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Journal of the Reverend William Elliot,
a Georgian Naval Chaplain

Compiled by Tony Drury

The 74 gun Téméraire-class ship HMS Donegal
The 74-gun third rate vessel HMS Donegal, the Reverend William Elliot's first naval appointment, Image: Royal Museums Greenwich, HMS Donegal RMG PY0760.jpg

Background to Chaplains in the Royal Navy

Clergy had been accompanying ships of the fleet since the late 10th century but it was King Charles I in 1626 who ordered that chaplains should sail on all ships of his naval fleet and in 1653 public worship was made mandatory on all ships of the English navy. By the start of the 18th century over 700 chaplains had been appointed between the years 1689-1713. However, records suggest that many appointments consisted of just one voyage and that chaplains also retained their parish benefices whilst serving the navy. They had not always been welcome on board however and the observance of religious practice on Royal Navy Ships was in decline in the years before the American War of independence. Chaplains, when carried, had few duties and lots of spare time, many kept journals as a way of passing this time. But journal keeping was often frowned upon by Captains who did not want an alternative account of their activities which could refute their log entries.

At the start of the reign of George III in 1761, the number of Chaplains employed at sea was in the decline; by 1789 appointments were dwindling, only 23 new Chaplains had been appointed since 1784; only one was approved in 1792, the last year of peace in Europe. 1793 saw the drive for religious observance revived with 58 new Chaplains joining the Fleet as Britain went to war against France in the Napoleonic Wars. At this time all line-of-battle ships and frigates were allowed to carry Chaplains.

Declining morals and naval discipline

Their role was to become more important towards the end of the 18th century when concerns were raised regarding indiscipline and immorality amongst the seamen of the Fleet during the 1780s and 90s. To counter these problems the Admiralty began encouraging the recruitment of conscientious chaplains to attempt to reverse the prevailing neglect of public worship. Chaplains however were not a mandatory member of the crew complement. Although appointed by the Admiralty like the ship’s regular officers, often they were invited to serve by commanding officers who held strong religious beliefs and wished to make religious observance part of their ship’s routine. Proposed Chaplains had to be approved by the Bishop of London, or the Archbishop of Canterbury, and if successful they were appointed to that ship by Admiralty Warrant.

A view from the Fleet

"… the attainment of simple morality in the habits and conduct of our seamen… (is) ground work on which to build the rational Christianity of the Protestant church. To assist this most desirable end, such encouragement should be given to chaplains, as would induce men of piety and learning to serve on board our ships of war, and such instructions should be given them, as would preclude their office from being nearly a sinecure, unless possessed of a lively zeal and just sense of their important office. I am of opinion, that the true way to encourage religion, is hot to force frequent attendance on the public prayer and service of the church, but that divine service should be frequently performed for the benefit of those who can, and those to attend. The full service on Sunday forenoons, Christmas Day, and Good Friday, should be attended regularly after a full muster. On Sunday afternoons, the service should be performed by the chaplain in the gun-room, with or without a sermon, at his option, for all such as choose to attend, the young gentlemen and the boys only being obliged to do so. Proper prayers should also be read once a day by the chaplain in the sick birth, as soon as the medical attendance-is at an end, and morning and evening prayer daily through the week should be read in the gun-room, the length and selection of the service to be according to the weather, or other circumstances."

Naval Chronicle, 1808 Vol. XX P. 298

Duties, Pay and conditions pre 1812

William Elliot was invited to take the post of Chaplain aboard H.M.S. DONEGAL, presumably the proposal came from her commanding officer Captain Malcolm. There is no record of William having any nautical experience prior to this undertaking. Georgian Naval Chaplains were expected not only to perform the ecclesiastical duties such as to conduct divine service on Sundays; funeral rites for the dead and, in many cases conduct daily prayers in the Gunroom, but also to act as schoolmasters for the midshipmen. During battle they were expected to assist the surgeon in the cockpit.

Once on board the Chaplain was on his own; he received no Admiralty Instructions or guidance on his duties or conduct, he had no archdeacon to steer him, nor was there a Chaplaincy branch of the Navy in which he could advance in rank. Although an educated gentleman of equal social rank to the commissioned officers of the wardroom, the Chaplain, and Warrant Officers were excluded. Warrant Officers (Pursers, Masters and Surgeons) were given “wardroom rank” in 1808 but Chaplains remained excluded until 1812. Prior to this date the Chaplain was provided a small cabin but normally ate and lived alongside the warrant officers of the gunroom, his social inferiors. In many cases this restriction was ignored and Chaplains were granted unofficial wardroom privileges by individual Captains.

At the time of William’s first warrant Chaplains were paid the base rate of an able seaman (24 shillings per month), supplemented by 'groats' (an old English term for a coin worth four pence) one groat per month deducted from the pay of each member of the crew, and further enhanced by a small share in prize money. He had no rights to a pension or Half-pay afforded to other officer ranks. The Chaplain’s employment ended when the ship’s commission was paid off and he, like the remainder of the crew, was discharged ashore and had to either seek another commission or to seek a parish ashore.

Major changes in 1812

March 4th 1812 was a significant date for Naval Chaplains when an Order in Council was approved making sweeping changes to their status and financial arrangements, and the nucleus of a Chaplaincy Branch within the navy with the creation of the post of Chaplain-General. Some refer to this Order as the “Chaplain’s Charter”.

Article 1 stated “That every ship in her Majesty's Navy, from a first to a fifth rate inclusive, shall be allowed a Chaplain on her establishment…”
2 “That every Chaplain, after eight years of actual sea-service (or, if in a Guard-ship, ten years), during which period he shall not have been absent from duty six weeks at any one time, … shall be entitled to a pension in the nature of half-pay…”
3. That the amount of this pension or half-pay to each Chaplain shall be 5s. per day. ..

6. “That length of service and meritorious conduct shall render Chaplains eligible to all the chaplaincies of all naval establishments whatever, the disposal of which, shall or may be left to the consideration of the Board of Admiralty…”
7. “That the pay of a Chaplain, while in actual service, shall be according to the following rates, viz : 150/. per annum, and the established compensation of 11/. 18s. a year for a seniority in each rate, and to have a cabin allotted to him in the ward-room or gun-room, where he is to mess with the Lieutenants, and to be rated for victuals; and when the Chaplain shall be willing to act as Schoolmaster, he shall be entitled to the bounty of 20/. a year…”
8. “That a Chaplain-General shall be appointed with such emoluments as may be deemed proper by the Board of Admiralty, to whom all applications for appointments shall be made, or will be referred, and all regulations entrusted relating to the establishment of Chaplains for the Royal Navy, in the same manner as is practised with regard to Army Chaplains.”

The “Chaplain’s Charter”

The member of Chaplains on the Admiralty books was to remain steady throughout the Napoleonic Wars, 59 are listed in the 1814 Navy List, however only 32 were afloat. In the peace time navy of 1820 there were 56 with 21 afloat.

A successful career

 The Reverend Elliot received four commissions before his retirement. Luckily he did keep a journal covering, in some detail, his time on the DONEGAL, and to a lesser degree on the ROYAL OAK. The journal shows that he did benefit from a laissez-faire arrangement regarding his status aboard the DONEGAL and the patronage of Captain Malcolm. He records many events of historical interest over his time on the DONEGAL but the man himself has barely a mention in contemporary accounts of naval matters – his devotion to his calling is however recorded in a letter describing his conduct relating to the trial of Lieutenant Richard Gamage, of his Majesty’s brig GRIFFON for murdering a Sergeant of Marines and his subsequent conviction. He was executed on November 24rd 1812.

“He was attended almost every day, from the time of his trial until his execution, by the .Rev. W. Elliot, chaplain of the Royal Oak,- a gentleman so well informed in the principles of religion himself, and so under the influence of his holy office, as-to be fitted for a dying sinner's friend. He found considerable difficulty in depriving him of some false notions of honour, which had much agitated his mind; but at length these forsook him, and he embraced those truths -which are the sinner's only hope. When the 9 o'clock gun fired, — the signal for boats to assemble, he said to Mr. Elliot, who had hold of his hand, “See, I don't tremble, do I?" At half-past nine, Capt. Trollope, and all his messmates, assembled with him, and joined in prayer. He then said he was perfectly ready. After Captain Trollope had read the warrant, he walked up, without the least assistance, and placed himself firmly on the fatal spot.“

Naval Chronicle Vol. 28. P. 504/5

William Elliot served as a Naval Chaplain for 11 years before taking retirement to assume the post of rector of Thorneyburn in 1819, and later Simonburn, Northumberland in 1829 where he died in 1841. Both parishes were under the patronage of the Greenwich Hospital Commissioners to provide a living for ex Royal Navy Chaplains after the Napoleonic Wars.

Note: A date of 1793 has been cited in Taylor, G. (1978) p.224 and p.510 as the start of William’s naval service. The date also appears as his seniority date in a list of retired Chaplains the Navy list for 1840. Biographical research clearly shows this cannot be correct, he was at Corpus Christi, Cambridge between 1790 and 1795 when he graduated as a B.A. before being Ordained in May 1796 and appointed as curate to his brother-in-law Reverend William Lance at Tangley Chapel, Faccombe, Hampshire

Taylor., G. (1978) ‘The Sea Chaplains’ Oxford Illustrated Press, Oxford
Blake., R. (2008( ‘Evangelicals in the Royal Navy, 1775-1815: Blue Lights and Psalm-Singers’ Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge
The Church of England quarterly review Vol. VIII foot note on Page 364/5, extract from the Order in Council of March 4 1812. Downloaded from Google Books
Masters R. (1831) “Masters's History of the College of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary in the University of Cambridge”
The Church of England Clergy Database Person ID 73108

Genealogical research conducted into the reverend Elliot by Amanda Woolley for the RN Research Archive.


 The Reverend Elliot's journal covers the period March 1808 to November 1814


Original journal

183 A5 pages scanned into an acrobat document


Journal transcript

Transcribed by a group of RNRA volunteers into a 76-page A4 acrobat document



Reverend William Elliot biography researched and compiled by Amanda Woolley


 The Reverend William Elliot's Naval service

It is unclear when he began his naval service; in the retired Chaplains list for 1840 he has a seniority date of 22 June 1793

HMS DONEGAL 74-gun third rate, Téméraire-class ship of the line Mar 1808 – Feb 1811

HMS ROYAL OAK 74-gun third rate, Royal Oak-class ship of the line Sep 1811 – Jun 1815

HMS RIVOLI 74-gun third rate, Téméraire-class ship of the line Feb 1816 – Feb1817

HMS TAGUS (Aide) 38 gun fifth rate, Leda-class frigate Mar 1817 – May 1817

HMS TAGUS 8 gun fifth rate, Leda-class frigate May 1817 – Jan 1819


Brief details of the two 74-gun third rate vessels covered in the journal


 A 74 gun Téméraire-class ship of the line the LE HOCHE captured from the French with three other vessels off Ireland by Sir J.B. Warren on 12 October 1798. Pressed into RN service and commissioned as the DONEGAL at Plymouth in 1800. At the time that the Rev William Elliot joined the DONEGAL she was under the command of Captain Pulteney Malcolm (having transferred to her from HMS RENOWN in 1805), and in 1808 she was engaged in convoying troops to the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars. Capt. Malcolm oversaw the debarkation of Sir Arthur Wellesley's army at Mondego Bay, Portugal from 1 August till the 5th 1808.

From January to March 1809 DONEGAL was with Lord Gambier's fleet in the Basque Roads, a sheltered bay on the Biscay shore of France. Commanded by Capt. Edward Pelham BRENTON (act.), DONEGAL sailed from Portsmouth for Cadiz on 24 July 1809 with the Marquis Wellesley (brother of Sir Arthur) as Ambassador to the Junta at Seville. She brought the Marquis home in November and Capt. MALCOLM resumed command on her arrival at Portsmouth. In January 1810 she joined the Channel squadron and was engaged in monitoring the French fleet in Cherbourg until she was decommissioned at Portsmouth on February 28th 1811 being laid up in ordinary (Reserve). She was later moved in 1814 to Chatham still laid up in ordinary. She was broken up at Portsmouth in May 1845.



The first of six 74-gun third rate, Royal Oak-class ships of the line launched on 4 March 1809 at Deptford. Her first commanding officer was Captain the Honourable Lord Amelius Beauclerk. On 1 August 1811 he was promoted to Rear-Admiral and command of the ROYAL OAK was given to Captain Pulteney Malcolm on September 1st 1811, the Reverend Elliot accompanied him in his new command. The ship continued the long-standing blockade of Cherbourg till March 1812, when Captain Malcolm accepted the post of captain of the fleet to Lord Keith, his uncle by marriage. Captain Shortland was appointed to command the ROYAL OAK and, Rear Admiral Beauclerk Shifted his Flag from the HANNIBAL to her. Captain Edward Dix took command in 1813.

Note: from the time of the departure of his friend Captain Malcolm the Reverend’s regular journal entries cease and sporadic entries appear with little substance.

Rear Admiral Malcolm hoisted his flag in ROYAL OAK on 1 June 1814 [Captain Malcolm was promoted to be rear-admiral on 4 December 1813, but remained with Keith till June 1814]. He was to command a fleet of 16 ships carrying the troops of Brig. Gen. Ross and proceeded from Bordeaux to North America. The journal ends with the ROYAL OAK having completed the landing of the troops n the Chesapeake Bay area and withdrawn to Jamaica at the start of November 1814. The final entry is sailed for New Orleans 27th.





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Topic: The Journal of the Reverend William Elliot, Naval Chaplain
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Sep 2017
First Poster
Paul says...
What a fascinating read. Shows how life and attitudes change over time. Also great documentation of naval activities and rolls.
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