Joining Nelson's Navy


Joining Nelson's Navy

by Roy and Lesley Adkins

Captain Frederick Hoffman RN, (1793-1814), recalled how the food with which he was issued as a midshipman was best eaten in the dark.

"When the biscuits are manned, that is, infested by "bargemen",' he said, "they may be swallowed in this dark hole [the midshipmen's berth, lit only by candle-stubs], as it is next to an impossibility to detect them, except they quit their stow-holes and crawl out, and when they do, which is but seldom, they are made to run a race for a trifling wager. On the home station bargemen are scarcely known; it is only in warm climates where they abound. Another most destructive insect to the biscuit is the weevil, called by the mids purser's lice.'

So, it wasn't the food that attracted men to join the navy in Nelson's time!

Or was it? Even with recent history, it is easy to fall into the trap of judging conditions by present-day standards.

It is hard to magine a time before television, before the internet or before mobile phones – yet for many older people today, none of these existed when they were young children.

To understand what made Nelson's navy great, it must be seen within the context of British society 200 years ago.


Weevils, Breadbeetles and Bargemen

Nelson's sailors called any small beetles 'weevils' and all large ones 'cockroaches'. The pest found in ships biscuit is a relative of woodworm called the 'Bread Beetle' or Stegobium paniceum. Bargemen, which looked like large white maggots, were the larvae of the Cadelle beetle – Tenebroides Mauritanicus.

At that time, the navy had no trouble recruiting officers, because the service was regarded as a means of social advancement. Nelson himself was the son of a middle-class rural priest, yet he rose to become a peer.

Other officers rose at least as high, and many made their fortunes from prize-money awarded for the ships that they captured.

The high-ranking officers ate well and had their own servants and often their own cooks. Midshipmen were the most junior officers, usually recruited as teenagers, and they tended to eat the same food as the seamen because they could not afford to buy their own rations.

The Press Gang

The navy was always short of seamen and frequently resorted to the press-gang to conscript men. A warship could form a temporary press-gang from trusted members of the crew and marines, under the command of an officer, in order to recruit sailors by force.

On land the navy's Impressment Service recruited men from all over Britain. By law, a press-gang was only allowed to take seafaring men and those associated with river craft, but these rules were interpreted fairly loosely.

Only men between 18 and 55 were supposed to be pressed, but age was difficult to prove since there was no system of recording births: parish registers were kept in churches and only recorded baptisms, marriages and burials.

Any rumours of the approach of a press-gang therefore tended to cause mass panic.

Frequently the operations of the press-gang were violently opposed, and a relatively minor incident in London was reported in The Times on 9 May 1803:

"Two gallies, each having an officer and press-gang in it, in endeavouring to impress some persons at Hungerford Stairs, were resisted by a party of coal-heavers belonging to a wharf adjoining, who assailed them with coals and glass bottles.

Several of the gang were cut in a most shocking manner on their heads and legs, and a woman who happened to be in a [nearby] wherry was wounded in so dreadful a manner, that it is feared she will not survive.'

What roused ordinary people to resist the press-gangs was the hardship that resulted – not just for the men who were taken, but their families as well.

Because of the difficulties of long-distance communication, particularly for people who could not read or write, men taken by the press-gang effectively disappeared.

If the family did not know a man had been pressed, they might not discover his fate until he returned years later.
If he died at sea, they might never know.

Even for families aware of what had happened, there was no system of finding out how long a man might serve, on board what ship, and where. On top of this, there was no secure method of transmitting a seaman's pay to his family at home, and in any case sailors' pay was often in arrears.

By losing the breadwinner for an indefinite period, perhaps forever, families of pressed men were often left destitute.

Press Gang image (right) courtesy of Roy and Lesley Adkins

Adkins Archaeology Website out.


The Ship's Cook

Ships' cooks were usually disabled seamen but were ranked as warrant officers. They were rarely appointed for their culinary skills! Image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum.

Despite all this, men did join the navy of their own free will, because navy life was likely to be better than what they could expect on shore.

A seaman had somewhere to live and he had food provided, albeit of poor quality. He was also not afraid of losing his job and had easy access to largely free medical treatment – sailors only had to pay for the treatment of illnesses considered to be self-inflicted, such as venereal disease.

A sailor received an average of 365 gallons of beer a year, or equivalents in wine or grog (a mixture of rum, water and lemon), when the average annual consumption of beer on land was below 35 gallons, and his free issue of 24 pounds of tobacco a year was massive compared to the average annual consumption of just over 1 pound.

An equivalent labourer on land was in fear of losing his job, had to pay for his own food, drink and housing at relatively high prices, and seldom had money to spare for medical treatment, even if he could find a physician to treat him.

Most doctors plied their trade in towns, and favoured the middle and upper classes who could afford their fees.

An agricultural labourer at this time might earn anything between £3 and £10 a year, a maid around £5 and a schoolmaster £10-12. A quartern loaf (4 pounds of bread) cost about one shilling, so anyone earning less than £4 10s a year could not afford a pound of bread per day, which was the nominal free ration for seamen.

Even the bread was not much better ashore. It might not have weevils, but much of it was dark in colour, with a foul taste, because it was made from adulterated flour. During this period the traditional British preference for white bread was born, since the whiter the bread, the less the flour had been adulterated.

Compared with a skilled or semi-skilled labourer on land, the pay of an able seaman (the top rank of sailors) at £14 12s 6d per annum after deductions was relatively good, and even the lowest grade of unskilled sailor earned £10 11s 6d a year.

Whether pressed or willing recruits, it was the ordinary seamen who formed the backbone of Nelson's navy, welded together by the officers into a fighting force.

Navy discipline was harsh, and floggings were frequent, but this was accepted so long as the men felt that the discipline was fair – they were, after all, accustomed to draconian laws on the land, whereby a starving man could be severely punished for stealing a loaf of bread.

Some officers even managed to dispense with using the lash completely, and it was said of Admiral Collingwood that seamen would rather be flogged than face one of his lectures on the shortcomings of their conduct.

Whatever the methods used, the crews of the British navy became superb seamen and formidable fighters, whose reputation went before them. By the time of Waterloo, Britain had the most powerful navy in the world

Historic note:

It was said that in Nelson's navy that pursers took a cut of everything. The "Purser's Eight" (or '14 for 16') meant that of every pound of food that was designated for the sailor, only 14 ounces was actually given.

The purser was allowed to keep one-eighth (12 ½%) of the bulk of his stock and 10% or 5% of the rest as his commission. This was supposedly to make up for the waste, leakage and shrinkage.

This waste, was caused by insects such as weevils, cockroaches, maggots and by rats and mice and by time. Twenty pounds of biscuits when initially weighed in at time of loading could weigh as little as 10 pounds 6 months later.

An ordinary seaman's food ration for the week:

4 pounds of salt beef
2 pounds of salt pork
2 pints of pease
3 pints of oatmeal
6 ounces of butter
12 ounces of cheese

There was also a daily allotment of a pound of bread and a gallon of beer (or some other type of alcohol depending on the availability).

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