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

2 - Commissioned Officers’ Careers


In many ways, the rough outline of the previous chapter is well known: a typical officer joined the navy in adolescence, often through naval connections, and he spent six years at sea learning the manual and technical skills of his profession. He passed for lieutenant around his twentieth birthday and looked forward to receiving a commission. But beneath this outline lurks new information about the forces that shaped young naval officers’ careers. Seamanship was best learned at sea at a young age, and parents familiar with naval service sought to get their sons sea time as early as possible. Officers risked sitting the lieutenants’ exam before their twentieth birthday because they knew that passing for lieutenant was no guarantee of future employment; the earlier they passed, the sooner they could petition their patrons for a commission.

When they passed mattered as well. Vernon passed for lieutenant in peacetime along with, by his calculations, thirteen hundred other officer hopefuls. He expected only one hundred of them to receive commissions. ‘The rest’, he writes, ‘[were] dismissed with the scripture verse, many are called, but few are chosen.’ But, he adds sarcastically, those who did not receive commissions ‘were to be amply provided for, by midshipman's half-pay, viz. nothing per day, and to find themselves’. We now know that Vernon, writing in 1792, need not have been so pessimistic about his chances. The best hope for officers seeking employment and professional opportunities was a long war. When it arrived in 1793, many passed master's mates were able to count themselves among the chosen, including Vernon, but even two decades of war did not alleviate the threat of unemployment.

Commissions and employment prospects

Aspiring officers, including Vernon, who passed during peacetime can be seen in Figure 2.1, which shows two different random samples of commissions and successful exams over time.