As noted in my paper on education within the navy, there were social differences between sea officers commissioned and those holding warrants. In many respects this was a natural consequence of sea warfare. In the Mediaeval era when castles were built on merchantmen, captains and their senior lieutenants as military officers needed the skills of masters and other skilled senior mariners to navigate and run the ships themselves. But, by the latter part of the seventeenth century this had already significantly altered, especially with the oral professional examinations in seamanship for aspiring lieutenants introduced by Samuel Pepys. While gunnery and navigation were also within the scope of these executive officers, specialists in these arts or sciences were retained through the eighteenth century, along with some others. Nevertheless the structures of expertise evolved over the long term.
1690s to 1808
There is far less information on warrant officers, although there were printed listings, some publically-produced and some for internal naval use. Very few seem to have survived though and information within these can be very limited.
Variously through the 18th century and into the early 19th century, passing certificates and service records, in the form of certificates of service, were developed: but cannot be regarded as more than fragmentary. Once again, additionally, there are other records that can be drawn upon. These include commission and warrant books, succession books, applications for promotion and employment, pay ledgers (full and half) and leave books. As with commissioned officers, there are also records relating to time done, wounds and death (for widows and orphans). Similarly, there are also black books noting misconduct.
1808 to 1843
As already stated in the section on structures of ranks and rates, it was in 1808 that the status of some of the warrant officers was altered significantly. While masters already occupied an important and respected role on men-o-war, they along with pursers and surgeons were made ‘Warrant Officers of Commissioned Rank’. Chaplains, who had also inhabited a strange limbo in petty officers’ rates, were similarly given this title. Again as already stated, this meant that those that had not been partly elevated, primarily carpenters, gunners and boatswains, had in effect had their roles diminished. Cooks’ positions definitely suffered, being rated petty officer in 1838.
Also, within this period a new variety of warrant officer came into being. Concurrent with the introduction of screw-driven steam-powered warships, from 1837 there were warrant engineers.
Although service records were beginning to come into existence near the end of this period, there were fewer for warrant officers. Generally, the administration remained as before.
As of 1843, excepting chaplains, the ‘Warrant Officers of Commissioned Rank’ were properly commissioned and so are subsequently dealt with in the relevant section. Chaplains were later commissioned, in 1859. At least some warrant engineers were commissioned in 1847, as befitted an up and coming arm of service (even if they were seen by those of the executive branch as inferior). Although not normally mentioned, at least some individual boatswains might have been promoted to the quarterdeck as chief boatswains: as of 1865. And, much later in 1920, this rank of chief boatswain was renamed commissioned boatswain. Similarly, in 1903 the rank of carpenter lieutenant was introduced. At the time of writing, I am not entirely clear if ratings were commissioned, or if these individuals joined the R.N. specifically in these ranks. Anyway, those not elevated in the 1840s, such as boatswains and carpenters, are subsequently dealt with in the section on the people and ratings.