Royal Navy warships in the pre 20th century era were vile for the ordinary sailor. This was well known and as a result the navy suffered major recruitment challenges. The governments of the period had no alternative* but to adopt legalised ‘kidnapping’** to man the navy. Impressment through the use of the press gang was the method used to meet the shortfall. For obvious reasons it was seaports that were the focus of attention but to make entirely sure that the men ‘captured’ were sailors, press gangs also operated at sea! So just how vile were the conditions on the warships of the Royal Navy pre-20th century?
“The haunted, starving sailors I saw at Woolwich, eaten and being eaten by the greed and indifference of our government.” Samuel Pepys 19th Nov 1665
Those who were press-ganged faced a perilous life. There was the chance that they would be involved in battle, where many sailors died from shrapnel from the splintering of the masts, the decks and the wooden ‘walls’. A more likely cause of death was the living conditions. Sailors were herded together in stifling unhygienic conditions, with poor, inadequate food promoting debilitating diseases some of which were fatal. And when they returned from voyages, which might have lasted in excess of a year, they were often cheated out of their wages and abandoned as vagrants.
“No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” Dr Johnson 1765
The Royal Navy often had criminals press-ganged with the navy ‘offered’ as an alternative to jail. It is very hard to disagree with the quotation above but it should be remembered that manning became especially critical during wartime. At that time ‘hot impressment’ was introduced, which was very robust because of the urgency of the situation. Additionally all counties were given quotas to supply sailors (who had probably never seen the sea), which is where the prison emptying tactic came into play. Warships became surrogate jails.
One of them (an admiral) accused him (Churchill) of having impugned the traditions of the Royal Navy, provoking the reply: ‘And what are they? They are rum, sodomy and the lash’. 1913
Discipline was ferocious on board warships with widespread and commonplace use of the lash to ‘tame’ sailors. Mutiny was an ever present possibility and so, the reasoning went, the sailors had to be cowed into submission where the default reaction to orders was instant obedience. Cramped living conditions with large numbers of men trapped in a situation where both privacy and normal sexual relations were impossible meant that homosexuality was rife. Churchill was entirely correct when he said that the ‘traditions’ of the navy albeit unspoken, were ‘sodomy and the lash’. Churchill was taunting the admirals and their pomposity with this retort.
The Royal Navy pre-20th century had a gloriously successful series of campaigns establishing the entirely accurate adage that ‘Britain ruled the waves.’ However for all the glory the reality for the sailors was vile. There were opportunities for successful careers but not for press-ganged men. British naval success was based on legalised kidnapping and brutality.
*Increased pay, improved living standards and ending corporal punishment was an intellectual impossibility for admirals of the period.
**It could be argued that conscription is a form of ‘kidnapping’ as many who were ‘called up’ would definitely not have volunteered for wartime service.