Don't be annoyed that the text is covering the picture of these royal sailors, who of course post-date bluejackets proper.  The picture in all its glory can be seen on the page "The Naval Uniform" which, if you click HERE you will see. The picture is simply being used as a background or wallpaper.


Research shows that rarely did admirals put pen to paper to extol the virtues of the common sailor of the mid Victorian period [known as bluejackets because of their uniform jacket]. Indeed, there is much to show that the senior officers were indifferent to the men on the lower deck, and the junior officers held the men in contempt. Contempt is understandable given the social conditions of the time and as always, it was visible and pernicious, but indifference presupposes a complete disregard for the men's welfare and could be taken as meaning that the men were beneath contempt!

What follows, whilst not unique, is an extremely rare account of the bluejacket written by an admiral, one,  VICE-ADMIRAL The Hon Sir EDMUND. R. FREMANTLE KCB CMG, an eminent admiral of his day, greatly respected by his naval peers and senior politicians, admired by the officer corps, but little known by the 'common sailor' of that period. The article was published in the Navy and Army Illustrated. Admiral Fremantle may have broken the 'indifferent silence' by doing so, and I don't of course know his motive or whether or not there was an ulterior motive, save to say that the Navy and Army Illustrated was becoming more and more popular as the 19th century neared its end,  and therefore, could probably do a much better 'PR Job' than any mealy-mouthed stuffy AFO however well written. I have mentioned this simply because the Navy of those days, virtually 95 per cent of which was orientated to and existed for the betterment of officers, usually found those willing to transcribe their thoughts and experiences, writing for such outlets as "The Broad Arrow" [that is where the WD or pussers arrow originated], "The Naval Review" and of course the outspoken "Navy League", where one could say just about anything [and did] as long as it supported the Naval Cause, Nelson's Immortal Memory and the status quo, to wit, an officers club. The middle of the three aims was to be commended and emulated by all comers and I for one would like to see Nelson's memory be everlasting. However, from research, I can see that the first and last aims had things in common when it came to making progress and lobbying for change, and they both took bloody knocks along the way.   The 'cause'....for a strong Navy has witnessed just a few peaks and many troughs since the Navy League was formed, and the heavy-punchers have always been fickle politicians using money rather than security as their yard-stick. The 'officers club', also of the time the Navy League was formed, is no longer.  It has been destroyed by social changes [too numerous to mention here] which have greatly affected the officer candidates into Dartmouth and to a much lesser extent from many more lower-deck promotions. Today's officers bring education which few of those in the 19th century had; command, using a profound personal data-base covering all aspect of naval life which no officer, not even Nelson himself could have begun to understand;  have social respect for today's ratings, particularly senior rates, many of whom come from comparable social backgrounds, and in turn are respected for the men and women they are, and not for what they or daddy have in the bank. They 'buy' nothing, and get their promotions on pure merit: very different to 150 years ago!

When Admiral Fremantle tells us/reminds us, of  Lord Nelson's care for his men, before [and of course during in] Trafalgar, he tells us of a commander who was keen the get the very best out of all his command asset both prior to and during the battle. History must have literally tens of thousands of commanders who planned and fought with the same aim, but so few of them got their way and became the victors, the heroes of the day and of their time in history. Very little is written about Nelson wanting to rid the injustices dished out to men on the lower deck after the Nile, Copenhagen, Santa Cruz, Siege of Calvi, or, more succinctly, at any time before Trafalgar, but confirms that which is of an infinitely greater importance, namely that he was a born leader and always willing for a fight.  I am a Nelson devotee and read and re-read many books about his life and times, and it is annoying to read that Nelson was a do-gooder, a reformist, a man who cared about the lower deck, when in quite understandable reality, he did all these things for his own ends and his own ships and his own command and his own men, and to hell with the rest of the Navy.  He left the Navy per se in other Admirals hands, and they too, did not address the burning issues dragged from century to century. 

I propose, as far as possible, in a short article adapted to the requirements of this magazine, to give some sketch of the British bluejacket of to-day, comparing him with our seamen in former periods of "this our Island story;" and I shall endeavour to show that he is no unworthy descendant of the heroic men forming the crews of those "far distant storm beaten ships" which, as Captain Maham tells us, under Nelson and Collingwood, stood between Napoleon's Grand Army and the dominion of the world.

Let us first then look back to the man-of-war's man of former days, and endeavour to ascertain what manner of man he was.  The first thing that strikes us is that the sailor, like any other individual, was much what his training and treatment made him, though he often rose superior to his environment. Thus we have Howard repeating frequently in his interesting Armada letters recently published, how "....there never was a willinger company to do their Prince service than these be," in spite of complaints of bad beer and shortness of victuals.  But these men of Queen Elizabeth were commanded by honest patriotic men of the stamp of Howard and Drake, and it is not strange that they had infused some of their noble spirit into their subordinates.

Let us look on another picture as a contrast, and we find Pepys lamenting in 1677, when abuses were rampant under our merry monarch, that "we do plainly see that the desperate condition that we do put men into for want of their pay makes them mad, they being as good men as ever were in the world.........were they but paid!"

Under neglect such as this with pressed men and bad treatment, which continued into the middle of the following century, we have the scenes of coarseness and brutality on board ships so graphically depicted by Smollet, while Dr. Johnson in his forcible way tells Boswell, "A ship is worse than a jail.  There is in a jail better company, better conveniences of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger, 'and again' as to the sailor when you look down from the quarter deck to the space below you see the utmost extremity of human misery, such crowding, such filth and stench!"

I have quoted Dr. Johnson at some length, as he was a shrewd observer, and his fierce denunciations of a sea life were poured forth only 20 years before the mutinies of Spithead and the Nore.

It was generally acknowledged at that time [1797] that the seamen had many legitimate grievances, which were looked into and remedied, and Lord St. Vincent, while putting down mutiny in the Mediterranean with an iron hand, established a more just, as well as a firmer and stricter discipline; but it is evident that from the time of these outbreaks which threatened to paralyse our Naval supremacy, the sailor was better cared for and better treated.

For a picture of the sailor of Nelson's day we must turn to Marryat rather than to Dibden's songs or to the caricatures of the time.  He does not indeed hide his weakness for rum whether obtained by "sucking the monkey" or in any other way, but he speaks of the man-of-war's-man generally with respect, as a man of intelligence, a respectable, albeit unlettered, member of society, - as one of his favourites Swinburne, the Quarter-Master said to Peter Simple, "I've been in everything I believe Mr Simple except at school, and I never had no time to go there."

But we do not require to go to fiction to feel sure that the sailor of Nelson's day was no riotous drunken "swab," but one who was fairly and humanely treated, and who could be trusted to do his duty.  Nelson's despatches are full of his care for his men, his persistence in getting supplies of fresh meat and "lemons," of "Guernsey's" and suitable clothing for them, and we find on one occasion proudly reporting "not a sick man in the Fleet beyond "accidents," and after his cruise to the West Indies in pursuit of Villenouve, "not even an object for hospital in either 'Victory' or 'Superb.'"

We have only to read the Journals of Naval Officers 100 years previously, to see the marvelous change in the conditions of our seaman, which had resulted from more cleanliness, better system, better discipline, better food and clothing, and in fact more care for the welfare of the ship's company.

I have dwelt long on the glorious seamen of our heroic age as I think they have been misrepresented, and we should

"Be to their faults a little blind,
And to their virtues ever kind."

But I must turn to the present man-of-war's man, and I assert unhesitatingly that he is a worthy descendant of the heroic men to whom I have above referred.

It is the fashion in some quarters to speak of our bluejackets as no longer sailors, but only "ocean labourers," while others will argue that marines or soldiers on board ship would fill their places.

I cannot agree with either of these depreciatory criticisms.  An "ocean labourer" is after all, only a paraphrase for sea man, but our ocean labourers have to be skilled men.  Even if we do not include the technically "skilled" men, such as skilled shipwrights, engine-room artificers, and all connected with the engine room department, to which I am not now referring, all our bluejackets must be good helmsmen, leadsmen and boatmen, and in addition, good runners, small arm men and torpedo men; they must have a good acquaintance with signals, and know much about water-tight doors and the complex construction of a modern ship; while they are specially trained to be active and ready for any emergency.

All the above is expected of an A.B., who has joined the service as a boy in the training ship at 15 to 16 years of age, and who will serve for 12 years from the age of 18, with the option of serving another 10 years for his pension.

But to appreciate the British bluejacket of the day we should understand that they are all encouraged by extra pay for good conduct, and as seamen gunners, torpedo men, leading seamen, second, first and chief petty officers, the best of whom are gunnery instructors, torpedo instructors, divers, signalmen, or other experts in special lines.  In addition to these advantages a considerable percentage rise to the rank of warrant officer, thus attaining a higher position with improved pay and pension.

But I cannot pursue this subject which it would need much detail to explain.

Our boys are still instructed in masts and sails in the training ships, and in our training squadron, and in many of our smaller vessels we have ships more or less rigged; but we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that masted ships are passing away, and year by year those that yet remain are being replaced by mastless cruisers.

It is true that real sail training was invaluable, but I think that as a gymnastic exercise it has been overrated.  It was supposed to foster "smartness." but we must now develop this quality, which is at least as requisite in the sailor as it ever was, in 30 knot catchers and torpedo boats.  It is certain that the more perfect and effective the weapon the clearer and more expert must be the eye and hand wielding it.

The idea that there is no seaman without sails is to my mind born of ignorance, but is there any more force in the movement in favour of marines or soldiers?  Surely not. The marine is not taught the seamanship which I have shown to be necessary, and neither his dress nor his training would make him a handy man for a torpedo boat. We have tried marine as a signalman, and as might have been expected he has failed.  He, probably, knows the signals and writes a good hand, but he lacks smartness and nautical intelligence.  I remember a military passenger in the "Centurion" who was much impressed with these qualifications in our signalmen, saying to me  - "We have nothing like it in the Army." As I have, I hope, vindicated the criticism of the modern bluejacket, and I hold that while he has perforce lost much of the valuable training afforded by sailing ships to his predecessors, he has had other requirements thrust upon him, while he has retained much of the dash and spirit which makes the sailor so invaluable.


Time - AM Routine Time - PM Routine Remarks

*4.55   ##
Call Boatswains Mates and hammock stowers ### 1.25 ## Quarters - clean guns This is a specimen of what is known as a "Daily Routine" in the Service.  It shows the hours allotted to cleaning, inspections meals etc.


It should be understood that there is another, or," Weekly Routine",  varied from time to time by the Captain or Admiral, regulating gunnery, gymnastics and other drills, washing days, leave etc, which are arranged so as to interfere as little as possible with the "Daily Routine."  Thus ordinary drills when working by the above routine would take place between 9.50 and 11.30 a.m., and between 1.30 and 3.40 p.m.


"Leave", liberally given as it now is, necessarily interferes much with routines, but it is too large a question for me to do more that refer to it.

*5.0 Lash up hammocks 1.30 Disperse. Both watches fall in
*5.15 Breakfast 3.45 Clean up decks
*5.45 Hands fall in 4.0 Cooks
6.15 Lower and clean out duty boats. Wash decks. 4.15 Supper.  Shift into night clothing
6.30 Clean mess decks and flats. Clean bright work. 4.55 Clear up decks
7.0 Midshipmen muster for drill 5.5 Quarters
7.15 Duty boat's crews and duty men clean 7.30 Stand by hammocks
7.30 Quarter - clean guns. 8.30 Clear up messdecks and flats
8.10 Hands to clean and stand easy 9.0 Rounds
8.45 Cooks and sweepers clear up decks. Clean arms [Tuesday and Thursday] 10.0 Pipe down
9.5 Divisions. Prayers Winter Routine and on alternate Mondays
9.30 Evolutions 4.0 Quarters for inspection
11.40 Clear up decks 4.15 Cooks
Noon Dinner 4.30 Supper. Scrub hammocks etc
* Winter routine quarter hour later 6.15 Stop on hammocks and clothes
Notes - Duty sea and boat's crews shift into night clothing at sunset or at 6 p.m.

{NOTE: MY COMMENT. ## AM and PM were used and the 24 hour clock system came later - see also Bits and Pieces Vol 1 section 5.  ### Hammock stowers. Warrant Officers could elect to have some rating stow his hammock.  In return the rating would receive a fixed sum of money from the WO}

The above routine is of the battleships of the Channel Squadron, and shows the daily life on board one of our modern ships.  It does not call for much remark, but it is evident that as the "stand easy" from 8.10 until 8.45 is really the men's breakfast time it would be advisable to make it so nominally and to allow a ration of bacon at this hour. Much could be said about meal hours and rations, but it is a large subject, and the seamen are fairly satisfied, on account of the elastic system of paying "savings" from the rations not "taken up," so that the messes are enabled to buy what they require from the bumboat or ship's canteen.

Clothing is another subject to which I can only briefly refer. A seaman is bound to dress in uniform and to have his "kit" complete in accordance with orders, but he buys his own uniform, in most cases "making up" his clothes from cloth, serge etc, formerly called "slops," issued at cost price by the paymaster from the ship's stores.  The uniform is suitable, though I certainly think that sufficient provision is not made for extra cold climates.

A word about the men's pay. I have shown how it can be, and practically is, increased by extra pay for service and special qualifications, so that it conveys little to say that a 1st class boy receives 7d., and an able-bodied 1s 7d a day.  In regard to the regularity and system of payment there is little to be desired. In England the men are paid weekly, abroad monthly, while every facility is given to a seaman to dispose of his money as most convenient.  If he does not care to receive it in cash, he can put it in the Ship's Saving Bank, in which he gets 3 per cent, he can "remit" money to anyone he likes through the Admiralty, or if a married man he has probably arranged an "allotment" payable to his wife monthly in England.  The amount of the allotment must necessarily depend upon the pay, but even a boy may allot as much as 8s., a month, and an able-bodied 1 10s.  These questions of pay are all important.  In former days, not so long ago, paying off at a home port was too often a scene of confusion and irregularity.  The men received large sums as the result of a three years' commission, and while dismantling the ship ready for paying off they had borrowed money, so that they were at the dockyard gates by shoals of Jews and money lenders, while too often but a few days were sufficient to dissipate years of savings.  Fortunately, all this is now changed.  Only a few days ago I happened to be at Sheerness when the "Cleopatra" paid off after a three years' commission in the West Indies under Captain Honourable A. Curzon-Howe, a captain who has the knack of combining smartness and efficiency with comfort, and it would be difficult to imagine anything more orderly and satisfactory.  The men were paid by the Paymaster in a few minutes, though some of them had as much as 50 or 60 to receive, and they were then marched to the railway station, their impediments having preceded them, where a special train had been provided to take them to their homes at Chatham, Portsmouth or Plymouth. The Admiralty had supplied each man with a luncheon, consisting of beer, bun and sandwiches in lieu of the day's provisions, and there was a cheery time as they bid farewell to their captain and his wife; but though there was much heartiness and several cheers were given, there was no confusion or other than orderly conduct, and in a few minutes the train mover off. 

As Pepys says it was "pretty to see" the good spirit and loyalty to the Service which had prompted the men to decorate the carriages with the long "paying off pennant." which it is the time honoured privilege of the homeward bound ship to hoist.

As the train left the station I could not help reflecting that in spite of the old Naval officers grumble that "the service is going to the dogs," there are, at all events, some points in which it has materially improved since I first knew it nearly half a century ago.