Prize Money: Frigates, Treasure, Snobbery

– and Jane Austen

 HMS Pomone – frigate,
archetypal prize taker 

In naval fiction set in the Age of Fighting Sail, prize money, accruing from the capture of enemy shipping which would subsequently be sold to third parties or bought by the Admiralty, is rightly shown as an important driver for Royal Navy officers and crew alike. For most on the lower deck it represented the only opportunity of their lives to earn a sum substantial enough to set themselves up in some comfort – typically by purchase of a tavern or other small business. For the officers it could mean the difference between an old age spent in respectable near-penury and acquisition of a fortune that would secure significant property for themselves and their families. The navy differed from the army in that an officer did not need to purchase his commission (a practice that continued up to the 1870s). Younger sons from wealthy families, who due to the law of primogeniture were likely to inherit little or nothing, or sons from poor but respectable backgrounds – such as Nelson – could however enter the navy at a young age and hope to rise through competence and luck.

The allocation of prize money followed a fixed formula, and some who benefitted from it might not be directly involved in the capture of the enemy vessel. The total value of the prize was divided into eight parts which were assigned as follows:

 Contemporary view of how
the prize money was often spent!

One part to the admiral or commander-in-chief who signed the ship’s written orders (but if the orders came directly from the Admiralty in London, then this went to the captain);

Two parts (i.e. one quarter) went to the captain or commander;

One part was divided among the lieutenants, sailing master, and captain of marines.

One part was divided among the wardroom warrant officers (surgeon, purser, and chaplain), standing warrant officers (carpenter, boatswain, and gunner), the lieutenant of marines, and the master’s mates.

One part was divided among the junior warrant and petty officers, their mates, sergeants of marines, captain’s clerk, surgeon’s mates, and midshipmen.

Two parts (i.e. one quarter) were divided among the crew, with able and specialist seamen receiving larger shares than ordinary seamen, landsmen, and boys.

Frigate and sloop commands were much sought after for the opportunities they gave for capturing prizes but many crews were to find themselves dogged by bad luck for years. When fortune was favourable however, the rewards could be immense. In one such case, in 1799, the officers and crews of four British frigates were lucky enough to encounter two Spanish warships some 200 miles west of the northern Spanish coast. They were initially sighted on 15th October by HMS Naiad.  Her commander, Captain Pierrepoint, gave chase.  They subsequently proved to be the frigates Santa Brigida and Thetis, which were headed to Spain from Vera Cruz in Mexico.  The fact that the two frigates, which outgunned Naiad by two to one, should decide to run from her rather than to fight was indicative that whatever they carried was of great value. Pierrepoint followed them doggedly through the night and early in the following morning, another ship was seen in the south-west. It proved to be the British frigate HMS Ethalion and soon afterwards two more frigates, HMS Alcmène and HMS Triton, also appeared. In the hope of escape the Spanish vessels parted company and steered away on different courses, each were pursued by two British frigates. The odds had turned decisively against the Spanish. Overhauled, they chose to strike their colours rather than fight it out.

Sailor’s return from Anson’s voyage.

Wagons behind carrying prize money

The value of prizes was enormous since much of their cargoes proved to be specie – gold and silver coinage. The treasure was landed and Plymouth and loaded on sixty-three artillery waggons. Escorted by soldiers, armed seamen and marines, with bands playing and watched by a huge crowd, it began its journey to the vaults of the Bank of England in London. In the final distribution each British captain was awarded £40,000 (probably worth at least a million today, though such comparisons can only be very approximate). Each  lieutenant received £5,000 pounds, each warrant officer more than £2000 pounds. The midshipmen – in many cases young boys the start of their careers, were each given £800. Those who received most of all, by the standards of their own expectations, were the seamen and marines, each being awarded £182 pounds. To put this into context it is worth noting that a domestic servant could be had for £10 per year while a private soldier in the army was paid a shilling a day, some £18 pounds a year, though deductions were to reduce this significantly in practice.

It is likely that much of the prize money was dissipated in wine, women and brief high-living ashore. Cartoonists of the time depicted seamen squandering money with wild abandon. Many of the officers were more likely however to set themselves up as land-owning country gentry. Although these men were in the front line of the nation’s defence or more than two decades in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, those whom they protected were often not just grossly ungrateful but resentful of such success. The novelist Jane Austen had two brothers in naval service in this period – both rose in their later careers to be admirals – and she makes a Royal Navy captain her hero in her last published novel, Persuasion, as well as portraying other officers sympathetically. With brilliant irony she describes the mean-minded prejudice endured by such officers – as her brothers may have experienced – from stay-at-homes resentful of their hard-earned prize money. Here is a snobbish landowner, Sir Walter Elliot, speaking in Persuasion – this passage deserves to be repeated in full:


(Referring to the Navy) Sir Walter’s remark was, soon afterwards– “The profession has its utility, but I should be sorry to see any friend of mine belonging to it.”

“Indeed!” was the reply, and with a look of surprise.

 Admiral Baldwin’s appearance shocks
Sir Walter and Sir Basil

“Yes; it is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man. I have observed it all my life. A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to, and of becoming prematurely an object of disgust himself, than in any other line. One day last spring, in town, I was in company with two men, striking instances of what I am talking of; Lord St. Ives, whose father we all know to have been a country curate, without bread to eat; I was to give place to Lord St. Ives, and a certain Admiral Baldwin, the most deplorable-looking personage you can imagine; his face the colour of mahogany, rough and rugged to the last degree; all lines and wrinkles, nine grey hairs of a side, and nothing but a dab of powder at top. ‘In the name of heaven, who is that old fellow?’ said I to a friend of mine who was standing near, (Sir Basil Morley). ‘Old fellow!’ cried Sir Basil, ‘it is Admiral Baldwin. What do you take his age to be?’ ‘Sixty,’ said I, ‘or perhaps sixty-two.’ ‘Forty,’ replied Sir Basil, ‘forty, and no more.’ Picture to yourselves my amazement; I shall not easily forget Admiral Baldwin. I never saw quite so wretched an example of what a sea-faring life can do; but to a degree, I know it is the same with them all: they are all knocked about, and exposed to every climate, and every weather, till they are not fit to be seen. It is a pity they are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin’s age.”


So much for gratitude for deliverance from Bonaparte!

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