As the once pre-eminent maritime nation, Britain has a Proud and Awesome maritime history!

But life at sea during the age of sail was filled with hardship.

Sailors had to accept cramped conditions, disease, poor food and pay, and bad weather.

Over a period of hundreds of years, seafarers from the time of the early explorers to the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, shared many common experiences. Men working at sea had much to endure; cut off from normal life for months, even years, they had to accept cramped conditions, disease, poor food and pay.

And, above all, they faced the daily dangers of sea and weather.

Life onboard a Man o' War in Nelson's time was particularly hard and often fraught with danger....

Sailors usually had no say in what ship they served aboard. While most were volunteers and served for patriotic or personal reasons, a good number were also pressed into service, especially as the Napoleonic Wars heated up and there was a great demand for men.

In 1793, there were 15,000 men in the Royal Navy; by 1813, there were 150,000.

Hierarchy aboard a man of war was as embedded as the continents to the Earth’s crust. At the top, commissioned officers lorded over all below, with the chief monarch being the Captain.

The absolute ruler onboard his ship, a Captain had the power of life or death over the crew. Some made ship-board life hell for all, while others inspired a love from those they commanded. The Captain was responsible for the well-being of the crew, ensuring there were enough of them to have the ship ready for service, and even paying for extras to keep them happy. Advancement to Admiral was fairly automatic for Captains, depending on seniority.

Lieutenants were the backbone of a ship’s command structure, despite only being on the first rung of the commissioned officer classification. As a Lieutenant, officers could expect a regular half-pay income, if put in reserve by the Admiralty, but had numerous tasks to fulfil for the security. They would command small boats, gun divisions in battle, oversee a watch, and were most likely to lead dangerous boarding or cutting-out parties. Depending upon the rating of a Royal Navy vessel, there could be up to six Lieutenants onboard.

Midshipmen were young officers-under-training, who helped the Lieutenants control the crew. If good enough, they could take command of small boats or prizes.

Winning promotion to Lieutenant was the aim of most young Midshipmen who entered service in their early teens. Some, however, were still in their lowly rank in their 30s, 40s and even older.

Next in line were warrant officers and petty officers. The petty officers were directly in charge of the seamen. 

The seamen in turn were divided into four classes: able, ordinary, landmen, and boys. Each man was allocated to a department with specific functions such as gunnery, sailmaking, and carpentry.

Most crew were allocated to the guns in teams of up to fourteen men. Others tended the sails and a good number worked as servants for the officers, or as messengers between parts of the ship. There were almost endless tasks to which crew members could be assigned.

Somewhat outside the system was the large contingent of Royal Marines, equating in large ships to roughly 15% of the crew. Their job was to serve as sharp shooters, boarders, and soldiers in cutting out expeditions. Their other jobs included suppressing mutinies and standing guard during punishments.

To run the ship, the men worked in watches. The First Lieutenant assigned watchbills and quarterbills to the men. Typically, Captains ran a two-watch system with the day divided into starboard and larboard watches.

The 12-hour period of a starboard and larboard watch was subdivided into five, 4-hour watches and two, 2-hour watches (called dog watches).  This allowed men to get increments of 4 hours of rest. The dog watches were established to create an odd number of watches per day so that every day a sailor’s watchbill would change, plus it allowed for efficiency at meal times.

Time was tracked by a half-hour glass that when emptied, would signal a crewman to ring a bell to indicate the time. Some ship's Captains adopted a three-watch system, which allowed the crew to get a full 8-hour rest period. This type of system was very popular among the crew.

Pay was doled out once per lunar month. In 1815, the lowest paid were the inexperienced “landmen” at £1.2.6 on a first-rate vessel. As a sailor gained experience, he was rated up.  An ordinary seaman earned £1.5.6 and an able seaman made £1.13.6. Specialists such as a sailmaker made more at £2.5.6.

For comparison, a Lieutenant of a first-rate ship of the line made £8.8.0 and the Captain earned £32.4.6.

Pay was deducted for clothing and other items. Pay was also subject to variables such as length of service and on what class of ship the sailor was serving.


Compared to the elaborately uniformed officers or the red-coated Royal Marines, sailors had none. The usual kit was a short jacket, loose trousers, and a head covering - often with a ribbon that had the ship’s name on it.

If there was any uniformity among sailor dress, it was due to the insistence of the captain, who sometimes opted to dress his sailors in matching uniforms - at his own expense - or because the purser was purchasing the same type of clothing in bulk.

Sailors and petty officers berthed in the lower decks. There was little light here, and burning flame was highly restricted due to the dangers of fire.  There was no privacy. Sea chests were shared.

Each man was given a 6-foot by 3-foot hammock, and hammocks were attached with hooks in a layout devised by the first lieutenant. Each sailor had 14 inches width of space to sleep. Petty officers, as a benefit of promotion, were given 28 inches. Sailors did not sleep directly on the hammock; rather, it served as a cradle for bedding which was bought through the purser.

The overwhelming danger to British seamen was not enemy action, which accounted for only 6.3% of those who perished at sea, but rather disease and accidents - over 81%.

Mealtimes for the crew were generally respected by the officers as sacrosanct in order to maintain morale.

Forty-five minutes were allowed for breakfast and 90 minutes for dinner and supper. Dinner, eaten around midday, was considered to be the main meal.

Officers had the same rations as the crew, although they supplemented those rations with a mess subscription, which enabled the purchase of fine wines and spirits, and additional delicacies.

Meals for all were cooked in the galley.

Victuals for the sailors and marines onboard a British Man o'War were basic........

The main rations were salt beef or pork, cheese, fish, ale and some form of ship's biscuit. The quality of food deteriorated because of storage problems, lack of ventilation, and poor drainage. It was also affected by the presence of rats and other vermin on board......

And the rest of the victuals weren't  too appetising either:-

dried peas, beans, rice, malt, barley, wheat, and oatmeal

And to wash it all down - rum, small beer and water. 

The normal weekly ration for a 'Jolly Jack Tar'
24 oz of hard tack ship's biscuit
One pint of beans
3/4 of a pound of rice
a gill each of molasses and vinegar
a daily allowance of either coffee, tea, or cocoa
a quarter pint of 'grog' a day (rum and water) 

Note: If properly stored, hard tack biscuits can last for years.....

The ship supplemented this diet by carrying its own livestock. Bumboats rushed at a ship when it entered a port, selling badly needed fresh produce.

In addition, seamen would fish, catching sharks, skate, dolphins, and turtles. Birds were shot and eaten as well.

Rats were hunted for sport and eaten, which compared to the taste of rabbit.....

'The traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy and the lash' - Winston Churchill in 1913.

'Ashore, it's wine, women and song, aboard it's rum, bum and concertina' - 19th Century phrase.

The Royal Navy of Nelson's period has generally been painted in terms of men being pressed into service against their will, living in hellish conditions, and being tyrannised with the lash. As one historian has put it, the sailors toiled on a sort of 'floating concentration camp'.

In port, most ships' captains allowed prostitutes onboard, and the men were in any case already issued with large quantities of drink - the standard allowance was a gallon of beer a man per day. If beer was not available, then a pint of wine or half a pint of spirits could be substituted.

No sooner had the ships anchored, than 'bumboats', loaded down to the gunwales with whores, headed out to them...

The warships of the day were very overcrowded, and each man was only allowed 14 inches in which to hang his hammock. Add large numbers of prostitutes to the overcrowding and heavy drinking, and the scenes below decks where the men lived must have been something to behold. A sailor wrote that,

'with the women came drink and what with the drink and the women the ship's discipline came to a stop.

The men and women drank and quarrelled between the guns. The decks were allowed to become dirty.

Drunken women were continually coming up to insult the officers, or to lodge some complaint.

Sometimes the women ran aloft to wave their petticoats to the flagship'.

In Nelson's time Admiralty Regulations stated that women were not allowed to be taken to sea and that

'... no women be ever permitted to be on board but such as are really the wives of the men they come to, and the ship not too much pestered even with them'.

Whatever the rulebook said, however, it is nevertheless clear that women did travel aboard Nelson's ships - and in large numbers, although senior officers were not necessarily in favour of this. The presence of the women was largely hidden, for official purposes, as they were not paid or fed by the Navy, and therefore were not entered onto the ships' muster books. However other records, such as order books written by ships' captains, refer to their existence, as do memoirs and records of courts martial.

Ashore, and with a few shillings in his pocket, sailors were easy prey for inn-keepers and whores....

"A country of fiddlers and poets, whores and scoundrels"--Nelson's famous description of Naples.

Oh you hear a lot of stories 'bout the sailors and their sport

About how every sailor has a girl in every port

But if you added two and two, you'd figure out right quick

It's just because the girls all have a lad on every ship.

Scurvy, the scourge of seamen for centuries - yellow fever, malaria and syphilis - the brutal amputation of injured limbs aboard a heaving ship at sea, and blood and sawdust on the cockpit sole.



Sea Shanties

The history of this nautical tradition spans hundreds, even thousands, of years. 

Traceable from at least the mid-1400s, the shanty hails from the days of the old merchant sailing ships.

The shanty was quite simply a working song that ensured sailors involved in heavy manual tasks, such as tramping round the capstan or hoisting the sails for departure, synchronised individual efforts to efficiently execute their collective task, i.e. simply making sure that each sailor pushed or pulled, at precisely the same time.

The key to making this happen was to sing each song, or shanty, in rhythm.

More often than not there would be a solo-singer, a shantyman, who would lead the singing of the songs with the crew joining in for the chorus.

There are two major variants of the shanty - the Capstan Shanty and the Pulling or Halyard Shanty.


To maintain order, strict discipline was employed. The Articles of War were read at the commissioning of the ship and once a month thereafter.  These laid out the regulations for a crew’s behaviour.

In 1757 there were 35 articles, and any disciplinary infractions not specifically named in the first 34 were covered by number 35 - which gave the Captain leeway to punish seamen “by the laws and customs in such cases used at sea.”

A seaman's life was hard, and he had to be tough to survive, so ship's officers kept strict discipline on board.

In this way they hoped to keep morale high and prevent mutiny.

Seamen could be ‘tarred and feathered’, tied to a rope, swung overboard and ducked or ‘keel-hauled’, dragged round the underneath of the ship.

Flogging was the most common, with the whole crew often made to watch. A rope's end was used, or the infamous ‘cat o’ nine tails’.

In some cases, a sailor might be “flogged around the fleet” which was to have the punished man rowed to every ship in the harbour and flogged on each vessel. Then there was the ultimate punishment, hanging.....

A seaman found guilty of mutiny or murder would be hanged from the yard arm.

Punishments were severe.....and at the Captain's discretion....

Cat O'Nine Tails

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, flogging was the most common form of punishment used to maintain discipline aboard a man o'war.

Nine lengths of cord with each length containing up to three knots, attached to a short piece of thick rope.

The number of lashes meted out to a miscreant depended on the offence committed - typically ranging between a dozen and one hundred.

Boys as young as nine were encouraged to enlist as ‘servants’ - the lower age limit being raised to 13 in 1794. Acting as 'cabin boys' to officers and petty officers, while 'learning the ropes'.

During battle they carried water and gunpowder, earning them the nickname “powder monkeys”.

They scurried about the decks,  barefoot, climbing the rigging, fetching and carrying, in all weathers.

The life of a Midshipman was not much better...

Trainee officers in their teens, aged 13 and upwards, usually better educated - or better connected - than ordinary seamen, and always referred to as “young gentlemen” rather than boys.


"Midshipmen were always open to the caprice of their commanding officers, punishments awarded to them during their apprenticeship, such as mast-heading, disrating, being turned before the mast, being flogged, and in fact being turned out of the service altogether, all of which are severe punishments; still I am of the opinion, they are ultimately for advantage to the individual, and equally for the benefit of the naval service of the country."  Jeffrey Raigersfeld RN, Rear-Admiral.

A Midshipman, caight in the act of watching through the Captain’s cabin window, where he had neglected to draw the curtains, while the Captain was “going to embrace a Lady”, received 21 lashes from the Boatswain “in the usual way”. Sir Edward Hamilton RN, Captain

A boy sentenced to be flogged was often required to make his own cat, binding the whipcord lengths to the handle.

It was applied across the naked back with a pause of 10 or 15 seconds between lashes to ensure that the boy fully experienced the pain, and also because the tails could become entwined and required separating. The flogging of a boy with 48 lashes (the maximum) would probably take 12 minutes. 

 Cabin boys and Midshipmen were regularly caned for minor offences or slackness.

All boys under 19 could be instantly punished with a cane on the spot for minor offences; no record was kept of these punishments, which could be dished out by any officer or the boatswain. Six strokes of the cane applied to the hands was authorised but, because it impaired a boy’s ability to climb the rigging, most captains preferred "posterior chastisement".

Many was the sailor who ‘kissed the gunner’s daughter’, by being spread-eagled over a cannon and caned.

By 1860, the ‘cat’ was abolished for boys, only to be substituted by the birch, and any under 19 found skulking were ‘sharpened-up’ with the ‘stonnacky’ or the ‘Bosun’s Cane....

"Six days shalt thou labour and do all thou art able, And on the seventh, - holystone the decks and scrape the cable.”


Compared to a man o' war, life onboard a merchant ship was not easy....

The Captain of the ship was lord paramount, the master under God. He stood no watches, could come and go when he pleases, is accountable to no one, and must be obeyed in everything - without question. He alone has the power to break the men under him, even to demoting his officers to work as sailors in the forecastle.

 Where there were no passengers and no supercargo (person employed on board a vessel by the owner of cargo carried in the ship) he had no companion but his own dignity, and few pleasures, unless he differed from most of his kind, beyond the consciousness of possessing supreme power, and, occasionally, the exercise of it.

The Captain and the Mate

Immediately below the Captain was the Chief Mate - the ship’s  first lieutenant, boatswain, sailing-master, and quartermaster. The captain tells him what he wishes to have done, and leaves to him the care of overseeing, of allotting the work, and also the responsibility of its being well done.

The Mate also kept the log-book, for which he is responsible to the owners and insurers, and had the charge of the stowage, safekeeping, and delivery of the cargo.

The Second Mate's position was proverbially a dog’s berth. Neither officer nor man, he was obliged to go aloft to reef and furl the topsails, and to put his hands into the tar and slush, with the rest, and the men did not much respect him as an officer. The crew call him the “sailor’s waiter,” as he has to furnish them with spun-yarn, marline, and all other stuff that they need in their work, and has charge of the boatswain’s locker, which includes serving-boards, marline-spikes, etc. He was expected by the Captain to maintain his dignity and to enforce obedience, and still was kept at a great distance from the Mate, and obliged to work with the crew.

The crew of a merchantman were divided into two divisions, as equally as may be, called the watches. Of these, the Chief Mate commanded the larboard, and the Second Mate the starboard. They divide the time between them, being on and off duty, or, as it is called, on deck and below, every other four hours.

The three night-watches are called the first, the middle, and the morning watch.

Not a lot of people know this - but the main British export in the 18th century was corn.....

And The Corn Laws protected us from cheap foreign imports!

Which favoured domestic producers and kept grain prices (and the cost of living) high for the British public. 

The English merchant ship John Wood approaching Bombay, by J.C. Heard, c. 1850.

The sailing ship of the 1920s differed markedly from its predecessor.

The Clipper Flying Cloud

With cargo and passenger-carrying capacity in mind, the builders of sailing ships built bigger and to different hull designs and sail plans throughout the nineteenth century. Initially hulls were wooden, but when metal replaced wood, vessels could be built on a larger scale than was conceivable to the wooden shipbuilder. The late-nineteenth century 'greyhounds of the sea' carried four masts or more. They were upwards of 2,000 tons capacity, and steel-hulled. The masters of these vessels were, without any question, skilled professionals. They were daily challenged in the navigation of these vessels, though not least because their crews were some of the most nationally and ethnically mixed, as well as the lowest-paid, of merchant seafarers.

What was happening alongside the transformation of the sailing ship was the greatest technological change in shipping of all time. Between the 1840s and 1880s steam-propelled vessels came to be deployed on all sea-routes. In the course of the 1860s steam eclipsed sail in new tonnage registered. But the more revealing measure is the total number of vessels in use -- for each required a master -- and sailing vessels outnumbered steamships in overseas trades until the end of the 1880s. This picture might be further qualified, however, because from the start the better remunerated commands were in steam. Yet, despite the financial attractions of a steam command, there were masters who claimed to be happier in sail. Some indeed were disparaging of the spread of a technology that called them to devolve some of their authority to chief engineers, "mechanics in corduroys", as they were once called. Mentioned several times already on this site, the Nova Scotian shipmasters, the Gullisons, kept up careers in sail into the 1890s.
















Steam technology was first applied to boats in the 1770s - but sailing ships continued to be developed.

In 1794, the Earl of Stanhope built a steam-powered vessel named the Kent.

This was an experimental ship which, though not successful itself, showcased how a steamship could work.

In 1801 a steamship called the Charlotte Dundas ran trials on a canal near Glasgow, towing barges.

Shipbuilders began using iron instead of wood as the ships could be made larger with more cargo space.

The Battle of Navarino in 1827 was the last to be fought by the Royal Navy entirely with sailing ships.

 A great victory against Greece’s Ottoman rulers, an event that is not celebrated by Greeks, simply because it was a victory of international diplomacy and foreign intervention - and not a battle of the brave Hellenic spirit.

Early steamships, such as Brunel's Great Western, were driven through the water by paddle wheels, one on each side of the ship.

Their main disadvantage was that in rough seas, they had the habit of submerging as the ship rolled, then rising out of the water altogether, thereby harming the engines.

By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, steam-powered vessels were deemed acceptable.....

The first propeller driven ship was the Archimedes, built for the Ship Propeller Company, at a cost of £10,500 in 1838.

Soon there was even a regular steamship service across the North Atlantic, by Brunel's Great Western

During the 1840s, screw propellers replaced paddle-wheels, as in Brunel's Great Eastern, and engines became larger.

Iron and steel hulls soon replaced wooden ships, which were prone to leaks when fitted with large, noisy, vibrating engines.

By the end of the 19th century submarine design had progressed sufficiently to be useful,

as had the design of torpedoes.

At the start of the 20th century 25% of the world's trade went through British ports,

A significant event was the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.


The first vessels used by Britons are thought to have been rafts and dugout canoes, though the coracle, a small single passenger boat

is known to have been used at least since the time of the Roman conquest in AD 43.

Coracles are round or oval in shape, made of a wooden basket-like frame, with a hide stretched over it then tarred to provide waterproofing.

Being light, it could be carried on the back. Coracles are capable of operating in mere inches of water due to the keel-less hull. The early peoples are believed to have used these boats for fishing and travel.

After the Romans left Britain in the early 5th century, Saxon carpenters, called shipwrights, built sturdy ships, planked in wood and propelled by oars.

The Roman period in Britain is said to have ended in the year 410, when the Emperor Honorius supposedly told the Britons to look to their own defences because Rome itself was beleaguered by barbarian attacks.

The ensuing power vacuum was filled by incomers arriving from northern Germany and southern Scandinavia.

Today, we know these immigrants as the Anglo-Saxons, and they ruled England for much of the next 600 years.....

 To 1066 – when William of Normandy arrived.

The Normans were not French - but originally Vikings from Scandinavia.

Viking Longships were awesome.....and built to cross vast oceans.......

In the spring of 1066 northern Britain was attacked by the fearsome King Harald Hardraade of Norway

and the equally fearsome Tostig Godwinson,

in between three and five hundred Viking 'Dragon' ships.

In the mists
Of the moonless bay
Our dragon ships
Lurk at anchor
Awaiting the dawn
While on shore
In cozy homes
Wives in nightgowns
Croon love songs
By the firesides
To their husbands.

King Harold of England was victorious. King Harald of Norway was killed. King Harold, basking in the glow of victory, marched his army south to meet the challenge of William of Normandy. who had landed at Hastings, claiming the throne of England. Had Harold not been so confident after his victory over the Norwegian army he might not have marched his army without rest to Hastings.

He could have stopped in London and added ten thousand more to his army in a few days. He could have but he didn't and his army was defeated by the Normans. Harold himself was killed.

The Normans took over the country and imposed French as the language of the country. English was suppressed for three hundred years. All was calamity.....

William’s fleet transported his immense army, complete with knights and attendants, archers, foot soldiers, horses, ammunition, food and wine, from France to England after many long weeks spent on the shores of France waiting for “favorable winds.”

William himself crossed the Channel aboard the largest and fastest ship in the entire Norman invasion fleet.

This was the Morapresented to him by his Duchess, Matilda.

According to legend, the Mora had for its figurehead the image of a child, in gilt, pointing with its right hand towards England, and having in its mouth a trumpet of ivory.....

The Norman conquest of England, in the autumn of 1066, which occurred after a seaborne invasion at Hastings, was unopposed as the English fleet had returned to base. After this the Kings of England were also rulers of much of France so presumably there was much trade across the English Channel.

From the early 15th century, continuing into the 17th century, English ships travelled around the world searching for new trading partners and establishing new trading routes.

The first successful British colony in America was set up in 1607 at Jamestown. It languished until a new wave of colonists arrived in the late 17th century and set up commercial agriculture based on tobacco. The Mayflower sailed from Plymouth in 1620. The connection between the American colonies and Britain, with shipping as its cornerstone, would continue to grow unhindered for almost two hundred years.

Until the time of Henry VII, the kings of England commandeered and armed merchant ships when there was a need for a navy. Henry started a programme of building specialised warships.

During the Commonwealth of England, Oliver Cromwell improved the navy, which had been badly neglected by King Charles I.

The Admiralty was set up in March 1545 as the King's Council of the Marine.

During the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) the French fleet was initially stronger than that of the English, but the former was almost completely destroyed at the Battle of Sluys in 1340. Many other sea battles were fought in this period.

In 1588, the Spanish Armada was blown north up the east coast of England and attempted to return to Spain by sailing around Scotland but many ships were wrecked off Ireland. The Spanish sent a smaller fleet, of about 100 ships, the following year but this ran into stormy weather off Cornwall and was blown back to Spain.

The wars from 1552 - 1567, ended in victory for the Dutch, after which their Navy became the world's strongest, dominating world trade.

The imperial ambitions of the Dutch were bolstered by the strength of their shipping industry, as well as the key role they played in the expansion of maritime trade between Europe and the Orient.

In the 18th century, the Dutch colonial empire began to decline as a result of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War of 1780–1784, in which the Dutch lost a number of its colonial possessions and trade monopolies to the British Empire, along with the conquest of the Mughal Bengal at the Battle of Plassey by the East India Company.