The current naval rankings have been precisely defined for only forty years. There were distinct groups that formed the officer corps: Flag rank officers, Commissioned officers, Warrant Officers and Petty Officers.
The highest naval rank is Admiral of the Fleet. This rank came about from a function of the Lord High Admiral since, although technically in overall charge of the fleet, it was very seldom he put to sea with the fleet and thus required another person to undertake the command of the fleet while at sea in his place. This post became known as the Admiral of the Fleet, the first incumbant to be so called was the Earl of Dartmouth, appointed by King James II in 1688. During 1718 and 1739, it became customary to give the most senior Admiral this title even if there was no fleet to be in command of. From the 1740s –1863, there was only one person appointed to this rank, when it was decided to appoint more than one, since the army had six field marshals. In 1870, new regulations were introduced to ensure the Admirals of the Fleet retired at the age of 70, ensuring that there would always be three on the active list. The maximum number was three until 1898 when a fourth was appointed. In 1940, all retired rank-holders were replaced on the active list conforming to the army practice of field marshals who remained on the active list for life. In the 1990s, the rank has been abolished and only those who held the rank prior to its abolition remain using the rank.
The ranks of Admiral, Vice Admiral, and Rear Admiral arose directly out of the organisation of the fleet in 1620 into three. (This system of hierarchy is explained in Library Factsheet no. 55 – Squadronal colours)
The junior flag rank was that of Commodore. In 1690, the Admiralty gave the title of Commodore to the senior Captain of a small squadron, or a Commander in Chief of a small station, when no flag officer was present and therefore involved extra responsibilities. It was considered as a temporary rank which once the circumstances had passed meant reversion to Captain and officers retained their seniority position in the Captain’s list. In 1747, the first list of “equivalent ranks” between army and navy were produced and the Admiralty proposed that Commodores should rank with Brigadiers. This was accepted although in reality the “rank” of Commodore did not exist. In 1805, this anomaly was redressed by creating First Class Commodores, ranked and paid as Rear-Admiral if of sufficient importance to have a separate Captain under him, and Second Class Commodores if he commanded the ship himself and not ranked as Rear Admiral.
This group of officers were at first appointed to a ship for particular commissions and were ranked according to seniority of first appointment at that rank.
The title of Captain was universal to the most senior officer commanding a ship whatever his actual rank. On promotion from Lieutenant, officers were appointed to a small ship eg. sloop, cutter etc.(equivalent to today’s rank of Commander) and after sufficient experience was given command of a rated ship (1st – 5th rate) as a post (equivalent to today’s rank of Captain). Duties on board ship were to prepare the ship for sailing, make 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 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.
The rank of Commander was formally instituted in 1794, obtainable only by being commissioned to command a vessel, smaller than post-ships but larger than vessels commanded by Lieutenants. After this date, post-Captains were appointed solely from the Commanders list. In 1827, the term became used for the Captain’s second-in-command. First Lieutenants in battleships were made Commanders, although this was an unpopular move with Lieutenants who were actually commanding smaller vessels. It then became the custom to refer to the second-in-command of a ship as the Commander.
The description of Lieutenant (in) Command applied to Lieutenants who were commanding small naval vessels, who might, in bigger ships, otherwise be known as Commander. In 1827 this changed when the rank of Commander came to be that of a Captain’s second-in-command. However, in recognition of their being senior lieutenants, they were given a distinction setting them apart from the junior lieutenants including a different uniform. Lieutenants of eight years service were usually given this distinction, forming in essence a new rank. In 1875, they were allowed to include a “half-stripe” to the two full stripes of Lieutenant. In March 1914, the substantive rank of Lieutenant-Commander was established with automatic promotion for Lieutenants of eight years service.
The rank of Lieutenant can be traced back to 1580 with the simple reason of being an understudy to the Captain in case of accident or illness, although they were not permanently established. After the restoration, Samuel Pepys introduced an examination to test the abilities of the rank and by doing so transformed their status from mere understudy to an actual job with particular duties attached. The senior lieutenant, known as the First Lieutenant and was responsible for the organisation of the ship and administration under the guidance of the Captain. This post eventually turned into the rank of Commander. He was responsible for maintaining discipline and navigation and with the junior lieutenants responsible for ensuring the crew carried out their duties. He was in charge of watches. Lieutenants received their commissions for particular ships and the position within the officer ranks. An officer was required to have at least six years service at sea before passing the examination for promotion to Lieutenant. It was possible for the officer to pass many years at this rank until the eventual distinction between Lieutenants of eight years service and the eventual establishment of the rank of Lieutenant-Commander.
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 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. In 1824, there was a split and would be Masters became Masters Assistants and would be Lieutenants remained as Master’s Mates. In 1840, Mates were established as a rank below Lieutenants and in 1860, renamed as Sub-Lieutenants. It then became the most junior commissioned rank and the only route to promotion to Lieutenant.
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 has 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. There was a change in the nineteenth century when some warrant ranks were transferred to commissioned rank and the branch of Engineers was introduced. It became necessary to distinguish between types of officers as to which ranks could command and those who could not – basically Military and Civil (equivalent to the modern Executive and Non-Executive officers). After 1847, only three warrant ranks remained.
This was the senior warrant rank and can be equated to a “professional” seaman and specialist in navigation, rather than as a military commander. Their rank approximated to that of Lieutenant and were well educated. 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. In the mid-nineteenth century Masters attained full commissioned rank and titles were changed to assimilate them into the main commissioned structure. The specialised Navigating branch was no longer required and phased out. As part of his duties on board ship, the Master’s main duty was navigation, taking ship’s position daily and setting the sails as appropriate for the required course. He supervised Midshipmen and Mates in taking observations of the sun and maintained the ship’s compass. He was also responsible for ensuring the maintenance of the rope rigging and sails. Other duties included the stowing of the hold, inspecting provisions, taking stores so that the ship was not too weighted down to sail effectively and reporting defects to the Captain. Security and the issue of drink on board and supervised entry of parts of the official log such as weather, position and expenditure.
Surgeons were warranted to ships 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 up until 1832 when the Admiralty became responsible for their qualifications. They were the only medical officers on the ship and was assisted by one or more Surgeon’s Mates (inferior warrant officers). They had the right to walk the quarterdeck and became a fully commissioned rank in the nineteenth century. 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.
Pursers were 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. In the nineteenth century the rank was transferred to being a commissioned rank and another aspect of his duty appeared. It became customary to pay the crew at regular intervals which entailed carrying money which became the Purser’s responsibility. The Purser was one of the five standing officers of the ship.
Boatswains were appointed by the Admiralty and were 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. This rank did not rise to commissioned status although in the nineteenth century there were limited opportunities for boatswains to rise to commissioned officer status. The sailmaker and boatswain mate were under the command of the boatswain. This rank was one of the five standing officers appointed to a ship.
Carpenters 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. In 1918, Carpenters were renamed Warrant Shipwrights when their work ceased to be solely timber. Carpenters were one of the five standing officers appointed to a ship.Their rank did not get transferred to commissioned status.
Gunners were responsible for the maintenance of guns and their equipment. They had to be examined and appointed by and were responsible to the Ordnance Board. They had to adhere to strict rules. They made tackle and breeches for guns and make regular inspections during a voyage. Another responsibility was to ensure that powder in the magazines were kept dry. Like boatswains, they remained a warrant rank but had limited opportunities for promotion to commissioned posts in the nineteenth century.
Petty Officers and Inferior Warrant Officers
This rank was a senior petty officer, usually filled by young gentleman with aspirations to become commissioned officers. This rank never obtained commissioned status. 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. 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. During their period as Midshipmen, the officers undertook instruction on a variety of subjects and had the important distinction of being permitted to walk the quarterdeck and wear uniform unlike other Petty Officers
Chaplains examined by the Bishop of London and appointed by the Admiralty. In 1808 they were granted wardroom status until 1843 when they became a commissioned rank.
Other Petty Officers
This group included Boatswain’s Mates, Sailmakers, Cooks, Armourers, Surgeon’s Mates, Carpenter’s Mates, Clerks, Schoolmasters.
© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2000
The information contained in this fact sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available.