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June 12, 2006

Wooden walls

I know that Mausi has already written on this subject, but I have for some while been cogitating on the life aboard these ships as well. Our recent visit to Portsmouth reminded me once again, of just how recently we, in Britain, have moved from considering that living in cramped accommodation was a part of shipboard life, to a more generous allocation of space for the crew. Mind you, that does depend on how you define "generous". For the men who manned ships like HMS Victory, todays four and six berth "gulches" for Junior and Senior ratings serving aboard a Type 23 Frigate or a Type 42 Destroyer, the space would seem palatial. The idea of having a central "canteen" style Mess instead of eating in the same space in which you slept would seem anathema - as would the idea that you showered at least once a day. But a luxury would be the fact that you could go to the heads without risking getting a thorough wetting for your pains.

HMS Victory from harbour cropped.JPG
HMS Victory seen from her Starboard Quarter - a ship is divided into six 'parts' for the purposes of viewing anything from her - which gives a good idea of just how small she is.

At 225 feet from beakhead to transom, the Victory is actually shorter than a modern Frigate or a destroyer, yet she carried three times the compliment of a Type 42 Destroyer and roughly four times that of a Type 23. And almost all of the crew lived on the lower gundeck. The lucky ones, those whose rank or their "Rate" as ship's specialists gave them the privilege of a private space, had usually to earn that the hard way. Even the officers started out in the cramped, dark and no doubt pungently evil smelling Gunroom right aft on the Orlop Deck, one down from the Lower Battery deck where the crew lived. Each Midshipman had, if he was lucky, a tiny cubbyhole as a cabin, barely big enough for a small 'cot' and his sea chest. They shared this space with the Purser, the Boatswain and often the Sailmaker. In a battle their chests and their dining table became the ship's surgeon's operating table and the whole area a hospital.

One reason it would have been an evil smelling place is that there was no access to any toilet for its inhabitants, so either a communal commode was used (emptied by their "Messman") or they did what many of the crew did when no one was looking - and used the scuppers or a gunport! Letters home from those newly joined frequently made mention of the foul aroma of the cesspit from the bilges. Mind you, as Mausi pointed out, the aroma of over 800 unwashed human bodies living in close quarters on the enclosed lower gundeck must been quite something as well.

There must be a lesson in this somewhere for todays generation. Consider this: no health and safety (they could never have achieved anything under todays rules), no personal privacy, no smart lawyer or trade union to take the Captain to court on Human Rights - and yet the men who manned these "Wooden Walls" built the greatest Empire the world has yet seen. Quite an achievement.

Posted by The Gray Monk at June 12, 2006 05:38 AM

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