The British Midshipmen: Apprenticeship at Sea

It would not have taken Midshipman Horatio Nelson long to earn that life board ship – at least below decks – was harsh, cramped,uncomfortable, malodorous, and exhausting. Midshipmen – as many as twenty aboard a large warship – were berthed on the lowest deck, the dank and airless orlop, packed into a room no larger than 10 by 18 feet.

They also ate below decks, not with the well-fed officers, and the fare, while hearty enough, was sometimes revolting, at least by modern standards. Breakfast was generally burgoo, a watery oatmeal, capped off with “coffee” made of hot water and burned biscuit – while the biscuits lasted. A ship was seldom long out of port before the biscuits filled with maggots, an occurrence so common that some sailors even developed a taste for them. They were “very cold when you eat them, like calf’s foot jelly or blomonge”, a midshipman reported to his parents. But the maggots eventually gave way to weevils, which cause the biscuits to crumble away altogether.

A new midshipman gazes in dismay at the cramped and noisy life awaiting him below decks in the Royal Navy (the sketch by Captain Frederick Marryat)

At the noon meal, the largest of the day, biscuits may be joined by salt beef or pork, pease pudding (porridge made of split peas), raisins, and on good days butter and cheese, usually rancid. Enterprising crewmen also caught and ate rats, fondly called “millers” because their forays into the flour stores left their fur powdered white. Dining was done between the guns on planks suspended from ropes attached to the deckhead. Alcohol helped lift the crew’s spirits, its nature depending on where the ship saw service: beer in home waters, wine in the Mediterranean, and in the West Indies grog – watered-down rum, often enlivened with lemon juice to improve the taste and protect against scurvy.

Ship’s biscuit that was hard enough to inscribe. This one was given to a Miss Blacket of Berwick in 1784

Old hands liked to reminisce about the awfulness of shipboard food, of vermin-laden victuals and meat grown hard enough to sculpt. In fact, however, most captains supplied their crew with fresh meat and vegetables whenever circumstances allowed, and a menu that included one hot meal a day was superior to what most sailors could have expected on land in a time when life among society’s lower orders was unremittingly harsh. The smells below decks might have been enough to blunt the appetite: the stench of unwashed bodies, boiling salt meat, tar and tallow, and the excrement of chickens and livestock penned aft on the lower gun deck to provide fresh meat and fowl for the fortunate officers. Even so, the connection between decent nutrition and good health was understood in Nelson’s day, and part of the British navy’s success was attributively to its sailors being the best fed in the world.

Admiral Horatio Nelson

Nelson was lucky to begin his career as a midshipman, entitled to the few perquisites of a junior officers. Boys as young as six sometimes went to sea as “powder monkeys”, running gunpowder from the magazine to the gun crews during the battle, and lads of eight or nine might be officers’ servants who could not expect to become midshipman until they were fifteen. The midshipman’s main task was to assist lieutenants, spending hours on the quarterdeck, the exclusive preserve of the officers, doing the bidding of his superiors. Each noon he took sightings of the sun with the captain to determine the ship’s position. In battle he supervised small fighting units, such as group of guns. On larger vessels schooling – morning classes in navigation and mathematics with the ship’s schoolmaster – was part of his daily routine.

Portrait of the brave midshipman John Russell (1811-1843)

Just as vital, however, was the education he got aloft and on the gun decks. To become a good officer, he had to learn all he could about seafaring from every other man on board – not just the captain and lieutenants, who were the head of the fighting ship, but also the crewmen, who were its heart and sinew. He might not concern himself overmuch with the duties of the captain of the head (the landsman who cleaned the toilets) or the Jack-in-the-Dust (who swept up the gun room). But the good midshipman studied the petty officers and the higher echelons among the “ratings”.

Ratings were sailors assigned to various categories by a ship’s first lieutenant at the beginning of the voyage. At the bottom of the scale were the powder monkeys and serving boys. Next came landsmen, at the sea for the first time. Above theme were ordinary seamen, who knew the basic shipboard duties, and most highly prized were the able seamen, experienced hands who were qualified for many tasks and could hope to become petty officers. All these lived among the guns, the warship’s reason for being. They ate on the gun decks, and there they slept, their canvas hammocks slung from the deckheads and spaced scant inches apart.

Officers’ party in which also some more trustworthy midshipmen were invited

Among the ratings were agile young sailors called topmen, at home on the highest yardarms, and lead men, expert in testing the water’s depth. And even the lowliest landsman contributed the muscle needed to haul cables and hoist longboats and drag a 5-ton anchor out of the seabed.

Petty officers, who held their posts at the pleasure of the captain, included foremen of various parts of the ship – the yeomen of the sheets, for instance, who oversaw the operation of the fore and aft sails, and the coxwain, who supervised the ship’s small boats. There were also gunner’s mates, who helped maintain the cannons; quartermasters, who steered the ship and supervised timekeeping; and – loathed by the rest of the crew – the bosun’s mates, who administered floggings and other punishments. Like the ratings, the petty officers ate and slept on the lower gun decks.

Nelson, hero of Trafalgar

Warrant officers were appointed by the Navy Board, although they could be demoted, or dis-rated, by their ship’s captain. The most senior of these, considered fellow gentlemen by the commissioned officers, were allowed on the quarterdeck and enjoyed the same food and accommodations as the lieutenants, who slept in tiny compartments in the ward room on an upper gun deck. The highest warrant officer was the ship’s master, responsible for piloting and navigation. Other senior warrant officers included surgeons, whose chief skill was amputating battle-damaged limbs, and on the most prestigious ships, chaplains. Chaplains were always in short supply; apparently, most English clergymen were sensible enough to serve God on dry land. The purser, the ship’s accountant, who also sold clothing, tobacco, and a few other necessities and little luxuries to the crew, rounded out the senior group. Lower in status among the warrant officers were the gunner, the master’s and surgeon’s mates, the schoolmaster, and the bosun.

Ship’s artificers often had warrant officer status and were vital on a man-of-war. There were sailmakers and ropemakers, armorers who saw to the upkeep of all metalwork, caulkers who kept the hulls waterlight. Most valued were the ship’s carpenter and his mates, whose skill could determine a vessel’s very survival. These were the men who fitted out a ship before she ever sailed and who at sea could rebuilt a storm-damaged mast or patch a hull holed by a cannonball.

Horatio Nelson as the midshipman

The nautical day began officially at noon, but for most hands it started at 4 am with the shrill cry of the bosun’s pipe and his call of “All hands!”. With that, the bosun’s mates began walking the lower decks, flicking at any filled hammock with knotted ropes called “starters”. Thus encouraged, the seamen quickly dressed and then lashed their hammocks into cylinders preparatory to having them “piped up” – stored in netting around the upper deck’s bulwarks. (In battle the hammocks gave some protection against small projectiles and were also useful as life preservers.) Crewmen then began washing the decks and smoothing away splinters with sandstone scrapers called hollystones because they were about the size of prayerbooks. The upper decks would be brushed and swabbed dry by 6 am, when a second shriek of the bosun’s pipe signaled breakfast.

Labour at sea was a round-the-clock enterprise that required the division of the crew into two watches, the starboard and larboard. There were seven work shifts, also called watches. These were supervised by lieutenants and lasted four hours each, except for two dogwatches of two hours each between 4 pm and 8 am. A sandglass measured the half hours, and each time the glass was turned, a bell sounded. Eight bells denoted the end of a watch, at which time the ship’s speed and course were logged.

The Battle of Trafalgar, 21st October 1805

The odd number of watches meant that night duty was fairly shared – the larboard watch beginning work at midnight one night, the starboard the next – but it also meant that crewmen rarely had more than for hours of sleep one night and seven hours the next. Fatigue was chronic. Throughout the day there were drills – sail drills and fire drills, boat-lowering drills and the all-important gun drills, wherein the men practiced running the cannons in and out of the gun ports and sometimes firing them.

A midshipman is serving his lieutenant a cup of tea

Shortly after supper the men were called to quarters. All hands sped to their battle stations, and the cannons were cast loose. Midshipmen and lieutenants inspected the divisions they supervised, then reported to the first lieutenant, who in turn informed the captain, if all was well, “All present and sober, sir, if you please.” Thereafter, if the captain failed to order any more drills, the hammocks were piped down, and the men not on watch retired for the night or amused themselves as best as they could, perhaps by playing cards or swapping tales or eliciting a tune from the ship’s fiddler of fifer.

So went the course of a normal day. But sooner or later every ship of the line justified her existence by going into battle. Then all routine fled on the wind, and the crewmen, directed by their officers, merely fought – until they won or lost or (rarely) surrender, or until they were maimed or killed.