Naval Careers

The Austen boys were in the minority in that they started at the naval academy. Most officers started their careers on board ship, usually at 12. The captain was responsible for their education in navigation and general seamanship, and their progress towards passing the exam to be a lieutenant. To pass this, as well as the exam, you had to have no less than six years’ experience at sea, three of these rated as midshipman. However, for those who had been at the academy, the time there counted for two of the years at less than midshipman. If you had connections, you (or more likely your father) could get a captain to list you on the ship’s books without you being there, to gain the time at sea. This was against regulations, of course and in theory a captain could be struck off the navy list for doing it (‘false muster’) but it was fairly common. Just passing for lieutenant was not enough – you then had to get a commission to a particular ship as lieutenant. In 1813, when MP is set, there were almost 2000 midshipmen who had passed for lieutenant, waiting for a commission.

Francis Austen started his onboard career rated as volunteer in December 1789, and became a midshipman within a year. He passed for lieutenant in December 1792.

Promotion to commander and then post captain was by a mixture of merit, opportunity and patronage. Once post captain, however, it was by seniority on the navy list. This meant that there was fierce competition for post captaincy – even a few month’s difference in attaining this rank could blight your career if there was not a convenient cull of those above you.

Francis Austen ended up Admiral of the Fleet in his 70s, because he was the longest serving officer of the list at that time.

Sources: Southam, B Jane Austen and the Navy for the specific Austen material. Henderson, J The Frigates, Cunningham, AE (ed) Patrick O’Brian, Critical Appreciations. Also The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Pay and prizes in the navy