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LIFE IN NELSON'S NAVY

Tom Palmer, Amy's friend from the Foundling Hospital, is sent into the Navy at the age of 14 and he vividly relates to her, through a series of letters, the life onboard a ship starting in 1798. Tom's ship is HMS Bellerophon, or the 'Billy Ruffian' as is was known to the sailors.

HMS Bellerophon

Rum, Sodemy, and the Lash! An aphorism for life in the Royal Navy in the late 18th to early 19th Century. Rum, or grog as it was known, was watered down rum, usually three parts water to one part rum, as it was a much stronger proof than rum today. It was named in honour of Vice Admiral Vernon, whose nickname was 'old grog', after he introduced a daily ration in 1740, and every sailor received a daily grog allowance up until the practise was abolished in 1970. Each crew member was issued 2 pints a day, as anything more would have caused drunkenness which would have been severely punished, especially being drunk on duty.

Sailors below deck

Discipline on board ship was very harsh, as the crews consisted of large numbers of men who had to be kept in order, and abide by strict rules known as the Admiralty Regulations. The most common offence was drunkenness, and depending on the captain, punishment could range from stopping grog, demotion, or the most common, flogging, which was usually a dozen lashes. More serious offences needed a court martial, as in the case of anyone caught doing what were called 'unnatural or unclean acts', i.e. sodemy, or even bestiality.

In 1807 First Lieutenant William Berry was court martialled, found guilty, and hanged for molesting a cabin boy. William Bouch was caught having sex with a pig in 1812, he was sentenced to 300 lashes and spent a year in solitary confinement in the Marshalsea Prison.

Ships were divided strictly along class lines, with the captain and senior officers drawn from the middle and sometimes upper-classes, who were always gentlemen and had their own servants, as did the surgeon, purser, and chaplain who were also from the same class, whereas the sailing Master, Boatswain, and Quarter Master were often sailors who had risen through the ranks. The warrant officers usually held trades such as the carpenters, sailmakers, and caulkers. The petty offices were the Gunner's mates, Boatswains mates, and Master's mates, ship's cook and armourer. The warrant officer's mates did not hold a warrant themselves, and they were subject to the same Regulations as the other sailors.

Skilled and experienced sailors were Able Seamen, and the less experienced were known as Ordinary Seamen, with the lowest being what were called Landsmen, who were usually press-ganged and used for any heavy unskilled work.

On larger ships there would be a contingent of Marines, who kept order and discipline on ships, and acted as a deterrent against any forms of insubordination, rebellion, or mutiny.

A Gun Crew


Royal Navy gun crews were highly skilled and could load and fire a gun every 1 minute 20 seconds, and they were drilled daily in gunnery and small arms practise in readiness for battle. Apart from arms exercise, the daily duties of the sailors consisted of the working of the ship such as climbing in the tops to take care of the sails, or daily cleaning of the decks.

They worked in shifts known as a watch, with the crew working half-on and half-off in 4 hour watches, 7 days a week, with two shorter shifts known as dog watches from 4 to 6 p.m., and 6 to 8 p.m. A change of watch, and the time, was kept by ringing a bell every half-hour, with the first bell rung once at the start of a watch, twice a half-hour later, and then after 4 hours eight bells would be rung indicating the end and change of a watch.

The sailors food was in line with what the average working labourer on the land would have eaten, plus a bit extra, as the work was hard and physical, and they were given 5000 calories a day. They would also have eaten meat three times a week, whereas the majority of land labourers would have eaten meat only once a week.

Their daily rations were a pound of bread, in port fresh bread, but out at sea it would have been the hard ship's biscuit; a gallon of small beer; 2 pounds of either salt beef or pork three times a week; 1/2 pint of pease pudding, a pint of oatmeal porridge, sometimes called burgo; 2oz of butter, 4oz of cheese, and as mentioned before, 2 pints of grog.

A mess table on the 'Victory'

Officers would have eaten better rations than the men, and eaten meat everyday. Live animals were kept onboard the ship on long sea journeys, and then slaughtered and butchered when necessary. This was the reason for the presence of the pig that William Bouch was caught having sex with, which was apparently thrown overboard afterwards. Talk about the victim getting the raw deal!

Scurvy, caused by lack of vitamin C, was a constant problem on long sea journeys when the men ate salted meat and ship's biscuit after the fresh meat and vegetables had run out. At the time, nothing was known about vitamins, or the effects that deficiency caused on the body, but Dr James Lind carried out an experiment 1747 where he found that giving lemon juice to those suffering from scurvy, cured it. There were decriers, though, and there was no directive from the Admiralty to give lemon juice to sufferers, with some captains preferring to give malt or vinegar as a treatment. As did Captain Bligh on the 'Bounty', and he had a very low rate of scurvy, despite the fact that his crew mutinied.

Caricature of prostitutes being rowed to a ship in port

In his many letters to Amy, Tom plays down the worst and most brutal parts of Navy life, such as the visits to comfort houses, and the prostitutes, or bum boat girls, who were allowed to ply their trade on the ship whenever it was in port. Tom is shocked by this practise, and has nothing to do with the women, until he's egged on by his mess mates to visit a brothel in Gibraltar, and he is then racked by guilt.

Being away at sea for months at a time meant that the use of prostitutes was a regular and accepted practise, but it often resulted in the men contracting venereal disease, and it was common for ship's surgeons to treat them for such complaints. Other illnesses, and accidents that caused injuries and sometimes death were also common. Tom Palmer meets his end when a cartridge he is loading into a gun leaks powder and explodes, causing the death of him and another sailor.


Sources: 'Jack Tar: The Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary Seaman in Nelson's Navy' by Roy and Lesley Adkins.

'Feeding Nelson's Navy' by Janet Macdonald.

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