admiralty and was responsible to the Navy Board. He had responsibility for rigging, cables, anchors, sails and boats. They were not eligible to command ships but could stand watches. They were less educated than the more senior warrant officers, although they needed to keep accounts. The sailmaker and boatswain's mates were under the command of the boatswain. This rank was one of the five standing officers appointed to a ship.
Carpenter: The Carpenter was responsible for the maintenance of the hull and masts of the ship. He was unusual in that many passed most of their careers as civilian employees of the Navy Board in the dockyards and only partly as officers on ships. The majority qualified as shipwrights in the dockyards before going to sea. His duties in action included the plugging of shot holes and sounding the well to ensure the vessel was not taking on too much water and sinking. This rank was one of the five standing officers appointed to a ship.
Gunner: The Gunner was responsible for the maintenance of guns and their equipment and the ship's magazines. They had to be examined and appointed by and were responsible to the Ordnance Board. Due to the danger of explosion they had to adhere to strict rules in the handling and storage of gunpowder. They made tackle and breeches for guns and made regular inspections during a voyage. Another responsibility was to ensure that powder in the magazines were kept dry. During action they were stationed in the magazine. This rank was one of the five standing officers appointed to a ship.
Midshipman: This rank was usually filled by young gentleman with aspirations to become a commissioned officer who joined from the age of nine onwards. The number of Midshipmen in a ship was fixed by the rating of the ship and it was at the discretion of the Captain as to who was carried so positions usually went to the children of relations, acquaintances or former shipmates. Theoretically they initially joined as First Class Volunteers for a period before being appointed as Midshipmen. To get round the problem of large numbers of men wanting to be Midshipmen or get their service time in before the Lieutenant's examination, various supernumerary posts, paid as able seamen were created. A Midshipman might be carried on the ship's books as a captain's servant for example. During their period as Midshipmen, the officers undertook their instruction on a variety of subjects and they had the important distinction of being permitted to walk the quarterdeck and wear uniform unlike other Petty Officers. They were responsible for overseeing tasks under the overall direction of a Lieutenant such as going aloft to supervise sail handling or casting the log. When their education had progressed sufficiently they might be put in command of a ship's boat or prize. The most senior midshipman was in charge of the ship's signalling.
Not all Midshipmen passed the Lieutenants examination or, having passed, were commissioned to a ship so you could occasionally have an older man ('oldster') occupying a Midhipman's berth or serving as a Master's Mate.
Midshipmen were often referred to as "the Young Gentlemen" or colloquially as 'Reefers'.
Sometimes a reference is seen to a King's Letter Boy which was an earlier recruitment method which ended in 1731. This was a lad (less than 16 years of age) sent to sea bearing a letter from the King who made himself responsible for their pay. Their official name was Volunteers and they were rated Midshipman after a few years at sea. The last King's Letter Boy was George Brydges Rodney who went to sea in 1731.
Master's Mate: In principle, any person who satisfied the age and service conditions and passed the examination could be commissioned, it was usual for candidates for commissioned ranks to pass through a number of ratings including that of Master's Mate. This was technically a senior petty officer rank. He learnt navigation from the Master and generally assisted him. This rank was more highly paid than any other rating and they were the only ratings allowed to command any sort of vessel. They could pass examinations qualifying them to command prizes and tenders and act as Second Master of vessels too small to be allocated a warranted Master. A Midshipman might occupy the post of Mater's Mate but equally a derserving seaman who was sufficiently literate might be appointed to it and so could eventually rise through the commissioned ranks (rarely) to Admiral.
Chaplain: Chaplains were examined by the Bishop of London and appointed by the Admiralty and were responsible for the spiritual well being of the crew although they were not usually carried by vessels smaller than a ship of the line. In 1808 they were granted wardroom status.
Quartermaster: The Quartermaster stood watch next to the helmsman and was responsible for maintaining the ship's course.
Master at Arms: The Master at Arms was responsible for ships discipline assisted by Ship's Corporals.
Sailmaker: The Sailmaker was responsible for maintenance of the ship's sails.
Other Petty Officers included Boatswain's Mates, Cooks, Armourers, Surgeon's Mates, Carpenter's Mates, Quartermaster's Mates, Clerks and Schoolmasters. Mates assisted the relevant warrant or petty officer and were divided between the watches to ensure continuous cover of the duties. The Boatswain's Mates had the additional duty of administering floggings.
Seamen were assigned various duties and rates dependent on their capabilities rising from Landsman when unskilled through Ordinary Seaman to Able Seaman when they could 'Hand Reef & Steer'. The youngest and nimblest would be assigned to sail handling and were called topmen. Experienced hands might be given a minor responsibility such as Captain of the Maintop overseeing sail handling in that position or coxswain of a ship's boat. A seaman joined a particular ship not the Royal Navy and in theory his service ended when the ship paid off although in time of war he was likely to be pressed immediately if he did not volunteer for further service in a new ship.