Royal Navy - where men were discouraged from the 'baggage' of being married

As far as I can gather, there is no statistical analytic data which spells out irrefutably, that the Royal Navy has had, for the last two hundred years at least, a continuous personnel problem concerning women and alcohol!

And yet none in the Admiralty/MOD[N] can honestly say that they haven't!

 Each of these concerns can be divided into causes and remedies and whether the concern was permanent or transient, chronic or acute.

The easiest concern to deal with is alcohol.  In the 18th and 19th centuries the navy actually added to the concern by issuing large daily amount of alcohol to the crew irrespective of where the ship was, under sail or steaming at sea or in a harbour with the anchors down. The original concept was easy to understand. Water soon became putrid and was often brackish and for health reasons the men were told not to drink it. The food was bad, often inedible to the sober palate, and being inebriated for large parts of the day gave the men an appetite. Food and goodly amounts of it gave the men the strength to fulfill their duties, whereas the alcohol  gave them Dutch-courage to overcome the privations they suffered and when necessary to anger them into a fighting mood, a mood which won many battles and which put fear into the hearts of our enemies.  Alcohol also warded off certain diseases, although it was also the reason why so many men died young of medical problems and not of wounds sustained in battle or non-alcoholic related disease. When the sworn enemy was nowhere in sight, the "angered" men fought amongst themselves which adversely affected discipline and lower deck behaviour.  Members of the upper deck drank but for different reasons. They used alcohol for social bonding at mess dinners which was served by largely loyal servants [stewards of the future], usually wine and port, and outside war with France, brandy, which was in short supply and frowned upon during the Napoleonic Wars.  Their food, procured and cooked [on the same range as that used by all] by these wardroom servants,  was infinitely more pleasing in texture and quality than that of the crew's food. Additionally, the warrant officers who didn't mess but each had his own little cabin on the lower decks aft including the orlop-deck in which they ate alone and in which they drank their issued rum, had servants like the wardroom, and it was known and accepted [no one, not even a commissioned officer crossed a warrant officer] that the warrant officers servants would attend the ships company cooking pot and select the best for their 'employers', so they too, within the limitations of the cook-pot and the culinary skills of the cooks, ate better than the broadside messes. As the years passed by, so too did the 'official' need for alcohol reduce, until only the rum ration remained, this, albeit, in a much reduced amount. Conditions of service improved beyond recognition, and the rum issue became a tradition only, just like the pay-muster was a tradition! Nevertheless, for many, the lunch time issue [up spirits] became a social point of the day and everything stopped for the ceremony. The issuing of rum direct from the 'spirit locker' was never and could never be abused, such was the tight control administered and witnessed by several officers [commissioned and non-commissioned], but once on the mess decks and in the chief and petty officers messes, it was often abused.  Foolhardy men would ply birthday-boys with rum from their glasses as an act of kindness and the more popular the man the greater the number of glasses he sipped from. The result of this sheer stupidity was to render the recipient dangerously drunk in medical terms but criminally drunk in terms of naval discipline. Over the years, many men were put to bed hiding them from authority, who, whilst recumbent on their backs, vomited and died from inhalation [choked to death] of/on their own spew. Many men post issue, would eat a hearty meal of now excellent food, which true or not, appeared to them and to us [their superiors] to nullify the worst affects of their rum issue, but others were clearly adversely affected, manifest in sleepy, sluggish performances of duty and even a reluctance to immediately obey orders.  The "aggressive" nature of which I have mentioned was often the case, and in naval terms, these men flew "very close to the wind." Rum was issued from a central point at a given time, so the main affect of consuming the rum centred on the lunch time break into the early afternoon, when the men would return to work. However, there were daily occasions and bonafide reasons why men could not attend the main issue, and they drew their rum issue at a later time, usually at tea time; they were called "mismusters for rum". Because of that, the so called 'rum problem' continued through supper into the early evening albeit with few numbers, a less obvious event and much less opportunity for abuse! Inside the private messes of the chief and petty officers mess other abuses took place. The stupid birthday-boy charade was enacted with the same results: rewards were given through the lip of the glass [as they were on the messdecks] for favours rendered and these were routine and called 'sippers', 'gulpers', 'see it off', respectively meaning have a sip, have a good mouth full or drink the whole glass [bottoms up]. There was also a regularly practiced abuse which I myself, over many years, indulged in. All the crew over the age of twenty below the rank of petty officer were issued with grog, meaning a mixture of neat rum watered down to make a long drink.  The mixture was one part rum and two parts water which was known as 2 and 1. Because of the water addition, it was no longer neat spirit and as such could not be kept, and by design, it had to be consumed on the day of issue and at the time of issue for it to be a recognised and yes, intoxicating drink.  Chief petty officers and petty officers [warrant officers had long since been denied a rum issue*] were issued with neat rum and this could either be consumed or kept for another time, or another day. I had an empty 28oz bottle which I kept in my locker [a different bottle of course in each vessel] into which I poured my tot during the midday issue when at sea. The rationale was that I had a very responsible job in the ship and I could be called to perform my tasks at any time of the day or night, when I needed to be absolutely sober and alert: my job sometimes involved the processing of cypher and top secret code which I decoded and presented to the captain of the ship for action - there was always a plain language answer which I had to code to pass it out of the ship to another ship or to a shore authority. Back in harbour when the pressure was off, I often invited my opposite number from a ship in company to have a tot with me from my bottle, and again, invited members of my family to the vessel to enjoy a naval tradition, with the ladies having a copious amount of cocacola added to their glass which made a pleasant drink for them. On long trips I would have the use of more than one empty bottle. Although I believed that it was a prudent and circumspect way to handle alcohol, especially very strong spirit, what I and others did, broke the Admiralty rules and we left ourselves wide open to being accused accordingly. However, being devoid of the smell of alcohol at the start of work post-midday meal, sent a signal to my men that any form or sign of intoxication would not be tolerated, although in truth this was usually associated with petty officers and some chief petty officers where the opportunity for abuse was the greatest. 

* Warrant officers of yore, back in the third quarter of the 19th century had a rum issue but well before the time of which I write about above, it had been withdrawn. The rum issue to the fleet was withdrawn in 1970 just as a new warrant officer rank structure was being discussed, which saw those selected for promotion appointed from 1972 onwards.

As sea or in harbours where leave was not granted, alcohol, although abused as mentioned, was not a problem, neither chronic or acute. There were many defaulters to punish the worst cases of abuse remembering that rum was the only liquor on offer, but generally law and order tempered by a good sense of humour and a robust high level of morale was maintained.

Drink and sea-service were of no concern to the authorities. This applied to the rum issue years and also the post rum issue years, where rum was supplanted by optics [a choice of spirits]and beer in the chief and petty officer messes [ from 1972 onwards for warrant officers who messed with the chief petty officers] and beer only for those below petty officer rank. It was new, revolutionary almost to a service steeped in long traditions, but it had a calming affect upon the drinking habits of most, especially now that all alcohol consumed was paid for personally at the point of  delivery, which was monitored and controlled. It also introduced a pleasant social atmosphere when guests were invited to the mess, especially for ladies whose preference for rum had never been their number one choice. Some said that the cessation of rum had dragged the navy into the present century, whilst others noted a trust and recognition of the lower decks maturity, acknowledged by Their Lordships. I drew my tot from my 20th birthday in 1958 for twelve years until cessation in 1970, and I did not miss for one moment its going from us.

My, how things changed when we returned to harbour and gave liberty, although the magnitude swung violently depending upon the harbour [country] and the time since last land fall. Believe me, the difference between arriving at say Portsmouth [where many men would have wives and family's] after a short period at sea, and that of arriving in a foreign port after a lengthy period, is unfathomable, unless the gulf can be measured in the number of breweries drunk dry during the visit. I don't have to explain the semantics of such a visit - we all enjoy a drink and a 'knees up' and when relevant to let our hair down.

Suffice to tell you that the defaulter list increased exponentially, the men under punishment lists used up reams of paper and many suffered the hangovers of all hangovers. Others ended up in the custody of the provost marshal, or in a police cell, and some even in a prison cell, usually for rowdy behaviour or for a disturbance of the peace nearly always involving fisty-cuffs, table throwing and the like.  Many of course found love, or so they would have themselves believe!

So, for ships in harbour having given leave, there was a major problem with booze and it was both chronic and acute. Chronic in that each day in harbour was a repeat of the one before it so it went on and on, and acute, as each day was a massive challenge to the regulating staff, to the sick bay staff, and often to the smooth running of the ship when many of the men were incapable of functioning, moving from almost normality at the start of liberty to mayhem at the end of the day/very early hours of the next day. The smells below in the ratings mess decks was nauseating, and the hapless man in charge, known as the 'leading hand of the mess' often lost control when trying to discipline his charges. Booze, or rather excessive booze taken by a person retiring to a bedroom with open windows presents no offensive sights or smells to others, but in a steel box with no windows and very little air, twenty men sleeping/snoring [and worse] in the sky [in hammocks slung from the ceiling] below which are their articles of clothing willy-nilly discarded [everything except underwear] in which they slept, tables, chairs and other fittings, is a different matter. This box was their mess. By the time men started to make their piecemeal return to the ship in various states of inebriation, the men who were duty and did not go ashore were already in their hammocks and fast asleep with lights out or at best dimmed. They were rudely awakened by their pals but did not share their jollity being completely sober. When the ex shore-goers get into the mess they put the lights on, and sit around continuing discussions started whilst still ashore. Some are in fooling-about mood; some are drunk and incapable of getting into their hammocks; some are aggressive and angry and in no mood to be told to shut up and to get your head down, leading to further altercations; some are physically sick whilst others, once in their hammocks awake totally disorientated, don't know where the loo is, but need to urinate [or worse]! Perhaps worst of all, the time is now 1am and they have but five and half hours before the men are called to get out of their hammocks and to place both feet on the deck. All men, but especially those who have had a skin-full, need at least seven hours of good deep sleep. Men who go to bed very drunk at 1am are still or nearly drunk at 6.30am, and for that mess, things do not auger well for the first part of the day. Assuming that none of these men described fall foul of the law, within five hours it will be time for them to draw their tots of rum and then possibly for them to go ashore again, where the whole cycle starts again but this time with compounded results, heading for disaster. An acute problem if I ever did see one! The supreme folly, legion on the lower deck in the navy, is the borrowing of money from peers for feeding this frenzy, and by the time the ships sails to go back to sea, they are in hock to the tune of half or more of their next naval pay day.

Perhaps the most stupid thing many of these men did was to keep this up, even going ashore back to the bars on the last night in harbour without ascertaining the sea-state on sailing [whether a rough or a smooth sea waiting for them]. Rest assured, there is nothing worse than a rough sea after a period in harbour if one is already feeling squeamish. Of course, if a man could not carry out his duties and it could be proven to be the case, he would be brought before the captain and punished.

Before moving on to the abhorrence of married men in the Royal Navy have a quick peep at these files.



Going back in time particularly into the 19th century, we find in just about every database reference to Royal Naval Marriage documentation. The range is vast, but my research model has been to use the British Library; Lambeth Palace Archive; National Archive; twelve county archives ranging from Avonmouth to Suffolk; RGM; IWM and a couple of others too. Between them there are many many references to all aspects of naval marriages and betrothals. However, my researches covered the period 17th century to the 1940's. In addition I consulted foreign and Commonwealth archives because many foreigners joined the Royal Navy, many during WW2 when the Free French Navy, those ships and crews which declared their intent before the British mauling of the French Fleet at Oran, North Africa, and those from French ships who actually survived that mauling: a handful actually were listed to serve in HMS HOOD one of the ships in action at Oran.

There was an occasion when I needed to cross reference a wedding on board a Victorian naval vessel and discovered NA File RG33/156 listing all marriages on board RN ships between 1842 and 1899. Strange when at that time the Admiralty were actively discouraging marriage particularly for officers but less energetically so for ratings.

  The subjects covered were pentiful but I concentrated on:-

marriage approvals
marriage registrations
marriages recorded for potential RN Widows list/pensions
marriages financial settlements
difficulties in foreign sailors in the RN marrying British women
preventative marriage laws/licences

Within these titles above, it is manifestly obvious that those included are monied people and without exception either high ranking successful naval officers or young officers from well-shod backgrounds making their way up the naval ladder where his pitance of a salary was of no consequence to him, he having ready access to private means. There are no officers of humble means appointed to lofty position without favour or influence, but holding positions on sheer merit, proven ability and comprehensive experience. In the list above, items 1,3,4 and 6 tell of great provisions made by families each to one another of large amounts of money designed to protect the marriage during its life time and of greater importance to protect the widow in the event of the naval officers death. Such great amounts are mentioned offered as endowments, redeemable mortgages, annuities, dowries.  The exceptions to these observations are in stark contrast, for as time went by moving towards a more professional naval officer corps not given to such privilege and family buying power, we start to see letters from solicitors and executors, some repeated, informing the naval authorities of deceased personnel, asking for the money owed to them in unpaid wages so that probate may be exercised and discharged and the estate released to the grieving next of kin. In such a case, it suggests the relatively meager resources available to the family, and were a third letter needed to be written, an on-coming financial crisis. Such were the extremes.

There is so much to tell and from many sources, all really saying that unless one is rich one should not be married or even contemplating marriage, and that the only way to progress through the ranks is to be married to the navy and to none other. In those days, a sailor could expect to be away from UK for up to five years, and as such would spend a great deal of his time with his mind not fully on the job.

During some great attempt to collate my bits and pieces into a coherent and easy to understand article taken from the research sources mentioned about, I was lucky to find an article which said it all for me. This brief article tells of a navy which was quite literally advised not to take on baggage of a wife, and if you were unwise and ignored Their Lordships advice, you would live to rue the decision.

So, I'll say goodbye and leave you to read of a story which covered the period of approximately 1840 until 1928, and even later well into the late 1950's, when C-in-C's of stations would write his Station Standing Orders, reminding all personnel that if you bring your wife [officer or ratings] be prepared to find your own accommodation and pay for it without any form of recompense if you are younger than a certain age. Nor did one receive marriage allowance, all designed to put you off marrying when really all your efforts should be geared towards being a professional sailor.

I have cut and pasted this article from my web page which shows that from 1920 ratings had to be 25 before they got married allowance and officers didn't get it at all no matter what their age. Add to that the hundreds of officers who fought WW1 who were soon to leave the navy because their pay had become impossible to live on.       

In 1919 two admirals, two committee's [one for officers and one for ratings] and an agreeable government, sorted the problem out once and for all.  On average, both ratings and officers pay would double overnight. Typically, an AB's daily pay went from 1s 8d [8.33p] to 4s [20p]; that of a PO 3s [15p] to 7s [35p] - in addition increases were made to allowances and pensions.  For officers a lieutenant's pay shot up by 70%, a commander's pay doubled and a captain got rather more than double.  That's all the navy wanted, and the agitation by the lower deck over a long period had ceased. From 1920 ratings, but not officers, received marriage allowance from the age of 25. Officers were told that they were wedded to their ships and career!  However, all was not rosy for the officer corps, and as the 1920's rolled on, the navy 'rewarded' these men,  married to the navy or not, with draconian cuts forcing hundreds out of the navy from all ranks into a hopeless future with civilian employment to say the least, difficult to come by.  They were justifiably hurt and felt utterly betrayed.  What reward was this for defending the country? These cuts also affected the warrant officers, and the advances made before the war were either at best on hold, or cancelled. 

Can I just mention here that if you were to read my warrant officer story in three parts, you would learn more about the whole navy that you would on all the so called naval websites put together.

9.10.1925 BACHELOR SERVICE.pdf

 Oh! just forgot that in my second paragraph I mentioned 'concern about women' [as well as alcohol]. Well I have chosen to consider women as our darling wives, but there was another section of women which no author should attempt to write about especially about the women frequenting the bars in the ports and the purveyors of fleshy goods in brothels. If you don't know about them now, you never will, and yes, they did cause trouble and concern but only to naval doctors and medical assistants! If you have time, have a look at this file which has a very explicit section!

As for wives [and now partners] in more modern times, the problems are still there, but caused by different sets of circumstances - housing, separations, allowances, child education, welfare etc, which necessitated the launch of a new Branch [Family Welfare Service] to try and resolve many of these problems, leaving the operational and training side of the Service to other Branches who would resolve the problems of controlling a fighting force. The two functions running in parallel were designed to keep the sailor as happy as possible, given the axiom   When this new Branch was formed in the mid-1970's with its base in HMS Nelson, Portsmouth's main naval barracks, my wife and I had the privilege of living next door to its first prime-mover Captain Anthony Oglesby Royal Navy and his charming family.

This is just one of many examples of naval welfare problems which comes from a Singapore newspaper

25 October 1965 Lonely naval wives.pdf