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Life in Nelson's Navy
By Brian Lavery
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Brian Lavery
All rights reserved.
Joining the Navy
For a young man with good connections and some education, the Royal Navy in the days of Nelson offered an exciting career. He would join the most successful armed force in the world, with the possible exception of the French army – a force which defeated every opponent who dared to put to sea, often against heavy odds. He could see the world, fight the enemies of his king, and possibly become rich through prize money. He might hope to follow in the tradition of Nelson himself, who was killed in 1805 after leading his fleet into three major victories.
Much depended on the young man's own talents: he could rise to become an admiral, and possibly a knight or a lord. His parents might worry about losing their son at sea, but for a large family a naval career had the great advantage that his education was almost free. It was no job for a quiet, studious boy, and he had to be as courageous as Jane Austen's brother Francis:
Fearless of danger, braving pain,
And threaten'd very oft in vain.
The boy would start at the age of about 12 or 13. His parents had to find a Royal Navy captain who was willing to take him on, perhaps a relative or a political or business connection. The young Horatio Nelson was lucky that his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, was appointed to a ship when the boy was just the right age. Arriving on board, the young man would be rated as a captain's servant or a volunteer first class. He was often bewildered at first. He lived in a mess below decks with the other boys, where anarchy often reigned. Above decks, there were perhaps 40 miles of rope rigging that he had to understand, and up to 100 guns. He might find himself in battle within days of joining, as did Frederick Hoffman in the frigate Blonde in the English Channel in 1793: 'Two of the enemy's frigates were now within gunshot and the two others nearing us fast. We had almost despaired of escaping, when fortunately one of our shot brought down the advanced frigate's fore topsail yard.'
The young man would carry on with his education under the ship's chaplain or schoolmaster, and learn navigation under the master. After three years he could be promoted to midshipman and begin to take some responsibility, perhaps taking charge of a group of seamen for welfare and disciplinary purposes, commanding one of the ship's boats or a group of guns in action, or acting as deputy to the officer of the watch. He might spend some time in the more senior post of master's mate. After a total of six years he was entitled to sit a stiff oral examination before three captains, which not everyone passed. William Badcock was examined by Sir Andrew Snape Hammond in May 1805, and on the way in he met a midshipman who had failed. Badcock was questioned on 'double altitude, bearings and distances &c.' and asked to issue the orders to take an imaginary ship out of harbour. He passed, bowed to the officers and bolted out of the room to be 'surrounded in a moment by the other poor fellows, who were anxiously waiting their turn to be called in for examination'.
For every lieutenant on the average ship, there were about a hundred others – seamen, craftsmen, marines, servants, boys and unskilled landsmen. The seamen were the most important, the skilled men who steered the ship, handed the sails and took charge of the guns in action. The navy had no training scheme for them, and most of them were recruited from merchant ships, where they too had begun their careers as boys. According to the economist Adam Smith,
their skill and dexterity are much superior to that of almost any artificers, and though their whole life is one continuous scene of danger and hardship, yet for all the skill, for all the hardships and dangers, while they remain in the condition of common sailors, they receive scarce any other recompense than the pleasure of exercising the one and of surmounting the other. Their wages are not greater than those of common labourers at the port which regulates the rate of seaman's wages.
Merchant wages were high in wartime, and the press gang was often necessary to get men into the navy. Popular myth suggests that this terrorised whole districts, and dragged unwilling landsmen into the fleet. In practice the members of the gang often lived in fear of their own safety, and they usually took only experienced men for the navy. Some gangs were based in seaport towns such as London, Liverpool, Hull and Newcastle. Others operated off the coast, stopping merchant ships and taking part of the crew off. Some gangs were members of the crews of warships at sea, some were based permanently on shore. It was a hard life for the officers and men of the gang, and in 1814 Lieutenant Forbes in Greenock wanted to be replaced 'in consequence of the repeated insults I meet with in the streets of Greenock, and the mob having proceeded even up the stairs to the door of my lodgings ... It is hard to say what so ferocious a people might do.' At Hull early the next year, a seaman escaped the press gang by slipping out of his jacket. He was recaptured but,
A number of workmen joined the mob and liberated the sailor. A regular chase, or running fight, was kept up through Low-gate. The gang applied in vain for assistance at the Mansion House, and dispersed to their several homes; but the mob, now exasperated, proceeded in a riotous manner through the market place and Humber Street to the press gang's rendezvous ... the mob (many of whom were sailors) completely wrecked the house.
Apart from low wages, sailors hated the navy because they could not leave at the end of a voyage. When their ship came out of service, they were usually transferred to another without any choice in the matter, and perhaps separated from their messmates and friends. Unless they were ill enough to be invalided out, or they deserted, they were in until the end of the war. When he was impressed in 1794, Seaman John Nicol wrote, 'I found myself in a situation I could not leave, a bondage which had been imposed on me against my will.' The French Revolutionary War lasted nine years, from 1793 to 1802, and the Napoleonic Wars from 1803 to 1815, with one short break. Men had no absolute right to shore leave, and captains were reluctant to grant it in case the men deserted. It was possible for a man to spend several years without setting foot on shore.
Arriving on board a warship, the experienced seamen were rated by the first lieutenant. Some might become petty officers, taking charge of a group of men working on one of the masts, or giving orders to the crew as boatswain's mates. The more experienced men would become able seamen, if they had at least seven years at sea and had various skills. Less experienced men were rated as ordinary seamen, and in 1807 they had a basic pay of £1 5s 6d (£1.27 ½) per month, from which their clothing, living costs and tobacco were deducted.
The seaman was a brave, exotic and rather feckless creature, as seen by a ship's surgeon:
The mind, by custom and example, is thus trained to brave the fury of the elements in their different forms, with a degree of contempt at danger and death that is to be met nowhere else. Excluded by the employment which they have chosen from all society but people of similar dispositions, the deficiencies of education are not felt, and information on general affairs is seldom courted. Their pride consists in being reputed a thorough bred seaman; and they look upon all landmen, as being of an inferior order ... their money is lavished with the most thoughtless profusion; fine clothes for his girl, a silver watch, and silver buckles for himself, are often the sole return for years of labour and hardship. When his officer refuses him leave to go on shore, his purse is sometimes with the coldest indifference consigned to the deep, that it may no longer remind him of pleasures he cannot command.
Skilled seamen made up about 40 per cent of the crew in an average ship. Some of the others were craftsmen such as carpenters, coopers and skilled metalworkers. Others were servants. Up to a fifth of the men on board were marines, wearing the red coats of the army and commanded by officers and sergeants in typical military fashion. Some of the crew were boys under training, often recruited by bodies such as the Marine Society, which took poor boys from the streets and slums of the big cities, issued them with clothes and sent them to the navy.
Others were landsmen, often with no skills that were useful on board ship, and often they had the worst time of it. A few of them were ex-prisoners, but not nearly as many as popular legend suggests, for the navy did not like to take hardened criminals into its ranks. They might take smugglers who had good sailing skills, or debtors, or innocent men who needed the naval bounty to secure their release from jail. Some had recently been made unemployed in declining trades such as hand-loom weaving, some were lured into the navy by huge sums offered as bounty. This was especially true in 1795, when a law was passed requiring each local authority to send a specific number of men to the navy. Skilled seamen were preferred as always, and counted double on the final tally, but in desperation many landsmen were recruited by the offers of bounty of up to £70, five years wages for a seaman. On board ship, these men might learn to become sailors, but only those who started at the age of about 25 or less were likely to do so. The rest were doomed to spend many years in menial jobs.CHAPTER 2
A new recruit to the navy, whether willing or not, would probably find himself on board a small vessel known as a press tender to take him to the fleet. This was often a scene of horror. According to William Hay,
Upon getting on board this vessel, we were ordered down in the hold, and the grating was put over us; as well as a guard of marines placed round the hatchway, with their muskets loaded and fixed bayonets, as though we had been culprits of the first degree, or capital convicts. In this place we spent the day and the following night huddled together, for there was not room to sit or stand separate.
After that the man might be taken to a depot ship at one of the great naval anchorages, the Nore in the mouth of the Thames, Spithead off Portsmouth, or Plymouth Sound. Then he would be assigned to a seagoing ship, which might be anything from a great three-decker of more than a hundred guns, to a tiny two-masted brig or schooner with ten or twelve 'popguns'.
The first thing anyone would notice on approaching a ship would be the great height of the masts and the yards which projected from them and carried sails. There was a great mass of rigging, the black standing rigging that supported the masts, and the buff-coloured running rigging that was used to manipulate the yards and sails. Practically all the ships of Nelson's navy were propelled by sail, except for a few small gunboats that used oars. All the large ships had three masts, which were square-rigged. That meant that the sails were fitted across the ship and hung from yards, and were roughly square in shape. Each ship had a bowsprit, which projected diagonally forward of the hull above the figurehead and was used to spread sails and brace the mast. They were best at sailing with the wind behind and coming from about 45 degrees over the stern (on the quarter) or from right angles to the ship on one side or the other (on the beam). They were less effective when the wind was ahead – they could tack (zigzag) into the wind, but they would make very little progress, and captains usually preferred to wait for suitable winds, or follow routes that guaranteed them, for example the favourable trade winds.
Ships at the time of Nelson's navy were made almost entirely of wood, and even most of the fastenings that held the hull together were wooden pegs, known as trenails. There were some iron bolts above the waterline, but they had to be made in a copper alloy in the lower part of the ship. The underwater part of the hull was covered in copper to keep out shipworm and deter weed, and iron bolts in that area would cause electrolysis and decay of the iron and copper. The main ironwork in a ship consisted of the guns, ranged down each side on one, two or three decks, and firing through gunports that opened in the sides.
The decks of each ship were laid as low as possible to keep the guns, and therefore the centre of gravity, low. This was most marked in smaller ships, but even in a 74-gun ship the height between decks was no more than 7ft. In practice it was much less than that, as the beams supporting the deck were perhaps 14in thick, so the real height was less than 6ft. It was even less in the or lop deck below, and any man above average height would be almost bent double as he moved about.
Ships were usually known by their number of guns, anything from ten to a hundred. They were also given rates. A first rate had a hundred guns or more, a third rate had seventy to eighty, a fifth rate had thirty to forty-six – it was nothing to do with the quality of the ship. They were also known by the number of decks.
The largest ships in the fleet were the great three-deckers, carrying ninety guns and upwards. They were poor at sailing, but made up for it with great gun power. The extra space was often used to carry an admiral and his staff – Nelson used HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar while his second-in-command Cuthbert Collingwood was in the Royal Sovereign, which also had one hundred guns.
The 74-gun ship of the third rate was one of the most common types in the fleet. It had its guns on two decks and was considered a ship of the line, able to stand in the line of battle with other ships and face the largest that the enemy might put up against it. It was a highly successful type, with a battery of 32-pound guns, which were the heaviest that could be used in practice, and better speed than a three-decker. There were sixteen of them among the twenty-seven ships of the line in the British fleet at Trafalgar, and eighty-seven (out of a total of 175 ships of the line) in the navy as a whole at that time. They were slightly less popular with the crews – they did not offer the fame and style of a great flagship, or the glamour of a frigate. The smallest ships of the line carried sixty-four guns, but the heaviest of them were only 24-pounders and they were obsolete for the line of battle. It was said in 1795, 'There is no difference of opinion respecting 64-gun ships being struck out of the rates. It is a fact that our naval officers either pray or swear against being appointed to serve on board them.'This did not prevent Horatio Nelson, then a senior captain, being overjoyed when offered the command of the Agamemnon in 1793, after five long years on the beach. 'After cloud comes sunshine. The Admiralty so smile on me, that I really am as much surprised as when they frowned.'
Frigates carried only a single deck of guns, and the deck below, though just above the waterline, was unarmed. Their guns were light, mostly 18-pounders, though 24-pounder frigates were coming into use. The frigate could sail well in almost any weather. With the main fleet, it was used to scout ahead and to transmit signals from the flagship. It could carry messages, escort merchant ships, or attack enemy commerce. This was the most popular role, for it allowed the officers and men to gain prize money from captured enemy ships. Captain Francis Austen tried hard to get the command of one, but his administrative abilities made him too valuable as flag captain to an admiral, so he never became rich like his sister's creation Captain Wentworth. The frigate was also popular with crews. Its lower deck had no guns and so there was more room for the men to live and take their recreation. It was a sleek, well-proportioned ship, popular with the public and with artists.
It was commonly believed that French warships were superior to British ones, especially frigates, which were found to be faster. Naval officers were always pleased to be appointed to a captured French ship, but they were designed for fair-weather sailing and had weaker structures, so that they did not survive well in rough weather, for example off Brest.
Sloops were like miniature frigates, carrying ten to twenty guns. Some had three masts, like the larger warships, some had only two and were known as brigs. Smaller vessels were usually fore- and aft-rigged. The most important sails were attached to booms and gaffs behind the mast, and could be hauled in much tighter, so that the ship could sail closer to the wind. There were two-masted schooners, but the favourite British type was the single-masted cutter. This had been copied from vessels used by smugglers in the English Channel. It had a wide hull to allow it to sail with the wind on the beam, and a very tall mast carrying large sails.
Excerpted from Life in Nelson's Navy by Brian Lavery. Copyright © 2011 Brian Lavery. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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