Royal Naval Academy

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The Royal Naval Academy (1733 - 1837) was established at Portsmouth dockyard as a facility to train officers for the Royal Navy. The intentions were to provide an alternative means to recruit officers and to provide standardised training, education and admission.

A shore side facility was established in the dockyard for 40 recruits. A comprehensive syllabus provided theoretical and practical experience in the dockyard and at sea. Graduates of the Academy were fast tracked to eligibility for promotion to Lieutenant, requiring only four years versus the six required of those trained at sea.

The Academy did not achieve the objective of becoming the preferred path to becoming a naval officers. The traditional means of a sea going ‘apprenticeship’ remained the preferred alternative. The vast majority of the officer class was still recruited in this manner based on family ties, and patronage. Family connections, ‘interest’ and a sincere belief in the superiority of practical experience learnt on the quarterdeck ensured that the officer class favoured the traditional model. William IV summed up this view when he remarked that “ there was no place superior to the quarterdeck of a British man of war for the education of a gentleman”.[1]

There was a clear prejudiced against Academy graduates. It was widely held that Academy students suffered from poor discipline and lax behaviour in addition to lacking the necessary practical experience and skills. Academy graduates also lacked the web of connections and bonds created as youngsters and midshipmen brought up at sea.

Nonetheless, the Academy remained popular particularly for those without the means and connections to secure a traditional berth as a youngster. In 1773 the Admiralty provided that sons of sea officers to be admitted at public cost.

The most distinguished Academy graduate was Philip Broke who attended the Academy in 1791. He achieved particular fame as Captain of HMS Shannon in its victory over the US frigate Chesapeake in the War of 1812. Jane Austen’s brothers, Francis and Charles attended the Academy in 1786 and and 1791 respectively. Both went on to become Admirals.

Despite the general disregard for the Academy, the Admiralty in 1806 decided to replace it with a new and expanded Royal Naval College at Portsmouth. It opened in 1808. In part this reflected the expanding naval demands which required more manpower. In 1733 when the Academy opened, the Navy consisted of 154 ships. When it closed there were over 1,000 ships of which 200 were major vessels.

In the canon:

Philip Broke appears in The Fortune of War in his historical role as captain of the Shannon. In developing Broke’s character Patrick O'Brian has Jack Aubrey provide his factual background, as well as fictional attributes. Aubrey displays the prevailing prejudices of the day. Aubrey explains to Maturin that “ We looked upon them as a miserable crew of sneaking upstart lubbers, learning seamanship and gunnery out of books and pretending to set themselves on a level with us, who had learnt them at sea.” [2]

In a delightful example of the canon’s humour, usually a Jack Aubrey malapropism or play on words, Aubrey explains “ I did not like to be seen walking about with an Academite -” (Maturin) “Were they a very wicked set?” “ (Aubrey) Oh, I dare say they were as wicked as their means allowed, at twelve or thirteen or so,”[3]


  1. Dickinson pg. 32,
  2. FSOW omnibus edition, pg.2090
  3. FSOW omnibus edition, pg.2090


Dickinson H W, Educating the Royal Navy, Routledge 2007

Roger N A M, The Wooden World, An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, Fontana, 1988

Kenedy G, Nelson K, Eds. Military education past, Present, and Future, Greenwood Publishing group, 2002

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