Nelson & His World

Discussion on the life and times of Admiral Lord Nelson
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 Post subject: Ordinary Seaman to Officer
PostPosted: Sat May 02, 2009 7:56 am 
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I was interested to see that the current commanding officer of HMS Victory joined the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman.

http://www.hms-victory.com/index.php?op ... Itemid=198

There were, I believe, examples also in Nelson's day of ordinary seamen gaining officer rank. How rare was this achievement? What processes were involved? Presumably, a likely candidate would have no 'interest' when he joined the navy but gained the patronage of an influential officer by his competence? Did any seaman who gained officer status achieve distinction or notoriety ?

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PostPosted: Sat May 02, 2009 9:07 am 
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There were certainly men who "came up through the hawse hole" as the saying went - perhaps the best known would be John Quilliam and John Pasco. Quilliam was the 1st Lieutenant of the Victory at Trafalgar, who had served on the lower deck, and was I believe, originally pressed. Pasco, the signal lieutenant, had started life on the lower deck (he had been an officers servant in the Pegasus in the 1780s).

Michael Lewis did a survey of the backgrounds of officers that featured in O'Byrne and Marshall's Biographies of naval officers. He concluded that of 1800 men surveyed, the parents of officers backgrounds were -
peers 7.3%
baronets 4.7%
landed gentry 27.4%
professional men 50%
business/commercial 3.9%
working class 6.7%

Other men who made it to the quarterdeck were -
James Clepham - started as a pressed seaman; a Lieutenant of the Spartiate at Trafalgar
Alexander Wilson - once the coxswain to Sir Alexander Hood, ended a Rear Admiral
James Hodgson - pressed seaman ended a retired Commander


There is a but of course .... but all of these promotions happened in wartime; in the peacetime navy I think it was much rarer.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sat May 02, 2009 9:12 am 
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As to how they did it, I think in every case it was either as a reward for outstanding service, or being 'spotted' by a senior officer and gaining their patronage


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PostPosted: Sat May 02, 2009 10:04 am 
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Anna,

Probably ability and leadership qualities also played a significant part, since the navy has always been a hands on organisation, where officers have been expected to 'know their stuff'.

There was I believe also a difference between the navy and the army in social circles and in the latter, the buying and selling of commissions was quite common, officers very often not fully understanding the rudiments of their profession. This was not so in the navy, or at least I don't believe the trading of commissions was prevalant to any great extent. Naval officers were also expected to become thoughly conversant with seamanship, navigation and ship handling, so a man promoted from the lower deck must have been exceptionally skilled or shown promise.

This did often work the other way, however, as the crew very often did not like officers who had been promoted from amongst themselves. I suppose this depended on the man himself, but I believe this was one of the reasons why, for example, Bligh was disliked.

Not so long ago, there used to be an 'upper yardmen scheme' in the RN, named after the most skilled men in a wooden warship, for men thought to have the potential to become officers. Very likely this scheme still exists and perhaps 'Oscar' Wilde' passed through it.

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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Sat May 02, 2009 9:25 pm 
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Many thanks for those replies.

I was intrigued by ‘came up through the hawse hole’ – language being a great interest of mine – and a little more searching revealed another expression: ‘tarpaulin captain’, also meaning an officer who came up through the ranks, though the source (‘The Language of Sailing’ on Googlebooks) says that this term was used in the Tudor and Stuart navies.

Re: the buying of commissions in the army. There was also the reverse situation in the army of the ‘Gentleman Ranker’, a man whose position in society would make him eligible for officer status but who served in the ranks, in contrast to the ordinary seaman who rose to join the officer class. Kipling’s poem ‘Gentleman Rankers’ gives voice to the ‘black sheep’ who had fallen into disgrace:

‘We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung.’

It is remarkable that, even in wartime, pressed men, such as those mentioned by P-N, should have achieved such advancement in the navy.

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