An Introduction to Life, Death and Health in Aubrey’s Royal Navy


Supplying the fleets was an immense undertaking, and was controled by the Victualing Board. The purser on each ship was in charge of supplying the food and consumables; like candles, coal, clothes (or slops as they were known) and tobacco. The food was of variable quality, corruption amongst naval suppliers was not uncommon. To preserve the meat, beef and pork, it was salted and placed in barrels. Most of the other foodstuffs were supplied dried.

Scurvy was largely overcome by the end of the Eighteenth century, although it had taken the better part of two centuries from an effective cure (lemon juice) being discovered to its widespread use in the navy. Even in the official Allowance of Provisions list from 1808 it will be noticed that there is no provision for fresh greens. Part of the twentieth regulation which accompanies it, however, does mention ‘greens and roots’ but, as a government-ordained issue, only indirectly. It says that

‘Some of the eldest Pursers of the Royal Navy’ have presented a memorial in which they state that it had been their constant practice to serve out greens and roots whenever they are provided with fresh meat:’ and it tells captains and pursers to ‘comply with what is contained in the said memorial.’

Allowance of Provisions
from Regulations and Instructions, 1808
Day Bisket lbs. Beer gals. Beef lbs. Pork lbs. Pease pints Oatmeal pints Sugar ozs. Butter ozs. Cheese ozs.
Sunday 1 1 1 0.5
Monday 1 1 0.5 2 2 4
Tuesday 1 1 2
Wednesday 1 1 0.5 0.5 2 2 4
Thursday 1 1 1 0.5
Friday 1 1 0.5 0.5 2 2 4
Saturday 1 1 2
Weekly total 7 7 4 2 2 1.5 6 6 12

The men ate in messes, usually consisting of eight men, although the number was not fixed. One of the few privileges granted to the men was the right to change mess, which they did at the start of the month. Food was prepared by the mess cook, each member of a mess taking turns. The mess cook would collect the days ration for all the mess from pursers mate or stewards mate and, in the case of the meat tie it into a bag, and put the mess number (a small metal tag) on it. He would then deliver it to the cook who boiled all the food in a large copper.

The notorious biscuit, or bread, was kept at the mess table in a bread barge. The biscuit was sometimes so old it would crumble away when tapped on the table. The frequency with which weevils were found in the bread is a subject for debate.

It is possible to overstate the poor quality of the food. Compared to his countrymen on land the sailor enjoyed regular, if monotonous, meals. Meal times were considered to be one of the highlights of the day.

The officers were entitled to the same food as the men, but the normal practice was to elect one of their number to buy in food and wine for their mess. They paid for this from their own pockets, and it was’nt compulsory to join this system, although officers who opted out were generally not popular. They messed in the ward room, or the gunroom on a frigate, and were waited on by servants (the servants were crewmen and boys, and not domestic servants. The captain had his own steward, who was a domestic servant). The officers were also supplied with fresh food from the chickens, pigs and sometimes cows housed aboard the ship, again at their own expense. The pigsty was usually placed in the forecastle, in the area that was eventuallly taken over for the sick berth. The chicken coops were often on the quarter deck. The captain could mess with his officers or dine alone, or he could ‘keep a table’, which meant that he would invite the officers to come and dine with him at his expense. The captain had his own cook and servants.

The midshipmen had their own mess in the cockpit, and by some accounts it was not a place for the timid of spirit. The midshipmen were also entitled to servants, although not as many as the senior officers, as befitted young gentlemen.

Drink and Women

Drunkeness was a big problem in the navy, contributing to a large percentage of the floggings ordered. The men were entitled to a gallon of beer per day, but this was small beer and not very alcoholic. In addition to this they received a half pint rum ration per day, with which, along with tobacco, they might hope to alleviate some of the tedium of life at sea. The rum ration was mixed with water to make grog and was issued twice a day. Hoarding your ration was a serious offence, but it was still common. As was smuggling of spirits, especially in home ports, the bumboatmen and women who visited the ships could be relied on for a regular supply.

It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see that the amount of alcohol available to the men must have been a contributary factor to the number of men dying of individual accidents. And the incidence of insanity in the navy was far higher than in the population as a whole. Given the work they did in dangerous conditions, falling, crush injuries and being drowned were almost unavoidable consequences for the unwary.

Women were permitted on board ships when they were in port (where discipline was considerably more relaxed), although this was at the captains discretion. In theory the women were supposed to be the sailors wives and were signed on board by the seaman, who were responsible for their conduct. In practice the majority of the women who came on board were prostitutes and to some of the more puritanical seamen and officers the scenes below deck, where there was no privacy, were shocking and disgusting. When the Prince was in dock in Portsmouth one eyewitness reports that 450 women came on board, and only 50 were actually wives of sailors serving on the ship.

At sea Admiralty regulations forbade the carrying of women, however as with many regulations this was often ignored. Estimates vary as to the numbers of women actually at sea with the fleet, but the wives of important members of the ships company, such as the gunner and the carpenter were often found on board ship. Children were also at sea; the youngest boy at the battle of Trafalgar was just eight years old, and his nine year old friend had been born at sea.

For an idea of how the day was organised on board a ship at sea look at The Watch System.

Causes of Death

By Disease 2592 50.0
By Individual Accident 1630 31.5
By Foundering, Wreck, Fire, Explosion 530 10.2
By the Enemy, killed in action 281 5.4
By the Enemy, died of wounds 150 2.9
All Causes 5183 100

Death From Disease

That disease should kill more sailors than any other cause would not be a surprise to anyone who has studied casualty lists of any war up to 1900. Given the conditions on board the average ship of the line it is perhaps surprising that the figures are no higher. Large numbers of men accomodated in cramped and damp conditions with inadequate nutrition and water provided a fertile breeding ground for disease, especially typhus, known on shore as gaol fever.

Conditions were slowly improving towards the end of the Eighteenth century. Although the disease mortality rate in 1815 was still 1 in 30. 25, compared to 1 in 80 for men aged 20 to 40 on land and 1 in 55 for enemy prisoners of war.

The ballast used in ships was being changed from shingle to pigs of iron, which could be moved and cleaned in a way not possible with shingle. Shingle ballasts slowly accumulated the rot and detritus of the upper decks evolving into a stinking cesspool.

Iron tanks for water were also replacing the old wooden water butts, they kept the water fresher for longer and eliminated one of the heavy tasks that contributed to the sailors poor health, namely the constant lowering and hoisting of heavy casks. Rupture, or hernias, were a serious problem and the annual issue of trusses to sailors was close to 4,000.

Tropical diseases such as yellow fever and malaria would strike down ships crews when they were stationed in the West Indies. The Brunswick went out to the West Indies in 1801 and was almost immediately hit by yellow fever with 287 men on the sick list. The Hannibal lost 200 men in six months.

Surgery was rudimentary, and few effective medicines were available. Until 1804 surgeons were expected to provide their own drugs and equipment. Most surgeons took pride in the speed with which they could perform an amputation. Amputation was then the only treatment considered for limbs smashed by splinters or cannon balls. In the midst of a battle the loblolly men as the surgeons assistants (not the surgeons mates, who were more skilled) were called, could easily fill a tub with severed limbs. Complicated surgical procedures on abdominal wounds were impossible, even on shore, in the eighteenth century. Infections were almost inevitable. And these sorts of wound were often fatal.

The common practice when treating amputations was to tie off the arteries and veins with ligatures and leave them hanging free from the wound, to be removed when it had healed. This had the unfortunate consequence of allowing infection easy access to the wound. Many men who survived the initial amputation succumbed later to bacterial infections.

A Final Word…

A comparison between the casualty figures for the Royal Navy in major battles and British land forces is instructive.

Taking perhaps the two most famous battles of the Napoleonic wars (involving the British) Trafalgar and Waterloo, we can see that the chance of being killed or wounded in a naval engagement was less than half that of a soldier involved in a set piece battle.

Approximately 19000 men were aboard the British ships at Trafalgar, of whom 1700 were casualties, just under 9% of the total. At Waterloo of the 68000 allied troops engaged 15000 were casualties, 22% of the total.

These figures can be partly explained by the difficulty of fighting and sailing ships in a big ship action. The figures for Trafalgar show that although some ships were heavily engaged and suffered as a result, others only had light brushes with the enemy. At Waterloo virtually all units were engaged, some for most of the day ( from 11:30 am to 9:00 pm), leading to very high casualty figures.

Courtesy of Broadside.

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

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