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.