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Friday, 21 October 2011

The food of Nelson’s Navy

Celebrating Trafalgar day in my usual off the wall fashion, which is why I'm posting a day earlier than usual.
Thanks to Dudley Pope ‘Life in Nelson’s Navy’ and Brian Lavery ‘Nelson’s Navy, the ships, men and organisation 1793-1815’

Seaman’s mess, showing the men sitting on sea chests, with their bags behind them and a rack for the mess cutlery and crockery. From the ‘Log Book’ 1830 but no very great difference to messes of the earlier period.

When on a long voyage, the food provided was of necessity such as could keep; and that meant, on the whole, a rather tedious and not particularly pleasant diet. 
Salt pork and salt beef in barrels were the staple food, and the opportunities to make a profit on this unappetising fare was considerable for the chandlers and pursers who provided it.  For one thing, a purser’s pound had only 14 ounces in it, not the standard 16; for another, as the meat was sealed in barrels it was not uncommon to provide poor or even rotting meat.  When each barrel was opened, the number of pieces of was recorded, ‘of which [so many] rotten’ being commonly recorded.  One of the complaints of the men at the Mutiny of the Nore was that they wanted 16 ounces to the pound.

This meat was boiled by the ship’s cook in huge vats as a stew, and the ‘slush’ or fat skimmed from the top.  The slush was used to grease blocks so they did not seize, but it was also a perk of the cook’s mate, often called ‘Slushy’ for this reason, to sell slush to the men to make the notorious ship’s biscuit more palatable.

The biscuit, officially called bread, was also called Hardtack.  It was very hard at first but as a voyage went on it became soft and crumbly, partly due to the weevils that ate it and lived within it.  It was customary to tap the biscuit hard to stun the weevils before eating.
Being made of unleavened flour with nothing but salt and water to make the dough, and baked slowly, they were a challenge to eat for their very hardness when fresh.  Dipped in the stew they would have softened somewhat and take on the flavour of it too, but a sailor with bad teeth would not have had an easy time of eating them. Hardtack came in with the Tudors when long voyages were first really commonplace.
The slush really made a difference in softening them.

The stew would have peas added to it – dried peas of course for the journey, probably the type of peas called Carlin peas which may still be purchased in the North of England in a poke with vinegar rather than the yellow split peas with which we are more familiar today – and oatmeal to thicken it. Oatmeal would also be used to make gruel/porridge for breakfast.

To prevent scurvy, a source of vegetables was imperative, and the usual solution to this from a conscientious captain was sauerkraut.  Pickled cabbage was cheap, kept well and was good for the men but was not popular.  I understand that opening a new barrel smelled rather like cat pee, which is understandably off-putting – and I LIKE sauerkraut in moderate quantities.  In port, the purser was directed to purchase fresh vegetables ‘when they can be procured and not at any time exceeding the peas saved, at the purser’s credit price.’ Carlin peas do retain more vitamin C than yellow split peas so they were of some help against scurvy. [Lloyd and Coulter, Medicine and the Navy vol III quoting regulations quoted in Lavery]
Lemons were issued in 1795, later substituted for limes for economy as an anti-scorbutic but many captains purchased extra provisions like sauerkraut or citrus fruit.
When my father was in the Merchant Marine for his National Service he recalled that lime juice was reckoned about the best way to clean the tables which it bleached clean.  He was not alone in being mildly concerned about what it might do to his stomach lining if it was so miraculous a bleach….. I wonder if the sailors of Nelson’s time felt the same.

Some ships had henhouses to give the men a source of fresh eggs, generally either these ended up on the Wardroom table for the officers or would be issued as buttered eggs, possibly without the butter however if it had gone rancid….!  We would nowadays call it scrambled eggs.

Daily Rations – In theory
Every day each man was supposed to have:
1lb ship’s biscuit
4 lb beef
2 lb pork
2 lb peas
1½ lb oatmeal
6 oz sugar
6 oz butter
And over the week spread out, 12 oz cheese.
Other provisions could be substituted when necessary, ie on a foreign station when ‘normal’ rations were not available; replacing flour and raisins for beef would probably have been a matter of some discontent, even more than replacing biscuit with rice.
In port too, fresh beef could replace salt when available. 

Each county was supposed to provide a certain amount of cheese for the navy as a levy, but the sailors always hated to receive Suffolk cheese which was reckoned so hard the only use of it was to carve buttons from it. 

The men ate in messes of usually 8 -12 men who had their own mess utensils.  It was the sign of an unhappy ship if there were frequent requests to change mess as this generally indicative of bullying and poor discipline.  Attitudes often come from the top but a wise captain, noting such requests, might be able to track down the source of trouble either in a particular mess or in one of his officers or petty officers failing to keep good discipline or encouraging bad discipline in favouritism or unfairness.  A seaman could generally request a change of mess once a month; choosing mess mates was one of the few freedoms aboard ship.  Each man served his turn as cook of the mess, collecting the ration for his mess from the steward to take to the cook, collect it to feed his mates, and see to washing the utensils the mess used and keeping them in good order.

Casked water tends to taste foul after it has been stored for any length of time, but when surrounded by the non-potable briny it was the only option.  A cask on deck, the scuttle butt, was generally free to all, and chatter around this led to the term ‘scuttlebutt’ for the spread of gossip.  Where water was short rationing would be instituted and a sentry posted to prevent any man having more than his share.  Generally beer was preferred [and kept better] and was issued at a rate of one gallon per man per day, though usually only in home waters.  As a substitute each man would be allowed ‘a pint of wine, or half a pint of rum, brandy or other spirits’ [Admiralty regulations and instructions] the spirits being diluted one part spirit to two parts water to be mixed on deck for issue. 


  1. This is a terrific entry!! Thank you so much for writing this!!!

    How interesting that "scuttlebutt" is a term shared by English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic...and what did one do with the rotten meat...could it be tossed overboard? Could it compromise the integrity of the other pieces? was there a chance that folks would eat it anyway and get really, really sick??

    were any of these foods at all favored or were they all bland, greasy, and
    gooey?? And what portion, if any, did officers eat of this, or did they eat better
    food?? And finally, what about alcohol? One hears, so often about "the proverbial drunken sailor," "grog" and golden-age pirates who drink part of me is thinking that the need to keep one's head In a sudden turn of the weather, or an encounter (particularly in Nelson's time) with ah unfriendly vessel made the delicious buzz of booze potentially life-threatening, not only for oneself but basically anyone else on board...but was alcohol consumed or made available, or was it strictly for shore leave??

    All I could think as I read this was, thanks goodness we aren't entirely all what we eat....

    Thanks again for writing this!!

    Clio 1792

  2. The rotten meat was generally thrown overboard, because it was inedible. Because of the brine rottenness did not generally communicate itself - when a barrel was opened and thus exposed to air, the whole lot was taken out and counted [the number of pieces were recorded on the side but sometimes the contractor lied to get more profit, leading to captains' logs with such entries as "opened cask of beef, said 60 pieces, 57 found of which 6 rotten"]
    The pieces thrown overboard might well attract sharks which were often caught and added to the diet for a bit of a change. The rotten pieces were generally obvious, and if any was just on the turn, in being boiled for hours to make it approximately edible, most bacteria were killed.

    The flavour was generally somewhat bland. The officers ate the same as the men unless they paid to have their own provisions from their own pockets; which many did. Or a number of officers might contribute to say a side of bacon between them to add interest to the wardroom diet. The gunroom - where the gunner, his mates and the midshipmen hung out - might do the same. The captain was expected to bring his own provisions aboard and being invited to dine with the captain meant an improvement in diet for any officer so privileged [a special boon to the ever-hungry midshipmen!]

    I have mentioned the booze allowance daily above, which was to keep the men happy; some did hoard their tots, which was against regulations, and they were flogged for this because being drunk was to risk all their shipmates. The idea of mixing the spirits with water [rum was the most favoured] was to stop it from keeping to prevent sailors from accumulating it. Well, sailors are a resourceful bunch when it comes to getting sloshed....

    1. As regards the rotten meat, this was NOT thrown overboard, as it was the property of the ships Purser, which he himself had paid for and so as to be able to claim his money back he had to provide the 'condemned' provisions along with the ships log, where it would be recorded. The quality of meat that was salted was generally high and once steeped in first salt water and then fresh water for 24 hours was quite edible.
      As to the 'ships biscuit', this was actually a 'triscuit', baked 3 times to remove all moisture and provided it was kept dry, it would keep for ever. Some biscuit made in 1815 was put into storage and next saw the light of day during the Crimean War 1854. The only time that you get 'infestation' in ships biscuit is when it gets wet, in which case it would be condemned as unfit. However, if a ship became becalmed and used all it's provisions and only had the condemned ones left, they would be issued BUT it had to be recorded in the ships log, and this we believe is were the 'myth' of weevils and worms in biscuits came from.
      Most warships carried enough beer for about a month, it was a strong 6% porter type to allow it to keep at sea. Once the barrels were empty, they would be filled with water from the nearest land, but as water was not safe to drink, it had to be disinfected with alcohol, wine was used for this, and once the wine ran out, spirit, either brandy, arak or rum was used in a 3 parts water to 1 part spirit ratio, this in turn led to the 'grog' ration, adding lemon/lime juice and sugar to he mix. This was a way of giving safe water to the crew. It must be remembered that everyone, including children drank 'small beer' as water was not safe to drink, so the tolerance to drink was much higher than ours is today. 8 pints of beer might sound a lot but taken over 24 hours, it is not so much really.
      Finally, the food may appear to have been a bit bland and monotonous but the Purser was under orders to acquire (pay for in gold) fresh supplies whenever possible and there was a list of equivalent measures, this would allow the ship to save its dried and salted provisions and so stay out at sea even longer.

    2. Thanks, Ron! yuk, keeping rotten meat as proof can't have been pleasant, though I suppose under brine....nice to know the origin of the weevil myth so beloved of all naval writers.
      Very informative, I love when people know more than the books I've used and can add to it!

  3. Ah, yes, now I see the reference to the Admiralty regulations for allowing then sailors a bit of a daily hard to be separated from friends and family for months on I suppose the alcohol numbed some of the emotional pain of simultaneously being lonely and living in a, well, fishbowl, of one or several sorts...

    I was thinking about the case scenario..a fierce but manageably sized lemon shark comes by for a bite of spoiled meat (and it won't make them sick..sharks can eat anything, including tin cans)', but, to the extent that larger sharks are extremely dangerous was there a possibility that (a) someone could get killed trying to capture a tasty fresh shark dinner or (b) that an annoyed shark could take a bite out of the ship's side and impose dangerous repair requirements on the crew??

    class differences had to exist on a ship..they were, after all, the foundation of the navy, given the impressment system, and the key difference between those who were at sea by choice, versus those who might well be at sea by constraint...but I suppose allotting everyone the same starting rations was a way to impose a baseline interesting proposition, if one considers the work of a historian like Marcus Reddiker, who has argued for the democratizing effect of the ship environment...

    Many thanks to the author for this long and thoughtful reply,

  4. Any shark that was too large could be cut off the line - or stabbed to death with a boarding pike.
    They would not cause damage to the ship. Even the largest of sharks would have trouble with the copper sheathing which was on all ships by Nelson's time. This would also play merry hell with a shark's electrical senses. Also the ship's sides and bottom were about a foot thick of solid oak even if it smelled like food, which it wouldn't so of all the risks at sea, that at least was not one!
    The biggest sharks were in the supply board.....

  5. Thanks for such a detailed information on Nelsons ship diet. I have a question regarding the utensil they used to eat their stew, was it manly a hard baked cob of bread where the soft centre was scooped out to make it as a bowl and then re-used every time as a bowl. If yes then did it have maggots and rotton residue when re-used which made the sailors sick?.
    Also, did they ever try and make meat pies as flour, botter, cheese and meat was readily available as a part of the daily ration and occasionally fish caough on the deck might sunstitute for a fish pie or other fishy disshes?

  6. the men would have a plate with a raised lip to eat from, usually carved from wood, the lip stopping any food slopping with the waves and holding in the damper food too. It's a medieval custom to use a loaf as a trencher, and then the loaf would have been eaten or given to beggars or the poor, I've not heard of such usage on shipboard. Ship's bread was a kind of biscuit and wasn't baked on board. Which leads to pies; I have never come across pies being baked on shipboard, and my hypothesis as to why this may be is as follows; you need a high heat to cook pastry properly even if only for a relatively short time, and I suspect that reaching such a heat with limited resources was both difficult and considered a waste of fuel. Having cooked on a range I can tell you that getting the fire to a heat to reliably cook pastry is a tedious business and takes a lot of fuel - pastry cooked slowly at a lower temperature is rubbery and inedible.
    Fish caught on deck would very probably be used to supplement other food when it might, and I expect that permission to fish would be given when there was enough calm to make this practicable if the hands were not otherwise engaged. However as these were weapons of war and were generally on their way somewhere the conditions for fishing may not have been ideal very often.

  7. Thank you very much for your reply and yes I can see that where fuel and heat is limited to cook anything with pastry is a difficult Task.
    Did the Ships captain and officers have their own live animals for food and kitchen equiped to have a roast or higher form of cuisines. I once read somewhere that once an animal was killed all the offal was distributed to ships crew as a substitute for meat but not sure how true it is. Was each and everypart of the animal consumed to avoid any waste.
    Also, any crew member punished due to misconduct or been drunk were tied to a pole by the leg and fed just bread and water for several days, if so then was it in the form of ships biscuit or there were other form of loaves or rolls.

  8. I believe some food was cooked as a kind of duff, that would be a suet crust, a pudding boiled in a cloth, either a plum or other fruit duff, or something akin to steak and kidney pudding. [I don't know if they used a haybox but it seems quite possible, and steamed puddings or stews can be finished conveniently thus without fuel so as saving fuel was vital, I can't see that they would NOT use so useful a dvice; basically it's a box, filled with hay, and the boiling billy of food is nestled into the hay and the insulation keeps it very hot. This form of cooking is slow, it takes several hours, but is very fuel efficient]
    Live animals were kept on board some ships, some were provided by captains to enable his men to have eggs or milk to supplement their diet as well as for his own perks. I have written in 'William Price and the Thrush' of the captain offering eggs for breakfast for the watch which performs best in timed evolutions. A bit of bribery never went amiss. Certainly every part of the animal would be used one way or another if possible - even if only for bait to try a bit of fishing. I think the distribution was very much up to the individual captain. Ordinary rations was set down in regulations; animals were the property of the captain, or the property of the officers of the wardroom, to distribute as they saw fit.

    I have never heard of that punishment. So far as I am aware a drunkard might be put in irons until he sobered up and stopped being a flaming nuisance or a man might be held in irons if he was a danger to others, or between sentencing to a flogging and the flogging itself, which was carried out the next day. Tying up a trained man for several days would have been a little impractical since every man counted; punishment aboard ship was not custodial as such.
    There was no other form of bread than biscuit except in port, when fresh bread might be obtained, but probably only for the wardroom and captain and maybe midshipmen - unless the captain was a generous man who could also afford to treat the men.

  9. Your "daily" figures are actually for a whole week except for the biscuit which was indeed 1lb/day. You're also omitting the daily gallon of beer (or small beer) and the daily tot of rum.

  10. Thank you, Emil, I went by what was in the books I read, it seemed a lot, but it was hard manual labour and I knew the period was one of great meat eating. Of course what they were supposed to get and what happened was probably a lot different... can you give me a reference to refute mine?
    I took the tot of rum [or quart of wine or whatever the equivalent was according to the station on which they were serving] and the small beer as given, perhaps that was an omission I should not have made.

  11. Emil is right. Refer

    It is indeed a common punishment for more serious crimes for the offender to be chained - "put in irons" - and allowed only bread and water for a time e.g. 1 week. A more common punishment (in terms of frequency) is for the offender's rum ration to be stopped. Because too much flogging tends to breed crew dissatisfaction, captains trying to walk a balance of morale and punishment would resort to these methods.

    I have no idea why the apportionment of rations are so. Mondays would appear to be very dull, and together with Wednesdays and Fridays make 3 'vegetarian' days a week. I do not know of any weekly schedule to speak of other than Sunday services (which would require hard work on Saturdays to tidy up the ship).

  12. cheers! yes, I imagine stopping the rum ration was quite an incentive to behave...

  13. nb. Just as the food was traditionally issued in 14oz pounds, the beer was usually issued in wine gallons (the smaller gallon still used in the U.S.) rather than ale gallons (much closer in size to the Imperial gallon adopted later)

  14. thank you, I knew about the 14oz pound, but not about the beer. Is THAT the origin of the US gallon, I never knew! it makes a lot of difference when converting recipes from American into English when making wine, and I've often wondered why they have a weird measure.