Reasons You Should Join the 1839 British Navy – Part One

I have a weird fascination with naval history. Every time I see a documentary on the Merrimac and the Monitor, I get all nervous and wonder what’s going to happen, as if history might change and there was an epic, to-the-death battle between the two ironclads. (Come on, the Monitor was wicked looking…all that Scandinavian design!)

Anyhoo, switching sides of the ocean, I found a fascinating (perhaps just to me) series of articles in London Saturday Journal from 1839 on British Navy.  I’ve decided to excerpt as many as I can find on my blog.  The images accompanying the text come from An epitome, historical and statistical, descriptive of the Royal naval service of England, by E. Miles with the assistance of L. Miles.


“Our ships in ordinary will spring from inaction into a display of then might—ruffle their swelling plumage—collect their scattered elements of strength—and awaken their dormant thunder !”—Speech of Mr. Canning in Parliament.

Any and everything relating to the British Nary, never fails to excite an interest in the public mind, hut there is no subject respecting which the generality of persons are so ignorant or so ill-informed. Whilst every one perceives and acknowledges the necessity for maintaining this right arm of our strength, this safeguard of our national prosperity, in pristine vigour and efficiency, comparatively few are acquainted with the admirable arrangements which regulate its discipline, control its economy, and render every department connected with the “mighty whole” instantly available, so as to realise, in an incredibly short space of time, the appropriate metaphor with which we have headed these remarks.

The exploits of the British Navy—the brilliant victories it has achieved—the results of those achievements in the supremacy obtained, securing to this favoured country old, and opening new channels of unbounded extent for its increasing trade and manufactures; sweeping the seas of its enemies, and rendering the “highway of commerce ” safe for its merchant vessels to traverse, —all these things are familiarly known, and duly recorded in the annals of history. But, except in some few elementary books—of little value to any but the profession—there is scarce any information to be obtained regarding this interesting subject: and we are not aware that a popular description has ever been published, to which the reader might refer for information, in the expectation of finding his curiosity gratified.

Under this impression, and supposing that some general account of the various matters connected with our “wooden walls,” will be agreeable to our readers, we purpose introducing the subject occasionally in successive numbers, until we have explained every point connected with the routine of a British ship-of-war, the mode of performing the duties on hoard—the portions of duty which devolve upon the different classes, or ratings, as they are technically called—the wages and victualling of the crew,—in fact, everything that can he supposed to interest the reader, from the first equipment of a ship-of-war, until we place her alongside of an enemy, and finally return her into port with her prize in tow, and leave her crew in the enjoyment of their well-earned rewards.

Sailors invariably adopt the expletive “she,” when speaking of a ship, and as this mode of description is also familiar to the generality of persons, we shall adhere to it. Whenever nautical phrases occur we will explain their meaning by a note.

Selecting for our purpose a seventy-four-gun ship, which class is distinguished as “third-rate,” we will suppose that the Lords of the Admiralty have decided upon equipping a vessel of this force for sea. This is technically called “putting her in commission,” that is, removing the vessel from “ordinary,” in which state she remains when dismantled.

The First Lord of the Admiralty, in whose immediate patronage all appointments to commands exists, selects from a list of names, furnished by the senior sea Lord, a captain to command her. He then directs his private secretary to communicate this intention to the officer, who is at liberty to accept or decline the offer of appointment.

It will seem strange to the reader that any doubt should exist upon this point, or that a captain on half-pay would decline active service, and the command of a ship; when he is informed, however, that a tour of three years in such command—that being the usual time that ships are kept employed in time of peace—must involve him in several hundred pounds’ expense, over and above the pay he will receive ;—that many officers have large families, no private fortunes, and cannot therefore afford this sacrifice ; that moreover, no dishonour is incurred by declining employment under such circumstances in time of peace, his surprise will cease.

We shall take another opportunity to explain the incongruity of an officer’s pay being inadequate to support the proper dignity of his rank and station, when we come to describe the captain’s duties particularly; for the present we will suppose him to have accepted the proffered appointment, or that having declined it, the command has been accepted by another.

The selection of the lieutenants is in the second sea Lord at the Board, who keeps a list of all such as he considers eligible for active employment, with a register of their qualities, as reported by the commanders they have served under. This member of the Board also nominates some others of the officers. The nomination of his second, however, is, by long established custom, permitted to the captain, and he has the option of choosing either a commander or lieutenant; if the latter, he is called the “first lieutenant,” and every officer of that rank, subsequently appointed, must be junior to him in seniority upon the list of lieutenants.

This regulation has been adopted and continued on the plea of the necessity for the captain’s having confidence in the officer to whom devolves the duty of carrying his orders into effect,— indeed the principal duties of the ship; but it materially limits the power of the Admiralty in the range of appointments: for it is probable, nay almost certain, that the captain will select for his first lieutenant some active young officer, who has been constantly and recently employed afloat, and therefore well practised in his duty, in preference to one who has been long on half pay, and unacquainted with the improvements that are continually occurring; this is the reason why so many old lieutenants are unemployed. When the captain makes his election for a commander, it affords the opportunity to appoint lieutenants of long standing, still however, depending upon the seniority of the first lieutenant. But the truth is, that old officers, unless they can obtain commands, are not very desirous of employment afloat, as lieutenants of ships, for reasons we shall state hereafter.

We will suppose these preliminaries settled, the nomination of the captain approved, and the appointments decided on, the commissions are ordered to be made out, and an official letter * is written to each officer, apprising him thereof.

* The following is the form of the official letter:—

Sir,                                                                            Admiralty Office, January 1, 1839.

My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty have appointed you Lieutenant of Her Majesty’s Ship, Nonsuch, at Portsmouth; it is their Lordships’ direction that you repair Immediately to this Office for your appointment, and that you report to me the day on which you shall have joined the ship.

I am, Sir, your very humble Servant,

 John Bannow. 

P.S—It is desired that you acknowledge the receipt of this letter.

To Lieutenant Henry Haulaway.

He may either “take up,” as it is called, that is, receive his commission at the Admiralty, in London, or at the admiral’s office, at the sea-port where the ship is stationed. The captain, or one of his lieutenants, proceeds without delay to make the arrangements for putting the ship in commission, which is accomplished by hoisting the pendant, and reading his warrant to the officers already appointed; the forms and observances appertaining to which ceremony are as follow :—

On arriving at the sea-port wherein his ship is stationed, the captain, or one of his lieutenants, to whom he has delegated the duty of putting the vessel in commission, repairs to the office of the Port Admiral, and reports his arrival to the secretary. Thence he proceeds to the superintendant residing in the dockyard, who orders the master-attendant, (one of his officers), to make the necessary arrangements, and also furnishes a pendant. The pendant is a long narrow strip of hunting, of the colour of the admiral’s flag, having a St. George’s cross at the top; and when hoisted at the head of the main (middle) mast, signifies that the ship belongs to Her Majesty’s fleet, and is in commission. Every person on board, or, as it is called, under the pendant, is amenable to naval discipline, the laws regulating which are strictly defined by the Act 22 of George II., cap. 23, the articles of war, and also the naval instructions, a code of rules promulgated by the Lords of the Admiralty, under the authority of an order in council, and amended occasionally to suit the exigencies of circumstances.

The pendant, being emblematic of a ship of war commanded by an officer of the royal navy, is not allowed to be worn by any other class of vessels whatever. It is said to have been originally adopted in defiance of the Dutch, who exhibited a broom at the mast-head, and boasted that they could sweep the seas of their enemies; on which a British admiral ordered his captains to hoist this representation of a whip, with the design of whipping the Dutch out of the British Channel. Whatever might have been the first intention, the symbol is, undoubtedly, a very ancient one, and has long since been adopted by all nations to distinguish their ships of war.

A ship, when brought forward (that is, prepared) for commissioning, is generally placed in the basin, a large pond within the dock-yard, capable of holding several vessels. This is done for the greater convenience of equipping her, and hoisting on hoard her masts and water-tanks, by means of the sheers or cranes, placed on the edge of the basin. The officer, having stepped on hoard, calls around him any others who have been already appointed, and having hoisted the pendant, either upon a mast or a flag-staff, he reads his commission, of which the following is a copy :

Admiralty Seal.  By the Commissioners for executing the office of Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland &c.

To Henry Haulaway hereby appointed Lieutenant of Her Majesty’s Ship the Nonsuch
By virtue of the Power and Authority to us given, We do hereby constitute and appoint you Lieutenant of Her Majesty’s Ship the Nonsuch Willing and requiring you forthwith to go on hoard and take upon you the charge and command of Lieutenant in her accordingly strictly charging and commanding all the officers and company belonging to the said ship subordinate to you-to behave themselves jointly and severally in their respective employments with all due respect and obedience unto you their said Lieutenant And you likewise to observe and execute as well the General Printed Instructions as what Orders and Directions you shall from time to time receive from your Captain or any other your superior Officers for Her Majesty’s service hereof nor you nor any of you may fail as you shall answer the contrary at your peril And for so doing this shall he your Warrant Given under our hands and the Seal of the Office of Admiralty this First day of January 1839 in the second year of Her Majesty’s Reign.

By command of their Lordships

C. Adam

C. Wood Dalmeny

Seniority 10th July 1836

The above quaint form has been unaltered probably from its first adoption. It will he seen that, as in old statutes, no marks of punctuation occur ; and although called a commission, it is strictly speaking, a warrant.—It is lithographed on parchment, hears a stamp of five shillings, and the officer pays a fee of one pound one shilling and sixpence on receiving it.


The formal ceremony performed of “Putting the ship in commission,” the officer next proceeds, in company with the master attendant, to select and receive charge of a hulk. This is an old vessel fitted up for the habitation of the crew during the time the ship is equipping. The principal object is to select one sufficiently capacious to accommodate the officers and men, and moored (situated) as near the dock-yard as possible, for the greater facility of boats passing to and fro.

The choice of the hulk approved, a pendant is hoisted, and never struck (taken down) night or day. The ensign or colours (a large oblong flag with a union-jack in the upper corner) is also hoisted every morning at eight o’clock, and displayed until sunset.

The next step is to procure a clerk, if he is not already provided; and should the captain have no one in view for this office, application is generally made to the admiral’s secretary, who recommends one of several always on his list for employment.

The clerk immediately makes out a demand for stationery, and having procured the signature of the commanding officer, he repairs to the superintendant of the dock-yard, who approves it; he then draws from the store-keeper the necessary supply, comprising various printed forms, which must he filled up, signed, and countersigned, after a regulated manner, before stores or provisions of any description can he obtained. The clerk also makes entries of the name, age, and description of every person who joins the ship; copies the port-admiral’s orders, and has in fact a very busy time of it whilst in harbor.

Due notice of the intention of putting the ship in commission has in the mean time been given to the commandant of the division of royal marines; and as soon as the hulk is reported ready for their reception, the party of marines, or sea-soldiers, called jollies by the seamen, is marched from the barracks to boats and embarked on board. From thenceforth, like every one serving under that awful symbol the pendant, the marines are amenable to naval discipline; directed at work and ordered about by naval officers: in fact their own officers have little to do with them afloat, except inspecting the condition of their appointments, with an occasional exercise.

The purser is generally appointed early, but should he not have made his appearance, (or joined, as it is called,) a supply of provisions is obtained from the flag-ship. As soon as this official appears, however, he speedily procures all that is necessary in his department, for his principal emoluments are derived from the savings he can effect in the allowance made him for providing coals, candles, and other necessaries.

As the officers appear, and their names are inserted on the hooks, they enter on their various duties; the lieutenants, mates, and midshipmen, being attached to the parties which are sent daily to the dock-yard and gun-wharf, to prepare the ship’s rigging, furniture, and armament. When the captain or either of the lieutenants (these being distinguished as commissioned officers) joins, all hands are called, and his commission, similar to the one we have described, is read aloud in presence of the whole ship’s company.

The first lieutenant, (or commander, if the captain has made his election for one,) master, boatswain, gunner, and carpenter, are the persons on whom devolve the principal duties in fitting out. Whilst the first two superintend the whole process, the master, and one of his mates, pay particular attention to the stowage of ballast, water tanks, provisions, &c. in the holds; for a judicious distribution of the weight has a great effect upon the ship’s motion at sea, and also upon her sailing qualities. The boatswain superintends the rigging; the gunner, besides the rigging of the mainmast and main yard, is employed fitting the tackling and breechers (ropes which secure and work the cannon); and the carpenter takes care that the masts and yards are free from defects, besides busying himself in preparing the boats, and various other matters.

If men are slow in entering, not much can be done in the way of rigging for some time, unless expedition is required, in which case, working parties are sent from the flag-ship, or other ships in port, to assist; but in all cases it is desirable that the vessel shall be fitted in every respect by her own crew: meanwhile there is plenty of employment in getting on board the ballast, water tanks, &c., stepping the masts, and other heavy jobs, at which the marines prove very useful.

During war, vessels are manned by draughts from the guardships, or other ships paid off, and by pressing any seamen that can be laid hold of; in seasons of peace, the crews are all volunteers, who enter for the ship, or for general service. The term implied is three years, but once entered they can he detained, if the service requires it, for five years.

There is seldom, under ordinary circumstances, a necessity for hurrying a ship’s equipment, and as unnecessary severity of discipline and frequent corporal punishment are greatly discountenanced by the Board of Admiralty, captains are of course anxious to procure men of good character, so that they may have the less occasion to exercise severity. For this reason ships are sometimes very slowly manned in the present day, and good men being frequently rejected for frivolous causes, or a fastidiousness on the part of the captain, they are the less inclined to submit to this mortification, and when slighted repair to the merchant, and often, we fear, to foreign service. Very much also depends upon the reputation which the captain and his commander or first lieutenant enjoys amongst the seamen; a hasty or contemptuous expression, a character for harassing the men with trifling jobs, or any prejudice taken up, runs like wild-fire amongst seamen; for they congregate together and discuss these matters—the most interesting that can be to them; and cases of this sort militate against the manning a particular ship, whilst men will enter freely for another. Indeed, experience shows that it is not the strictest disciplinarians who are unpopular, very far from it; because, under them, the seaman knows everyone must perform his duty, and the willing man is not obliged to do the work of the skulker. It may he very generally and certainly  assumed, that when men show a disinclination for a particular ship, there is a prejudice existing against some party on board; the remedy the Dutch formerly adopted for this was to nominate another captain, if the one first appointed failed to enlist his crew within a specified time. No doubt such a regulation induced officers to cultivate the respect and affection of their men.

To many it may seem surprising that seamen will enter at all in the Royal Navy, when they can always earn nearly double, and sometimes triple, the wages in trading ships. Experience shows, however, that they do, and the fact is indisputable that upwards of twenty thousand are now serving in the fleet, all volunteers. There must be some reasons for this, and the fact is there are various advantages present, contingent, and in prospect, connected with the Queen’s service, that operate upon the minds of men who bestow a thought on the matter. But as we believe that three-fourths of our merchant seamen never heard of, or at all events do not know enough of these advantages to appreciate them, we shall be performing a kindness by describing the most prominent, reserving more detailed observations upon “Impressment and Manning the Fleet” for a special article, in which we purpose treating on the matter hereafter.

The average wages of seamen in merchants’ ships, may he estimated roundly, at 45s. per month. In some trades they earn considerably more; and an able seaman, who really deserves the title, and has served his apprenticeship to the sea, may always calculate on obtaining 60s. per month.

The best seamen in the Navy do not (until they attain to petty officer’s ratings) receive more than 34s. per month, but their pay is calculated by the lunar, not (as in the merchant’s service) the calendar month, so that in this respect, they have an advantage of thirteen to twelve. But the man-of-war’s man’s pay is always accruing; he is subjected to no interruptions nor mulcts, his pay goes on in sickness or health, when captured or shipwrecked *, even when on leave of absence: in fact, he need never lose a day’s wages, for when discharged from one ship, he can immediately enter on board the flag ship, and obtain two or three weeks’ leave for recreation on shore, depositing his chest, bedding, and a portion of his money, in safety, until his return.

* If a merchant vessel is captured or wrecked, the crew are not entitled to wages. In either case, but particularly the former, when the man is generally detained in prison during the war, his allotment is stopped, and his family deprived of any help from him. The man-of-war’s man are not liable to this, but his wages continue to accrue when he cannot receive them, and his allotment is punctually paid, even should he be detained in a French prison twenty years or more.

Again, he incurs no drawbacks, like the merchant seaman, for damage or pillage of the cargo; neither is he obliged to hang about the docks for ten days after discharge, before he can claim a settlement of his wages, all which time the seaman is a prey to Jews, who advance him money on exorbitant terms: in fact, notwithstanding the disparity of wages, if a balance is struck at the end of half-a-dozen years, it will be found that the man-of-war’s man had earned the most money, and maintained his family in the greatest comfort, owing to the regularity of his employment, and punctuality of his allotment.

But it is only in the matter of wages—and that we have shown is questionable—that the merchant seaman can claim an advantage; in every other respect, he is immeasurably deficient. The man-of-war’s man enjoys good treatment, food, and lodging, greater safety from the superior qualities of his ship, the skill of the officers to navigate her, and the strength of the crew: in sickness, skillful professional treatment, with a profuse use of the most costly medicines to alleviate his pain, and restoratives to further his recovery. If wounded or maimed, casualties to which his profession render him peculiarly liable, he has surgical assistance on the spot, for want of which, and the means of performing an operation in season, thousands of merchant seamen perish miserably. Moreover, should disease overtake him, and incapacitate him at any time whilst serving, he is invalided and pensioned at from eight pence to nine pence per day, instead of becoming dependent on parish relief. His children are eligible for Greenwich school, where they receive an education that qualifies them for advancement in life to any station good conduct can obtain. In case of death, his wife receives an annuity, and when he has served twenty-one years, he can claim a pension for life, either at sea or on shore, of from ten pence to fourteen pence per day, and more if he served in petty officer’s ratings. The seaman who resolves upon entering the Royal Navy with a view to serving therein twenty-one years, may therefore set casualty and fate at defiance; he need take no further thought of provision for life. He may save out of his pay (to say nothing of his chance of prize money) scores, nay, hundreds of pounds, if provident, leaving himself ample means for enjoyment besides, for every want is supplied to him; and, should he so desire, Greenwich Hospital at last receives him. The merchant seaman has nothing of this kind to depend on. It is true he subscribes to a fund, but unless he makes some additional provision for old age, he will find but a scanty maintenance from what that affords; and should his constitution break down, or injury or disease incapacitate him, he has no resource for himself or family from which he can claim the means of support.

Having detailed the advantages which the seaman enjoys in the royal navy, so far as regards his wages and entitlements, the reader will be anxious to know how he fares? The best information we can give him on this point is to append the following Table, which shows the provision made for his support, and the judicious manner in which his food is varied from day to day.

Every individual of the crew receive the same allowance, not the slightest distinction being made, either in quantity or quality, between the captain and the smallest boy on board the ship.

Formerly there existed what were called “Banyan days,” being three days in the week, not strictly of abstinence, but on which no dinner was cooked, the men making a cool and comfortless meal on whatever they saved from the previous day. Banyan days have been abolished since the war, and the above arrangement adopted by which a hot dinner every day of beef and and pudding, or pork and pease-soup, and pease-pudding, called by sailors ” Dog’s-body,” is substituted.

In harbor, however, in any part of the world, and at sea whenever it can he procured, fresh beef is always provided; the allowance being, one pound per day instead of the threequarters of a pound of salt beef or pork, a half a pound of vegetables instead of the flour and pease. Sometimes 1 1/2 pounds of bread, (called Soft Tack,) is substituted for the biscuit, and the men are at liberty to vary their allowance by taking raisins, currants, and such, in lieu of a portion of their flour. Coffee is frequently served in place of cocoa, and when at sea, one pint of wine, or a quarter of a pint of spirits, (generally rum,) is substituted for beer. The rum is always mixed with three parts of water, making a beverage called “grog,” and never given to the crew in a raw state. Whenever apprehension of scurvy is entertained, and the men have been long on salt provisions, some lime-juice and sugar is mixed with the grog, which then becomes cold punch, thereby insuring that the anti-scorbutic, the adoption of which has eradicated that frightful disease, is duly administered; for Jack’s predilection for grog is proverbial, and he would swallow it even were it impregnated with more questionable substances than lime-juice and sugar, else his character is traduced by those who accuse him of ” tapping the admiral.”

Let those who toil hard to subsist their families,—who suffer when incapable of working from sickness, or who frequently fail to obtain employment though ever so well inclined,—who have in the mean time, rent, taxes, and the various calls that perplex the house-keeper, to provide, ponder over the statement we have made, and reflect whether the Government has been unmindful of the seaman’s interests and comforts, or whether our tars have any reason to complain. Increased pay they should receive in case of war, not because their labour is (everything considered) underpaid at present, but because they could then earn very considerably more in the merchant’s employment, and a poor man’s labour being the only capital he possesses, he should, in a free land, he undoubtedly permitted to carry it to the market where lie can make the most of it. In every other respect we consider the man-of-war seaman’s condition, one that must he envied by three-fourths of our artisans and even small tradesmen, who struggle hard amidst care and anxiety to keep up appearances, and make “both ends meet.”

The British sailor is, in fact, to use the words of a distinguished author “better fed, better lodged, better and cheaper clothed, and better taken care of in sickness, than any man who must earn his subsistence by the sweat of his brow.” In our next we shall give a scale of the crew, the pay of each rank, and the mode of messing the officers and men.

Check back for more exciting articles on the 1839 British Navy.



7 Replies to “Reasons You Should Join the 1839 British Navy – Part One”

  1. @Nancy. Thank you! There are about four more articles that I can find, but I believe there are more.

  2. It isn’t such a weird fascination., though I admit that such battles were more interesting before they all became ironclads with long range cannons.
    The War of 1812 even saw some American victories in sea battles– the land battles don’t bear thinking about.
    The more distant the battles are in time the easier it is to look at them as historical displays. It is too gut wrenching to think of the men who actually were on those ships as people.
    I can not think about submarines at all. I get claustrophobic just thinking about such.

  3. @Nancy, True, cold historical displays. The more research I’m doing, the more I realize that the reduction of taxes on publications, literacy, and the rise of the middle class really changed how we told history. It began to be told by the people who actually fought the wars. Well, that’s just my take…

  4. I loved this. I thought it was absolutely facinating. Esp the bit about why a navel sailor would join when merchants paid so much more.
    and the line
    “labor is the only capital a working man posesses and it is only right in a free society that he may trade it on the open market.”

  5. @Ella, Not then, I suppose. However, I had read (and I can’t source this) that there were women disguised as men in the Navy.

I would love to hear your thoughts!

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