Before this building was constructed, officers were trained in a number of different locations. Traditionally, sea-based apprenticeships meant that officers were thrown straight in at the deep end as it were, but in 1733 a Royal Naval Academy was established at Portsmouth. In 1806 its name was changed to the Royal Naval College, but not everyone thought that studying in a classroom was the best way to train sailors, and in 1837 it was closed down.
It must have been recognised that academic knowledge also had a part to play in the training of officers because in 1859 it was decided to convert the ailing hospital ship HMS Britannia into one for training cadets. In 1862 she was moved from her home at Portsmouth to Portland, but a year later was transferred to calmer waters at Dartmouth.
By 1869 the former hospital ship was in intensive care herself and ended up in the breakers yard. She was replaced by HMS Prince of Wales, which changed its name to HMS Britannia, and even though HMS Hindostan had been added in 1865 to help out, overcrowding on the two hulks meant that a shore-based building was becoming a necessity, and in 1898 work started on building the Britannia Royal Naval College.