Sea life in Nelson’s time

In the days of Admiral Lord Nelson, when a man volunteered or was pressed into service in the Royal Navy he would be issued with a wooden bowl, a wooden mug or tankard, and a wooden spoon with which to eat his food. He was also issued with a square wooden plate, from which we have inherited the saying that is still sometimes used to this day, ‘three square meals a day’.

The items mentioned in this article are represented in the picture, with a model of Lord Nelson’s Flagship, Victory, in the background. The wood-turning of the bowl, spoon and tankard are by Adrian Steel, RN retired of Auckland. The wine decanters were purchased from the Nelson Collection at the Royal Dockyard Portsmouth.

There is a misconception that sailors of that time were poorly fed. However, by the standards of the day they were very well fed, mostly on salt pork and salt beef. Once the pork or beef was removed from the barrels it had been preserved in, the leftover salt sludge was used to rub into the ship’s rigging to preserve it from the effects of rain and sun. It was said that — although whistling was forbidden in the navy, in case, in those superstitious times, it should ‘whistle up a wind’ that could overwhelm the ship — they were actually ordered to whistle while  applying the salt sludge to the ropework just to prove they weren’t eating it. On merchant vessels of that time the sludge was retained by the crew and, when next in port, sold and the money saved in a ‘slush fund’ to buy extra rations.

To supplement for the lack of vitamin C, when there were no fresh vegetables, sailors were issued lemon juice to ward off scurvy. American sailors who observed this practice mistook the lemons for limes, hence their name for British sailors, which they still use to this day, which is, of course, ‘Limeys’.

Conditions for the ordinary sailors aboard warships of that time, such as Admiral Lord Nelson’s Flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, the Victory, were extremely cramped and unhygienic. There were no toilets, only buckets, which had to be emptied into the sea through purpose-built apertures right in the bows, or head of the ship. This is where the modern navy gets its term for toilets, which of course is ‘heads’.

The only lighting available in the rather dark interior of the ship were tallow candle lanterns known as ‘glims’, which when lit gave off a horrible smell.

What is not often remembered these days is that back then many women and children served aboard fighting ships. Their job in battle was to supply the cannon with powder from the magazines, which acquired them the name of ‘powder monkeys’. A few of the women and some children who had strong stomachs and brave hearts became surgeon’s assistants, known as ‘loblolly boys’ (even if they were women). They assisted the surgeon to amputate shattered limbs, bind up wounds and put the dead over the side. Interestingly, although these women were vital whilst the ship was engaged in battle, the navy ignored them to the point of denying their existence. Sometime after the Battle of Trafalgar, the British Admiralty struck a commemorative medal for those involved. Hundreds of women who had been on the various ships and had fought bravely alongside the men also applied. Every last one of them was refused.

There were no facilities on board to cleanse wounds or wash bodies  because of the lack of fresh water, but there was rum for men to drink to deaden the pain. Also, during an amputation, in an attempt to mitigate the pain, the patient would be given a lead musket ball to bite on, thereby ‘biting the bullet’.

Because fresh water did not last long at sea, the navy relied almost entirely on large quantities of alcoholic drinks, which did keep well. Alcoholic drink did keep the crew alive and healthy, but also quite possibly, because of the constant fear of mutiny, it also kept them somewhat subdued. Men were allowed half a pint of rum a day, issued half at noon and half in the evening. The main substitute for water was an issue of eight pints of beer a day, in normal circumstances, but often before battle they were given an extra issue of rum, for ‘Dutch courage’.

The officers had to provide their own eating and drinking utensils, which in the case of officers from wealthy or aristocratic families, or officers made rich by prize money, would be the very best. China plates and silver, pewter or china tankards, cut-glass wine glasses, silver or gold cutlery and serving dishes. The officers also faced the problem of the water running out or going bad, but they tended to drink wines and spirits, especially brandy, or if they had recently captured a French ship then it would be the very best brandy, cognac.

A very good account of sailors’ reliance on alcoholic drink while at sea comes to us from Lord Nelson’s time. However, in the following, particularly well-documented case, it comes, not from the Royal Navy, but from the fledgling American Navy during their struggle to form a Union of States, independent from Britain.

In July 1798 the USS Constitution sailed from Boston with a full compliment of 475 officers and men, 48,600 gallons of fresh water, 79,000 gallons of rum and enough other provisions to last six months. Her mission was to harass and destroy English shipping.

She arrived off Jamaica in October, where she took on board 826 pounds of flour and 68,300 gallons of rum. A month later she was in the Azores, where she stored with 550 pounds of beef and 64,300 gallons of Portuguese wine, before setting sail for England. For the final months of 1798 she fought and sank five British warships and also captured and then sank twelve British Merchant ships, salvaging only their rum, wine and beer.

By early January 1799, with her gunpowder and shot exhausted, leaving her virtually unarmed, she made one final night raid on the Firth of Clyde in Scotland, where her landing party captured, without the need to fire a single shot, a whisky distillery. Before morning, they’d transferred on board the ship 20,000 gallons of single malt whisky.

The USS Constitution arrived back in Boston in late February 1799 with no cannon shot, no gunpowder, no food, no wine, no rum and, more importantly, no malt whisky, which they must have consumed at almost a gallon per man per day. But they did still have 38,600 gallons of stagnant water. That’s my sort of ship and my sort of navy.


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