Post Captain

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Post Captain
CountryFlag United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.gif United Kingdom
Service branchNaval Ensign of the United Kingdom from 1801.png Royal Navy
Formationc. 1690-1876
Next higher rankCommodore Ordinary
Next lower rankMaster and Commander (1670-1794) Commander

A Post Captain was a British Royal Navy rank established in 1690. The title of 'Captain' was given to all officers who commanded ships ('commanders', in contemporary parlance) regardless of their rank.[1] They reached this rank, or 'took post', by virtue of their first commission to command a 'Post Ship', meaning one of the 5th-Rate or larger (6th-Rate from 1713), for in this period only admirals held rank in the Navy as a whole, independent of appointments to a named ship. Since admirals were promoted only from the top of the Captains' List, it was crucial to an officer's career to take post as young as possible.[2]


Post Captain Gilbert Heathcote R.N. circa 1801-1805 by William Owen (1769–1825).

All officers in command of a vessel were addressed with the courtesy title of Captain regardless of rank so the term Post Captain was used to distinguish those who had been given the substantive rank although they were still only addressed as Captain. Once an officer had been promoted to Post-Captain, his further promotion was strictly by seniority and time spent on the Captains list on average around 25 years before they could reach Flag Rank and be promoted to Rear-Admiral of the Blue.[3]

A post captain could in essence be promoted quicker if they were appointed the temporary rank of either Commodore Ordinary or more important that of Commodore Distinction. For this reason it was regarded as a major milestone in an officers career. Commissioned officers might be promoted to the next rank but not be appointed to a ship. Until that time they were "on the beach" and on half-pay. An officer who was promoted from Commander was a captain, but when he was given a command, his name was "posted" in the London Gazette. He "took post" or was "made post" and he usually commanded a rated vessel by virtue of their first commission to command a 'post ship', meaning one of the 5th Rate or larger (6th Rate from 1713).[4] >

A junior Post-Captain would usually command a frigate or a large sloop, while more senior Post-Captains would command larger ships. Sometimes, a high-ranking Admiral would have two Post-Captains on his flagship. The junior of the two would serve as the Flag Captain and retain responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the vessel. The senior of the two would be the fleet captain, or "Captain of the Fleet", and would serve as the admiral's Chief of Staff. These two captains would be listed in the ship's roll as the "second captain" and "first captain", respectively.[5][6]

In 1795 epaulettes, known by the slang term 'swabs' were introduced to distinguish between commanders and post-captains of various seniority's. A Commander wore a single epaulette on the left shoulder. A Post-Captain with less than three years seniority wore a single epaulette on the right shoulder, and a Post-Captain with three or more years seniority wore an epaulette on each shoulder.

Duties on board ship were to prepare the ship for sailing, check and approve inventories of stores and write reports for the Admiralty on work being done on the ship. He also had to recruit the ship's complement and record details in the muster book. During a voyage, he was ultimately responsible for the ship and crew's well being, including feeding, clothing, health and discipline, maintain the log of the ship, and delegate authority as necessary. He was also responsible for directing the ship's activities in naval engagements.

The designation Post Captain was gradually phased out and came to an end in 1876 when the Rating System of the Royal Navy was formally abolished by declaration of the Board of Admiralty. The main cause behind this declaration focused on new types of gun, the introduction of steam propulsion and the use of iron and steel armour which made rating ships by the number of guns obsolete leaving on the rank of Captain.


  1. Rodger, Professor N. A. M. (1 December 2001). "Commissioned officers' careers in the Royal Navy, 1690–1815". Journal for Maritime Research. London. 3 (1): 85–129. doi:10.1080/21533369.2001.9668314. ISSN 2153-3369.
  2. Rodger, Professor N. A. M. (1 December 2001). "Commissioned officers' careers in the Royal Navy, 1690–1815". Journal for Maritime Research. London. 3 (1): 85–129. doi:10.1080/21533369.2001.9668314. ISSN 2153-3369.
  3. Rodger.
  4. Rodger.
  5. Library and Information Services (2014). "Information sheet no 096 Naval Ranks" (PDF). National Museum of the Royal Navy,. Retrieved 19 August 2019.
  6. Rodger.