An Introduction to Pay and Prize Money in Aubrey’s Royal Navy

“The pay is contemptible for a learned man – five pounds a month – and I am ashamed to mention it; but there is the chance of prize-money… For even Aristotle would have been moved by prize-money. Doubloons, sir: they lie in soft leather sacks, you know, about so big, and they are wonderfully heavy in your hand. Two is all a man can carry.” – Jack Aubrey to Stephen Maturin, Master and Commander

The life of an officer in the Royal Navy wasn’t easy, the life of a sailor even less so, and indeed the government found it necessary to turn to press gangs in order to keep its ships of war ready for battle. Yet there were those who willingly chose the Navy as their profession (and even those who were pressed received pay and prize money).

The basic pay was not enough to make any man rich, of course. But sailors had few expenses while aboard ship, as food and lodging was provided. Any salary they made was theirs to spend as they wished or send home to their families to support them in perhaps a better style than other available options. This would hardly be reason enough to go to sea, however; the other draw was prize money.

Prize money was the reward the crew of a Man of War (or privateer) received after the sale of any enemy vessel they captured. During wartime, disrupting the enemy’s economy had just as much impact as any purely military engagements, and was considered a vital part of naval warfare. Any merchant vessel sailing under enemy colors was forfeit so long as one could catch it, and the amount for which the ship and cargo was sold was divided amongst all the members of the crew. This was also the case for enemy military vessels: if the ship itself was bought into the service, the crew received a portion of its price.

Annual Pay

(slightly abbreviated from Steel’s list of the Royal Navy for Nov. 1814.)
£. s. d.
£. s. d.
£. s. d.
Captain of 1st Rate(complement 837)
down to
802 0 2 80 4 0 721 16 2
Captain of 6th Rate(complement135) 284 7 9 28 8 9 255 19 0
Commander of Sloop,Bomb,etc(complement 121)
down to
272 19 7 27 5 11 245 13 4
Commander(complement 75 and under) 250 2 11 25 0 3 225 2 8
Lieutenant commanding Prison Ship 137 4 8 13 1 8 124 3 0
Lieutenant in Flagship 128 4 5 11 14 11 116 9 6
Lieutenant in other Ships 112 4 2 10 7 8 100 15 0
Master of 1st Rate
down to
172 12 8 17 5 3 155 7 5
Master of Sloop 91 10 0 6 4 6 85 5 6
Second Master,Line of Battleship 78 17 5 4 6 7 74 10 10
Second Master,Gun Brigs,Cutters,etc 67 9 3 2 12 3 64 17 0
Surgeon (20 years and upwards)
down to
322 8 9 32 4 10 290 3 11
Surgeon (under 6 years) 178 5 3 17 16 6 160 8 9
Assistant Surgeon (qualified) 117 13 0 10 13 0 107 10 0
Assistant Surgeon (not qualified) 90 5 6 6 0 9 84 4 9
Carpenter of 1st Rate
down to
96 9 6 6 19 6 89 10 0
Carpenter of Sloop 48 13 6 Nil 48 13 6
Gunner, Boatswain, Purser* of 1st Rate
down to
83 12 0 5 0 6 77 11 6
Gunner, Boatswain, Purser* of Sloop 48 13 6 Nil 48 13 6

Nett Annual pay is after the deductions of 3 pence per pound for the Widows Fund, the shilling per month to the Chest, and Sixpence per month for the Royal Hospital at Greenwich.

Income tax was Two shillings in the pound on incomes over £150, graded to nil for incomes under £50.

*At the start of the Revolutionary Wars the Purser was not paid a salary. They were expected to make their money from the sale of certain goods, such as tobacco, on board ship and what they bought in supplies for the ship. They effectively had a monopoly on board ship and could and did exploit this for profit. To the men the Purser was often the most despised man on board.

To get their posting they had to lodge a surety with the Admiralty of £1400 for appointment to a First rate down to £400 for a Sixth rate ship; they were responsible for the ship’s stores and the Admiralty were taking no chances. The purser acted as a ‘Man of Business’ and had to account to the Victualling Board for the distribution of his stores. It was a complicated and thankless job, and it was every pursers fear that he would be ‘cast into debt’. Although strictly illegal the Navy turned a blind eye to the pursers’ practice of issuing stores at the rate of 14 ounces to the pound, allowing the purser one eighth for wastage. This was one of the ways that the purser could hope to make a profit. One of the main demands of the sailors that mutineed at Spithead and The Nore was that they be issued their full pound.

In 1708 the British government enacted the ‘Cruizer and Convoys Act’. One of its effects was to formalize the process of prize taking, giving practically all the money gained from the capture of enemy vessels to the captors ‘for the better and more effectual encouragement of the Sea Service‘. Every prize appeared before the High Court of Admiralty for ‘condemnation’.
It laid down exact regulations for dividing the proceeds among the various interested parties.The Act was altered in 1808 changing the distribution of prize money.

Distribution of Prize Money
RANK pre1808 SHARE post1808 SHARE
CAPTAIN 3/8* 2/8**
CAPTAINS of Marines,Lieutenants,Master and Physician, = share in 1/8 1/8
LIEUTENANTS of Marines,Secretary of Admiral,Principal Warrant Officers, Masters Mates,Chaplain, = shares in 1/8 1/8
MIDSHIPMEN, Inferior Warrant Officers, Principal Warrant Officers Mates, Marine Sergeants, = shares in 1/8 4/8
THE REST = shares in 2/8

*Flag Officers to have one of Captain’s Eighths.
**Flag Officers to have one third of Captain’s share.

Appointment to one of the well-known prize money commands would mean an almost automatic fortune. Flag officers could hope to gain sums well in excess of £1,000,000 at today’s values. Sir Hyde Parker was reported to have realized £200,000 (worth many times that now) when he was in command in the West Indies.

For the young gentlemen, often 2nd or 3rd sons who inherited nothing from their family, who decided to make a career at sea prize money was a useful bonus. Nelson often bemoaned his lack of prize money, being posted to ships away from good prize areas and, in later years, the success of his fleet meant there were precious few prizes to be had.

Prize money was handled by Prize Agents, and payment was often not prompt, sometimes taking years to be paid. This caused much frustration to captains and crews but earned the agents large sums in interest.

Courtesy of Broadside. Introduction copyright The Dear Surprise.
Image: Doubloons discovered off the coast of Florida. Courtesy of 1715 Fleet/Queens Jewels LLC

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