The warrant officer corps began in the nascent Royal Navy. At that time, noblemen with military experience took command of the new navy, adopting the military ranks of lieutenant and captain. These officers often had no knowledge of life on board a ship—let alone how to navigate such a vessel—and relied on the expertise of the ship's master and other seamen who tended to the technical aspects of running the ship. As cannon came into use, the officers also required gunnery experts; specialist gunners began to appear in the 16th century and also had warrant officer status. Literacy was one thing that most warrant officers had in common, and this distinguished them from the common seamen: according to the Admiralty regulations, "no person shall be appointed to any station in which he is to have charge of stores, unless he can read and write, and is sufficiently skilled in arithmetic to keep an account of them correctly". Since all warrant officers had responsibility for stores, this was enough to debar the illiterate.
Rank and status in the eighteenth century
In origin, warrant officers were specialist professionals whose expertise and authority demanded formal recognition. In the 18th century they fell into two clear categories: on the one hand, those privileged to share with the commissioned officers in the wardroom and on the quarterdeck; and on the other, those who ranked with more junior members of the ship's crew. Somewhere between the two, however, were the standing officers; notable because, unlike the rest of the ship's company, they remained with the ship even when it was out of commission (e.g. for repair, refitting or replenishment, or whilst laid up); in these circumstances they were under the pay and supervision of the Royal Dockyard.
Wardroom warrant officers
These classes of warrant officer messed in the wardroom with the commissioned officers:
- the master: the senior warrant officer, a qualified navigator and experienced seaman who set the sails, maintained the ship's log and advised the captain on the seaworthiness of the ship and crew;
- the ship's doctor: who treated the sick and injured and advised the captain on matters of health;
- the purser: responsible for supplies, food and pay for the crew.
In the early 19th century, they were joined in the wardroom by naval chaplains, who also had warrant officer status (though they were only usually present on larger vessels).
Standing warrant officers
The standing officers were:
- the boatswain: responsible for maintenance of the ship's boats, sails, rigging, anchors and cables;
- the carpenter: responsible for maintenance of the ship's hull and masts;
- the gunner: responsible for care and maintenance of the ship's guns and gunpowder.
Junior warrant officers
Other warrant officers included surgeon's mates, boatswain's mates and carpenter's mates, sailmakers, armourers, schoolmasters (involved in the education of boys, midshipmen and others aboard ship) and clerks. Masters-at-arms, who had formerly overseen small-arms provision on board, had by this time taken on responsibility for discipline.
Warrant officers in context
By the end of the century, the rank structure could be illustrated as follows (the warrant officers are underlined):
Relative ranks in the Royal Navy, c. 1810. Warrant officers are underlined in the chart.
In 1843, the wardroom warrant officers were given commissioned status, while in 1853 the lower-grade warrant officers were absorbed into the new rate of chief petty officer, both classes thereby ceasing to be warrant officers. On 25 July 1864 the standing warrant officers were divided into two grades: warrant officers and chief warrant officers (or "commissioned warrant officers", a phrase that was replaced in 1920 with "commissioned officers promoted from warrant rank", although they were still usually referred to as "commissioned warrant officers", even in official documents).
By the time of the First World War, their ranks had been expanded with the adoption of modern technology in the Royal Navy to include telegraphists, electricians, shipwrights, artificer engineers, etc. Both warrant officers and commissioned warrant officers messed in the warrant officers' mess rather than the wardroom (although in ships too small to have a warrant officers' mess, they did mess in the wardroom). Warrant officers and commissioned warrant officers also carried swords, were saluted by ratings, and ranked between sub-lieutenants and midshipmen.
In 1949, the ranks of warrant officer and commissioned warrant officer were changed to "commissioned officer" and "senior commissioned officer", the latter ranking with but after the rank of lieutenant, and they were admitted to the wardroom, the warrant officers' messes closing down. Collectively, these officers were known as "branch officers", being retitled "special duties" officers in 1956. In 1998, the special duties list was merged with the general list of officers in the Royal Navy, all officers now having the same opportunity to reach the highest commissioned ranks.