Sunday, August 12, 2012

“Water, Water, Every Where, Nor Any Drop to Drink”

The beautiful Unicorn figurehead, courtesy of the Unicorn Preservation Society's website.

Thanks to a lead from my friend in Scotland, Iain Burr, I was able to order from the UK and read a fascinating booklet entitled Mariners’ Mealtimes & Other Daily Details of Life on Board a Sailing Warship by Una A. Robertson (Dundee:  Unicorn Preservation Society, 1981).

That Robertson was interested in food and dining and willing to devote a booklet to that topic has saved me from a dreaded chore:  slogging through old 800-page volumes of work regarding the Royal Navy in order to find six or seven pages’ worth of reference to provisioning ships and dining customs.   

Some readers might wish to visit the Unicorn Preservation Society’s fine website,, to see photos of the grand old frigate, HMS Unicorn (built in 1824), and/or to consider planning a trip to Dundee, Scotland to visit the frigate or make a donation to the preservation society.

As I revise and streamline Chapter Four of my book which deals with the first two decades of passenger steamships, I take breaks to read Robertson’s account of mariners’ mealtimes.  Robertson has been able to answer some lingering questions that I have had on the topic of provisioning ships, questions that have been surprisingly difficult to answer. 

One of my most nagging questions concerns water:  Where was it stored, how was it procured?

I knew that water was stored in casks in the ship's hold, and I knew that it was almost unpalatable, and sometimes, unpalatable.  I did not understand fully why. 

Prior to the1800s, ships carried the water in huge wooden casks that had been used previously to store other commodities.  So, not only did wood grow old and start to rot, especially when filled with water, but the water took on the flavors of the wood and whatever commodities would have been stored in the cask previously. As a result, the water was “execrably bad” and the allowance of it “scanty”, even after the casks had just been filled and the ship was just leaving harbor, according to a naval chaplain who had been stationed aboard a navy frigate (qtd. in Roberton, p. 31).

For such a putrid necessity, the sailors nonetheless had to work extremely hard to procure it.  Empty water casks had to be hauled up from the hold, put into the ship’s boats, taken ashore and filled at some suitable watering point—a river, a lake, some deep body of water.  The sailors would roll the casks out to the deep part, submerge them in order to fill them, and then bung them.  From there, these now extremely heavy and cumbersome casks had to be rolled down to the sea, where the men would float the casks after roping them together to form a long chain.  As the ship was anchored around 2 to 3 miles off coast, this was an extremely difficult job, and it was not over, because the casks then had to be hoisted back on board and stowed below deck.  Roughly 270 tons of water were stowed on what was called a second rate navy ship (displacing around 2000 tons, with a crew of 750).  As Robertson pointed out, “the sheer physical effort involved does not bear thinking about” (p. 31).  And yet, I have indeed thought a lot about it.!

Things improved some in the nineteenth century, thanks to iron which replaced the wooden casks.  Iron did not taint the water’s taste as badly as wood, and the water kept fresher longer.  These iron tanks would be filled by hose and forcing pump from the source of the supply.  Of course, the drawback was obvious: ships had to be anchored near a large supply of water and had to fill their water casks at frequent intervals, “rendering them vulnerable to hostile activity ashore and severely limiting their sphere of action afloat” (p. 32).

Just as it was on land, sailors tried to avoid drinking plain water.  Not only did it taste bad, but it was oftentimes dangerous, the cause of the dysentery and other diseases that spread through a ship’s crew and passengers like fire.  Sailors instead depended largely on beer, with the daily ration a gallon of beer per man per day prior to the introduction of the rum ration, which by 1731 had largely replaced beer.  The original rum ration, according to Robertson, was one-half pint per man per day, and it was divided into two issues and durnk neat.  But in 1740, Admiral Vernon ordered that the rum be diluted one gill to three gills water.  “It was from the Admiral’s heavy grosgrain cloak that his nickname ‘Old Grogram’ was taken, and hence the name ‘grog’ for the mixture” (p. 33).  By 1824, however, the evening rum ration was abolished and replaced by tea and cocoa.  By 1881, the rum ration for officers was stopped altogether, and "over 300 years of naval tradition came to an end in 1970 when the free issue of rum to ratings was discontinued" (Robertson, p. 34).

I’ll conclude this post with some slang terms that I had heard but did not know the origins of:  “Flip” was the name for beer that had been “enhanced” with the rum or brandy that sailors smuggled onto the ship.  “Miss Taylor” was the name sailors gave to a much-loved fiery Spanish white wine called Mistela.  In those early days before rum rations, when beer ran out, sailors were allotted a pint of wine or a half pint of spirits.   Not all that Robertson writes about in regards to navy ships applies to passenger ships, but nonetheless, the parts that do have saved me a lot of effort and in some cases, her information as been the source of an occassional "Eureka!" from me.  Thanks, Una A. Robertson, for your help.

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