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Prize Money in the Navy

A version of this article was originally posted on  The Coffee Pot Book Club website.

In Persuasion, Jane Austen’s Lieutenant Wentworth was considered an unsuitable match by Anne Elliot’s friend Lady Russell, as he was not rich nor did he have high family connections. Lady Russell persuaded Anne to end the engagement. Years later he returns as Captain Wentworth, considerably richer due to prize money, and that is where the novel starts.

Prize money was money awarded to ships’ crews after a battle or other engagement. What might be surprising is that every man on a ship received a share of any prize money to be had after an engagement, as did certain other people who may not have been involved at all.

Attention often focusses on the large and famous battles, such as Trafalgar, but many naval actions were small-scale: capturing an enemy frigate or sloop, or a merchantman. Prize money was intended to motivate sailors, and it certainly did.

Most prize money came from the sale of such merchant ships and their cargoes, although the sale could not take place until a Prize Court had assessed the capture and confirmed it was legitimate. For example, a captured merchantman from a neutral country would have to be returned to its owners. Lest this prize money encourage naval captains to concentrate their efforts on merchantmen instead of enemy warships (which is what they were supposed to be doing), ‘head money’ was paid for every sailor on board captured naval vessels. If in good condition, the Admiralty might buy a captured warship and use it, and the sale price became part of the prize money.

Frigates often operated alone or in small groups, and stood the best chance of capturing valuable prizes. Large warships like HMS Victory operated in fleets, and usually engaged other enemy fleets rather than chasing down merchantmen. The chances for winning prize money were much less than for crews of smaller vessels.

Painting depicting the Battle of the Nile
The Battle of the Nile, 1798, where Nelson’s fleet defeated a French fleet. Although prize money would have been paid for the French ships destroyed, it also had to be shared out over a huge number of men, and the prizes would have been relatively small compared to something like a frigate capturing a merchantman loaded with cargo.

How was the money shared out?

The prize money from an action was shared out between all ships involved. Fair enough, you might say, if two frigates collaborated to capture a small convoy, then all on board both frigates should share the reward. However if another naval ship was in sight they, too, would take a share of the money even if they had taken no part in the action. The reasoning behind this was that the presence of that other ship (or ships) might encourage the enemy captain to surrender rather than continuing to fight—knowing that even if he defeated his current attackers, there were more to come and he would likely lose in the end.

If the ships involved were sailing under the command of a local Admiral (as opposed to sailing under direct orders from the Admiralty), that flag officer took 1/8 of the prize money.

Once a share of the prize money had been allocated to each ship involved in an action, it was further divided between members of the crew. Ignoring the Flag Officer’s 1/8th:

1/4 to the Captain

1/8 shared between the Master and Lieutenants, Captain of Marines, Surgeon

1/8 shared between Lieutenants of Marines, Principal Warrant Officers

1/8 shared between Midshipmen, other Warrant Officers, Sergeants of Marines

1/4  to everyone else

Within these groups of people, the money was not shared equally. For example, able seaman (the most highly trained/skilled) got more than ordinary seamen, who in turn got more than landmen.

The actual sharing out of the prize money was done by prize agents, who often hung onto the money for some years (accruing interest), to the frustration of the intended recipients.

An interesting snippet that I came across while researching for this post was that the prize was property that belonged to the whole crew. For example, a frigate might capture a small merchantman that the captain didn’t consider worth the loss of manpower to take back to Britain. He could confiscate and sell the cargo, and sell the ship back to its owners – but only if the majority of the crew agreed with this course of action.

La Blanche towing La Pique, a French prize, 1795 by Robert Dodd. The tactical situation might not always allow a prize to be delivered to a suitable port.

How much was it worth?

This blog post includes a table of the pay of officers and warrant officers. An able seaman would earn around 24 shillings a month, an ordinary seaman 19 shillings, and a landman 18 shillings. Deductions were made for contributions to the Greenwich Hospital and the Chatham Chest (which provided pensions for the ‘sick and hurt’), amounting to around 1s 6d per month.

The naval ‘month’ was the lunar month, so there were 13 months in a year (they weren’t actually paid monthly, but that is for a different post). After deductions the above becomes annual pay of £14 12 s 6d for an able seaman, down to £10 13s 2d for a landman. In the mid 19th Century these were good wages compared to agricultural workers, but inflation in the latter part of the century (and no naval pay rises) gradually changed this situation. This was one of the factors that caused the mutinies in 1797, after which pay was increased.

I haven’t been able to find average amounts of prize money; the example that always seems to be quoted is the capture of two Spanish frigates by four British frigates in 1799. The Spanish ships were carrying a valuable cargo, resulting in one of the largest prize money payouts ever made – a total of nearly £620,000. Each captain gained over £40,000, each seaman £182 (many times their yearly pay).

HMS Ethalion in pursuit of the Thetis – two of the six ships involved in the action described above.

Most price money payments would be far less than this, but even £20 would be more than a year’s wages for an able seaman.

References

N A M Rodger, The Wooden World, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wooden-World-Nicholas-Rodger-June/dp/B01B99WKWG/

Nelson and His Navy – Prize Money, The Historical Maritime Society, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1KGaZ0R93bH6hSl35qU8j5ouUH4PFMetLtiyb-RWnms4/edit

2 thoughts on “Prize Money in the Navy

  1. Ellen Loughran says:

    These articles were fascinating.  I know that I’ve read books that make reference to prize monies. I plan to go back through some of my jottings to see if I made a note of the events. If I did, there will be some pleasant rereading for me in the near future.

    Reply
    • jaynedavisromance says:

      I have to admit to reading romances that mentioned army officers getting prize money, and thinking the author had made a mistake. It’s not nearly as easy to find information about army prize money – possibly because (unless you were Wellington), it wasn’t a life changing amount.
      Do you mean non-fiction books, or stories? If the former, I’d be interested to find more on it.
      Thanks for commenting!
      Jayne

      Reply

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