The rank of midshipman originated during the Tudor and Stuart eras, and originally referred to a post for an experienced seaman promoted from the ordinary deck hands, who worked in between the main and mizzen masts and had more responsibility than an ordinary seaman, but was not a military officer or an officer in training. The first published use of the term midshipman was in 1662. The word derives from an area aboard a ship, amidships, but it refers either to the location where midshipmen worked on the ship, or the location where midshipmen were berthed.
By the 18th century, four types of midshipman existed: midshipman (original rating), , midshipman (apprentice officer), and midshipman ordinary. Some midshipmen were older men, and while most were officer candidates who failed to pass the lieutenant examination or were passed over for promotion, some members of the original rating served, as late as 1822, alongside apprentice officers without themselves aspiring to a commission. By 1794, all midshipmen were considered officer candidates, and the original rating was phased out.
Midshipman Henry William Baynton aged 13 (1780)
Beginning in 1661, boys who aspired to become officers were sent by their families to serve on ships with a "letter of service" from the crown, and were paid at the same rate as midshipmen. The letter instructed the admirals and captains that the bearer was to be shown "such kindness as you shall judge fit for a gentleman, both in accommodating him in your ship and in furthering his improvement". Their official rating was volunteer-per-order, but they were often known as King's letter boys, to distinguish their higher social class from the original midshipman rating.
Beginning in 1677, Royal Navy regulations for promotion to lieutenant required service as a midshipman, and promotion to midshipman required some time at sea. By the Napoleonic era, the regulations required at least three years of services as a midshipman or master's mate and six years of total sea time. Sea time was earned in various ways, most boys served this period at sea in any lower rating, either as a servant of one of the ship's officers, a volunteer, or a seaman.
By the 1730s, the rating volunteer-per-order was phased out and replaced with a system where prospective midshipmen served as servants for officers. For example, a captain was allowed four servants for every 100 men aboard his ship; many of these servants were young men destined to become officers.
In 1729, the Royal Naval Academy in Portsmouth – renamed the Royal Naval College in 1806 – was founded, for 40 students aged between 13 and 16, who would take three years to complete a course of study defined in an illustrated book, and would earn two years of sea time as part of their studies. The rating of midshipman-by-order, or midshipman ordinary, was used specifically for graduates of the Royal Naval College, to distinguish them from midshipmen who had served aboard ship, who were paid more. The school was unpopular in the Navy, because officers enjoyed the privilege of having servants and preferred the traditional method of training officers via apprenticeship.
In 1794, officers' servants were abolished and a new class of volunteers called 'volunteer class I' was created for boys between the ages of 11 and 13 who were considered future midshipmen and lived in the gunroom on a ship-of-the-line or with the midshipmen on a frigate or smaller vessel. Volunteers were paid £6 per year. By 1816, the rating of midshipman ordinary was phased out, and all apprentice officers were rated as midshipmen.
Social background and uniform
Portrait of Midshipman John Windham Dalling (c 1800)
In the 18th century Royal Navy, rank and position on board ship was defined by a mix of two hierarchies, an official hierarchy of ranks and a conventionally recognized social divide between gentlemen and non-gentlemen.[A 1] Boys aspiring for a commission were often called young gentlemen instead of their substantive rating to distinguish their higher social standing from the ordinary sailors. Generally, aboard most warships common seamen berthed in the gundeck, while officers were quartered at the stern. Occasionally, a midshipman would be posted aboard a ship in a lower rating such as able seaman but would eat and sleep with his social equals in the cockpit.[A 2]
Approximately 50 percent of midshipmen were the sons of professional men, which included the sons of naval officers, and there were notable sailing families throughout the Age of Sail, such as the Saumarez, Hood, and Parker families. The niceties of preferment and promotion made family connections an obvious advantage for prospective officers. Members of the peerage and landed gentry formed the next largest group, about 27 percent of officers. The numbers were smaller, but similarly, their connections gave them excellent prospects for promotion, and they had a considerable influence on the Royal Navy. A notable member of this group was Prince William, later William IV, who served as a midshipman from 1780–1785. The rest were from commercial or working class backgrounds, and because of the advantages possessed by the nobility and professional sailors, their chances of promotion to lieutenant were slim.
Since most midshipmen were from the gentry or had family connections with sailing ships, many used their connections to have their names placed on a ship's books. The practice, known colloquially as "false muster" was common even though it was technically illegal and frowned upon. This allowed some boys to be promoted to midshipmen, or in some cases lieutenant, without having completed the required amount of time at sea. A notable example was Thomas Cochrane, whose uncle had him entered at the age of five; his name was carried on various ships until he was 18 and received his commission.
When uniforms were introduced in the Navy in 1748, midshipmen started wearing the same uniform as commissioned officers. They also began wearing their traditional badge of rank, a white patch of cloth with a gold button and a twist of white cord on each side of the coat collar. The uniform emphasized that midshipmen were gentlemen and officers under instruction.
Duties and promotion
Midshipmen were expected to work on the ship, but were also expected to learn navigation and seamanship. They were expected to have learned already, as able seamen and volunteers, to rig sails, other duties included keeping watch, relaying messages between decks, supervising gun batteries, commanding small boats, and taking command of a sub-division of the ship's company under the supervision of one of the lieutenants. On smaller ships, midshipmen were instructed by a senior master's mate, often a passed midshipman, who taught them mathematics, navigation, and sailing lore. Larger ships would carry a schoolmaster, who was rated as a midshipman but usually was a civilian like the chaplain. Midshipmen were expected to keep detailed navigational logs, which were shown to the captain to assess their progress.
Route to a commission in the Royal Navy, c
Prior to promotion to lieutenant, a commissioned officer candidate in the Royal Navy had to pass a formal examination. Officially, a prospective lieutenant was at least 19, and was expected to produce proof of his service, which would include certificates from his commanders and journals kept while a midshipman. However, most midshipmen aspired to take the lieutenant examination at age 17 or 18, and the typical age of a midshipman was between 15 and 22. The candidate was summoned before a board of three captains and questioned about seamanship, navigation, and discipline. The board would ask questions such as:
An enemy is observed; give orders for clearing your ship, and make all the necessary preparations for engaging.
Like the board, which might be an ad hoc affair, the actual exam questions were not standardized and their content depended mostly on individual captains. In seamanship, the candidate was expected to be able to splice ropes, reef a sail, work a ship in sailing and shift his tides. In navigation, he was expected to be able to keep a reckoning of the ship's way by plane sailing, to use Mercator projection maps and observation of the sun and stars to determine the course and position of the ship, and to understand the variation of the compass. He was also expected to be qualified to do the duty of an able seaman and midshipman.
Failure usually meant six more months of sea service before the examination could again be attempted. Some men never passed it. Successful completion made the midshipman a 'passed midshipman'. From the 18th century until the second half of the 19th century, a midshipman in the Royal Navy who passed the lieutenant's examination did not automatically receive a commission. Midshipmen with political connections were promoted first, while others would wait their turn on a roster. During wartime, when large numbers of ships and men might be lost in battle, most passed midshipman would be promoted in a year or two, but during peacetime the wait might be so long that the midshipman would eventually be considered too old and lose his chance for a commission.
Passed midshipmen awaiting promotion often elected to become master's mates, a high-ranking petty officer who assisted the master with his duties, served on watch as deputy to the lieutenants, and commanded small boats. A midshipman who became master's mate earned an increase in pay from £2 5s to £3 16s per month but initially reduced his chances at a commission because master's mates, along with masters, were assumed to have a working-class background. Over time, however, appointment to master's mate became considered a normal part of the path to a commission; the situation caused some confusion during the last part of the 18th century, when two parallel roles – master's mates trying to become masters, and former midshipmen working toward a commission – held the same title and responsibilities aboard ship.
By the first years of the 19th century, the term 'mate', without the prefix master's, was used for passed midshipmen, to distinguish them from master's mates who had not served as midshipmen. In 1824, the rating of master's assistant replaced master's mate, and mate continued to be used unofficially by passed midshipmen. These changes helped eliminate the confusion caused by the mingling of midshipmen in the navigator's branch. In 1838 a Royal Commission, presided over by the Duke of Wellington, recommended the institution of the rank of mate as an official step between midshipman and lieutenant. In 1861 mate was abolished in favor of sub-lieutenant.
When Congress created the United States Navy in 1794, midshipman was listed as a rank of warrant officer in the Naval Act of 1794, and they were appointed by the President of the United States. Midshipmen had similar duties and responsibilities as in the Royal Navy, and were typically young men between the age of 14 and 22 in training to become a naval officer. "Passed midshipman" was first used in 1819, and was an official rank of the US Navy.
During the long period of peace between 1815 and 1846 midshipmen had few opportunities for promotion, and their warrants were often obtained via patronage. The poor quality of officer training in the US Navy became visible after the Somers Affair, an alleged mutiny aboard the training ship USS Somers in 1842, and the subsequent execution of midshipman Philip Spencer. Spencer had gained his post aboard the Somers via the influence of his father, United States Secretary of War John C. Spencer.
The original Royal Naval College closed in 1837, after which the only method for training midshipmen in the Royal Navy was aboard ships. In 1844 the rank of naval cadet was created, and to qualify as a midshipman a candidate had to be 14 years old, successfully pass an admiralty examination and have two years of service as a naval cadet or three years of service in the Navy. A decline in qualified officers prompted the Navy to order training in a ship at anchor for all cadets, which began in 1857 aboard HMS Illustrious, which was replaced by HMS Britannia in 1859. Britannia was moved to Portland in 1862, and to the present location of the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth in 1863.
Beginning in the 1840s, the normal entry age for executive officer cadets, those destined to command ships and fleets, was between 12 and 13, and instruction consisted of two years of classroom training, during which time trainees were rated as naval cadets. Cadets who received a first-class passing grade in studies, seamanship and conduct on their final examination could receive a credit for up to a year of sea time, and could be rated as midshipmen immediately after passing out of the college. After passing out of the college, cadets served aboard a special training vessel for one year. Cadets were then rated as midshipmen, and served aboard the fleet another two years. Midshipmen lived in the gunroom, kept watches, and ran the ship's boats. They received instruction in navigation every day. After five total years of training and having reached the age of 19, the midshipmen were eligible to take the examination for lieutenant. After passing the examination for lieutenant, midshipmen were commissioned as sub-lieutenants, and were transferred to the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, which opened in 1873 as the 'University of the Navy'.
Beginning in 1903, officer training of military and engineering students was reformed by the Selborne-Fisher scheme, and engineering and executive officer candidates began to enter the Navy in the same way, which was termed 'Common Entry'.[A 3] Previously, engineer cadets had been trained separately at the Royal Naval Engineering College, Keyham which was closed in 1910. In 1903 a new preparatory college was opened at the Royal Naval College, Osborne, in part of Queen Victoria's favorite residence but not a favorite of her successor Edward VII who had donated it to the nation in 1902. Training initially consisted of two years at Osborne and two years at Dartmouth as cadets, later four years at Dartmouth, followed by approximately 3 years of sea duty as midshipmen prior to promotion to sub-lieutenant. In 1905, a new building was completed on shore to replace Britannia, which was named Britannia Royal Naval College. In 1913, increasing demand for officers led to recruitment of 18-year-old graduates of public schools, which was called 'Special Entry', and was conducted separately from Selborne scheme cadets. Special entry cadets trained for approximately 6 months prior to service in the fleet as midshipmen. When World War I began in 1914, all the cadets at Dartmouth were quickly mobilized as midshipmen in the Reserve Fleet. During the war, two midshipmen, George Drewry and Wilfred Malleson were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award of the British Commonwealth for gallantry, during the Landing at Cape Helles. After World War I ended, opposition to the Selborne-Fisher scheme led to re-segregating executive and engineering officers into separate branches, while common entry and special entry were maintained.
After World War II another series of reforms, influenced by the quality of officers produced by the special entry scheme and other nations' experience with training officer candidates in a university setting, were initiated to increase the quality of officers in the Navy. In 1949 the entry age was increased to 16, and by 1955 the entry age was increased to 18 and entry required a minimum of two A levels. After 1957 midshipmen no longer served in the fleet. In 1972, all cadets became midshipmen when the rank of cadet was abolished.
Congress formally authorized the establishment of the United States Military Academy in 1802, but it took almost 50 years to approve a similar school for naval officers. One major reason for the delay was that Navy leaders preferred the apprenticeship system, citing famous officers such as Nelson and the captains of the War of 1812 who did not attend a formal naval school. However, after the Somers Affair, officers realized that the system for training officers had to change to be more efficient.
George Bancroft, appointed Secretary of the Navy in 1845, decided to work outside of congressional approval and create a new academy for officers. He formed a council led by Commodore Perry to create a new system for training officers, and turned the old Fort Severn at Annapolis into a new institution which would be designated as the United States Naval Academy in 1851. Midshipmen studied at the Academy for four years and trained aboard ships each summer. Midshipman began to mean "passed midshipman" at this time, and a student at the Naval Academy was a cadet midshipman. The rank of ensign was created in 1862, and passed midshipmen were promoted to ensign when vacancies occurred.
In 1865, the Department of Steam Enginery was created and cadet engineers were admitted to the Academy for the first time. In 1874, Congress changed the curriculum to include four years of classroom training and two years of sea duty aboard a regular vessel prior to examinations as warranted midshipmen. In 1882, Congress eliminated the distinction in training between engineer and naval cadets, and designated the student officers as naval cadets; the name reverted to midshipmen in 1902. By an act of Congress passed in 1903, two appointments as midshipmen were allowed for each senator, representative, and delegate in Congress, two for the District of Columbia, and five each year at large. In 1912, Congress authorized commissioning midshipmen as ensigns on graduation day, and ended the previously required two years of post-graduation sea service as warrant officers.
In 1930, the Naval Academy received accreditation as an approved technological institution. In 1933, a new law enabled the Naval, Military, and Coast Guard Academies to award bachelor of science degrees, and the class of 1933 was the first to receive this degree and have it written in the diploma. In 1937, the superintendent of the Naval Academy was granted the authority to award bachelor of science degrees to all living graduates.
As Dominions of the British Empire formed their own navies during the 20th century, further countries began using the rank of midshipman. Today Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan, India, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Kenya use the rank. Prior to 1968 Canada also used the rank of midshipman, until the National Defence Act consolidated the Royal Canadian Navy with the Army and Air Force into a single military, called the Canadian Forces. As part of the act, the rank of midshipman was replaced with the rank of naval cadet.
In Royal Navy slang, a midshipman is sometimes referred to as a "snotty". Two popular stories give origins for the term: the first claims that it arose from a shortage of handkerchiefs among midshipmen, who would consequently use their sleeves to wipe their noses. Prince William, later William IV, is sometimes cited as a notorious example of this practice among midshipmen. The other story claims that the three buttons formerly sewn onto midshipmen's jacket cuffs were placed there to prevent them from wiping their noses on their sleeves.