British Navy Officers and Midshipmen

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Navies >> British Navy >> British Navy Officers and Midshipmen

Introduction

As Keeble mentions, in 1740, the composer Thomas Arne wrote an air for the play “Alfred” by James Thomson, the refrain of which went:

“Rule Britannia, Britannia, rule the waves!
Britons never never shall be slaves!”

This became a kind of sacred command for the officers of the Royal Navy.

In 1745, officers of the Royal Navy asked George II for a distinctive uniform. The latter chose to dress them in blue uniforms quite similar to those already worn by officers of the French and Spanish navies. Indeed, navy blue gradually became the standard colour for the navies of most nations.

Origin and History

During the XVIIIth century, the British Navy comprised three types of officers:

  • officers responsible for ship maintenance: master, boatswain, gunner, carpenter, sail-maker, master-at-arms, cook,
  • civilian officers: purser, surgeon and chaplain
  • military officers directing the ship:
    • flag-officers (subdivided into nine stages of seniority)
      • admiral
      • vice admiral
      • rear admiral
    • captains
      • over 3 years post
      • under 3 years post
    • master-and-commander
    • lieutenant.

The most junior officer rank was designated as "midshipman" in the Navy. By the order of 1748, “Persons acting as Midshipmen should like-wise have a uniform cloathing in order to distinguish their Class to be in the Rank of Gentlemen”.

In the British Royal Navy there was an important distinction between “rank” and “post”. Thus, the post of commander of ships-of-the-line and frigates was always designated as “Captain, R.N.” even when the incumbent was not a captain by rank. Smaller vessels were commanded by a master-and-commander, a rank soon renamed commander.

Lieutenants seconded the captain. Larger vessels counted more than one lieutenant. In this case, the were designated first, second, third lieutenants.

Initially the British Royal Navy was organised into three distinct squadrons:

  • Van (white ensigns) assuming second command
  • Centre (red ensigns) assuming chief command with its admiral designated as “Admiral of the Fleet”
  • Rear (blue ensigns)

As the Royal Navy became involved on several theatres of operations, British squadrons gradually became smaller and more numerous.

Uniforms

Initially, officers of the Royal Navy were free to dress as they pleased as eloquently illustrated by a painting by Hogarth (see this painting on the website of the National Maritime Museum). Their dress closely followed the civilian fashion of the time.

The first standardized uniform awarded by the admiralty to the officers of the Royal Navy was described in the order of April 13 1748 which regulated the uniforms of flag officers, captains, commanders, lieutenants and midshipmen.

Midshipman

Royal Navy Midshipman Uniform (different collars were adopted in 1748, 1758 and 1767) – Source: David at Not By Appointment
Uniform Details
Headgear black felt tricorne laced yellow with a black cockade on the left fastened with yellow strap and a brass button
Neckstock white
Coat navy blue lined white; with 1 row of 12 brass buttons on the right side and 12 black stitched buttonholes on the left side; 2 side skirts divided up in the centre of the back and fastened with 6 brass buttons with black stitched buttonholes
Collar wide white turnback with a small brass button on the right side to turn up the collar
Shoulder Straps none
Lapels none
Pockets horizontal pockets with 3 brass buttons
Cuffs small white slashed cuffs in the British pattern, with a navy blue flap lined white and decorated with 3 brass buttons and 3 black stitched buttonholes
Turnbacks none
Waistcoat white with brass buttons
Breeches nothing specified by the regulation, probably white or buff
Stocking nothing specified by the regulation
Leather Equipment
Waistbelt nothing specified by the regulation
Scabbard nothing specified by the regulation
Footgear black shoes


Captain

Royal Navy Senior Captain (over three years) in waistcoat in 1748 – Source: David at Not By Appointment
Royal Navy Senior Captain (over three years) Uniform in 1748 – Source: David at Not By Appointment
Royal Navy Senior Captain (over three years) Full Dress Uniform in 1748 – Source: David at Not By Appointment
Uniform Details
Headgear black felt tricorne laced yellow with a black cockade on the left fastened with yellow strap and a brass button
Neckstock white
Coat navy blue lined white; with its front edge and skit-seams bordered gold; with 3 brass buttons on the right side below the lapel; 2 side skirts divided up in the centre of the back and fastened with 6 brass buttons with black stitched buttonholes (upper buttons laced gold)
Collar low blue collar edged gold
Shoulder Straps none
Lapels white edged gold with 7 brass buttons with white buttonholes
Pockets horizontal pockets edged gold with 3 brass buttons under the pocket flap
Cuffs small white slashed cuffs in the British pattern edged gold; with a navy blue flap edged gold, lined white and decorated with 3 brass buttons and 3 black stitched buttonholes
Turnbacks none
Waistcoat white with brass buttons
Breeches nothing specified by the regulation, probably white or buff
Stocking nothing specified by the regulation
Leather Equipment
Waistbelt nothing specified by the regulation
Scabbard nothing specified by the regulation
Footgear black shoes

Other ranks

Royal Navy Lieutenant in waistcoat in 1748 – Source: David at Not By Appointment
Royal Navy Lieutenant Full Dress Uniform in 1748 – Source: David at Not By Appointment
Royal Navy Junior Captain (less than three years) in waistcoat in 1748 – Source: David at Not By Appointment
Royal Navy Flag Officer in waistcoat in 1748 – Source: David at Not By Appointment
Royal Navy Flag Officer Undress Uniform in 1748 – Source: David at Not By Appointment
Royal Navy Flag Officer Full Dress Uniform in 1748 – Source: David at Not By Appointment

N.B.: uniforms of flag-officers were embroidered in gold.

References

Hogarth, William; Painting Captain Lord George Graham in his Cabin, The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. 1715-47

Keeble, Lawrence; The first British Naval Uniform; in Arms and Armor Annual Volume One; Northfield: Digest Book, 1973

Linienblatt, David; Not By Appointment

Acknowledgment

Dr. Marco Pagan for the initial version of this article.