For Captain Wentworth, Was Purchasing a Commission Necessary to Serve in the Navy?

Our lovely Gianna Thomas is still recovering from her hospital stay, so I am again filling in for her. Please send her well wishes if you follow her on social media.

Now for my post. I recently had another writer send me a message to ask about the process for a man of the gentry or the aristocracy to purchase a commission as an officer engineer or artilleryman. First, permit me to say I am far from an expert on this subject, but the way I understand it, commissions for these positions were not sold. However, I will tell you, dear readers, if you ask me this same question later, I may have a different response. It seems there were no “absolutes” regarding these types of positions, especially as the wars on two fronts dragged on during the Regency.

A person could only purchase a commission in a cavalry or infantry regiment. For any other regiment, such as the Royal Engineers or Royal Artillery, the young man had to attend the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in order to receive a commission. Promotions there were based on length of service and experience.

I have read numerous accounts where cadets entered the Royal Military Academy at age fourteen, but other accounts have the person entering at age twenty. What I can say with some certainty is there was an entrance exam, which required more than a simple working knowledge of both regular math and geometry. When the person graduated is a whole other story. The fourteen-year-old graduated at age 18, while the twenty-year-old might graduated at age twenty-five. This leads me to believe the courses required for this type of commission took four to five years to complete.

This information would naturally also lead one to assume it would take four years to “graduate,” but I have read of instances where the officer passed back and forth between the artillery and engineers, so I am truly not certain the Ordinance Department made any distinction between the two.

I think it is safe to say no officer was commissioned under the age of sixteen and, more likely, most were eighteen or older. We must remember those who attended the Academy had also to pass an exit exam. If one failed, he returned to the classroom for more instruction.

The Royal Navy proved to be the career choice of two of Jane Austen’s brothers, Francis and Charles. Francis rose to Admiral, the most senior position in the navy, and Charles became a Vice Admiral. This painting is of HMS Canopus, a ship captained by Francis Austen.

Two of Austen’s novels have naval connections. In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen created William Price, the brother to Fanny Price and a midshipman, who was ambitious to succeed in the naval world.

In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth, is a new type of hero in that he is a self-made man, pointing to a new meritocracy in England.

“Captain Wentworth, with five-and-twenty thousand pounds, and as high in his profession as merit and activity could place him, was no longer nobody. He was now esteemed quite worthy to address the daughter of a foolish, spendthrift baronet, who had not principle or sense enough to maintain himself in the situation in which Providence had placed him ...” [Chapter 24, Persuasion, by Jane Austen]

The Navy proved to be a popular trade/occupation for the sons of the gentry, but less so for sons of the aristocracy, who, like Colonel Fitzwilliam, purchased a commission.

A boy as young as ten could “volunteer” for a seafaring apprenticeship, one attached to the Captain of a particular ship. This position was unpaid, and the boy’s parents footed the bill for his food and clothes. He could become a midshipman when he reached 14.

The other means to become a midshipman was through the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth. Two of Jane Austen’s brothers attended the academy. It taught seamanship along with the standard educational subjects. Obviously, mathematics was emphasized because the use of the subject in navigation. It took two years (funded by the young man’s parents) onboard a ship for the fellow to become a Midshipman.

The Gunner and His Crew in Aubrey’s Royal Navy ~

Naval History and Military Command provides us this excellent breakdown of duties:


GUNNER of a ship of war, (cannonier de vaisseau, Fr.) an officer appointed to take charge of the artillery and ammunition aboard; to observe that the former are always kept in order, and properly fitted with tackles and other furniture, and to teach the sailors the exercise of the cannon.

The GUNNER’S Mate is to assist the gunner in every part of his business; he is an officer who should be as well acquainted with gunnery, and every thing respecting the ordnance and military stores, as the gunner himself: his particular business under the gunner is to have every thing ready for action in a moment’s warning; he should never be as a loss to know where to lay his hands upon any article belonging to the gunner’s department; he should be expert in preparing port and false fires, match stuff, grenadoes, and every sort of combustible used in war; and in a word, in doing every part of a gunner’s duty on board a ship of war.

The GUNNER’S Yeoman’s particular business is the stowage of the magazine, filling the store-rooms, &c. account, care, and distribution of all the stores of that department, under the gunner’s orders.

Quarter–GUNNER, an inferior officer under the direction of a ship of war, whom he is to assist in every branch of his duty; as keeping the guns and carriages in proper order, and duly furnished with whatever is necessary; filling the powder into cartridges, scaling the guns, and keeping them always in a condition for service. The number of quarter-gunners in any ship is always in proportion to the number of her artillery, one quarter-gunner being allowed to every four cannon.


MASTER at arms, an officer appointed by warrant from the board of admiralty, to teach the officers and crew of a ship of war the exercise of small arms; to confine and plant centinels over the prisoners, and superintend whatever relates to them during their confinement. He is also, as soon as the evening gun shall be fired, to see all the fires and lights extinguished, except such as shall be permitted by proper authority, or under the inspection of centinels. It is likewise his duty to attend the gangway, when any boats arrive aboard, and search them carefully, together with their rowers, that no spirituous liquors may be conveyed into the ship, unless by permission of the commanding officer. He is to see that the small arms be kept in proper order. He is to visit all vessels coming to or going from the ship, and prevent the crew from going from the ship without leave. He is also to acquaint the officer of the watch with all irregularities in the ship which shall come to his knowledge. In these several duties he is assisted with proper attendants, called his corporals, who also relieve the centinels, and one another, at proper periods.

CORPORAL of a ship of war, an officer under the master at arms, employed to teach the sailors the exercise of small arms, or musketry; to attend at the gang-way, or entering-ports, and observe that no spirituous liquors are brought into the ship, unless by particular leave from the officers. He is also to extinguish the fire and candles at eight o’clock in winter, and nine in summer, when the evening gun is fired; and to walk frequently down into the lower decks in his watch, to see that there are no lights but such as are under the charge of proper centinels, which he is to see placed, &c.

Forgive me for I have digressed, a personal habit I have never attempted to break, for I dearly adore historical research.

For a very long time, there was no artillery or engineer manual. Each student created his own in the Academy from the courses he took, and he had to present that “manual” to the Academy teachers for approval as part of his graduation requirements.

Another source I particularly enjoyed if you wish more information is a “Service” magazine, for it held several accounts after the war from a variety of artillery officers. One I particularly enjoyed was “Shots from an Old Six Pounder.” You can find the information on Google Books or clicking this link. (The United Service Magazine, Volume 57, Page 2)

Other Sources:

Gentlemen’s Occupations

The Gunner and His Crew

Jane Austen’s Seagoing Brothers, Francis and Charles

6 responses to “For Captain Wentworth, Was Purchasing a Commission Necessary to Serve in the Navy?”

  1. Nan S. Avatar
    Nan S.

    Didn’t Darcy pay for a commission for Wickham (when he married Lydia)?

    1. Regina Jeffers Avatar

      Yes, Darcy paid for a commission for Wickham as a lieutenant in the British Army. Commission did not apply to the British Navy.

  2. Alice McVeigh Avatar

    A midshipman at 14? Wow. Don’t remember THAT from Hornblower… No wonder Fanny’s brother William was getting worried about still not being made a lieutenant in Man. Park.

    1. Regina Jeffers Avatar

      A boy could marry at age 14 with his parents’ permission (a girl at age 12), so it makes sense he would be considered old enough to serve his country in some form or another.

  3. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    Wow! They really were allowed to do things at a young age! Interesting post!

    1. Regina Jeffers Avatar

      If we think upon it, many of our ancestors were quite young when they set up families and the like. The “ages” surprise us nowadays for we think of “child labor laws” and the like. Francis was the older of Jane’s two brothers who joined The Royal Navy. He was twelve years old in 1786 when he travelled to Portsmouth from Steventon, a mere twenty miles away, to be enrolled at The Royal Naval Academy.

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