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Midshipmen and Quarterdeck Boys in the British Navy, 1771-1831

By S.A. Cavell

Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2012

6-1/4” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, x + 245 pages

Illustrations, tables, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $99.00

ISBN: 9781843837190


In her work, Midshipman and Quarterdeck Boys in the British Navy, 1771-1831, S.A. Cavell takes a detailed look at the men and boys who made up this group of “young gentlemen,” and discusses current research and theories related to the social backgrounds of midshipmen and quarterdeck boys.

Cavell begins the book with a chapter that distinguishes midshipmen and quarterdeck boys from other positions within the Royal Navy. This chapter also includes the definitions of other terms related to these youthful officers in order to set the stage for the research and arguments presented in the text. This foundation proves to be one of the book’s greatest strengths, as the author does not assume all of her readers will have intimate knowledge of military terminology or naval history. A majority of the text is also devoted to analyzing how recruitment trends among midshipmen and quarterdeck boys fluctuated over time, and Cavell makes an admirable effort to provide readers with the historical context of her research by examining how major events, such as the Napoleonic War, impacted those trends. She consistently offers clear and succinct explanations that inform those who lack an understanding of military definitions or historical statistics, without boring those who might already be familiar with the information. In doing so, Cavell widens the appeal of her work and makes it suitable as an introduction to midshipmen and quarterdeck boys, as well as a more detailed look at the Royal Navy’s junior officers and recruitment statistics during this period.

In addition to explaining the complexities of military terminology and recruitment trends, the author also establishes the factual basis for her conclusions with numerous citations and an extensive bibliography. While analyzing the varying social backgrounds of midshipmen and the recruitment process during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Cavell

references several primary sources such as ships’ rosters and wage listings. These documents are then condensed and incorporated in the book’s appendix as graphs or charts. The decision to present this information to the reader is not only considerate, but also a practical way to strengthen the author’s arguments by clearly displaying the research that she conducted.

Although thorough details and evidentiary support are certainly positive attributes of this text, sections of Cavell’s work might come across as dry or tedious to some readers due to the large amount of statistical analysis. However, Cavell is able to balance her factual explanations with personal insights from various midshipmen and quarterdeck boys. The author includes brief excerpts from the personal correspondence of young men who entered the ranks of the Royal Navy’s junior officers, which enables Cavell to humanize the midshipman and quarterdeck boys instead of reducing them to mere statistics. In the end, the author accomplishes the task of educating readers about the social backgrounds and recruitment statistics of midshipmen and quarterdeck boys from 1771 to 1831, while still offering her audience a compelling look at some of the individuals who filled those positions. 

Ashley Goethe

University of West Florida