1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Midshipman

MIDSHIPMAN, the title in the British and American navies of the “young gentlemen” who are serving in order to qualify themselves to hold a commission as lieutenant. The English midshipman was originally a petty officer, one of the crew under the immediate orders of the boatswain. After the restoration of King Charles II., in 1660, the king and his brother, James Duke of York, lord high admiral, decided to train officers for the sea service. They therefore decided to send a volunteer to each ship of a squadron in commission, with a “letter of service,” which instructed the admirals and captains that the bearer was to be shown “such kindness as you shall judge fit for a gentleman, both in accommodating him in your ship and in furthering his improvement.” He was to receive the pay of a midshipman, and one midshipman less was to be borne in the ship. Until 1729 the young gentlemen who entered the British navy were known as “king’s letter boys.” In that year the system was altered. A school, known as the naval academy, was founded at Portsmouth in which forty lads were to be trained for the sea service. In 1773 the school, having proved unsatisfactory, was reorganized and the number of boys to be trained there increased from forty to seventy. In 1806 it was again reorganized, under the name of the naval college, and was finally suppressed in 1837, when the practice of training the boys under instructors in the ships was introduced. A special school was re-established in 1857, and was finally placed in the “Britannia.” In the meantime the number of midshipmen had increased far beyond one for a ship. A line-of-battle ship in the 18th century carried as many as twenty four, and the title had come to be confined entirely to those who were being trained as officers. The immense majority of officers of the British navy never passed through the academy or the college. They entered the ships directly as “captains' servants” or “volunteers,” and were rated midshipman, if there was a vacancy, at the age of fifteen. As they were expected to learn navigation, they were instructed by the master, and at the age of seventeen were supposed to be qualified to be masters' mates. To-day the midshipman is the officer of the British and American navies who has passed through the preliminary schools and has been appointed to a ship. The French equivalent is aspirant, and other European navies use that name, or cadet.