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THE ROYAL NAVY 1800 - 1870



The system of nomination owed much to continuity and tradition. Officers in the eighteenth-century Navy generally entered the service at an early age through the ‘interest’ of family or friends. No qualifying examination was required of ‘captain’s servants’, as the youngest entrants were called, and numerous instances exist of boys well under 10 years of age, borne on a ship’s books, with the captain drawing their pay, until they were old enough, normally at 12 or 13, to go to sea.

An alternative method of entry, the Royal Naval Academy, established in 1733, training ship HMS Ganges was generally less popular; in 1801, Lord St Vincent wrote, ‘The Royal Academy Built at Bombay in 1821, Ganges at Portsmouth, which is a sink of vice and abomination, should be abolished. was the last sailing-ship to serve as a seagoing flagship.

It was not abolished but it was reconstituted and renamed the Royal Naval College in 1806. She was moored in Falmouth. The headmaster was the Revd James Inman who established the first School of Naval Architecture at Portsmouth.

Henry Keppel, a future Admiral of the Fleet, joined the college in February 1822. He had been coached for the college examination, although ‘How I got through,’ he said, ‘I forget. ‘Our uniform’, Keppel said, ‘was a blue tail-coat, stand-up collar, plain gilt buttons, round hat, gold-lace loop with cockade, and shoes.’ The course two years, and the syllabus was much as it had been for the last 80: ‘We 1earned to pull as well as to steer under sail. We had, in addition to school, French, drawing and dancing masters, also fencing.’

College success carried extra seniority. Astley Cooper Key, a future admiral who joined in 1833, won the college silver medal and was granted a year’s seatin which meant that he could offer himself to pass the qualifying examination for rank of Lieutenant after five years at sea, instead of the normal six. Key went as a college volunteer of the first class in 1833.

However, many boys continued to join the navy straight from school. William Peel, son of prime minister Sir Robert, a future captain and KCB, who won Victoria Cross in the Crimea and led HMS Shannon’s Naval Brigade in the India Mutiny, went to Harrow before joining the line of battleship Princess Charlott flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet, as a Volunteer First Class in April 1838.


RATINGS: ENTRY 1815 -1840

Princess Charlotte’s captain, Arthur Fanshawe, had had to recruit and enter his own ship’s company, even in 1837, in a way which had not changed much for centuries. The marines came from their barracks and the seamen boys from the port flagship, but everybody else had to be recruited by the captain himself, but without the aid of the press gang, which was still legal but had become socially unacceptable and was almost never used after the end of the Napoleonic wars. The only men who could still be pressed into the navy were convicted smugglers, who were often sentenced to serve up to five years in a man-of-war.

A captain could bring a nucleus of men with him from his previous ship, but the rest he had to find by bribery, persuasion, his own reputation, and advertising by word of mouth, by posting placards, and by setting up recruiting rendezvous in the commissioning port, in London, and possibly also in Bristol and Liverpool. The rendezvous was manned by officers and petty officers from the ship who attracted attention to themselves by posting the name of the ship and the captain prominently, posting up notices extolling the advantages of service in the Navy, and draping bunting, flags, and Union Jacks to catch the eye.

If few ships had commissioned lately and the captain or the destined station were popular, a ship’s company was quickly assembled. But a ship with an unpopular captain, or commissioning for an unpopular station (that is, unpopular for deserting, such as West Africa) could take months to complete her crew.



Sailors had no uniform. They wore what was convenient, or what they could afford, though the makings of a standard range of clothing were available from ‘pusser’s slops’.

The sailor of the post-Napoleonic War period was still the sailor of Trafalgar and a hundred lesser fights. He went into action barefooted and bare to the waist, with a scarf twisted round his forehead to keep the sweat out of his eyes. He often wore a pigtail and chewed tobacco which was prepared in long rolls, the same colour, appearance, and almost the same consistency as hemp rope. He was paid 25S. 6d. a month, with 8s. a month more as able seaman, and his pay was always months and sometimes years in arrears.

An attempt was made to standardize uniforms. Instructions to Pursers in 1824 listed the clothing to be carried in every ship, including blue cloth jackets and trousers, knitted worsted waistcoats, white duck trousers and frocks (ie. jumpers) , shirts, stockings, hats, mitts, blankets, and black silk handkerchiefs.



The standard rations provided by the Navy were based on hard ship’s biscuits, salt beef or pork which was sometimes many years old, and for breakfast, a mixture of oatmeal and molasses known as ‘burgoo’. Supplements of fresh produce might be found if in contact with the shore, but this was a matter for the initiative of the command and the purser. The sailor’s drinking water was stored in wooden casks and went fetid after a very few days at sea. He was entitled to half a pint of spirits, or a pint of wine, or a gallon of beer, every day. Not surprisingly, he was often drunk, ashore and on board. Drunkenness and consequent leave-breaking and insubordination were by far the most frequent punishable offences.



Throughout the Navy’s history, the question of drink has resulted in more punishments, more accidents, more opportunities lost, and more careers spoiled, than any other cause. Following the capture of Jamaica in March 1687, rum was substituted for brandy as the RN’s traditional drink.  In 1825, the rum ration was halved and the custom of having ‘banyan’ or meatless days was abolished. The beer ration was abolished in 1831.



The sailor of 1816 was still subject to the lash. He could still be flogged round the fleet, so many lashes inflicted at the gangway of each ship. For very serious offences, such as mutiny, he could be sentenced to death and hanged on board. Awaiting court martial, he could be gagged, and bound, hand and foot, in irons, for indefinite periods. Lesser punishments were ‘toeing the line’, that is, standing on the same spot on the quarterdeck for hours on end, or banishment to the rigging for half a day.



Sailors had very little formal training, but picked up their craft from their fellows or from their own experience.

Shore leave was a matter to be decided by the command; some captains never allowed their crews ashore during a commission, for fear they would desert. On discharge from a ship a sailor was free to go where he liked, and to join another ship, or not, just as he pleased. There were no arrangements, except by a few far-sighted captains, to improve his professional competence, health, living conditions, or morals.

A commission might last five, six, or seven years, but the sailor had no formal terms of service or sickness benefits. If he was discharged to shore with wounds, neither he nor his wife and dependants were any official concern of service or state, though help might be available from the Royal Hospital Chatham "chest". There was little prospect of becoming an officer except by some act of extreme gallantry in the presence of the enemy. Occupational diseases were many and severe: tuberculosis, from the damp, generally insanitary living conditions, and overcrowding on the messdecks; typhoid, cholera, dysentery, and tropical diseases from service abroad; ruptures, from the heavy manual labour; scurvy, from lack of anti-scorbutic acid in his diet over long periods; and syphilis from contacts ashore.

The warships of 1816 were wooden-hulled and powered entirely by sail. Nearly 1,000 men were needed to man a line-of-battleships; the great majority of them would be required to work aloft at some time or another. Every sailing warship suffered a steady wastage of men lost overboard and drowned, or killed or maimed after falling from aloft. Throughout the nineteenth century, these ‘operational’ losses far outnumbered casualties due to enemy action.

Although there were enormous improvements in every aspect of life in the Navy during the nineteenth century, in many ways a sailor’s social status and the way he regarded his position in society hardly changed until the last quarter of the century. The bluejacket considered himself just as society did as someone apart, from another sphere. Sailors on a run ashore were creatures from another existence.

Jack always reacted to officers in the same ways, ready to work and fight his heart out for good officers, sullen, unwilling, and very occasionally murderous with bad. He hated ship’s thieves and ship’s police equally. He was always suspicious of those who issued his pay, his rum, and his food.

Slumps, depressions, and declines in local industries affected recruiting, but it was still remarkable how many boys joined the Navy because they came from seafaring families and had been brought up to the sea, or simply had a sudden, young man’s urge to run away and see something of the world for themselves.

Jack was also, like the Navy itself, very conservative. Although the radical spirit grew and flourished in the nineteenth century, none of the Navy’s necessary reforms was brought about by the sailors themselves. Very few were even pioneered by the Admiralty indeed many reforms were bitterly opposed by the majority of naval officers. The Navy was often forced to change its ways almost entirely because of outside pressure, from parliament and public opinion.



The main weapon was still the broadside, in which muzzle-loaded guns of various calibres fired solid iron roundshot simultaneously or as near to simultaneously as the state of gunnery training on board that individual ship would allow. Other weapons were the Congreve rocket, fired from the deck, or more usually from a ship’s boat; or simply boarding an enemy with cutlass and pistol.



The British tar might be lauded on the early nineteenth-century stage and acclaimed in songs as all that was brave and honest and true, but within the Navy there were growing misgivings about his professional skill, and in particular his gunnery. In Nelson’s day the simplest, and generally preferred, tactic for a British man-of-war was simply to close her opponent and fire broadsides into her as hot and fast ‘as she could suck it’, until the enemy hauled down his flag to three ringing British cheers.

The rapidity of the British fire, their superior seamanship, and their sheer dogged courage had been too much for their French and Spanish opponents. But they were no longer enough as the nineteenth century progressed.

In the war of 1812, the larger, better armed and better-fought American frigates had proved too much for their Royal Navy counterparts, with the famous exception of the Shannon. The British tars at Navarino had expected the Turks to strike speedily, and often asked whether they had ‘doused the moon and stars yet’, but no Turkish ship struck her colours all day.

In the Royal Navy of 1816 there was no common accepted gunnery doctrine, nor any official means of passing round knowledge of improvements. Every captain was free to train his crews as often and in such a manner as he himself thought fit, and to exchange information with his fellow captains, if he so wished, by word of mouth or by letter.

Individual captains, such as Exmouth in the Mediterranean and Philip Broke in the Shannon, might pay special attention to gunnery, carrying out intensive training with constant drills and repeated firing practice at various targets, but in general the handling of the guns was a matter for the gun captains.

These, though brave and worthy seamen, took their own time and fired at what they could see through the smoke, almost invariably aiming along the barrels of their guns, always assuming that shot rose upwards, and hardly ever making allowances for the tapering of the barrel, heeling of the ship, over-shooting, or different strengths of charges in fact, almost totally ignorant of the science of gunnery.

Criticisms of the Navy’s gunnery began during the French wars, but nothing was done until 1829, when Commander George Smith sent the Admiralty his prospectus of a plan for the improvement of Naval gunnery without any additional expense’. Smith suggested that an establishment be set up for the training of gun crews and for the testing and evaluation of new gunnery equipment. In June 1830, a Board Minute authorized such a gunnery school at Portsmouth, with Smith as the first captain. The ship used was the Excellent, which was moored in a position in Portsmouth harbour from which guns could be fired across mudflats without endangering anybody.

The Admiralty addressed a new prospectus to the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth. It was a seminal document and its first paragraph, though nobody realized it at the time, was the dawn of a new era for the British bluejacket:

"Their Lordships having had under their consideration the propriety and expediency of establishing a permanent corps of seamen to act as Captains of Guns, as well as a Depot for the instruction of the officers and seamen of His Majesty’s Navy in the theory and practice of Naval Gunnery, at which a uniform system shall be observed and communicated throughout the Navy have directed, with a view to the formation of such establishment, that a proportion of intelligent, young and active seamen shall be engaged for five or seven years, renewable at their expiration, with an increase of pay attached to each consecutive reengagement, from which the important situation of Master Gunner, Gunner’s Mates, and Yeoman of the Powder Room shall hereafter be selected to instruct the officers and seamen aboard such ships as they may be appointed to in the various duties at the guns, in consideration of which they will be allowed 2 shillings per month, in addition to any other rating they may be deemed qualified to fill, and will be advanced according to merit and the degree of attention paid to their duty, which if zealously performed, will entitle them to the important situations before mentioned, as well as that of Boatswain."

A more revolutionary paragraph had never before been published in the Royal Navy. It was studded with key words and phrases - permanent corps, uniform system, engaged for five or seven years, renewable, increase of pay at each re-engagement, advanced according to merit - which were the first seeds of a permanent, professional career for a seaman in the Royal Navy.

Excellent was established as a sixth-rate, with a complement of 200, including Royal Marine Artillery instructors. The captain, Thomas Hastings, who relieved Smith in 1832 (much to Smith’s disgust), was given instructions as to training which were themselves quite unlike anything seen in the Navy before. The officers and seamen who came to Excellent were to be taught: the names of the different parts of a gun and carriage, the dispart in terms of lineal magnitude and in degrees how taken, what constitutes point blank and what line of metal range, windage the errors and the loss of force attending to it, the importance of preserving shot from rust, the theory of the most material effects of different charges of powder applied to practice with a single shot, also with a plurality of balls, showing how these affect accuracy, penetration and splinters, to judge the condition of gunpowder by inspection, to ascertain its quality by the ordinary tests and trials, as well as by actual proof.

They were to practise as teams, firing all sorts of guns, loaded with all sorts of shot, on a range laid out from Excellent.

The old-time sailor needed agility in the rigging and manual dexterity but little else. The Excellent’s crew needed these qualities, and very much more. They had to be intelligent and they were encouraged to learn how to read, write, and cypher. They soon realized that they could not get the most benefit from their training without these skills, and they were eager to learn. It was quite common for literate sailors to teach their mates.

The sailors liked Excellent. One wrote to his father in 1838:

"I have had to buy several things already; a set of cards of instruction I have also bought, 3/6 the set, and a few clothes as we must dress all alike, when we are mustered which is every morning and must not dress in white in the winter. I pay 2 / - a month for washing, subscribe twopence per month to an excellent library and 1/ - entrance money. I am very comfortable and happy here and quite well; what time I have to spare is fully taken up in learning my cards of instruction. I must now conclude for they are piping for Hammocks to be slung."

Hastings’s training methods were a surprise to his students. He did not simply give orders to a sailor, but showed which method was best. One visitor to Excellent noticed how Hastings handled a sailor who had got into the habit of using the handspike lever to train a gun in a most awkward and inefficient way. ‘Now’, said Hastings, ‘take notice how I use the handspike, and you shall try the difference yourself.’ The sailor watched with great attention, then resumed the handspike and found, to his surprise, that the gun now moved about with as much ease as if the 32-pounder had been changed to a 12-pounder. ‘What think you now?’ asked Hastings. ‘I’ll never use the other way as long as I live, sir’, was the reply.

Excellent was also used as a boys’ training ship, and a mizzen mast was kept rigged for sail training until as late as 1869. But the main practical training was firing the guns. A red flag was hoisted in Excellent to show that firing was about to start; none took place until the mudflats were uncovered by the ebbing tide. The shot was recovered by ‘mudlarks’, many of them from the same splendidly named local family of Grub, who sold the shot back to Excellent. The Grubs used to ‘ski’ about the mud with wooden boards strapped to their feet, had special implements for extracting shot from the mud, and on a good day could earn as much as eleven shillings.

Excellent might preach the word of naval gunnery, but for years it fell on stony ground in some quarters. There was much criticism of the need to have a gunnery school, by politicians who complained of the cost (about 33,000 a year in 1835) and by conservative officers who abhorred all new-fangled technical nonsense and loudly proclaimed that any time not spent in seamanship (which meant handling ships under sail) was sadly wasted.

In 1834, when Admiral Sir Charles Rowley read an examination paper for gunnery lieutenant, he found he could not understand the words ‘impact’ and ‘initial velocity’. He asked another member of the Admiralty Board, Sir John Beresford, who said ‘I’ll be hanged if I know, but I suppose it is some of Tom Hastings’s scientific bosh; but I’ll tell you what I think we had better do we’ll just go at once to Lord de Grey and get the Excellent paid off.’ However, Lord de Grey (the First Lord at the time) told him he could not sanction it, ‘for you have no idea how damned scientific that House of Commons has become.



The mention of a library in the letter from Excellent showed that some reforms were under way In July 1838 the Admiralty approved the supply of libraries to seagoing ships; large ships were issued with 276 books, small with 156, the books being mostly of a religious or ‘improving’ nature.

Each reform moved the Navy a little further towards a permanent state of manning. In June 1827 an Admiralty circular announced that henceforth petty officers of first or second class could not be punished by flogging, except by sentence of a court martial. Captains could, however, still disrate petty officers by summary punishment on board, as in the past. When a ship paid off, the petty officers were to be discharged to the flagship as supernumeraries and, after reasonable leave, they were to be given another seagoing appointment, at the same pay and rate as before. Also, to improve the status of the petty officers, they were permitted to wear the badge of their rate, the second-class petty officer a white cloth anchor on his sleeve, the first-class the anchor surmounted by a crown.



In the 1860s the government at last made an attempt to solve the long-standing problems of how to man the Navy properly in peacetime, and how to increase the Navy’s strength rapidly in wartime without, if possible, resorting to the press gang. It was high time something was done. The Syrian War of 1840 had demonstrated the Navy’s shortage of manpower, and for most of the 1840's, the Navy’s manning was in a chronic state of imbalance between the number of men available and the number the Navy required at any given time.

In 1835, the then First Lord Sir James Graham introduced a Register of Seamen which was, in effect, a gigantic roster of all mariners for service in the Navy. Those who reached the top of the list were required to serve for five years, after which they were released and replaced by others on the register.

This was essentially a short-term arrangement. There were still no long-term engagements, no barracks to house men ashore, indeed no means of holding men permanently. Men were lodged in hulks until their ships were ready. The period of five years’ service was rarely observed; normally it was three or four years, the length of a ship’s commission, just as it had always been.

By 1839 the register had 175,000 names on it, with about 22,000 apprentices, but men left the Navy at the rate of over 1,000 a year throughout the 1840s, and in 1852, the register had dropped to 150,000.