The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy During the Regency Era

The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy During the Regency Era
Presented by Andrew Lyter

While the weather wasn’t all that great, we had a wonderful presentation at Fort Mott on Sunday, August 18th.  We have records and books on the lives of officers in the Royal Navy, but what about those men that served under these officers.  What was life like for them?  This presentation answered that question and provided us with a lot of interesting information.

The presentation started off with a look at the demands for men from 1793-1817.  Over the years the number of men wanted for the Navy grew until the end of the Napoleonic War when they number greatly dropped.

                1793 – 81,000 men

                1805 – 109,000 men (Trafalgar)

                1806 – 130,000 men

                1810 – 142,000 men

                1814 – 140,000 men (Napoleonic War)

                1817 – 19,000 men

The men answering the call for service came from shore town, men who already knew something about sailing.  This number wasn’t nearly enough to fulfill the demand and men were impressed into service. If you were over 18 and not an apprentice you could be pressed into service aboard a ship. From records it seems some men were impressed and then kept volunteering, it was good money and a steady job while it lasted. Men who volunteered sometimes only signed up to work under a certain captain or on a certain ship. If a captain moved ship many of the men would follow the captain. 

Men were rated based on their knowledge of the sea/boating. Landsmen knew nothing, they were most likely pressed into service and from towns not on the coast.  Ordinary Seamen had some knowledge of the sea and Able Seamen had at least 4 years of experience.  Your rating determined what duties you would have on the ship.

Once you had a job assigned you would be assigned to a mess, these were the other 7 guys you would spend most of your time with aboard the ship.  These were also the men who would gain your loyalty sometimes even above that of the ship or officers. The daily routine of the ship was dictated by the watch/bell system. (note: I cannot decipher my notes from this slide you can find some information on this here and here).

Photo by Meredith Barnes

Until 1857 there was no official uniform for the men serving on the lower deck. They had an unofficial uniform of short blue jacket, pants with wide legs, button shoes, a small cap and no facial hair.  If the ship provided clothing they men would receive a set, but it was also common for the men to get fabric and would be responsible for constructing their own clothes.  The men were adept at repairing clothes on ship and if you were really good you might pick up extra work for other men.

The culture of the sailors included tattoos. Most common were having their initials on the back of their hands as well as other nautical designs. When looking through the books of some ships, we can see that some captains kept extremely detailed notes on what tattoos men had, and some of them were a bit strange and very detailed.  Liberty was a privilege and only given to the best behaved or most trusted men on the boat. Most men would blow all their wages on thinks like silver watches or on drink and other stuff.

As for battle, many men never saw it, most ships were mostly in blockades, or on convoy duties. The descriptions of war that we do have describe it as complete chaos.  More men died from other causes than died in battle during these years.  About 5,000 men died each year with about 8% from battle.

Sadly, after that drop off in need for men to serve in the Navy, many men were left in a hard situation. They couldn’t find work and had trouble readjusting to life on land.

Photo by Meredith Barnes

Some things brought up in the Q&A

-all on board would share in prize money

-scurvy was still a mystery as the cause was not known but there were doctors who were doing experiments on figuring it out.

-Royal Marines were like a buffer between the Officers and the regular sailors.

List of Resources
Jack Tar: The Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary Seamen in Nelson’s Navy by Roy A. and Lesley Adkins

Landsman Hay: The Memoirs of Robert Hay by Robert Hay

Royal Tars: The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy by Brian Lavery

War, Nationalism, and the British Sailor, 1750-1850 by Isaac Land

A Mariner of England: An Account of the Career of Willliam Richardson From Cabin Boy in the Merchant Service to Warrant Officer in the Royal Navy (1780 to 1819) As Told by Himself by William Richardson

Jack Nastyface: Memoirs of an English Seaman by William Robinson

*More Pictures can be found on our Facebook Page

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