Samuel Pepys’s other great achievement

If Samuel Pepys came back to life, he would surely be delighted to find out that he was still famous three hundred years after his death. But he would be flabbergasted that he was known principally for keeping a diary. He only did so for less than ten years of his long life, as a private hobby. The diary ends in May 1669, and although it records many of the major events of the 1660s, such as the Great Fire of London, and the Dutch raid on the Medway, it sadly misses most of his more important achievements as the premium naval administrator of his age.

By the end of the seventeenth century the Admiralty had a problem. Over the last two centuries, warships had developed into highly specialist and very expensive weapons. They were the most complex man-made objects in existence, requiring teams of specialist technicians to keep them functioning. Boatswains and sail makers were needed to maintain the miles of rigging and acres of canvas that propelled them forward. Armourers and gunners where required to keep their enormous batteries of artillery operational. Purser and Coopers had to ensure that their hundreds of crewman could be fed, clothed and watered for months at sea. Sailing masters had to be appointed with the mathematical skill to navigate them safely across the globe to the very edge of Britain’s expanding empire. In charge of these enormous engines of war were commissioned officers with only the vaguest idea of how they worked.

The problem was one of class. From medieval times the widely accepted role of gentlemen were to lead troops in battle. This was their primary role, and underpinned their place in early modern society. But a person’s status as a gentleman could be lost by an association with “trade”, or the pursuit of a profession. As Pepys put it, the problem was “that the gentlemen are not sailors, and the sailors are not gentlemen.” The solution that had grown up organically was to have two sorts of officers. Warrant officers, the ship’s professionals, headed by the sailing master, and commissioned officers headed by the captain. The first would get the ship to the battle in a reasonable state, the second group would then take over to lead the fighting.

Pepys came up with a solution to this problem, based on two reforms to officer training. The first was to create a new type of officer that would sit between the two statuses, called a midshipman. They would be gentlemen, drawn from the younger sons of the upper echelons of society. But they would be recruited as children, who would learn the technical side of their new career as part of their education. Once they had gained this practical knowledge, they would be eligible for promotion to lieutenant.

The second part of his reform came in 1677 with the introduction of an exam for lieutenants. No candidate could sit the exam unless they were at least twenty years old, had certificates of competence from all their previous commanders and had accumulated three years sea time, of which a minimum of a year was to be spent as a midshipman. Given that warships spent more time in port or at anchor then sailing this meant, in practice, six or seven years in the navy. The concept of a professional exam was a startling innovation in Europe at the time. The British Army, for example, would not consider an equivalent test of competence for its officers until well into the 19th century.

The effect of these reforms were gradual in their impact, but slowly and surely, as the 18th century progressed, a gulf began to grow between the professionalism of the officers of the Royal Navy and that of their principle opponents in France and Spain. Slowly competence became more highly valued in the service than notions of class and background. This allowed men like James Cook (who started his career as a deck hand on a collier) or Nelson (the son of a rural clergyman) to rise in the navy. The growth of this meritocracy reached its zenith in the “Band of Brothers” that coalesced around Nelson. Every one of them was both a sailor and a gentlemen. Pepys would have been delighted.

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