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RN in the age of sail - was it as bad as all that?

One of the BLM threads is being derailed by an interesting discussion on whether life in the Royal Navy in and around the Napoleonic Period was one of misery, harsh discipline, rubbish food and general petty theft of working age people in sea towns to crew the King's Ships.

I would argue strongly that by the standards of the day it was pretty good as these things go. In times of war there was always a significant shortage of experienced seamen and consequently wages on merchantmen flew up. Whilst you could ostensibly earn a lot more, you also faced harder work as they ran with the minimum crew and so the tons per person was very high (with greater exertion needed).

Conversely on a King's Ship there were a lot of extra hands who could muck in with the unskilled manual work such as weighing anchor and the like, whose role otherwise was to be there for warfare only (i.e serving the guns). This varied per ship, with men per ton being greater in a first rate than a small cruising vessel, but even then this would likely be better than a merchantman.

It's also interesting that the Navy did try perhaps more than an other large employer to treat its crews well. A mill would not go out of its way to do anything but forget a worker who got mauled in its machinery.

Contrast that to a service which built specific hospitals for its men, found appropriate billets for disabled crew (the one-legged ship's cook stereotype exists for a reason) and which used permanent positions in port and aboard ships-in-ordinary as an extra means of pension for service senior ratings (uncrewed ships in reserve nevertheless would have permanent warrant officer positions). These went beyond the practicalities of keep the ships serviceable and evidence can be seen of using these means to look after loyal men who otherwise would have been discharged.

This is not to say it was some philanthropical organisation on a crusade of workers' rights. The welfare considerations didn't often stretch beyond practical reasons -- a means of keeping its ships reasonably well manned, or rewarding loyal followers. Likewise efforts were made to keep the channel fleets well victualled with fresh food. Not for morale but to reduce avoidable manning wastage which may not be replicatable in foreign seas.

But that being said, were I to pick between being a sailor or a soldier, or otherwise a labourer on land or a factory worker, I think I would probably take The Service.

What would your take be?
 

Helm

MIA
Moderator
Book Reviewer
It was pretty grim, but then life in general was. The Navy bods would it seems to have a better chance of real prize money as opposed to the Army ones, obviously only the USAAF was in existence back then so not sure what if any prize money they might have had. They would have none of the footslogging either, then again they had the option of the wonderful world of scurvy to look forward to. Both would have relied to a large extent on the hope of decent officers which seemed to be the case by and large.
 
Well I should have clarified of course life was still pretty hard! But even with scurvy they at least tried to combat it.

I'm not sure I can add much to your comments on the usaaf. It all seems so obvious when you put it like that!
 

Helm

MIA
Moderator
Book Reviewer
Well I should have clarified of course life was still pretty hard! But even with scurvy they at least tried to combat it.

I'm not sure I can add much to your comments on the usaaf. It all seems so obvious when you put it like that!
It was a tongue in cheek reference to
 
Going aloft in a gale to reef tops'ls in January... with bare feet... at night... in the Baltic, or negotiating treacherous Spanish mountain passes with disintegrated boots in winter? It's a toughie. I think I'd need a safe space... or a workhouse. I wouldn't have liked to face any of Boney's daughters, whether ashore or afloat.
 
In recent history there has been a subsection of the navy where life was particulary 'hard living'. The ships were male only- this often led to feral living as the testosterone built up to competetive levels-and existing became an enduring contest to simply 'out gross' one another. Scurvy was rife, as were STDs - mainly due to the lack of female interaction leading most to shag anything with 3 holes and a heartbeat upon going ashore.
The lack of females onboard also equalled no need to impress/look good. These ships were full of sailors who prided themselves on the length of their sideburns-often growing hairdos that could best be described as Princess Diana tributes. On the pipe of "secure" at 11:30 on a Friday- historic NASA imagery shows a distinct cloud of Lynx Africa and Denim deordorant emanating from an area above Pompey dockyard.

These ships were known as Type 42s.


@Ravers
 

FORMER_FYRDMAN

LE
Book Reviewer
N.A.M. Rodger's 'The Wooden World' is worth a read on this subject.

My conclusion is that the RN, with its chance of a lottery win at the expense of the French, was among the better options open to the working class during the Age of Sail - which says something about the alternatives.
 
. . . the thing is with these 'what was it like . . . ?' questions is that (contemporary impressions notwithstanding) we can never know.

Sure, the records of the day can be studied and opinions formed and those opinions would be well informed.

But we still wouldn't know.

On this subject I take the view that life for the RN ratings of the latter part of the 18th to the middle of the 19th Century would have been pretty damned miserable: until the latter part of the 18th Century, when cooper sheathing* of the lower hulls of RN ships became more widely used, the bulk of the Andrew were sailing the seas in slowly rotting hulks, with the ship (literally and figuratively) vanishing before their eyes.

. . . still, as has been mentioned, it was probably a better life of the period than if you'd gone for a soldier . . .

*hence the phrase 'copper bottomed' as a hint to quality
 
N.A.M. Rodger's 'The Wooden World' is worth a read on this subject.

My conclusion is that the RN, with its chance of a lottery win at the expense of the French, was among the better options open to the working class during the Age of Sail - which says something about the alternatives.

Most of what I was waffling about was based on Rodger's works. Which I shall be re-reading very soon I think.
 

Ravers

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
In recent history there has been a subsection of the navy where life was particulary 'hard living'. The ships were male only- this often led to feral living as the testosterone built up to competetive levels-and existing became an enduring contest to simply 'out gross' one another. Scurvy was rife, as were STDs - mainly due to the lack of female interaction leading most to shag anything with 3 holes and a heartbeat upon going ashore.
The lack of females onboard also equalled no need to impress/look good. These ships were full of sailors who prided themselves on the length of their sideburns-often growing hairdos that could best be described as Princess Diana tributes. On the pipe of "secure" at 11:30 on a Friday- historic NASA imagery shows a distinct cloud of Lynx Africa and Denim deordorant emanating from an area above Pompey dockyard.

These ships were known as Type 42s.


@Ravers

I have no retort to this.

Everything in the above post is true.
 
I have commented on this before. There is a wealth of information on what life was like oboard ships in those times. It's all stored (or at least was) in various buildings in South Yard Devonport dockyard. There were shelves of books/incident logs/ships logs/general admin from WW2 going way way back. There are even shelves of brand new-never issued bits of kit. The problem was (as I understand it) the stuff has never been catalogued and-as it has not been inputted onto any modern stores system-does not officially exist. It cannot be disposed of for that same reason. The MOD refused to fund what was an attempt to start a museum up there, and for many years was staffed by a few ex-RN volunteers- mainy ex-submariners off HMS Courageous-sister ship of one that sunk Belgrano.
It was a very eerie-yet informative and interesting place to work for the nearly a year I was attached to it whilst P7RD.
 
I have read that quality of life on board an RN warship could depend very much on the character of the Captain.

A good Captain would often have, in naval terms, a "happy ship" - the crew were treated well, the captain was respected if not actually popular, service conditions were good and punishments such as flogging kept to minimum. The crew woud have taken pride in their ship, their work and their appearance. Apparently there are plenty of examples of such ships if you search the records.

On the other hand there are cases of Captains or other officers who abused their authority and could make the crew's lives a miserable existance:

In this context, the power to inflict summary punishment at a commander’s discretion created conditions that made penal severity more likely. Martinets in positionsof command were unleashed. One of the most infamous was Richard Corbet, captain ofthe frigateNereide.Corbet was a strict but respected officer, having been praised byNelson for bravery and efficiency. After Corbet assumed command of theNereidein1806, he gained a reputation for brutality; in a crew numbering only about 250 men heinflicted 134 floggings in just 211 days, with an average punishment of 17 lashes. Thatwas a severe if not outrageous regime by the newly prevailing standards in the RoyalNavy, but matters soon grew much worse. In 1808, Corbet inflicted 198 floggings andthe average punishment he inflicted consisted of 25 lashes. Eventually, in January 1809Corbet provoked a mutiny against his command.

These two articles make for some interesting reading:

Punishment in the Royal Navy

Threat, Deterrence, and Penal Severity:An Analysis of Flogging in the Royal Navy,1740–1820
 

Yokel

LE
Back on topic....

It would be interesting to compare the rates of disease and accidental injury among the crews of Nelson's fleet during the period of his victories at Copenhagen, St Vincent, the Nile, and ultimately Trafslgar, with that of the Army who fought Napoleon's forces on the continent a few years later.
 
I have read that quality of life on board an RN warship could depend very much on the character of the Captain.

A good Captain would often have, in naval terms, a "happy ship" - the crew were treated well, the captain was respected if not actually popular, service conditions were good and punishments such as flogging kept to minimum. The crew woud have taken pride in their ship, their work and their appearance. Apparently there are plenty of examples of such ships if you search the records.

On the other hand there are cases of Captains who abusedtheir authority and culd make the crew's lives a miserable existance:

In this context, the power to inflict summary punishment at a commander’s discretion created conditions that made penal severity more likely. Martinets in positionsof command were unleashed. One of the most infamous was Richard Corbet, captain ofthe frigateNereide.Corbet was a strict but respected officer, having been praised byNelson for bravery and efficiency. After Corbet assumed command of theNereidein1806, he gained a reputation for brutality; in a crew numbering only about 250 men heinflicted 134 floggings in just 211 days, with an average punishment of 17 lashes. Thatwas a severe if not outrageous regime by the newly prevailing standards in the RoyalNavy, but matters soon grew much worse. In 1808, Corbet inflicted 198 floggings andthe average punishment he inflicted consisted of 25 lashes. Eventually, in January 1809Corbet provoked a mutiny against his command.

These two articles make for some interesting reading:

Punishment in the Royal Navy

Threat, Deterrence, and Penal Severity:An Analysis of Flogging in the Royal Navy,1740–1820
Still the same today and- I expect similar in the army. I've had a ship where the captain was a bit of a cock- deliberately "volunteering" the ship for stuff and in some cases being told by yanks to leave the exercise area as we were getting in the way. Banning various things onboard- ordering the ship to change course as the sun was in his eyes as he read a book on the STbd bridge wing...

That sort of attitude does indeed filter down- the other officers wish to please the captain so also affectate draconianism, then some senior rates-wishing to raise their profile will also pretend to be all "Sgt Major". The junior rates at the bottom of the pile just get trod on and morale becomes shit.
 

Ravers

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
Interesting thread. There was obviously a draw to life at sea back then otherwise people wouldn’t have done it. It wasn’t all press gangs.

I liken it to space exploration now.

300 years ago, going to South America or Australia on a ship was probably as alien to most people as going to the moon. They knew it was dangerous, but the chance to earn some money and do something very few people got to experience, probably made it worth it.

The risk of flogging, disease or getting cut in half by a French canon ball was probably pretty tame compared to living in your average city back then, where crime and disease was rife and the only real jobs were basically akin to slave labour in mills or factories.

I would’ve signed up.
 

There's a few books of this genre about but I think this is the one I've read and reccommend it.
 

philc

LE
I would not be so dismissive of farm life late 1780s/1820s It was for a small group not so bad, those tied to farms, a cottage and small plot could have a decent life. Even those casual workers possibly had better lives than the RN or Army. I have read the number of days worked was in the 200,s leaving either spare time or days to work else where.
 

cymraeg

War Hero

There's a few books of this genre about but I think this is the one I've read and reccommend it.

I can second this as a good read and is available free online from...........
(Runs off to find link)
 

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