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Article: Half-Pay and Prize Money: Making a Living in Britain's Navy

Half-Pay and Prize Money: Making a Living in Britain's Navy -
British Navy

Half-Pay and Prize Money: Making a Living in Britain's Navy


Captain Benwick had some time ago been first lieutenant of the Laconia; and the account which Captain Wentworth had given of him, on his return from Lyme before, his warm praise of him as an excellent young man and an officer, whom he had always valued highly, which must have stamped him well in the esteem of every listener, had been followed by a little history of his private life, which rendered him perfectly interesting in the eyes of all the ladies. He had been engaged to Captain Harville's sister, and was now mourning her loss. They had been a year or two waiting for fortune and promotion. Fortune came, his prize-money as lieutenant being great; promotion, too, came at last; but Fanny Harville did not live to know it.She had died the preceding summer while he was at sea.

As the Royal Navy came to its more modern organisation during the 17th Century it adopted the practice of impressment to provide the bulk of the crews. The process of impressment was not suitable for the recruiting of officers, and the procedure adopted there was that officers received a basic pay for their rank when they were holding an appointment and half of that when between appointments (half-pay). Officers in command of ships or establishments received additional 'Command money' which varied with the status of the ship or establishment involved."

Prior to 1814, Officers on shore could expect to receive payment every six months. After 1814, when so many officers were without ships, due to peace with France, this schedule was adjusted to once a quarter. Payment was based on a senority scale. A detailed chart of payments made may be found at The Napoleon Guide and ranged anywhere from £3.30 per day for Admirals to 5s per day for the lowliest of lieutenants. Officers and men also received extra payments under the 'Prize' scheme. While this could arise in several different ways the most common by far was the capture of an enemy ship and its subsequent purchase by the Navy (a feasible process with wooden ships). For the ordinary sailor the amount was typically a few shillings (although it should be noted that this represented several months pay) but for the commanding officer it typically amounted to hundreds of pounds. Thus many captains had estates ashore which gave them an alternative income.

Junior officers were in a much more perilous state, as it was not really possible to keep a home on the half pay for a Lieutenant. This was part of the reason why marriage by junior officers was so frowned upon.* While ashore, officers could refuse postings to new ships, waiting for more desirable places, but advancement was not assured and in so doing he ran the risk of being passed over a second time.


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1 comment

Midshipman CAN’T marry.
Lieutenants SHOULDN’T marry.
Masters and Commanders MAY marry.
Post-Captains SHOULD marry.
Senior Captains (6-plus years or a 4th Rate and above) MUST marry.
Navy wives, then as now, perform important social, cultural, administrative and diplomatic duties inherent in their position, so it is important that the right woman is chosen by the ambitious officer. Although of lesser affect in modern times, this last point remains important even today. I have known an officer for the last 25 years who, when a young LEUT, had married a Maori woman who drew the envy of all horny young men; but who also devastated his career prospects and interactions with more senior officers. It literally took divorcing the one and choosing another, more organised, disciplined and capable young woman to restore his prospects for eventual Flag rank. The position of Navy Wife, especially for senior officers, really should be paid to recognise the qualifications necessary to it.

Bob Bentley

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