by Russell Borghere
Boatswain, The Ship's Company of H.M.B.V. THUNDER

A Warrant Officer of the 18th-century Navy could be somewhat described as a specialist, representing one or more of the skilled trades employed aboard ship. Examples of such trades included carpentry, navigation, medicine, artillery, and sail making. As the name implies, a Warrant Officer was appointed to his position by "warrant" from the Navy Board. (A Commissioned Naval Officer received his appointment directly from the Admiralty in the form of a "commission".) Advancement to Warrant Officer was afforded to any exceptionally skilled Seaman or Marine, as well as certain skilled landsmen such as shipwrights, surgeons, parsons, and clerks. The one mandatory trait they all had to possess, was the ability to read , write, and cipher.

Warrant Officers were allotted a personal crew of subordinates or "mates" to assist them in carrying out their duties. (Bosun mates, Masterís mates, Gunnerís mates, &c, &c, &c). These were typically Petty Officers, but in some cases, could also include other Warrant Officers.

Within their own ranks, Warrant Officers, had varying levels of authority and status, categorized as Wardroom Officers, Standing Officers, and Lower Grade Officers.


Wardroom Officers were referred to as such for they shared access to the Wardroom and the quarterdeck; privileges normally reserved for commissioned officers. They had the most prestige of others in their ranks. Included in this classification were the shipís Master, the Surgeon, Chaplain, and Purser.

The MASTER, was the highest ranking Warrant Officer, standing just below that of a Naval Lieutenant, yet outranking a Marine Lieutenant. The latter, by the way, also held a commission from the Admiralty. Simply put, the Master was responsible for navigating the vessel, but in actuality, his duties were extremely broader. His mates were typically Petty Officers and Midshipmen, who would one day also be in line for promotion to Master or Lieutenant.

The SURGEON served as the vesselís doctor, and was in charge of the sick and wounded, as well as the general health conditions aboard ship.

The CHAPLAIN, who may have likely been a somewhat dubious man of the cloth, often an old hand with "spirits, saw to it that the men remained reverent while at sea. It would appear however, that the Navy was not overly concerned about his importance as reflected by his pay. His salary was basically that of a common seaman.

Last but not least was the PURSER, who was in charge of the shipís provisions such as food and water. In addition, he also purchased clothing to fit out the seamen. Such clothes were commonly referred to as "slops", referring to the slops system of issuance. Since a good portion of his salary was based upon how much money he saved after purchasing his goods, he undoubtedly sought out the best bargains. Applying the rule "You get what you pay for" , in the end, it was the seamen that suffered the net results. On a positive note, his endeavours at least provided the crewís diet with "fresh fare" to include maggots, weevils, and other tasty vermin. A verse in an old sea chantey referred to such food as "buggered rank butter, and musty horse meat,Öwith his weevily old bisquits so that he gets his gainÖ" One does not need to fathom why seamen would give the Purser colourful nicknames like "Nipcheese".


Standing Officers included the Boatswain, Carpenter, and Gunner. Unlike their shipmates who transferred from vessel to vessel, the Standing Warrant Officers remained permanently attached to their vessel, even while she was in Ordinary (out of commission). In addition, these men were heavily involved with the initial fitting out of the vessel.

The BOATSWAIN, pronounced as "Bosun", was basically in charge of the vesselís rigging, sails, and anchors, as well as seeing to it that the crew carried out their duties in man-o-war fashion. A whack from a ropeís end or belaying pin served to encourage or "start" men into action. In many aspects, he could be compared to that of a Sergeant Major in the Army. His mates were known to be some of the most feared men aboard ship, often playing a role not unlike modern boot camp drill instructors. They also carried out formal floggings with the cat-o-nine-tails.

The GUNNER was generally responsible for the overall maintenance of the shipís guns, but not the actual loading and firing during combat. That task was typically reserved for a Lieutenant. The Gunner was to ensure that all guns, carriages, tackles, and implements were in order, and saw to it that they remained serviceable. He was likewise responsible for the powder and ammunition, maintaining a ready supply of charges for each gun. The Gunnerís crew was rather large, consisting not only of his mates, but also of the quartergunners, as well as the Armourer, who by the way, was also a Warrant officer.

The CARPENTER differed from the other Standing Officers in that he typically did not rise up from the lower decks. Instead, he usually acquired his skills ashore, often as a shipwright or in a similar trade. His primary job was to ensure that the vessel remained afloat, and was responsible for the inspection, maintenance, and repair of all things wooden. Like the Gunner, the Carpenter had a fairly large crew, regularly employed at inspecting the integrity of the vessel, and making all necessary repairs. Also answering to the Carpenter, was the Caulker, also a warrant Officer, who saw to it that the vessel held her oakum, and remained watertight.


Lower Grade Officers were basically Petty Officers with warrants, and like other Petty Officers, could be demoted at the Captainís whim. Such was the Master-at arms, Sailmaker, Caulker, Armourer, Ropemaker, and Cook.

The MASTER-AT-ARMS, was often a former Marine, whose role aboard ship was similar to that of a constable ashore. In addition to keeping tabs on the overall disposition of the crew, he was also responsible, to varying degrees, for training the crew in the use of small arms.

The duties of the SAILMAKER and ROPEMAKER are rather obvious by their titles. Both answered to the Boatswain. As mentioned previously, the CAULKER sealed the seams with oakum, and answered to the shipís Carpenter.

The ARMOURER, who served as the shipís gunsmith, blacksmith, and metal-worker, answered to the Gunner.

Lastly, we must mention the COOK, who filled the bellies of all those hearty seamen. "Death from Within" as they say in the modern military. He was often an elderly or disabled seaman, who received his "warrant" as a reward for faithful service in the Navy. It also served in a way as compensation for the loss of an eye, or a dismasted limb suffered in combat.

A Health to the Jolly Tars of Old England

GOD save the KING

About the author
Mr. Russell Borghere is presently billeted as Boatswain of The Ship's Company of H.M.B.V. THUNDER, a living history group portraying Royal Navy Marines and Seamen of the AWI period. He has been involved with various aspects of living history and muzzleloading firearms since the mid 70's, with a deep interest in 18th-century maritime history, early whaling, and all aspects of marlinspike seamanship. The Richmond is obliged for the courtesy of his article on Royal Navy Warrant Officers of the AWI.

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