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Able seaman

The system of rating seamen ‘ordinary’ or ‘able’ was introduced in 1652. An able seaman was considered to be an experienced sailor familiar with his duties. The rating of seamen was usually the responsibility of the captain in consultation with the master and the boatswain. An able seaman had to be at least 20 years old with five years experience at sea. He was expected to have all the skills of an ordinary seaman and, in addition, be able to take over as the main helmsman, keeping the ship on course.



In the 17th century the ever growing Royal Navy fleet was sub divided into three squadrons: the Van, identified by white ensigns; the Centre, with red ensigns; and the Rear, with blue ensigns. Each squadron was commanded by an admiral, who was responsible for formulating battle plans and sending commands to other ships in their squadron by way of flag signals.

As the three squadrons grew in size, it became increasingly difficult for one admiral alone to be in complete control of a squadron. The ranks of vice-admiral and rear-admiral were therefore introduced for each of these squadrons. But even nine admirals proved insufficient, and by the 1740s provision was made to have more admirals.

The three flag officers (admiral, vice-admiral, and rear-admiral) each flew an ensign denoting the colour of their squadron. The precedence of seniority of these squadrons was red, white and blue. Up to 1804, there were nine flag officers. In order of precedence they were:

  • Admiral of the Fleet
  • Admiral of the Red
  • Admiral of the White
  • Admiral of the Blue
  • Vice-Admiral of the Red
  • Vice-Admiral of the White
  • Vice-Admiral of the Blue
  • Rear-Admiral of the Red
  • Rear-Admiral of the White
  • Rear-Admiral of the Blue

With the introduction of the rank of admiral of the red (although only notionally in existence if taken by the lord high admiral or admiral of the fleet) in 1805, the total of flag officers increased to 10. Admirals held their rank for life and therefore promotions occurred when an admiral died, based on the seniority of the squadrons.

This system of admirals' ranks remained unaffected until 1864, when the three squadrons were abolished, flag ranks reduced to four and the white ensign was introduced for use by all HM ships.


Admiral of the Fleet

The origin of the rank of admiral of the fleet can be traced to 1360 when Sir John Beauchamp was appointed 'Admiral of the King's Southern, Northern and Western Fleet'. This appointment gave the command of the English navy to one person for the first time. However, it was not until after 1707 that the navy had successive admirals of the fleet. Meanwhile, sole command of the navy was at various times given to the lord admiral, high admiral, or lord high admiral.

Up to 1864 the overall command of Royal Navy ships was the responsibility of either the lord high admiral or an admiral of the fleet. Until 1863 the admiral of the fleet held office until his death.


The government department responsible for the Royal Navy.

Armed neutrality of the North

An agreement between Denmark, Sweden, Russia and Prussia preventing the Royal Navy stopping and searching trading ships belonging to their countries.


An agreed short end to fighting.

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The rank of boatswain is one of the oldest used in the navy; it has its origins in medieval times. Warranted by the Admiralty but answerable to the Navy Board, the boatswain was responsible for the sails, rigging and rope. Boatswains were often promoted from the rating of boatswain's mate.



Distant relatives of the Nelsons.


Blockading naval squadron

Naval ships at sea blocking the escape or entry of enemy ships into or from a port.



The ratings of boy first, second and third class were introduced in 1794 to replace that of captain's servant. Those under the age of 15 were rated boys third class and those 15-17 as second class.








Traditionally the rank given to the commanding officer of a ship and the most senior below flag rank (admiral). The courtesy title of 'captain' is also applied to any officer in charge of a naval ship, for example, a lieutenant in charge of a sloop.

Captains appointed to command HM ships, carrying up to 110 guns rated 1-6 (post ships), were referred to as post captains, so that they were distinguishable from those officers who were being addressed as captains as a courtesy title.

The promotion from captain to rear-admiral was based on when a captain had attained post rank.


Captain's servant

This was a rating used to describe a boy, usually the son of a captain's relatives or friends, training to become a commissioned officer.


Captains of the Top, Waist, Afterguard and Forecastle

Although these are grand titles, the men assigned to these posts were ratings. It was common practice in the navy to put some seamen in charge of specific areas of a ship during each watch. For example, in a fifth-rate ship with 36 guns and a crew of 250 men, four 'captains' would be appointed to the top (two to the main top and two to the mizzen mast), two 'captains' to the waist, two to the afterguard, and two to the forecastle. Seamen who held these 'ratings' had extra responsibility but did not receive extra pay.



Carpenters were warranted by the Admiralty and answerable to the Navy Board. Their duties consisted of the care and preservation of the ship's hull and mast. In battle, carpenters had to be particularly vigilant to spot any damage from shot and to have ready shot boards and plugs of wood to stop any leaks. Many carpenters worked for the Navy Board as civilian employees (shipwrights) in the dockyards before going to sea.



An item of jewellery.



First used around 1667, the rank of master and commander was adopted for captains of sixth-rate ships. These ships were considered too small to have both a master and captain so their duties were combined in the one rank. In later years, sixth-rate ships were also commanded by post captains, although the rank of master and commander was still used. The rank was established in by 1747, and by the 1750s it was recognised as the natural progression from lieutenant to captain. In 1794 'the master and' fell out of use and the rank of commander was formally introduced.



The commander of all the ships and naval matters in a naval station.


Commissioned officer

Commissioned officers are so called as they were appointed by a king’s commission. These officers were responsible for commanding ships, squadrons, fleets and naval stations. Their rank structure was headed by flag officers (the different types of admirals and that of commodore), followed by captain and finally lieutenant.



Promotion from captain to rear-admiral was based on seniority and proved to be inflexible. However, the introduction in the 17th century of the rank of commodore allowed the Admiralty to promote capable captains on a temporary basis to specific duties, for example, to take charge of a detached squadron even though they lacked the seniority necessary to become an admiral. At the end of their commissions they would revert back to the rank of captain.





Convoy duties

Providing armed escort to merchant ships.



Up to 1704, cooks were warrant officers. But after 1704, their warranting body changed from the Admiralty to the Navy Board and gradually their status declined. Cooks were usually disabled seamen and often were untrained. In the 1740s their main responsibilities consisted of ensuring meat supplies were stored properly and watered regularly and that food was carefully cleaned and boiled before being served.


Court martial

A judicial court comprised of naval officers assembled to try and sentence those committing offences in breach of naval regulations.



A senior rating, for example, some one who is in charge of the captain’s boat and crew when an officer is not present.


Customs office commissioner

An official working in an office or establishment which is responsible for the collection of taxes (customs) levied on imported or exported goods.



A small light boat, belonging to a ship of war, which could either be rowed or sailed, used in transporting stores and passengers.


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Divine Right of Kings

A belief that kings are a supreme power and are representatives of God.


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Expeditionary force

Military divisions usually sent ahead of a main army.


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Ferdinand IV of Naples (1751-1825)

Also known at various times during his lifetime as King Ferdinand 1 of the Two Sicilies; Ferdinand III of Sicily; and King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies.


First Consul

This was the title Napoleon assumed when taking overall governmental control of France.


First Lord of the Admiralty

The leading official of the Board of the Admiralty that had overall command of the Royal Navy.


Flag Officers

Collective term used in regard to Admirals and Commodores.


Floating batteries

A platform or fortified platform or vessel on water with guns.



A small fleet of ships.



A light and fast vessel usually used for intelligence and scouting duties.


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Military establishment in which troops are based.



The rank of gunner can be traced to the 15th century. Gunners were examined by, and answerable to, the Ordnance Board. They were primarily responsible for the ship's guns and ammunition which were supplied by the Ordnance Board. As warrant officers, gunners were assisted by armourers and yeomen of the powder room and by one quartergunner for every four guns.


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Hamilton, Emma (1765-1815)

William Hamilton’s wife and Horatio Nelson’s mistress.


Hamilton, Sir William (1730-1803)

Diplomat, Naples ambassador and Emma Hamilton’s husband.


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Knight of the Bath

An official honour rewarding those who have performed exceptional military or civilian service.


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This was a rating given and used in the Royal Navy with regard to men serving who had no experience of serving at sea.



The rank of lieutenant was considered to be the first step in the career of a commissioned officer. Its existence can be traced back to the time of the Armada. The rank was used with the aim of appointing 'young gentlemen for sea service'. Lieutenants were considered to be 'gentlemen' regardless of their social background. Like other commissioned officers, a lieutenant received a new commission for each new appointment. The commission often indicated his position on board, for example, a first lieutenant would be second in command of a ship after a captain. Some ships carried more than one lieutenant. These would be distinguished as first, second and third lieutenant. Promotion to the rank of lieutenant depended in many instances on selection by the Admiralty.


Lieutenancy examination

Process by which individuals were assessed as to whether they were suitable to become lieutenants.


London Gazette

An official newspaper of record which includes notices relating to state and parliament.


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The main pole of a ship used to support sails.



To do with matters relating to the sea.


Major General

A senior officer rank used in the Army.



A master was responsible for the navigation of the ship and was qualified to command HM ships on non-combatant duties. Appointed by warrant from the Navy Board, masters were professionally examined by Trinity House (established in 1517). In 1808, the rank of master attained commissioned officer status.


Master at arms

A master at arms was appointed by warrant from the Admiralty. His duties consisted of training petty officers and the ship's company in the use of small arms, overseeing the changing of the ship's guards and watches, ensuring that fire arms were clean and in good working order, searching vessels bringing provisions and preventing seamen leaving the ship without leave. He was also responsible for reporting any misdemeanours committed on board to the officer of the watch.


Master's mate

Strictly speaking master's mates were ratings, but they were distinguished from common ratings because they both tended to be, and were recognised as, men training to become an officer. As a master's mate, a man learnt navigation from the master, either to become a master himself or because navigation was a skill that commissioned officers had to be familiar with. Many commissioned officers in the early stages of their career held this rating.


Merchant navy

Ships and vessels used for trading purposes.



A midshipman is a special type of rating, used to recognise a 'young gentleman' aspiring to become an officer.



Revolts by sailors against those in authority.


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Navigation Act

A law which limited the transportation of American goods to the West Indies in British ships only.


Nelson, Viscount Horatio (1758-1805)

Famous British Royal Navy Admiral.


Norfolk Chronicle

A newspaper.


North Foreland

A headland on the east coast of Kent, England.


Nostro Liberatore

Our liberator.


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A senior ranking person holding a position of authority.


Order of the Bath

An order of chivalry.


Ordinary seaman

The rating of ordinary seaman introduced in 1652, along with that of able seaman, was generally recognised as the lowest rating on ship. Boys were rated ordinary seaman at the age of 18 and were usually rated 'able' at 21. An ordinary seaman was described as someone who would be useful on board but was not an expert sailor.



Soldiers detached at distance from an army on guard against a surprise attack.


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A member of the British nobility.


Pell-Mell Battle

A term used by Nelson to describe ships fighting at close quarters.


Provost marshal

Official charged with policing duties.



Pursers were warranted to ships by the Admiralty but answerable to the Victualling Board. Pursers were responsible for the keeping and supply of victuals, food, water, tobacco, slops (clothes) and other ships' stores. From November 1683 pursers were officially reimbursed when making savings on seamen's rations. A purser was to keep an exact muster book of the time of entry, discharge, desertion, death, attendance and absence of every person belonging to the ship's crew. Pursers were sometimes assisted by a purser's steward and a purser's yeoman, men selected by the purser and usually paid from his wages.


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There was one quartergunner for every four guns on board a ship. The main duties of a quartergunner consisted of assisting the gunner, keeping the guns and carriages in working order and ensuring that there were sufficient supplies for their use.



The duties of a quartermaster comprised steering the ship, stowing ballast, placing provisions in the hold, keeping time using the ship's watch-glasses and overseeing the delivery of provisions to the purser's steward. Quartermasters were usually older seamen.


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‘The people’ - the term ‘rating’ is used to describe a seaman’s status. Seamen were ‘rated’ according to their skills and ability and the kind of work they were expected to perform. Many types of ratings were used by the Royal Navy; the most familiar to us today, for example, would be the ratings of able seaman and ordinary seaman.


Rear Admiral see Admiral
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Traditionally a small ship with two masts.



Secretaries were employed by flag officers to assist them with their paperwork. Secretaries were usually pursers or former pursers who held a purser's warrant for the flagship.


Seven Years War (1756-1763)

A war with France, Austria, Saxony, Sweden and Russia on one side fighting against Great Britain, Prussia and Hanover on the other side.





Shore Battery

A platform or fortified building on shore which houses mounted guns.


Signal Lieutenant

Officer in charge of making signals.


Spanish Armada

A fleet of ships used by Spain in an attempted invasion of Britain in 1588.



A group of ships under the command of a flag officer usually undertaking a specific task.



Surgeons had to pass an examination set by the Barber-Surgeons' Company (from 1745, the Surgeons' Company) before they could be warranted to ships by the Navy Board. They were responsible to the Sick and Hurt Board and were the only medical officers on board ship. They were sometimes assisted by surgeon's mates (called Assistant Surgeons from 1805) who had served an apprenticeship under a surgeon.



A channel in the mouth of the Thames between Maplin and Barrow Sands forming the passage from the Nore to the North Sea.


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A bandage, sometimes used with a pad, screw or bar, to stem the flow of blood.


Treaty of Amiens 1802

The peace treaty signed by France, Spain and the Batavian Republic on one hand and Britain on the other hand.


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Volunteer first class

This was the rating that replaced boy first class and was given to 'young gentlemen' training to become officers.


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Walpole, Robert (1676-1745)

First Earl of Orford and Britain’s first prime minister.


Warrant officer

Warrant officers in terms of the naval rank structure came after commissioned officers. These officers were appointed by warrants from various naval regulating bodies hence the term warrant officer. Warrant officers tended to keep accounts and carried out more specialised duties on board a ship. Like commissioned officers, warrant officers also had a rank structure. The highest warrant officer rank was that of master, followed by surgeon, purser and chaplain (often referred to as civilian officers as the duties they performed were similar to those ashore), and then gunner, boatswain and carpenter (known as standing officers as they were responsible for ship maintenance). The lowest level of warrant officers (the ‘inferior officers) comprised surgeon’s mate, armourer, sail maker, cook, master at arms, caulker and rope maker.


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