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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: April 2017



The first serious attempt to research commissioned officers’ lives and careers in a systematic way was Michael Lewis’ 1960 book, A Social History of the Navy, 1793–1815. Much about Lewis’ work is valuable: he studied both the quarterdeck and the lower deck; he used data to describe officers’ backgrounds and careers; and his prose is lively. His methodology, however, left something to be desired. He was writing from within the Royal Navy, and he was apparently allergic to archives. Lewis relied entirely on the work of two biographers to collect his data. John Marshall compiled a multivolume and multipart biographical dictionary of all living officers at the rank of commander and above during the 1820s. William O'Byrne included lieutenants in his thousand-page tome, but he was working in 1849. Both men solicited the biographies from the officers themselves, which explains why they were only interested in living officers. Any officer who died before 1823 (for Marshall) or 1849 (for O'Byrne) was omitted. To give a sense of how much time had passed from the Wars to O'Byrne's work, Nelson would have been ninety-one in 1849. Additionally, lieutenants made up the majority of all officers; they are a significant omission in Marshall's work. The biographical dictionaries also gave officers a perfect opportunity to burnish their careers by filtering the information they provided. Despite these problems, Lewis used Marshall and O'Byrne as the foundation of his work. Combining all of Marshall and O'Byrne means that Lewis’ sample of officers is huge – more than 1,800 – but not random and significantly skewed.

The next attempt to create a database of officers’ lives was the small random sample that N.A.M. Rodger compiled for an article he published in 2001. In many ways, his work lays the foundation for this book, but it does not pre-empt it. His sample covered the whole of the eighteenth century, and he was interested only in career patterns, not social backgrounds. In other parts of his extensive catalogue, he discusses officers’ backgrounds and careers using a combination of archival and printed sources, but does not attempt a statistical survey.