Customs of the Navy

Chapter 2 - Recruiting and Conditions of Service

"It is seamen, not ships, that constitute a navy."

---Rear Admiral Sir Charles NAPIER (1786-1860).

Just over a hundred years ago came the first effort to make possible careers as seamen in the ships of the Royal Navy.Before that time men signed on for the duration of the commission of the ship in which they had elected to serve; only the Captain, his lieutenants and warrant officers were retained in the service after the ship paid off. Conditions of service were hard, and the pay was poor but might be augmented in a fortunate commission by the prize money. From about 1660 to 1797 (the Spithead, Plymouth and Nore mutinies were in April and May of the latter year) the pay of an Ordinary Seaman had remained at 19 shillings, that of an Able Seaman at 24 shillings, a month. At the end of the period this rate of pay, fixed by law, was about one-quarter the pay of a seaman in the merchant service.

Until 1825 pay was held back as a guarantee against desertion. It was the practice to pay off the men at the end of a commission, hence the expression, a ship paying off. Men were paid monthly after 1825; it was not until 1949 that fortnightly payment was instituted in the R.C.N. The practice of making payment in cash on men's hats started during the Commonwealth, at which time it was found wise to treat the men well to keep them loyal.

At the end of a commission each man was given a pay ticket which could be cashed at the Admiralty. But as the men had insufficient funds to go to London moneylenders came to the home ports and paid as little as 60% of the value of the pay tickets. After 1728 men were paid aboard ship after returning to their home port to decommission.

The methods of manning the King's ships, which Lord Nelson termed "an infernal system", was to engage men to serve only during a period of hostilities. When peaceful conditions prevailed those who had survived naval service returned to their former occupations. Until well after the middle of the 17th century losses in men were chiefly due to disease.

Rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 Vasco da Gama lost 100 of a crew of 160, most from scurvy, a disease caused by diet deficiency. Admiral Hawkins appears to be the first to have used lemon juice as a preservative. Captain Cook, on his second world voyage in H.M.S. Resolution (1772-1775), lost only one man of 118. In a document to the Admiralty he attributed his good fortune to the use of lemons; this resulted in their adoption for general use in British ships. Lime juice, at present in use, has similar properties.

During the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) only 1,512 men died in action whereas 133,718 succumbed to disease, or for reasons other than death in action or as the result of wounds were listed "missing"; these numbers are from a total of 184,893 seamen and marines who served during that war. Considering the conditions and the meager chances of survival it is not difficult to understand why it was necessary to resort to impressment to man the royal ships.

From Saxon times press-gangs had functioned in order to provide seamen. Henry VIII in 1545, fearing an invasion by the French, ordered in his State of Papers that Devon fishermen were to be "taken as marryners to serve the King". It was an Admiralty rule, founded upon very old usage, that every male British subject was eligible to be pressed into service. But the principal raids by press-gangs were on experienced seafarers, particularly those serving aboard inward-bound merchant vessels. Due to impressment of crews some of these were unable to reach port unassisted. The merchantmen were always preferred by sailors although service in them was hard too. There is little doubt that pressing for the naval service was legal (and incidentally the right has never been repealed or abrogated) provided the press-gangs held a warrant issued in the county and was accompanied by a commissioned officer.

In Queen Anne's reign during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) men entered her ships "like men dragged to execution". It has also been said that in the reign of James I (1603-1625) men went to serve "with as great a grudgery as if it were to be slaves in the galleys". There is an engraving in the Picture Post Library of a press-gang at work. This is evidently an early type of political cartoon in which the victim says, "For gods sake gentlemen don't drag me like a thief". And his wife, on her knees with clenched hands upraised, pleads, "For goodness sake dear your Honour, set him free, he maintains his mother, father, sister and wife". The officer-in-charge replies "Let them starve and be damned". The King wants men. Haul him onboard you dogs". Presumably his five men have no difficulty as each wields a two-foot club.

Samuel Pepys, secretary to the Admiralty from 1660 to 1669, notes in his diary in the year 1666 that he had gone to see the Lord Mayor of London "...about getting shipped some men that they have these two last nights pressed in the city out of houses: the persons wholly unfit for sea, and many of them people of very good fashion, which is a shame to think of; and carried to Bridewell they are, yet without being impressed with money legally as they ought to be." We later read that the Lord Mayor did not at this time have the money to pay the men. Pepys somberly notes, "It is a great tyranny."

Elsewhere he writes: "Two men leapt overboard, among others, into the Thames out of the vessel into which they were pressed, and were shot by the soldiers placed there to keep them, two days since; so much people do avoid the King's Service!" On the bow of the VICTORY is a grating called a marine's walk on which an armed sentry paced in harbour to fire at any man seen breaking out of the ship.

It is worthy of note that not all captains were cruel and sadistic men who governed their ships by liberal use of the lash and irons; some had little difficulty finding sufficient volunteers to sail with them. The navy of the United States had considerably less of a problem finding men, and their merchant service was more popular still; both recruited many men who had sailed in British ships and had either deserted or had joined the Americans after their ships paid off. During the Napoleonic Wars (1798-1815) many British seamen joined American merchant ships to evade naval service. Many of these were stopped and searched by British warships in the War of 1812. Historians record that this practice, which began during the Napoleonic Wars, was a major cause of the War of 1812. Still others had joined the Dutch naval or merchant services.

An order-in-council was signed by Queen Victoria on 1st April 1853 which provided for a ten-year engagement period, from the age of eighteen, with a pension after twenty years' service. At the same time improvements in conditions of service were brought about, and it was no longer found necessary to press men into service by the methods mentioned. The Crimean War (1854) was the first without any impression of seamen.

Although it is generally held that Lord St. Vincent instituted the first divisional system in the Royal Navy, there is some evidence that such a system had been in existence without official sanction, since about 1755. The official institution of a divisional system dates, however, from 1806, with changes introduced in 1844, 1861 and 1869. The present R.C.N. regulations are taken largely from the King's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions ( K.R. & A.I. ) of 1926.

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