A brief introduction to uniforms in the Museum collection, intended to help costume researchers and anyone interested in the period.
The National Maritime Museum uniform collection contains over 7000 items of uniform and insignia, dating from the earliest British naval uniforms of 1748 up to the present day. Famous owners include Nelson, Beatty, Jellicoe, Cunningham and Fisher. Examples of naval ratings' uniform go back to its introduction in 1857. The Museum also holds the sailor suit made for Edward VII as Prince of Wales in 1846, based on the dress of the crew of the royal yacht. The WRNS, naval reserves, attached forces and merchant service uniforms are represented, plus smaller holdings of Honourable East India Company, Trinity House, and Thames Watermen's uniforms.
Costume researchers can find further useful material in the museum's Prints and drawings and Historic photograph collections, while transcripts of early uniform regulations and photographs of items held elsewhere are in the Library's collections.
The following items and extracts from the Museum's collections are highlights from one of the most popular periods of British naval history.
British Naval Officer's Uniform: Napoleonic War (1803–1815)
Uniform changes in 1795:
- Epaulettes on coats were introduced for the first time.
- Admirals had three silver stars on each epaulette and three rows of lace on the coat sleeve, vice-admirals two and rear-admirals one, worn with both dress and undress uniform. In practice, as opposed to the regulations, the sleeve lace seems to have been sewn on the cuff.
A flag officer's full dress blue coat had one row of gold lace round the lapels, buttonholes, tails, pockets and pocket flaps. There was an extra row on the cuffs, in addition to the distinction lace. It had a white lining and was worn with a gold laced hat, white waistcoat and breeches. The buttons remained those introduced in 1787. The undress uniform was similar but without lace on the lapels, pockets, buttonholes and the extra row on the cuff.
Captains' dress uniform was similar to that of flag officers but without laced buttonholes and with two rows of lace on cuffs. Epaulettes were plain.
With undress uniform, captains wore a plain hat, and epaulettes only some of the time. Captains with less than three years seniority wore only one epaulette on the right shoulder.
Commanders wore one epaulette on the left shoulder. Lieutenants wore the uniform with white lapels introduced in 1787 until 1812. Warrant officers' uniform was unchanged from 1787 until 1807 (this rank included pursers, gunners, boatswains, carpenters and, until 1805, surgeons). Midshipmen's uniform also remained unchanged from 1787.
Other items and images from the collection
Nelson's Trafalgar uniform
- UNI0024 coat, Neg No B9701.1-4 CT
- UNI0021 breeches Neg No 4468.1CT
- UNI0067 stockings Neg No 4468.2CT
- UNI0031-UNI0032 epaulettes
- UNI0066 stock
- UNI0065 waistcoat
- UNI0025 Undress coat of vice-admiral, which belonged to Lord Nelson
- UNI0026 Undress coat of vice-admiral, which belonged to Lord Nelson Neg No 6047a (black and white)
- UNI0028 Flag officer's white waistcoat
- UNI0027 Full dress coat, belonging to Admiral, Sir William Cornwallis (1744–1819)
- UNI0034 Pair of admiral's epaulettes, Admiral, Sir William Cornwallis (1744–1819)
- UNI0036 Leather sword belt belonging to Admiral, Sir William Cornwallis (1744–1819)
- UNI0037 Silk sword belt belonging to Admiral, Sir William Cornwallis (1744–1819)
- UNI0052 Wig belonging to Admiral, Sir William Cornwallis (1744–1819)
- UNI0078 Boat cloak said to have belonged to Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy (1769–1839)
- UNI0081 Shirt belonging to A Tozer
- UNI0091 Captain's cocked hat
1805 uniform (Medical Branch)
- BHC3116 Oil painting, Portrait of a lieutenant c.1800
- BHC3122 Oil painting, Portrait of a Warrant officer c.1790
- PAF4970 Print, midshipman c.1790 after Rowlandson Neg No PW4970 CN
- UNI0041 Full dress coat of commander, belonged to Cdr J Batt fl. 1805
- UNI0042 Undress coat of post captain Neg No 6045 (black and white)
- UNI0043 Full dress coat of captain, belonged to Alexander Hood (1758–98) Neg No 8177 (black and white)
- UNI0045 Pair of captain's epaulettes
- UNI0022 Rear-admiral's undress uniform worn by Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile Neg No 6072 (black and white)
- UNI0047 Stock, said to have been worn by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile
- UNI0023 Full dress coat of vice-admiral, which belonged to Lord Nelson
- UNI0058 Flag officer's cocked hat, worn by Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen Neg Nos D7649.1 CT D7649.2 CT
Before this date surgeons wore the same uniform as warrant officers. Items and information from the collection:
National Maritime Museum ADM/F/36 (Regulations). Extract:
Full Dress: Blue Cloth Coat, with blue Cloth Lappels, Cuffs and Collar, Collar to stand up, two rows of Gold Lace half an inch wide round the Cuffs and Collar, three Buttons on Pockets and Cuffs, white Lining, White Cloth Waistcoat and Breeches, plain Hat. Undress: Blue Cloth Coat, blue Lappels, and round Cuffs, three Buttons on Cuffs and Pockets, fall down blue Collar, Waistcoat and Breeches white or blue Cloth, as may be convenient.
Full Dress: Coat the same as the Physician with the Exception of Gold Lace, White cloth Waistcoat and Breeches, plain Hat. Surgeons of Hospitals to wear two embroidered Button-holes on the Collar; Surgeons of Ship's, one. Undress: Coat the same as the Physician, but without Buttons on Cuffs or Pockets, Waistcoat and Breeches of white or blue cloth, as may be convenient.
Dispensers of hospitals
Blue Cloth Coat lappelled, blue Collar to stand up, round Cuffs, Waistcoat and Breeches white or blue Cloth, as may be convenient, plain Hats.
Assistant surgeons and hospital mates
Blue Cloth Coat without Lappels, plain round Cuffs, stand up Collar, Waistcoat and Breeches of white or blue Cloth, as may be convenient...
Those serving afloat to wear a Button with a plain Anchor in an Oval. Those serving in Hospitals to wear a similar Button, with the addition of H.S. (For Hospital Staff).
Uniform of surgeon's mate Josiah Horwood d.1850, hat UNI0074, breeches UNI0075, Coat UNI0076 Neg No A5692 (black and white, kippered) B2897A (black and white, front), waistcoat UNI0077
Masters and pursers
Full dress: Blue cloth coat, with blue lappels, cuffs, and collar, collar to stand up, three buttons on pockets and cuffs, white lining; white cloth waistcoat and breeches; plain hat.
Undress: Blue cloth coat, blue lappels and round cuffs, fall dowwn blue collar; waistcoat and breeches of white or blue cloth as may be convenient. The buttons worn by the masters to bear the arms of the Navy Office, and by the pursers those of the Victualling Office...
Blue cloth coat, with blue lappels and round cuffs, fall down collar, three buttons to the pockets and cuff, white lining, but not edged with white; button with an anchor, same as the captain's former one; white cloth waistcoat and breeches.
Uniform changes 1812–1825
White cloth lapels and cuffs were added to the flag officer's full dress uniform. A crown was added to the buttons. White lapels and cuffs and gold lace were introduced on admiral of the fleet's undress uniform, the same as in full dress except that buttonholes were unlaced. The undress uniforms of other flag officers remained the same except for the addition of the new button. Admirals of the fleet had five rows of lace round the cuffs, admirals four, vice-admirals three and rear-admirals one.
Captains and commanders both wore two epaulettes: captains over three years' seniority with a silver crown and anchor, captains under three years with a silver anchor, commanders plain. Lieutenants' dress uniform was the same as captains but without any lace and with one plain epaulette on the right shoulder. Undress uniform for captains, commanders and lieutenants was the same as the 1795 captains' undress uniform but with the same buttons and epaulettes as in full dress. Masters and midshipmen's uniform was unaltered apart from the buttons, which were the same as captains'. The midshipmen's uniform remained officially the same from 1787 to 1891 but in practice, changed in cut.
Items in the collection
- UNI0100 Lieutenant's epaulette, one only Neg No A5405
- UNI0097 Commander's full dress coat ( UNI0106 waistcoat)
- UNI0099 Commander's epaulettes
- UNI0096 Full dress coat of a captain or commander, belonged to Captain Thomas Wells d.1825 Neg No 8181 (black and white)
- UNI0098 Captain's epaulettes belonging to J Stockham. Neg No B8586 (black and white)
- UNI0103 White waistcoat
- UNI0105 Breeches
- UNI0093 Flag officer's hat belonging to Rear-Admiral John Sprat Rainier d.1822
- UNI2869 Admiral's full dress coat belonging to Admiral George Bowen (1749- 1814?)
- UNI0094 Full dress coat of rear-admiral Neg No 8180 (black and white)
This is one of a series of research guides produced by the Museum to help you to explore the collections. For general research help see:
- Research guide A2: Principal records for maritime research at the National Maritime Museum
- Research guide A3: Tracing family history from maritime records
Although care has been taken in preparing the information contained in this document, anyone using it shall be deemed to indemnify the National Maritime Museum from any and all injury or damage arising from such use.