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The rank of Lieutenant in the Navy was the lowest to be assigned by a commission from the Admiralty and to bring with it the entitlement to half pay. A lieutenant was normally subordinate to a captain, whose substantive rank might be either post captain or commander, although he might be placed in sole command of a small vessel such as a cutter or a gunboat.

All rated ships carried a number of lieutenants, ranging from two on a sixth-rate up to eight on a first-rate. The first lieutenant, besides being immediately in line to take command of the ship if the captain was incapacitated, was responsible for the overall supervision of the crew; it was he who would generally interview new recruits as they came aboard and determine their classification as landsman, ordinary seaman, able-bodied seaman etc.,and he was also responsible for maintaining the many forms and reports required by the Admiralty. In consideration of these tasks he was in theory exempt from the duty of standing watch, although this privilege was not always practicable on small ships which carried only two or three lieutenants. The second, third etc. lieutenants, by contrast, were each required to take charge of a watch. A lieutenant also supervised a division of the crew.

For most of the period covered by the Aubrey-Maturin novels, the pay of a lieutenant was eight guineas (£8.40) per lunar month; this did not vary according to the rate of his ship or whether he was first or subordinate.

A lieutenant had no automatic right to promotion; if he was unlucky or ineffectual, he might remain at that level to the end of his career. He could, subject to certain limits, be promoted to commander by the Commander-in-Chief of his station. More frequently, distinguished performance in action would result in his being mentioned in his captain's Admiralty letters so that the Admiralty came to recognise him as deserving of higher rank. Patronage and influential connections could make a great difference to his prospects.

Until 1812 the uniform of a lieutenant did not include an epaulette. He would normally be addressed or referred to as 'Mr [name]' by his equals or superiors, and as 'Sir' by those of inferior rank or seniority.

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