Dr Pieter van der Merwe

General Editor and Greenwich Curator, National Maritime Museum


Naval history now provides a comprehensive picture of how young men of modest origins like Arthur Phillip, born near this church of St Mary-le-Bow in 1738, could make an honourable career in the mid-18th century. This is a period that television costume dramas easily deceive us into thinking we know but whose mental  landscape is more alien than we realise: pre-industrial, pre-revolutionary – the French Revolution, let alone the Russian – substantially pre-imperial and neither democratic nor emancipated as those terms are now understood. Comparison is made more intriguing, however, by the fact that the caricature of 18th-century Navy life as a tale of ‘rum, sodomy and the lash’ (Churchill’s phrase) is now displaced by a more balanced picture; one in which we see standards that were advanced for the time, and whose value we can still recognise, as we can the humane and unusually emancipated virtues of Phillip himself.

That other great Londoner, Dr Johnson, hit on an essential truth in his famous sally that no man with wit to get into jail would go to sea, ships of that age being like a jail with the additional possibility of being drowned. Then, as now, the sea took no hostages and for the sea officers of the sailing Navy the consequence was in practical terms stark and egalitarian. Whether you were the son of a duke or a dray-man – or, in Philip’s case, a German-born teacher of languages – you had to be tough and highly skilled in a complex pre-industrial technology to survive, let alone be effective.

This uncompromising requirement for real and complex skills meant that, unlike other gentlemanly professions where money and/or patronage were essential (the army, politics, the church), you could not purchase position in the Navy. Moreover it was the only  career in which ability and luck might at a stroke win you a glory-decked fortune, or  at least occasional bonuses, in wartime prize money. The Navy was therefore never short of gentlemen, often poorer ones or younger sons,  to become officers. Further, for resolute spirits like Arthur Phillip, who lacked social standing, wealth  or influence, it was a principal route to pursuing all three.  Even modest connections  – and Philip’s mother was the widow of  a naval captain by her earlier marriage – could of course open doors; but beyond that progress was a matter of skill, bravery  and luck, in more than any other calling. Like many others, Phillip’s greatest disappointment was that his luck, measured in terms of conventional glory and  glittering prizes, never equalled his merit.

The key area of expertise and the most admired professional quality, was that of ‘seamanship’: to be respected by superiors, equals or the men, officers had to to understand the way of a ship, and be able handle sail, reef and steer. Once an aspiring boy had  joined the Navy, usually aged about thirteen as what was called a ‘captain’s servant’,  he lived and trained at no personal cost when afloat as he rose to mature able seaman, then midshipman or master’s mate. ‘Able seaman’, even for an earl’s son like  Augustus Keppel, well known to Phillip, meant at least two years learning the work of ratings aloft and below through doing it among them. 

‘Your young gentleman’, as Captain Gordon wrote in the 1750s to John Elliot’s father, an aristocratic Scottish judge, ‘for his years is one of the prettiest seamen of all the youth I have, and though miserably neglected of late as to his education, has acquired the principal thing in our way, I mean the knowledge of that business he is to follow through life’ (1). Elliot  rose to become an admiral without being more than semi-competent in English spelling (‘I am non of the best of clarcks’) but by the 1740s  there was pressure for much better general education in officers, Phillip standing as as a notable example of this trend. ‘My young lads’, wrote Captain Keppel, himself both well-educated and a superb seaman, in 1753,‘… are such as I confess I never saw at sea before, well-bred, genteel, good and diligent to a degree. When I say I never saw before, I mean such numbers together’. (2)

After six years at sea (the official requirement) a midshipman or master’s mate could present himself for examination as lieutenant. Though oral rather than written this was a critical event; a professional grilling before a board of captains,  together with examination of the candidate’s sea journals and taking his commander’s report into account.  Successful candidates then often continued serving as ‘passed’ warrant officers until formally commissioned when an opening occurred. This included stepping into dead men’s shoes at sea and having their appointments confirmed retrospectively by the Admiralty. Either way they were on course to the last great hurdle, in which reputation and connections both counted: appointment to post-captain of a frigate and larger ships.

Thereafter salary and rank marched upwards by seniority alone. A captain who was never actively employed again after his first commission would still be promoted to and through the ranks of admirals for the rest of is life on rising half-pay (effectively a retainer-cum-pension). Philip ‘made post’ in 1781, gained his flag as Rear-Admiral of the Blue in  1801, retired as Rear-Admiral of the White in 1805 and had advanced  five more steps to Admiral of the Blue at his death in 1814.(3)

There were three other less frequent ways to become a Naval officer. One was to do so unexpectedly on merit , usually when older than most and not to great heights, from  being a common seaman. Another, of which Captain Cook is the most famous example, was to start in the merchant service, often stepping sideways from being a ship’s mate to a Navy warrant officer and then advancing from there.

The last and least common was to begin as the product of a naval school.. The best-known for potential officers was the small Royal Naval Academy established at Portsmouth in 1730, as part of the official effort to improve boys’ general education  before going afloat. This charged fees and required Latin for entry. Both factors tended to limit the intake to the sons of gentlemen but , despite best intentions, neither the Academy nor its output had a high reputation in Phillip’s time.

The other broadly official educational seat was the charity school attached to the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich. This gave poor seamen’s sons three-year, nautically focused educations for careers in either deep-sea merchant or naval service, for one of which being bound apprentice on departure was a condition of entry. It was not an officers’ school (though producing many navigating masters) and how many came from  its intake of charity boys in the 18th century  has not yet been quantified. Arthur Phillip  was without question its most distinguished graduate until a small crop of admirals (none now familiar names) emerged in the early 20th century from its much expanded Victorian incarnation,  the Royal Hospital School. It gained this name in 1892 and still flourishes at Holbrook in Suffolk, the 19th-century buildings at Greenwich now housing the National Maritime Museum.

The school originated from the 1694 Royal Charter of William and Mary which created the great complex of the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich itself, now the Old Royal Naval College. Apart from establishing the Hospital as a residential almshouse for destitute and disabled  Naval seamen, the charter also provided for:

... the Maintenance and Education of the Children of Seamen happening to be slaine or disabled … and Also for the further reliefe and Encouragement of Seamen and Improvement of  Navigation.  

Sir Christopher Wren’s early plans for the buildings recognised this provision by including ‘appartments for the mathematicks and writing masters’ and ‘mathematicks Navigation & writing Schools’ but these were never built (4). Although the still far from complete Hospital received its first  pensioners in 1705  it was only in  December 1712 that  its Council resolved, as soon as funds permitted, to  take in the sons of seamen and teach them ‘ writing, arithmetic and navigation’.

James Thornhill was then completing the spectacular baroque ceiling of the Hospital’s Painted Hall, a wonder of the age that soon generated a modest income from the many visitors who flocked to see it. From late 1715 the Hospital Governor, Admiral Lord Matthew Aylmer, diverted this and, later, other minor economies and fines, to clothe (but not accomodate) about ten poor boys and pay for their education at the neighbouring private mathematical Academy run by Thomas Weston.

This was in an old house, probably the 16th-century Heyton Hall, leased from the Hospital on the east side of what is now King William Walk, between the Hospital and Greenwich Park. The lease included a seven-acre field behind called Goddard’s Ground and the whole site reverted to the Hospital in 1747, after which most of the ground became the new Hospital cemetery. Although over 20,000 men were buried there from 1749 to 1857, this also served at the same time and later as a school recreation area. Devonport House, the 1930s building now on the site, itself incorporates most of the surviving Greenwich Hospital school of 1783 but the earkier buildings  that Phillip knew as a boy are long gone .

Weston had been an assistant to the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed,  at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and his Academy had a great reputation for supplying good navigators to the navy. Two of its star private pupils, after his death in 1728,  were the young Major-General James Wolfe of Quebec fame (in 1739-41), and Philip’s older contemporary,  John Jervis, later Admiral the Earl of St Vincent. When  the Hospital element of the school finally separated from it in 1779,  Weston’s school continued to flourish privately; on another Greenwich site after 1782 (and as  Burney’s Academy from the 1790s) before later moving to Gosport.

In 1720 the twenty charity boys then at Weston’s were reduced to fifteen, when the Hospital first took these onto full bed and board, in their own ward, in addition to clothing and educating them. By 1748 there were a hundred Hospital boys, housed in the attic floor of the Queen Mary Court, the last part of the Wren’s complex, finished  in 1751. This was the situation when Philip joined the school on 22 June 1751, aged twelve. His father – whom the registers suggest had once served as a Navy purser’s steward or an able seaman – appears to have died, leaving his mother Elizabeth as a Naval widow for the second time and the family in some want.  A relation, Captain Michael Everitt, may also have intervened to help, or others, since recommendations of boys to the school were entirely normal. Naval connection and need apart, the only entry criteria were age (11 to 13),  the ability to read, and being of sound body and mind.

The headmaster at that time was the Reverend Francis Swinden, appointed late in 1744. Discipline was strict. Boys could not leave the Hospital save under supervison of an official Guardian or his assistants, who took them to and from the school, whipped them when required and presided at their table in the Hospital dining hall, where the food was generous by  contemporary standards albeit devoid of anything even remotely green. There were two female nurses to ensure the boys followed the prescribed washing regime, that hair was combed and clear of vermin and who also looked after their bedding and clothes. These were supplied new, ‘Linen and Woollen…the same in Quality as the Pensioners’. They included good blue cloth jackets and serge waistcoats, regular clean shirts (of check pattern), towels and bed linen . There was also a school working jacket, serge waistcoat, and a cloth cap, all made out of Pensioners’ old clothes, with a pair of  hard-wearing Irish ram-skin leather breeches. From 1731 the boys also slept in hammocks, rather than beds, probably as practice for sea.

When  eventually  bound out  to the sea – which cost about £50 –  the Greenwich boy was also given two full new set of clothes, two pairs of shoes,  linen and bedding,  and the books and instruments he had used at school: his perfected exercise books of navigation, mathematics, writing and spelling, a New Testament, James Atkinson’s Epitome of the Art of Navigation; or a short and easy way to become a compleat navigator (first published in 1715 and regularly updated), a Gunter’s scale – a precursor of the slide-rule –  ‘1 great Pair of compasses’, a sector, a case of  drawing instruments, a slate and  pencil. A sea chest, with hasp and padlock, was also supplied to hold it all (5).

Of the charity boys’ curriculum in Phillip’s time, writing, mathematics and navigation were the core subjects, together with instruction in religion: a Bible and prayer book was supplied on entry and chapel attendance required. The private pupils taught at Weston’s appear to have had opportunity for much more. An advertisement of 1727/28 lists book-keeping, shorthand, drawing, fencing and dancing,  and  many languages –English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, High Dutch and Spanish.(6)

Drawing, especially of landscapes and coastlines, was then very important for seamen and soldiers (especially engineers and artillery men). In the 1780s it was expressly on the Hospital curriculum for those with aptitude and three generous prizes (a quadrant, a set of drawing instruments and a navigational book) were awarded for the best examples at the annual inspection of the boys and their work by the Directors. While not mentioned in Phillip’s time it must have been there, and it is hard to believe that the graphic ability shown by his later chart work was not fostered. Indeed, helping apprentices becoming ‘good Artists’ as well as good seamen was one of the standard terms to which their masters agreed in their indentures.

It also seems likely that Phillip’s ability in languages was encouraged. ‘How fortunate Arthur Philip is’ said his first school report, ‘to have had such an excellent grounding in Latin from his father; he speaks and writes his father’s language [German] fluently and has a sound knowledge of French’ (7). To these he was to add fluent Portuguese, as an officer in their Navy (1774-78) and probably Spanish and Italian, if the statement that he knew six languages is correct, all ideal for his later espionage work. Swinden’s report of  22 June 1753  also foreshadows the integrity, intelligence and judicious moderation  which marked his career, as well as the meticulous forethought which  underlay his success with the First Fleet :

‘Arthur Phillip is noted for for his diplomacy [and] mildness. [He is] nervously active, unassuming, reasonable, business-like to the smallest degree in everything he undertakes, always seeking perfection’ (8). Similar characteristics – of  reserve, honesty, educated principle and frank but respectful good sense – not least in contrast with other English  ‘excesses of temper’, especially in seamen,were to appear in praise from the Portuguese Viceroy of Brazil in 1778 (9) .Swinden, the Greenwich headmaster, would also have appreciated a later judgement on his old pupil as a combination of ‘the Gentleman, the scholar and the seaman’. (10)

On 1 December 1753, after two-and-a-half years at Greenwich, Phillip was bound apprentice for seven years to William Redhead, master of the 200-ton Fortune, a ship operating in the Greenland whale fishery. Only two years later however, on 16 October 1755, aged just seventeen, he transferred to the Navy as a ‘captain’s servant’ under his distant relative Captain Everitt in the 68-gun Buckingham, and rapidly began to climb the ladder to his lieutenant’s commission. This came in 1762, while serving in the Caribbean.

There we must leave him, just one of a rising new generation of well-educated, young Naval men, albeit of unusual half-German origin, from an unusual school and with a unique reason to be remembered today : the poor boy turned scholar, seaman, officer, gentleman, and the founder of a nation as far from his native London as one can still set sail to the wind.

1. N. A. M. Rodger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy
( London, 1986), p. 260.
2. ibid., p. 261
3.  In the ‘squadronal system’, abolished in 1864, flag officers (rear-admirals, vice admirals and admirals) rose through three grades of each rank – blue, then white, then red - before rising to the next rank. The system derived from 17th-century battle order in which blue was the colour of the rear squadron, white the vanguard and red the centre, from which the senior flag officer controlled the fleet.
4.  Royal Institute of British Architects; Wren/Hawksmoor drawings for Greenwich Hospital,  E5/2, c.1699-1702.
5. H. D. Turner, The Cradle of the Navy: The Story of the Royal Hospital School at Greenwich and Holbrook, 1694 –1988 (York, 1990), p.26, citing an advertisement of 1765.
6.  ibid., p.12
7.  Admiral Arthur Phillip, 1738 –1814 , Commemorative Addresses 1992-2002 (Britain-Australia Bicentennial Trust, London, 2002) p. 28. Cited by Mrs M. Goldston-Morris in her 1992 address, source unidentified.
8.  ibid. p. 29
9.         Alan Frost, Arthur Phillip, 1738–1814, His Voyaging (Melbourne, 1987) p.90
10. ibid., p.225