A large first-rate, said to be HMS Victory, lying off the mouth of the Tagus. By Thomas Buttersworth (1768-1842).
Top notch. The best. The finest. To be ‘first rate’ is to be unexcelled. The phrase initially appeared in the London Gazette in 1666, in a report on the building of 12 ships for the Royal Navy, ‘all of the first rate’. Fifteen years later, in John Lacy’s Sir Hercules Buffoon, it was being applied by the playwright to people, with some said to have ‘first-, second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-rate wits’.
By 1810, the phrase had found its way into sports, with the Sporting Magazine counting some prizefighters as ‘boxers of first-rate’. Today, the phrase remains an integral part of the English language, with the finest athletes, fanciest hotels, and fastest cars all routinely described as ‘first rate’.
The term ‘first rate’ has its origins in the Royal Navy’s system of classification of its larger warships. The Navy divided those ships that could take their place in the ‘line of battle’ and hold their own – ‘ships of the line’ – into six size categories, or ‘rates’.
The ‘first-rate’ ships of the line were the biggest and most heavily armed, carrying some 100 or more cannons on three decks. A first-rate would ordinarily embark over 830 sailors and 170 Royal Marines. They were expensive, and in 1805, the year of Trafalgar, the Royal Navy had scarcely eight of them. Below the first-rates were the three-deck second-rates, typically bearing 98 guns and about 900 men.
Much more numerous were the smaller, two-decked third-rates: there were 131 of them in the Navy in 1805. These ships, with some 74 cannons and around 750 men aboard, blended both nimbleness and firepower, and were comparatively economical to build and operate.
Below the third-rates were the fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-rates. Though still rated, by the early 19th century they were considered too small to be used in the line of battle.
This article appeared in issue 71 of Military History Monthly.