Royal Navy Substantive Rates for Seaman

By J. David Perkins


From the time of its inception the warships of the Royal Navy required large numbers of seamen to work in the rigging and man the ship's armament. Seamen were employed almost indiscriminately both aloft and on the gundecks and the more capable quickly rose to positions of responsibility. At the pleasure of the Captain, these men were accorded status within the crew, given a few extra concessions and a modest increase in pay. Men served only for the duration of a commission and the rank structure was very simple and more concerned with the efficient running of the ship than being career related. Until the reforms that took place just prior to the Crimean War, the seaman complement of a ship consisted of Boys, Landmen, Ordinary Seamen, Able Seamen and Petty Officers, with the most of the men being OSs and ABs. When a ship paid-off a handful of men might be retained to maintain the ship under her Warrant Officers while the bulk of the crew would be discharged. A few of the best in the crew, usually the petty officers and some of the more capable ABs would be offered positions in another ship, but even then the substantive ratings held by these men could be carried over only at the discretion of their new commanding officer. From the mid-1850s onwards conditions slowly improved. Men could only be demoted for cause and punishment returns had to be submitted for scrutiny by senior commanders, leave became more liberal, POs were given their own mess-still on the common messdeck but separate nevertheless-senior men were given more responsibility and, when the tot was reduced to one issue per day, drunkenness and the discipline problems this created, decreased considerably.

After the Napoleonic wars the problem of skills retention became particularly acute in the gunnery department. In 1830 a school, HMS Excellent, was established at Portsmouth to teach gunnery while the manning policy was amended to make it possible to retain trained gunners in the service for five years at a time and to pay them for their specialization. These men were given the non-substantive ratings of Seamen Gunners and Gunnery Instructors. Based partly on the success of these reforms, the concept of continuous service evolved and by 1853 was made available to most seamen in the service. This made it possible for a man to serve continuously for 20 years (or more in some cases) and to draw a pension after as little as ten years service. As a further incentive, the promotional ladder was improved by the addition of two more substantive rates to provide for increases in pay and advancement over time. As well, a medal, with a £20 per annum gratuity, was created to be awarded for long and meritorious service. Career prospects were futher enhanced by improvements to pensions and conditions of service.

As warships became more complex, so the benefits of having a permanent organization of trained ratings became increasingly evident. Eventually the other branches were brought into line so that all lower deck personnel served under the same terms and were more or less organized according to the same hierarchy. By the eve of World War One the process was almost complete and the framework of the Seaman Branch that would support the RN through two World Wars and into the nuclear age was well defined.

Seaman Branch Substantive Rates 1827-1957

Boy Seamen have existed in the RN from early times. In the sailing navy boys were taken aboard ship as young as age 12, ostensibly as apprentice seamen but often as servants. After the Crimean War it was determined that all boys should received their basic training in floating pre-sea training schools. The first of these opened at Devonport in 1856. As formal education became important so the age of eligibility gradually increased. From the 1860s the usual age range for acceptance was "…over 14 and up to 18" although this was later amended to 16 ½. Advancement to Boy 1st Class usually took place on completion of basic training, after approximately 6-10 months, when they were eligible to go to sea. Most ships had accommodations for a moderate number of Boy Seamen. At age 18 Boys 1st Class were automatically promoted to Ordinary Seaman at which time their man's time commenced. Boys who did not achieve 1st Class status by the time they were 18 1 were discharged.

Boy's time did not count for pension, promotion or seniority. At the beginning of the 20th C boys' training moved ashore. In 1956 the term Boy Seaman was altered to Junior Seaman. Youths are still accepted into the RN as young as 15 years, 9 months.

Landman. A term used from very early times. Denoted a raw, trainee, adult entry or inexperienced pressed man. The lowest grade of adult entry seaman. The term was abolished in 1853 under Admiralty Circular No. 121 which decreed that Landmen were to be reclassed as Ordinary Seamen 2nd Class.

Ordinary Seaman (OS). A rating from earliest times denoting a man having from one to one and a half years seagoing experience and possessing the rudiments of seamanship. The rating was divided into OS 1st and 2nd Class sometime in the 1850s. After 1853 the rating of OS 2nd Class became the lowest grade of adult entry. OS 2nd Class was discontinued sometime in the early 1890s.

Able Seaman (AB). Another very early rating. In 1653, as part of the reforms that followed the defeat at the Battle of Dungeness the previous year, the Royal Navy introduced a new pay scale that, for the first time, specified separate pay for Ordinary and Able Seamen. An AB received about 25% higher pay then an OS.

The AB was an experienced seaman capable of performing a specific range of duties. Traditionally, he could "hand, reef, and steer", i.e. take soundings, work aloft and steer the ship.

Leading Seaman (LS). The substantive rating of LS was introduced in Admiralty Circular No. 121 of 14 June 1853. Originally defined as a "higher grade of AB".

The leading seaman was qualified to take charge of a small body of men and could demonstrate at least an intermediate skill level. Capable of a limited range of duties and responsibilities.

Badge—1853-present, the anchor.

Petty Officer (PO). A rating that existed from at least the 18th C and was recognized as a substantive rating ca 1808. The Petty Officer was an experienced seaman and supervisor with the authority to direct the activities of those of an inferior rating. A man responsible for a specific range of duties and capable of acting as an instructor.

From very early times there were various grades of men serving in petty officer positions. These were identified by their job description with ascending pay levels depending on the range of assigned duties and responsibilities. Traditionally, men denoted as yeoman, mate, captain, quartermaster or coxswain, occupied petty officer positions.

By 1827 an attempt was being made to provide a permanent manning framework that would appeal to men seeking long-term employment in the RN. As a result on 30 June 1827 the PO rank was divided into two grades, PO1st Class and PO 2nd Class. At the same time badges were authorized for both grades. The PO 2nd Class was discontinued on 30 Sept 1907 "…to be allowed to die out" and abolished altogether ca 1913 leaving only POs 1st Class who then became the only POs.

Prior to 1919 all POs wore square rig, the (Class II) seaman’s uniform. From 1919-1949 following successful completion of a one-year 2 probationary period after being rated up, the PO was authorized to wear modified Class III uniform (with gilt buttons instead of black and the gilt and silver cap badge instead of red). The CPO cap badge was adopted for the peaked cap and the CPO was given a new one.

PO 1st Class (PO1). Typical early PO1s were:
Captains of Tops, the Forecastle, Quarter Deck and the Hold, Quartermaster, Bosun’s Mate, Gunner’s Mate, Ship’s Corporals, Admiral’s Cox’n, Captain’s Cox’n, Cox’n of the Cutter or Launch etc.

Badge 1827-1853 the anchor surmounted by a crown.

1853-present, crossed anchors surmounted by a crown and after 1919 the appropriate cap badge

With the creation of the CPO in 1853 a new badge of crossed anchors with crown above was adopted for the PO1 and this continues to be the badge of the PO in the RN.

PO 2nd Class (PO2). Typical early PO2s were:
Captains of Tops, Captains of the Masts, Yeoman of Signals, Coxswain of the Pinnace etc.

Badge 1827-1853 the anchor.

1853-1907 the anchor surmounted by a crown

With the creation of the Chief PO and LS substantive ratings in 1853, the PO2 adopted the anchor with crown above. This badge was abolished when the rank was discontinued.

Chief Petty Officer (CPO). The substantive rating of CPO was introduced in Admiralty Circular No. 121 of 14 June 1853

CPOs reported to their Divisional Officers and were responsible for the performance of the men in the Division. They exercised supervisory as well as technical skills both in the performance of their duties and in providing instructions to their juniors. CPOs were expected to share in the administrative work associated with the Division.

Typical early CPOs were:
Chief Gunner’s Mate, Chief Boatswain’s Mate, Chief Quartermaster, Chief Captain of the Forecastle, Admiral’s Coxswain, Chief Yeoman of Signals etc.

Between 1853 and the adoption of the Class I rig in the Uniform Regulations of 30 Sept 1890, the CPO wore a badge of rank on his left arm consisting of an anchor surmounted by a crown surrounded by laurel, the laurel being changed to oak in 1879. It should be noted that from 1873 the CPO was authorized to wear gilt buttons on his jackets instead of the black buttons worn by other ratings.

When the fore and aft rig with peaked cap was adopted for the CPO under the Uniform Regulations of 7 May 1879, he was given a circular cap badge with a silver anchor surmounted by a gilt crown on a navy blue velvet ground edged with a narrow ring of gilt embroidery. This badge was adapted from that authorised for ERAs in 1868 which had a gold crown and anchor with a gilt ring. After the CPO shifted into the Class I fore and aft rig in 1890 he did not wear any badge of rank other than the cap badge. His rank was otherwise denoted by the wearing of small non-substantive badges on the tips of the jacket collars.

In 1919 when the PO was authorized to wear a modified Class III fore and aft rig the PO was given the old CPO cap badge while a new CPO cap badge was created by substituting an outer ring of laurel for the original gilt ring. Both of these cap badges are still in use.

In 1925 all CPOs were authorized to wear three buttons in a horizontal row on the face of the jacket sleeves about three inches above the cuff edge (as previously worn by Chief ERAs and some senior Artisans). The non-sub badges on the collar tips were retained. These and the cap badge are still the marks of distinction for RN CPOs.


The badge of distinction, or rank, was centred on the left sleeve midway between shoulder seam and elbow. Good Conduct badges were centred in line below the badge of distinction. Originally these badges were of white cloth for wear on blue clothing. No colour was specified for white clothing. In 1860 the white badges were replaced by embroidered red ones and by this time embroidered blue badges were being worn on white clothing. All badges were standardized in 1879 and it was not until then that a real uniformity of badges was established. In 1890 gold badges were authorized for wear on pea jackets.

From 1827 to 1853 the single anchor ("killick" or "hook") badge originally denoted the PO2. With the creation of the LS and CPO in 1853 it became, and still is, the badge of the Leading rating.

From 1827 to 1853 the single anchor surmounted by a crown was the badge of the PO1. From 1853 to 1907 it was the badge of the PO2. When the PO2 was discontinued this badge was abolished.

From 1853 to 1907 the badge of the PO 1st Class and from 1907 to the present the badge of the Petty Officer. (With appropriate crown, that depicted is correct for the period 1901-1953)

From 1853 to 1890 the badge of the Chief PO was the anchor and crown surrounded by oak leaves. Originally laurel leaves; these were changed to oak in 1879. It should be noted that during this period the CPO wore Good Conduct badges in common with other seamen. When he shifted into Class I rig in 1890 these were no longer worn, although they were still awarded and paid for.

From 1879 to 1919 the cap badge of the CPO and from 1919 to the present day the cap badge of the PO. (With appropriate crown, that depicted is the one adopted in 1953). For seaman CPOs the crown was in gold and the anchor in silver with the anchor on a black velvet ground surrounded by a gold ring.

From 1919 to the present day the cap badge of the CPO. (With appropriate crown, that depicted is the one adopted in 1953) This device is as described above but with gilt laurel leaves.

1 Age 20 when the age of adult entry was 20 years.

2 Originally 4 years but quickly reduced to one.

© Dave Perkins

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