Helping my daughter with a presentation about Cook, I looked for English sources about his biography and was surprised to read that he was a son of a farmer hand - practically, the bottom of the lower class.

Was it real? I mean, he could be really the son of that rich farmer, and had much better support at start?

What was the statistics about bourgeoisie/worker/farmer sons among navy officers in England? For me numbers before the industrial revolution and after it are interesting: The end of 18 and 19 centuries.

I don't hope there are full tables about that somewhere. Any information would be gladly accepted.

In Russia, for example, even at the end of 19th cent, admiral Makarov, the son of a boatswain, was accepted as a funny exception. Only aristocracy of blue blood could send their sons to be navy officers. The plebs could become officers and even serve at navy, but they didn't get navy officer titles.

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    There are detailed lists of all those who became officers in that period but it would require research into their individual family histories to determine their class origins. However, I would imagine that the largest social pool from which officers rose was from the sons of Navy officers.
    – Steve Bird
    Apr 24, 2018 at 12:45
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    Not a full answer, but the Wikipedia entry on the Royal Navy Academy that was operating during the time you're looking at implies that officers were recruited mostly on family ties and patronage, but were promoted on merit/seniority. Both claims are unsourced, unfortunately, and most of the officers I've found are at least bottom-tier nobles.
    – Giter
    Apr 24, 2018 at 12:56
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    This article almost certainly contains what you are looking for, if there is anyone here who can access it - Social Background and Promotion Prospects in the Royal Navy, 1775–1815 academic.oup.com/ehr/article-abstract/131/550/570/1748652 Apr 24, 2018 at 12:57
  • Cook was proposed a position of a coal ship captain, but he went to the navy for position of a steerman - not officer one. And he became an officer in several years. It seems, as if there were no social borders at all... Even for our days, his carrier looks really great...
    – Gangnus
    Apr 24, 2018 at 13:02
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    I have obtained a copy of the article @LarsBosteen is referring too (great find!). Let me know if you are interested. Apr 25, 2018 at 23:17

1 Answer 1


In his book "A Social History of the Navy 1793-1815", Michael Lewis gives the following breakdown of the background of Navy officers based on their parents' social status.

Social Status of R.N. Officers' Parents, 1793-1815*

A. Titled People          Total   Percentage
  1. Peers                  131      7.3%
  2. Baronets               85       4.7%

B. Landed Gentry            494     27.4%

C. Professional Men         899     50.0%

D. Business/Commercial Men  71       3.9%   

E. Working Class            121      6.7%

*Some details omitted for clarity (Table I, pg.31)

It would therefore appear that the aristocracy and landed gentry were greatly outnumbered by the lower classes in terms of representation as Naval officers at the end of the 18th Century. However, social rank did seem to reflect itself in terms of the final military rank achieved.

Ranks reached by Officers (from above) in percentages*

A. Titled People         Flag-Rank   Post-Rank  Below Post-Rank
  1. Peers                  45          44            11
  2. Baronets               34          42            24

B. Landed Gentry            21          29            50

C. Professional Men         22          34            44

D. Business/Commercial Men  18          28            54

E. Working Class            2.5         13.5          84

*Some details omitted for clarity (Table III, pg.45)

So while it was possible to become an officer from a working class background, your chances of making it to become a Post-Captain were not that good compared to the almost certainty of commanding your own ship if you were the son of a Peer.

As an explanation of how the promotion mechanism favoured the upper classes, we need to look at how men became commissioned officers and how they were then promoted. In order to join the lowest ranks of commissioned officers, a candidate would need to pass the lieutenant's exam.

In order to qualify for the exam, the candidate was required to have six years of service at sea. This meant that a midshipman joining a ship at 13 could take the exam at 19 (assuming continuous sea service). However, it was not unknown for young gentlemen to be entered onto a ship's books before they ever went to sea. In this manner they could accrue some of their six years "sea service" while safe at home and still be able to take the exam at the earliest opportunity. In contrast a boy from a lower class background would have to join the ship as a 'boy' and work his way into the warrant officer ranks (which required their own exams) before he could qualify to take the lieutenant's exam. As a result, he was likely to taking the exam later in life than his upper class shipmates.

The reason that this is important is that promotion above Post-rank was based on seniority (i.e. the number of years in the role). The sooner you qualified as a Post-Captain, the sooner you would become an Admiral. Also younger, well connected men were more likely to be selected as active commanders than older, less influential ones. This is becomes very important when the service shrinks (as it did dramatically at the end of the Napoleonic Wars). Officers who were not on active service were only provided with half-pay. For an officer from a poorer background this could mean that they could not afford to remain in the Navy (rates of pay in the merchant service were generally higher anyway).

I should note that the figures in the tables do not cover every officer in the RN during the period but a (hopefully representative) sample where the officer's background could be established.

Source: A Social History of the Navy 1793-1815, Michael Lewis (Chatham Publishing, 1960)

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    Thank you. I could say, the victory of Cook over the social system maybe is even greater than his findings :-) Even if he were a bastard of a farmer.
    – Gangnus
    Apr 24, 2018 at 18:05
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    Aren't "professional men" people like lawyers, clergymen and doctors, i.e. socially almost on par with the gentry?
    – andejons
    Apr 24, 2018 at 19:56
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    @T.E.D. It's worth bearing in mind that the period that these figures cover was one of almost continuous war. The RN expanded dramatically (as did the merchant Navy) from peacetime levels in 1792 of 16,613 men to a peak of 142,098 in 1810. The demands for officers meant that there simply weren't enough Lords and gentlemen to go around.
    – Steve Bird
    Apr 24, 2018 at 20:45
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    @andejons I think the keyword there is "almost". A miss is as good as a mile when it comes to class snobbery.
    – Steve Bird
    Apr 24, 2018 at 20:48
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    I think it's relevant to point out that the Navy required skills that, for instance, the Army didn't. "Charge the guns!" at Balaclava is a tragic case in point! An experienced seaman, even from the "lower" classes, was probably a better bet as an officer than a "gentleman" who barely knew a yardarm from a hole in the ground. I have only skimmed this (PDF download) but it appears an interesting study of the subject.
    – TheHonRose
    Apr 24, 2018 at 22:05

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