The importance of a good diet to the efficiency and success of the Georgian Royal Navy cannot be underestimated – a success that depended on the manual exertions of hundreds of thousands of men.
The type of food (victuals) was also significant because a lack of vitamin C was the major cause of scurvy, the scourge of the Royal Navy.
A sailor sails on his stomach
Samuel Pepys noted that:
‘seamen, love their bellies above everything else … make any abatement from them in the quantity or agreeableness of the victuals, is to … provoke them in the tenderest spot’ and ‘render them disgusted with the King’s service than any … other hardship’.
The kind of food provided, how to transport it, and how to keep it fresh for months at sea were mainly the responsibility of the Victualling Board. Without refrigeration or canning techniques, the Board depended on traditional food preserving methods such as salting.
In 1677, Pepys compiled a victualling contract outlining sailors’ food rations. This included 1lb of biscuit and 1 gallon of beer daily, with a weekly ration of 8lb of beef, or 4lb of beef and 2lb of bacon or pork, with 2 pints of peas.
Sunday–Tuesday and Thursday were meat days. On the other days sailors were served fish with 2 ounces of butter and 4 ounces of Suffolk cheese, (or two-thirds that amount of Cheddar cheese).
From 1733 to the mid-19th century, when fish rations were replaced with oatmeal and sugar, this dietary intake remained almost unchanged. Captain James Cook lamented of sailors’ conservative tastes:
‘Every innovation … to the advantage of seamen is sure to meet with their highest disapprobation. Both portable soup and sauerkraut were at first condemned as stuff unfit for human beings … It has been in great measure owing to various little deviations from established practice that I have been able to preserve my people from that dreadful distemper, scurvy’.
Sustaining the Georgian Navy
Throughout the 18th century the Victualling Board manufactured and packaged increasing amounts of food in its London, Portsmouth and Plymouth yards. Thousands of tradesmen were employed to make wooden casks; meat was salted and placed in brine while biscuits and bread were stored in canvas bags.
Other yard activities included brewing beer and slaughtering livestock. The victualling yards’ proximity to dockyards in the home ports allowed ships to be provisioned more quickly.
The industrial scale of provisioning is exemplified by the victuals supplied to HMS Victory on 8 December 1796:
‘Bread, 76054 lbs; wine, 6 pints; vinegar, 135 gallons; beef, 1680 8lb pieces; fresh beef 308 lbs; pork 1921 ½ 4lb pieces; peas 279 3/8 bushels; oatmeal, 1672 gallons; flour, 12315 lbs; malt, 351 lbs; oil, 171 gallons; biscuit bags, 163’.
On board ship the cook was responsible for ensuring meat supplies were stored properly and that food was cleaned and boiled before serving.
Strangely, until 1806 the only qualification required to become a ship’s cook, (as opposed to a captain’s cook), was to be a Greenwich Chest pensioner, and these men were often missing limbs. Ship’s cooks had no formal culinary training, instead acquiring their skills through experience.
Meal times were the highlights of a seaman’s day. Typically 45 minutes was allowed for breakfast, and 90 minutes for supper and dinner. Meal times were sacrosanct, warned Captain Edward Riou:
‘the ship’s company are never to be interrupted at their meals but on the most pressing occasions and the commanding officer should be very punctual as to their hours of dinner and breakfast’.
William Robinson (Jack Nastyface), a Battle of Trafalgar veteran, recounted breakfast as being either as
‘burgoo, made of coarse oatmeal and water’ or ‘scotch coffee, which is burnt bread boiled in some water, and sweetened with sugar’.
Dinner, the main meal of the day, was eaten around midday. What was served depended on the day of the week.
Lobscouse, a typical dinnertime dish, consisted of boiled salted meat, onions and pepper mixed with ship’s biscuit and stewed together. Supper at 4pm was usually ‘a half pint of wine, or a pint of grog with biscuit and cheese or butter’.
Although officers and seamen were issued with the same rations, officers expected to eat more luxuriously, due to their social standing as gentlemen.
They ate separately at different times, in the wardroom or the gunroom, and personally purchased luxury foods and wines to supplement their regular diet. Many captains had their own cook, servants, china plates, silver cutlery, crystal decanters and linen tablecloths.
The admiral’s steward on HMS Prince George in 1781 kept a menu book for Admiral Robert Digby, noting that the admiral and his guests, including Prince William Henry (later William IV) ate a meal of mutton hash, roast mutton, mutton stocks, roast duck, potatoes, butter, cabbages, stewed cauliflower, corn beef, plum pudding, cherry and gooseberry tarts.
Supplementing a standard sailor’s diet
Along with standard provisions, ships carried livestock: cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, geese, hens and chickens to provide fresh meat, milk and eggs. Cattle were supplied by the Royal Navy, but other livestock were bought by officers and seamen to supplement their rations.
‘Extras’ such as fresh vegetables and fruit were also bought separately. In foreign waters, bumboats would flock to ships to sell local wares; in the Mediterranean, grapes, lemons and oranges were purchased.
Many seamen also fished to supplement their diet. Sharks, flying fish, dolphins, porpoises and turtles, were regularly caught and eaten. Birds were also fair game. In 1763, seagulls were shot by officers on HMS Isis in Gibraltar.
Rats were a common pest on board ships and seamen often hunted them for entertainment and then ate them, reporting they tasted ‘nice and delicate… full as good as rabbits’. Another frequent pest were weevils, (a type of beetle) found in flour, biscuit and bread.
In 1813 an unsuccessful experiment was carried out to eradicate weevils from flour and biscuit by placing live lobsters in the casks with these supplies. After several days, the lobsters had died, whereas the weevils were thriving.
Bruno Pappalardo is the Principal Naval Records Specialist at The National Archives. He is the author of Tracing Your Naval Ancestors (2002) and The National Archives’ online resource Nelson, Trafalgar and Those Who Served (2005). He also contributed to and was the naval records consultant for Tales from the Captain’s Log (2017). His latest work, from which this article is drawn, is How to Survive in the Georgian Navy (2019), published by Osprey Publishing.