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The Ship's Crew

No vessel could operate properly without an adequate system for the organisation of its crew. Ships often carried considerable numbers of men, who could not be expected to perform usefully as a single entity.

A first rate, for instance, contained over 800 men, and the larger frigates over 300, with some proportion being unwillingly occupants, while others were unable to read, disaffected or lazy. There were also some affected by illness, tiredness or drunkenness, or who harboured grievances of one sort or another. In the face of all these obstacles, the ship, in all its complexity as something of a small floating village, had to be managed. As the same crew might remain aboard the same vessel - in extremely cramped conditions - year after year, with consequently little in the way of new social contacts, an exceptional degree of discipline and intelligent organisation was required to keep the ship running efficiently. The crew was divided into groups and assigned specific tasks, often several at a time depending on the mission of the ship at any given time. A sailor could be assigned to a specific part of the rigging, serve a particular gun during battle, or work the pumps if necessary. When the ship docked or disembarked, he might play some other role, and even this might change - for instance to duties connected with his mess at mealtimes - depending on which watch it happened to be. Whatever his responsibilities, usually assigned to him by the first lieutenant who first considered the man's aptitude and fitness for the job - and these could be a dozen or two - a seaman was expected to perform them quickly and efficiently. It was the first lieutenant's responsibility to ensure that enough men were on duty at any given time so that the ship was safe and functioning well. He normally divided the crew, therefore, into two or three watches. The majority of ships used the two-watch system, which resulted in nearly every man belonging to one or other, in nearly equal numbers, with the watches known as larboard and starboard. If both watches were on deck, those men assigned to the larboard watch might be responsible for the ropes and line their side of the ship (the left-hand side as one faces the bow), while those of the starboard watch manned the other side. 


Those men who were not a part of one of the watches were known as idlers, the name given to those whose services were needed on a constant basis during the day, and therefore were not expected to keep any of the night watches, unless of course al hands were summoned on deck at night. Idlers constituted about 7% of the crew on a first rate and about 10% on a sixth rate. Idlers included the master at arms and the various corporals, the armourer sailmaker, cooper and the mates working along with them, the yeoman of the boatwain's carpenter's and gunners store rooms. Other idlers included the cook and his assistants, butchers, hairdressers, barbers, tailors, pursers, poulterers, the first lieutenant's secretary, the pursers steward and various officer's servants (not domestic servants - though they did perform menial services from time to time - but rather young officer hopefuls). Some of the marines would fall under the category of idler, as well, plus tailors, shoemakers, painters and bakers. 


Apart from the idlers, the rest of the crew were assigned part of the ship for which they were responsible, a designation that gave rise to nicknames which reflected the area in which they carried out their tasks. Thus, the topmen, the most skilled seamen, worked aloft in the masts and amongst the rigging. Ships of the line had three types of topmen, one each for the fore (forwardmost), main (middle) and mizzen (rearmost) masts. Aboard smaller ships, the mizzentopmen formed part of the afterguard, which will be described later. The topmen, maintopmen, foretopmen and mizzentopmen had to be extremely fit and agile, for they had to perform work in the highest masts, sometimes in the face of high winds and rain and a rolling ship. Their numbers varied, but, instance, aboard the San Domingo, a 74, there were 25 foretopmen, 27 maintopmen and 25 mizzentopmen in each watch. Each group was led by a petty officer, known as the captin of the foretop, mizzentop or maintop, as appropriate.

Forecastle men

Owing to their specialist abilities and knowledge, the topmen enjoyed a virtual monopoly on work aloft, with the remainder of the crew rarely permitted (or indeed able) to go into the rigging. The forecastle men worked towards the front of the ship, know as the forecastle (pronounced 'foc-sul'), and handled, amongst other equipment, the anchors. They were often the oldest and heaviest sailors, since they were depended upon for both skill and strength, not dexterity; nor were they required to act with particular swiftness, like those in the tops. A 36-gun frigate contained about 20 forecastle men, all but perhaps two of whom were petty officers or able seamen, led by a captain of the forecastle for each watch. 


Large and medium-sized ships were also organised into divisions to enable the officers to administer the ship's company along logical administrative and social lines, as opposed to the system previously described, which concerned their duties only. According to the Admiralty Regulations and Instructions, the captain, aided by his officers, was to:Divide the ship's company, exclusive of the marines, into as many divisions as there are lieutenants allows to the ship; the divisions are to be equal in number to each other, and the men are to be taken equally from the different stations in which they are watched. A lieutenant is to command each division; he is to have under his orders as many master's mates and midshipmen as the number on board, being equally divided, well admit; he is to sub-divide his division into as many sub-divisions as there are mates and midshipmen fit to command under his orders.The division enables the captain and his officers to monitor the health and welfare of the ship's company. Proper sanitation aboard the ship was essential in order to ward off sickness and disease, and thus the officers inspected the clothing and bedding of their division, and were responsible for seeing that the men did not swear or get drunk - no simple task. Petty officers and midshipmen kept lists of the men for whom they were responsible within a given division, each list indicating every sailor's duty and the number of his hammock. When in port, those in charge of a division mustered their men each evening, and conducted inspections for health and cleanliness every Sunday morning. 


Those in command at the highest level, in the name of the Admiralty, were the admirals, who led squadrons of approximately ten or more ships, or two or three squadrons, which composed a fleet. These men, all with years of practical experience dating back to the time they joined the Navy as midshipmen, were promoted automatically be seniority from the rank of captain. By the time they reached this rank they had demonstrated thoroughly their abilities at seamanship and command. They were expected to have a good grasp of strategy and be relied upon to execute the Admiralty's orders with steadfastness and intelligence, since poor communication and great distances would often require an admiral to use considerable discretion in the interpretation of his orders. The members of the Admiralty generally knew admirals personally, and therefore were confident in entrusting them with direct responsibility over large numbers of ships and men. Not all admirals were suited to fleet command. Some performed administrative tasks ashore, some commanded shore establishments, and others governed British colonies. Admirals could retain their positions and rank for life, and thus they could be quite old and inefficient. Some took voluntary retirement on a sizeable pension; others worked until infirmity or death. There was no shortage of men from which to choose admirals, and by 1807 there were over 150 of them, often known as flag officers. Unsurprisingly, an admiral in charge of a fleet (normally comprising at least 20 ships of the line, plus ancillary vessels, especially frigates) had myriad responsibilities, as shown by Keith's orders of 1799, which included 15 clauses. He was instructed:To correspond with the governors of Gibraltar and Minorca, and all British consuls in the Mediterranean; To give every assistance to the governor of Gibraltar;To appoint such of His Majesty's ships and vessels under you command to convoy the homeward bound trade, as are the least fit to remain abroad, as you shall judge sufficient for their protection;To detain and keep under his command any ships sent out to him, except store-ships, which were to be sent back when unloaded;To send surgeon's mates to help in Gibraltar hospital if needed;To have his ships apply for provisions at Gibraltar;To notify the Admiralty of any store and provisions lacking;If purchasing any ships and vessels, to get Admiralty permission, and to have them surveyed by the commissioners at Gibraltar;To conform to the established rules and customs of the navy;Not to appoint any victualling officers on shore, but to apply to the Admiralty for permission;To visit ships and muster men, and see that they were rated properly, and to look to the cleanliness and economy of ships under his command;To have his ships refitted at Gibraltar and Minorca;To order his captains to take good care of rigging, stores and so on;Not to allow his ships to come home except in cases of necessity;And to keep a journal, and send regular reports to the Admiralty.Admirals were classified according to three divisions, each of which contained three ranks. In the wake of the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 17th century, the Navy was divided into three squadrons, with a single colour designated for each, based on seniority:red was the highest, followed by white and blue. This flag was flown at the ensign staff of each ship in the fleet, though it is important to note that the white was later altered to include the red Cross of St George in order to distinguish it from the flag of Bourbon France, whose flag was also white (though all possibility of confusion ceased when from about 1795 the French began to fly the revolutionary Tricolour). Admirals, like the red, white and blue squadrons of the fleet, were themselves subdivided into individual ranks, the most senior rank being (full) admiral, followed by vice-admiral and rear admiral. An admiral senior enough to command an entire fleet rather than merely a squadron normally positioned his flagship at its centre, whereas a vice-admiral, serving as second in command, directed the activity of the van (the leading squadron of the fleet), with a rear-admiral, as his title implied, commanding the rear. The senior post in this hierarchy - Admiral of the Red - required an officer to rise nine places once he was promoted from captain or commodore. Thus, his long ascent, facilitated by the retirement and death of those senior to him, began as Rear-Admiral of the Blue, which was the lowest rank of the lowest squadron. This was modified in 1805 when the rank of Admiral of the Red was re-designated to fall between Admiral of the Fleet and Admiral of the White, thus requiring those seeking the highest position to ascend ten places on the ladder of promotion. The most senior position of all - Admiral of the Fleet - entitled the holder of that rank to fly the Union flag (or 'Jack') at the head of the main mast. The ranking of admirals can thus be summarised as follows:

Admiral of the Fleet

Admiral of the Red (rank created after 1805)

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


The rank of commodore was rarely filled, for it was in fact an intermediary post occupied by a senior captain temporarily commanding a small squadron or an important position on shore in the absence of an admiral. Specifically, the rank of commodore existed to satisfy the requirement of assigning part of a fleet to a senior captain while the admiral was commanding the remainder of the fleet altogether. A commodore could command an inshore squadron or a small number of ships, usually frigates, detached from their parent fleet to conduct the blockade of an enemy port, or he might also be assigned a particular task of attacking an enemy squadron or bombarding a position on the coast. If, as was usually the case, the appointment of commodore was only temporary, upon the expiration of his tenure the captain would revert to his own rank.


A captain (or 'post captain', which distinguished the position from that of 'commander' who was effectively a 'captain' already, but merely of a small vessel) always commanded a ship of sixth rate class and above. These men normally rose from the rank of commander, though those who demonstrated particular promise or who had distinguished themselves might only hold the rank of commander very briefly before becoming captain. The captain was junior only to his superior squadron commander, who held the rank of commodore or admiral. Thus, aboard his own ship, the captain reigned supreme. He was ultimately responsible for all aspects of the running of the ship, not lest the discipline of the officers and men, and directed the ship's course and conduct during battle.

Master and Commander

This rank was assigned to officers who commanded vessels smaller than a sixth rate, which is to say sloops and brigs. By the second year of the war, in 1794, the rank was replaced by that of commander, which was effectively the same as captain of a larger vessel, the only distinction being that a commander was responsible for fewer men and guns.

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