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Life, Death and Health in the Royal Navy
(I received this in an email and decided to make it into a web page, I found the original source, see below)
I have also added bits from other sources

“Englishmen, and more especially seamen, love their bellies above anything else, and therefore it must always be remembered in the management of the victualling of the navy that to make any abatement in the quantity or agreeableness of the victuals is to discourage and provoke them in the tenderest point, and will sooner render them disgusted with the King’s service than any other hardship that can be put upon them.” – Samuel Pepys
Supplying the fleets was an immense undertaking, and was controled by the Victualing Board. The purser on each ship was in charge of supplying the food and consumables; like candles, coal, clothes (or slops as they were known) and tobacco. The food was of variable quality, corruption amongst naval suppliers was not uncommon. To preserve the meat, beef and pork, it was salted and placed in barrels. Most of the other foodstuffs were supplied dried.

Scurvy was largely overcome by the end of the Eighteenth century, although it had taken the better part of two centuries from an effective cure (lemon juice) being discovered to its widespread use in the navy. Even in the official Allowance of Provisions list from 1808 it will be noticed that there is no provision for fresh greens. Part of the twentieth regulation which accompanies it, however, does mention 'greens and roots' but, as a government-ordained issue, only indirectly. It says that 'some of the eldest Pursers of the Royal Navy' have presented a memorial in which they state that it had been their constant practice to serve out greens and roots whenever they are provided with fresh meat:' and it tells captains and pursers to 'comply with what is contained in the said memorial.'
Allowance of Provisions
from Regulations and Instructions, 1808
  Bisket lbs. Beer gals. Beef lbs. Pork lbs. Pease pints Oatmeal pints Sugar ozs. Butter ozs. Cheese ozs.
Sunday 1 1 - 1 0.5 - - - -
Monday 1 1 - - - 0.5 2 2 4
Tuesday 1 1 2 - - - - - -
Wednesday 1 1 - - 0.5 0.5 2 2 4
Thursday 1 1 - 1 0.5 - - - -
Friday 1 1 - - 0.5 0.5 2 2 4
Saturday 1 1 2 - - - - - -
Weekly total 7 7 4 2 2 1.5 6 6  

Causes of Death
By Disease 2592 50.0
By Individual Accident 1630 31.5
By Foundering, Wreck, Fire, Explosion 530 10.2
By the Enemy, killed in action 281 5.4
By the Enemy, died of wounds 150 2.9
All Causes 5183 100
Death From Disease

That disease should kill more sailors than any other cause would not be a surprise to anyone who has studied casualty lists of any war up to 1900. Given the conditions on board the average ship of the line it is perhaps surprising that the figures are no higher. Large numbers of men accomodated in cramped and damp conditions with inadequate nutrition and water provided a fertile breeding ground for disease, especially typhus, known on shore as gaol fever.

Conditions were slowly improving towards the end of the Eighteenth century. Although the disease mortality rate in 1815 was still 1 in 30. 25, compared to 1 in 80 for men aged 20 to 40 on land and 1 in 55 for enemy prisoners of war.

The ballast used in ships was being changed from shingle to pigs of iron, which could be moved and cleaned in a way not possible with shingle. Shingle ballasts slowly accumulated the rot and detritus of the upper decks evolving into a stinking cesspool.

Iron tanks for water were also replacing the old wooden water butts, they kept the water fresher for longer and eliminated one of the heavy tasks that contributed to the sailors poor health, namely the constant lowering and hoisting of heavy casks. Rupture, or hernias, were a serious problem and the annual issue of trusses to sailors was close to 4,000.

Tropical diseases such as yellow fever and malaria would strike down ships crews when they were stationed in the West Indies. The Brunswick went out to the West Indies in 1801 and was almost immediately hit by yellow fever with 287 men on the sick list. The Hannibal lost 200 men in six months.

Surgery was rudimentary, and few effective medicines were available. Until 1804 surgeons were expected to provide their own drugs and equipment. Most surgeons took pride in the speed with which they could perform an amputation. Amputation was then the only treatment considered for limbs smashed by splinters or cannon balls. In the midst of a battle the loblolly men as the surgeons assistants (not the surgeons mates, who were more skilled) were called, could easily fill a tub with severed limbs. Complicated surgical procedures on abdominal wounds were impossible, even on shore, in the eighteenth century. Infections were almost inevitable. And these sorts of wound were often fatal.

The common practice when treating amputations was to tie off the arteries and veins with ligatures and leave them hanging free from the wound, to be removed when it had healed. This had the unfortunate consequence of allowing infection easy access to the wound. Many men who survived the initial amputation succumbed later to bacterial infections.

A final word about death in the Navy

A comparison between the casualty figures for the Royal Navy in major battles and British land forces is instructive.

Taking perhaps the two most famous battles of the Napoleonic wars (involving the British) Trafalgar and Waterloo, we can see that the chance of being killed or wounded in a naval engagement was less than half that of a soldier involved in a set piece battle.

Approximately 19000 men were aboard the British ships at Trafalgar, of whom 1700 were casualties, just under 9% of the total. At Waterloo of the 68000 allied troops engaged 15000 were casualties, 22% of the total.

These figures can be partly explained by the difficulty of fighting and sailing ships in a big ship action. The figures for Trafalgar show that although some ships were heavily engaged and suffered as a result, others only had light brushes with the enemy. At Waterloo virtually all units were engaged, some for most of the day (
from 11:30 am to 9:00 pm), leading to very high casualty figures.
From a web site: "Captain Cook & food. A diet of salt meat, hard biscuit and sauerkraut was a shock to us, but our predecessors would have considered it superior to anything available on shore. For them such regular, hot, protein-rich meals, together with a nearly limitless supply of beer, would have been a luxury. Furthermore, every ship's captain knew that food was the primary concern of his crew, so he would have ensured they were well fed, and kept their dinner time sacred, usually allowing the men 90 minutes to deal with their tough rations. They would only be called away from the mess table in an emergency. The lack of rum or beer on our modern voyage left our crew significantly worse off than our predecessors - although less likely to be injured while under the influence."

Drunkeness was a big problem in the navy, contributing to a large percentage of the floggings ordered. The men were entitled to a gallon of beer per day, this was small beer and not very alcoholic, in addition to this they received a half pint rum ration per day, with which, along with tobacco, they might hope to alleviate some of the tedium of life at sea. The rum ration was mixed with water to make grog and was issued twice a day. Hoarding your ration was a serious offence, but it was still common.

As was smuggling of spirits, especially in home ports, the bumboatmen and women who visited the ships could be relied on for a regular supply.
It does'nt take a great leap of imagination to see that the amount of alcohol available to the men must have been a contributary factor to the number of men dying of individual accidents. And the incidence of insanity in the navy was far higher than in the population as a whole. Given the work they did in dangerous conditions, falling, crush injuries and being drowned were almost unavoidable consequences for the unwary.

As can be seen in the picture, women were permitted on board ships when they were in port (where discipline was considerably more relaxed), although this was at the captains discretion. In theory the women were supposed to be the sailors wives and were signed on board by the seaman, who were responsible for their conduct. In practice the majority of the women who came on board were prostitutes and to some of the more puritanical seamen and officers the scenes below deck, where there was no privacy, were shocking and disgusting. When the Prince was in dock in Portsmouth one eyewitness reports that 450 women came on board, and only 50 were actually wives of sailors serving on the ship.

At sea Admiralty regulations forbade the carrying of women, however as with many regulations this was often ignored. Estimates vary as to the numbers of women actually at sea with the fleet, but the wives of important members of the ships company, such as the gunner and the carpenter were often found on board ship. Children were also at sea, the youngest boy at the battle of Trafalgar was just eight years old, and his nine year old friend had been born at sea.

It should also be noted that all members of the crew were at liberty to purchase extra provisions, at their own cost, in addition to the standard ration. Many men and in particular the officers, did just that. Lieutenant Dillon of the GLENMORE wrote “the next thing to annoy me was to observe that my messmates lived on the ship’s provisions. Salt pork and beef would not renovate me after all my fatigues”. He therefore laid in a private supply of fresh mutton which he shared with his mess-mates.

Portable soup was issued to a ship by the Sick and Hurt Board and was kept by the Surgeon to give to patients who could not face the normal rigours of seaboard food. This is a scaled down recipe and actually works.


1 beef shin bone (needs a good covering of meat or else you need about half a pound of stewing beef)

1 ham or bacon hock

1 oz anchovies

3 carrots, washed and sliced

1 head of celery, washed and sliced (not the green bits)


cayenne pepper

Ask the butcher to cut the shin bone into two or three large pieces. Put these along with the ham into a large pan. Gently heat them (and the steak if you’ve used it) until they are browned. You won’t need any extra fat if it is heated gently. Add enough water to cover the bones, plus the carrots, celery and anchovies. Bring to the boil and skim off any scum which rises to the surface. Cover and simmer gently for about four hours. Remove the bones and strain through muslin into a clean pan. Leave it overnight and the next day remove any fat from the top of the liquid. Then boil it until it is reduced by about two-thirds. The colour should change to a rich dark brown. Add a small amount of cayenne pepper and pour the mixture into a shallow glass or earthenware bowl ( not metal, I suspect this could eat its way through stainless steel). Leave overnight then cut the soup into ‘coins’ about 5 cm. diameter and leave in a dry place for a few days. Keep them in an airtight container with paper between each ‘coin’. N.B. Don’t add any salt to the process, the anchovies provide that.