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RANSOME’S CROSSING: I Love a Man in Uniform

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Of course, we can’t have any action taking place aboard a ship without knowing something about the men crewing it. As with the modern military, there were commissioned and non-commissioned officers, as well as the general rank-and-file sailors—most of whom, until just before Ransome’s Honor opened, were “pressed” (or forced/conscripted) into service. Press gangs would literally go into towns and round up the men who were young/strong/healthy enough to serve. Remember that in 1814 (until Bonaparte was exiled to Elba in April), England was fighting two wars—the Napoleonic War and the War of 1812 with America. By this time, England had been in an almost constant state of war since the American Revolutionary War—mostly with France, but a pretty good chunk of that was with America as well. So volunteers for service were scarce.

(Be warned—this is going to be a LONG post)

For a commissioned officer, there was a very clear path of advancement:
Volunteer—(boys as young as 7 or 8 years old, up to about 11—for families without connections, though the ages could vary if these were servants and not aspiring officers). These were the “powder monkeys”—they had the extremely dangerous job of running the gun powder from the magazine to the gun crews during drill or battle. They might also serve as cabin boy for the captain, who was allowed 4 servants for every 100 men on his ship; if the captain was knighted, as Julia’s father was, his allotment was doubled. Servant posts were granted to lieutenants and masters—which meant they could use those positions to get their own sons/nephews/godsons/etc. aboard to enter the service. Volunteers in training to become midshipmen wore midshipmen’s uniforms; the rest wore the more random clothing allowed for the common sailors.

Midshipman—(boys ages 12–18*—a young man could begin as a midshipman with patronage**) The senior midshipman (the oldest with the most years of service) was the captain of the watch and stationed on the quarterdeck, the rest of the midshipman worked under his command (the number depended on the size of the ship and if they were split into two or three watches). Their duties included using the flags to signal other ships, recording soundings, marking the ship’s log board, running messages between the lieutenants and captain, and, occasionally, commanding the ship’s boats. At midday, using sextants or quadrants, they took observations to mark the ship’s position and determine noon. They had to record everything—as the captain reviewed their log books daily. During action (battle, drill, or making adjustments to the sails), midshipmen were needed aloft at each mast to relay orders from the deck to the sailors who lined the yardarms working with the sails. Each midshipman oversaw and commanded one or two gun crews (depending on the size of the ship). This involved ensuring that the men in his division had sufficient clean clothing, that those who were sick reported were on the sick list, that all gunnery equipment and powder cartridges were at hand and that the guns under his charge were ready for action. When not on duty, midshipmen spent most of their downtime studying: navigation, higher math (trigonometry), and seamanship—as well as filling out their log books.

      *Midshipmen could range up to thirty or forty years old, or older, if they couldn’t pass the examination for lieutenancy.
      **Patronage meant the family had connections with a superior officer, usually a captain or higher, who could place the boy on a ship as a midshipman without his having to go as a volunteer at a younger age. In the Ransome series, William and his brothers entered the Royal Navy as midshipmen at the age of twelve because of their father’s long service in the navy and his good relationship with three captains he’d served under, including Julia’s father, then-Captain Edward Witherington. Patronage was important through all the steps of promotion and in getting a “good” ship.

In this image from Master & Commander, you can clearly see the midshipmen’s uniforms—tall round hat, indigo coat with white patches on the collar and brass buttons at the cuff, ivory waistcoat, white ruffled blouse with black neckcloth, belt with scabbard for a cutlass, and pants—obviously that’s where the rules ended. Behind them, you see the varying dress of the common sailors—and one marine in a red coat.

Lieutenant—At age 19 and with at least six years of service (though with patronage, some boys were allowed to take the examination earlier), a midshipman could stand for the lieutenancy examination—an oral exam in front of a board of three senior captains. After reviewing the candidate’s log books (journals) and certificates of service, they questioned him on seamanship, including duties when under sail as well as his knowledge of the technicalities of being on board ship—like splicing lines and reefing sails. He was tested on navigation, dead reckoning, calculating compass variations, understanding of tides, and sun/moon observations. His disciplinary record was also considered. If the candidate passed (or knew someone on the board who could get him through even if he didn’t actually pass), he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant; however, this depended on there being a vacant spot for a lieutenant available. Until he could get a post as a lieutenant on a ship, he would remain a midshipman, drawing a midshipman’s pay and continuing doing a midshipman’s duty and living in the midshipmen’s berth, until he got a position on his or another ship. That’s why patronage was so important.

Lieutenants were ranked on a ship in order of their commission date—the date they passed their examination. The first lieutenant was the one with the most seniority. There was no age limit for first lieutenants—sometimes, they were decades older than their captains if they never distinguished themselves in any way and didn’t have patronage and thus could not secure promotion and their own command. The larger the ship, the more lieutenants she needed (in the Ransome series, Alexandra, a 74-gun, 3rd rate ship, has six lieutenants; Audacious, a 64-gun, 3rd rate ship, has five). Lieutenants ensured the ship maintained its correct bearing; saw to the disposition of the sails; made sure the midshipmen, mates, and seamen under his command were attending to their duties and not slacking off; determined when the captain should be called on deck in case of any problems, unusual occurrences, ship sightings, or sudden changes in weather. The first lieutenant was directly responsible to the captain for overseeing the ship and its crew. He determined the watches and battle stations; he drew up the berthing chart. He was responsible for the cleanliness of the ship as well as maintaining discipline. He did not keep a watch, as the rest of the lieutenants did. And, most importantly, if the captain fell in battle, he instantly assumed command of the vessel.

The lieutenants berthed in the wardroom, as discussed in Tuesday’s post.

In this image from one of the Hornblower films, we see an image of the lieutenant’s uniform. Notice the white piping around the lapels, the cut-away (tailed), double-breasted design, and the bicorn hat—worn fore-and-aft, rather than athwartsship (side to side) as they were at the turn of the century. In this image, which is from a film set several years before the Ransome series takes place, Hornblower has an epaulette on his left shoulder as a commander; in 1812, the uniform regulations changed so that lieutenants wore an unornamented epaulette on their right shoulders as the mark of their rank. As with the midshipmen’s uniforms, the style and color of pants was determined by the officer.

Commander—The rank of commander was a temporary rank (the commander still held the commission of lieutenant and drew a lieutenant’s pay) but, as the title suggests, this was an officer who was now in command of a vessel—one of the smallest frigates or sloops in the Royal Navy—likely one small enough to necessitate only one or two lieutenants and a half dozen or so midshipmen. He had his own cabin and, aboard his ship, had all the privileges of rank, including being called “captain.” (By 1830, the rank of “commander” had replaced the rank of “first lieutenant”; thus a commander was the first officer serving on a ship under a captain.) In 1812, the uniform of a commander was the same as a captain, but with only one epaulette, now on the left shoulder.

On the right is an example of a commander’s uniform—with the epaulette on the left shoulder. Note the slight differences between the commander’s uniform (Hornblower) and the lieutenant’s (just imagine an epaulette on Bush’s right shoulder).

Post Captain—Most post captains held the position of commander before being promoted to the rank of post captain, though it wasn’t unheard of for first lieutenants to be promoted to this rank if he greatly distinguished himself in battle or had good patronage (or his captain died—in which case, he basically was serving as commander until his promotion was confirmed). Pay for a captain was directly proportional to the size of his ship—the bigger the ship, the more he got paid (creating quite a bit of competition for patronage and upward mobility in the fleet). He also got a much larger percentage of the prize money from any vessels they captured in battle. He was answerable only to his squadron commander—a commodore or admiral—he held total supremacy over everything that happened on his ship.

Captains had two uniforms—undress and dress. The “undress” uniform was the daily-wear uniform, which, technically, were only supposed to be worn on duty (they were supposed to wear civilian clothing when not on duty), but Ciaran Hinds looked so good in the uniform as my favorite Austen hero, Frederick Wentworth, I can forgive the filmmakers for overlooking that rule:

And then there was the dress uniform:

Here you see quite a difference between the “undress” and the “dress” uniform. Notice the gold braiding along the lapels, collar, cuffs, and even the rim of the hat.

Commodore—Like commander, commodore was a temporary rank. A commodore held the rank (and drew the pay) of post captain but had been put in charge of a small squadron or on-shore division/post. The commodore had his own pendant (pennant) that he flew from his mast, its color referencing the senior admiral to whom he reported. He was able to give commands to the captains of the ships in his group; they, in turn, had to carry them out, irrespective of their own seniority (this was the only time that a captain of fewer years’ experience could give a more experienced captain orders). The rank of commodore was important, especially during war time, when an admiral needed reconnaissance or needed an attack made that didn’t require his entire fleet. Or, as in William’s case, if the admiral needed a captain to escort a large convoy of supply ships somewhere.

In addition to more command responsibility and superior officer status over the captains attached to him, the commodore was allowed to wear an admiral’s uniform. Here’s an example of the commodore/admiral’s undress (frock) coat:

The main difference between an admiral’s undress uniform and the captain’s undress uniform is that the captain merely has the row of brass buttons around the cuff and the commodore/admiral has gold braid on the sleeve as well. As this is a picture of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson’s frock, it carries the ornamentation (badges) of all of his titles and orders.

Admiral—There was a hierarchical structure for admirals—three divisions with three ranks in each. The entire naval fleet was divided into three squadrons, each assigned a color: blue, white, or red. Admirals were divided into three ranks: rear admiral, vice admiral, and admiral. The admiral had overall command of the squadron, vice admiral his second in command, and the rear admiral . . . well, he brought up the rear. In the Ransome series, Julia’s father, Admiral Sir Edward Witherington, holds the rank of Rear Admiral of the Blue, the lowest rank amongst the admirals. The seniority was as follows (from lowest to highest):
Rear Admiral of the Blue
Rear Admiral of the White
Rear Admiral of the Red
Vice Admiral of the Blue
Vice Admiral of the White
Vice Admiral of the Red
Admiral of the Blue
Admiral of the White
Admiral of the Red
Admiral of the Fleet

And, as rank was rank, the admiral’s dress uniform was a sight to behold:

Talk about your gold braid! Here, Hornblower’s Admiral Pellew (a.k.a. Admiral Sir Edward Witherington) displays a full admiral’s regalia—complete with the insignia of his knighthood (the red sash and starburst-like emblem on his chest).

  1. Sylvia M. permalink
    Thursday, May 27, 2010 8:41 am

    Very interesting! I noticed that in that one picture Captain Wentworth has on fawn colored breeches, but the other Naval people have navy blue. Did they mix and match sometimes or since the filmmakers knew that he shouldn’t be in uniform they decided to have him in half uniform and half civilian?

    By the way, did the color navy blue come from the Naval uniform color?


    • Thursday, May 27, 2010 2:28 pm

      The color and style of pants (full pants or knee breeches up through this time period) was determined by the officer and his budget when purchasing his uniforms. Obviously the ivory/white pants were going to be harder to keep clean/maintain, so they’d have to be replaced more often—though when a captain was in undress uniform, the white pants were a way of showing off his wealth a little more. The indigo pants would take the wear-and-tear better, but as they were wool, like the frocks, were best saved to wear during cold weather. The fawn/almost khaki colored pants/breeches were typically of a linen or, later, cotton-muslin woven fabric, very durable and much cooler.

      According to the Royal Navy’s website, blue was chosen for the naval officers to distinguish them from the land officers (army and marines), who, for the most part, wore red.


  2. Thursday, May 27, 2010 9:13 am

    Wow, boys as young as 7 or 8 years old doing such a dangerous job? What a completely different world we live in now! I can’t imagine a 7 or 8 yr old today taking on that kind of responsibility. Thanks for all the great background info!


    • Thursday, May 27, 2010 2:55 pm

      In that era, boys of that age in lower-middle class families were sent to join the army (less common) or navy or they were sent out to apprentice—to the local carpenter, stone mason, blacksmith, miller, etc.— to learn his life skill, or he was put out “in service,” also basically an apprenticeship, working in some capacity for the gentry or aristocracy (but patronage was important here, too)—they could be stable boys, gardeners’ assistants, or if the estate was large enough, apprentice to the estate’s carpenter, mason, blacksmith, etc.—while the lower classes sent their boys out to work in the fields or in the mines. Young girls of that age in the lower classes had spent the first several years of their lives learning housekeeping skills and were either also sent out to work in the fields or, if they were lucky, put out in service as scullery maids, laundresses, or more general maids for cleaning the house. Girls from lower-middle class families were typically either kept home to be educated in the local school for girls (learning basic reading and math so they could keep their own house one day) or, depending on how much money the family had, sent off to a girls’ school where they got the education necessary to become a governess; or sent out to apprentice with a milliner or seamstress, or other more “gentlewomanly” occupation.

      Gentry and aristocracy sent younger (non-inheriting) sons to the navy (these were the ones likely to enter as midshipmen on the path to becoming officers) if they didn’t show an aptitude for schooling. Many times, depending on the number of sons they had, they set their sons to any or all of the following occupations:
      –Navy (patronage)
      –Army (patronage)
      –Holy Orders (schooling & patronage)
      –Law (schooling & apprenticeship)
      –Physician (schooling & apprenticeship)
      –Surgeon (schooling & apprenticeship)
      –Banker (schooling & apprenticeship)
      –Merchant (apprenticeship or patronage for shipping i.e., East India Co.)

      Their female counterparts (gentry/aristocracy) were taught at home by governesses and then possibly sent to a finishing school at twelve or thirteen where she stayed for several years to learn β€œthe common subjects of housekeeping, neighbors, dress, dancing, music”; how to engage, instruct, and supervise the household staff; to oversee the production or purchase of foodstuffs and household goods; to either do or oversee making, mending, and cleaning of family clothing (dress makers, washer women); keep the domestic accounts in order; educate the children or engage/supervise nannies and governesses; and, most importantly to attract a wealthy husband, be a good wife and a sociable hostess, and maintain good relations with her neighbors.


  3. Thursday, May 27, 2010 9:46 am

    Your title says it all – love a man in uniform, indeed:) The pics are positively swoon-worthy. One of the reasons I fell hard for Horatio here is his frock coat and breeches though I was never fond of the hat. The medals and other decorations are so appealing, also.

    It is hard to think of such young boys starting out on ship. But then I recently read the story of a boy, David, from Knoxville, TN who began a career at sea at age 10. At age 11 he saw his first battle on the warship Essex as a cadet. At age 12, he was given command of a ship that had been captured in battle and was dispatched with a crew to take the vessel and its men back to the US. On the journey home, the captured British captain took issue at being ordered around by a 12 year old and announced he was going below to get his pistols (out of respect for his position, he had been allowed to keep them). David promptly sent him word that if he stepped foot on deck with his pistols, he would be shot and thrown overboard. The captain decided to stay below. (“Do Hard Things” by Alex and Brett Harris)

    I’ve had such fun writing about a Revolutionary War hero in my 3rd book. Those buff and blue uniforms were quite dashing, much moreso than those British redcoats:)


    • Thursday, May 27, 2010 9:49 am

      Ever since I started working on this series back in 2005, my whole view of U.S./British relations in the 18th and 19th century has been a little bit skewed! After all—Julia’s father was a young officer during the revolution—chased and skirmished with John Paul Jones for some time, in fact!


      • Jessamy permalink
        Friday, May 28, 2010 12:19 am

        Oh, Kaye…you can tell someone’s into her stories when she loses the real-world definition of “in fact.”


  4. Thursday, May 27, 2010 10:38 am

    Kaye, I’m constantly amazed at the level of detail in your research! And I’m with Laura – I’m much more enamored of the buff and blue uniforms than the redcoats. I guess that comes from watching “Daniel Boone” avidly as a youngster, AND of seeing George Washington’s uniform at the Smithsonian — the one that had been his British uniform.


    • Thursday, May 27, 2010 2:15 pm

      Interesting—because the American Revolutionary-era army officers’ uniforms always look like Royal Navy uniforms to me. I didn’t post a picture of the post captain’s dress frock with the lapels buttoned out rather than overlapping:

      And I forgot to include an image of the lieutenants’ dress coat:

      Then there’s this:

      Um, hello! Stolen straight from the British Royal Navy!!!!

      (See, I told you my view of British/American history is skewed :-)).


  5. Thursday, May 27, 2010 11:37 am

    *SWOON* That’s all I need to say, right?


    • Thursday, May 27, 2010 2:58 pm

      Girl, I knew if anyone would be there with me on the men-in-uniforms thing, it would be you. πŸ˜€


  6. Thursday, May 27, 2010 12:38 pm

    Wow, thank you for compiling all of this info! Fascinating research. I am overcome by a sudden need to break out my Hornblower DVDs…wonder why? πŸ˜‰ LOL!


    • Thursday, May 27, 2010 2:58 pm

      Yeah, well you saw the dedication in the “look inside” view of Ransome’s Crossing didn’t you? πŸ˜‰


      • Thursday, May 27, 2010 5:46 pm

        NO!! I hadn’t seen that. Just looked it up and that is fantastic, love it!!


  7. Thursday, May 27, 2010 4:26 pm

    This is the first time I’ve made complete sense of all the British Naval ranks. Thanks for taking the time to compile all this, Kaye. Gorgeous!


    • Friday, May 28, 2010 12:45 am

      What good are all these research books and the years I’ve put into the research if I can’t share it with everyone else? Plus it’s a good way for me to re-immerse myself into the world so I can get Ransome’s Quest finished.


      • Deonna Bundrick permalink
        Sunday, May 30, 2010 6:34 pm

        Write fast!!!!!! πŸ™‚ 2011 Seems like a loooong time away!


  8. Michelle permalink
    Thursday, May 27, 2010 5:22 pm

    This has made for some very interesting reading! Thank you for satisfying the history nerd in me. πŸ˜‰

    Have you come across anything that says why the squadrons were ranked in that manner? I’m just curious if there’s a reason blue was the lowest squadron and red was the highest.

    Any idea when those of us who signed up to be influencers for Ransome’s Crossing will receive our books?


    • Friday, May 28, 2010 12:44 am

      Michelle, they usually send those out within a few weeks of the book’s release, so I’d say be looking for it somewhere around mid- to late-June.


  9. Thursday, May 27, 2010 9:53 pm

    Again, you amaze me with all the detail and the research. How do you keep it all straight in your head?

    I pulled out my copy of Ransome’s Honor to read again…and my 3 year old poured a pitcher of water over it! It’s drying out now, but I am going to read it this weekend when it isn’t soppy! πŸ™‚


  10. Jessamy permalink
    Friday, May 28, 2010 12:18 am

    Sigh…I live in Norfolk, VA. Nothing about sailors’ uniforms ever makes me swoon.

    Are you saying that blue is the lowest of the colors, or are they all the same in rank, just different?


    • Friday, May 28, 2010 12:43 am

      Nope, you read that correctly. Blue was the lowest ranking of the three squadrons.


    • Deonna Bundrick permalink
      Sunday, May 30, 2010 6:36 pm

      We’re Army, & live on Post and see uniforms daily. I guess I’m a hopeless romantic because they still make me swoon! πŸ™‚


  11. Deonna Bundrick permalink
    Sunday, May 30, 2010 6:39 pm

    I have read Ransome’s Honor 5-6 times. It is wonderful! I’ve been counting the days for Ransome’s Crossing & will be at the bookstore the day it arrives. πŸ™‚ Thank you so much for making everything so historically accurate….that’s so important to me. I REALLY enjoyed this post on the uniforms. Thanks!


  12. keith permalink
    Monday, February 13, 2012 1:09 am

    i cant remember the date but i did some research and in the the late 1700s or early 1800s the royal navy made commander a rank i know it was before 1805



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