THE NAVAL UNIFORM

A hard won dress for which sailors paid for the privilege !

Can you remember your DRAFT SUIT, made to measure at Ganges, ready for your first ship? Ganges considered that to be your TIDILY suit, but do you also remember the NAVAL TAILORS suit you had specially made as your REAL TIDILY SUIT, [your first debt, one of many with a naval tailor] with super wide bell-bottoms and a skin tight deeply cut jacket which would shown virtually all your white front, which with your highly bleached collar, tidily silk, highly-stretched lanyard and tidily bow sewn onto your cap tallie, made you feel the bee's and eee's?  If you remember that, you will readily see a comparison here with sailors of a different age.

Do you also remember the bad old days of passing through, or being drafted to your depot, DRAKE, VICTORY or PEMBROKE [others too like Ceres, Fleet Air Arm, Cochrane of which I am not familiar but nevertheless, sympathetic to] and that bloody KIT MUSTER?  Kit musters as a punishment were part understandable, but these punished the innocent without even being charged of a crime! Fortunately for me, I was rated a killick in 1958, so that on my return from Lascaris in Malta in 1959 and then FSL [foreign service leave] I joined HMS Drake at Devonport and didn't have to lay my kit out.  I suffered just a few years of this regime. This story will bring back horrible memories of the Regulating Staff in Jagoes.

Like so much in the Royal Navy, uniforms are modern 'things'.  There are so many myths about our traditions, which are largely built upon a romantic idea of British sea power. Put simply, though unconventionally, the navy before 1860 was basically 'groups' of British men fighting for the same cause, but with their own interpretation of that cause and their own rules to achieve it. Lord Nelson had the skill, panache and sheer guts which made the 'groups' that surrounded him a great success in every battle he fought, and of course, won. Nelson like other great naval commanders too numerous to mention ignored all the so called 'Regulations' of the day and made his own rules as he went along. History shows that if all was going well in battle, Nelson literally turned a blind-eye to the Admiralty navy and the unfair, obscure and rag-bag rules they made. Paradoxically, apart from an edict on high concerning the punishing of men by hanging or flogging, the Admiralty had no organisation at all for ratings; they couldn't care less - the men were fodder and expendable. Despite much written hype, Lord Nelson didn't care for sailors per se; he cared for sailors who were fighting with and for him as any Commander, at any time in history, has done, but after the fight, exempting Trafalgar, he did not purposely set about addressing the many grievances rife on the lower deck of the Georgian Navy which passed through the Regency period, William IV's Navy, Victorian Navy and into the Edwardian Navy.  Thus, whether ignored or not, all the established rules of the Navy concerned 'fighting' and officers 'conditions' of service. From beginning to end, Nelson wore a naval uniform from midshipman to vice admiral, a uniform which had evolved from 1743, fifteen years before he was born and was still evolving in 1825 twenty  years after he died. The common sailor's uniform did not evolve until the early 1860's and it wasn't until approximately 1890 that  it became official.  For most of this period THE SAILOR ACTUALLY PAID TO WEAR THE EMBRYONIC UNIFORM.

This then is a short succinct look at the Naval Uniform

Below, a picture of the much hated Naval Police, showing a MAA with his Ships Corporals.

Later, the ships corporals, who were first class petty officers, became known as Regulating Petty Officer [RPO]. I don't think that the name changed their popularity amongst the ordinary sailor.

Notice the gilt buttons on the MAA tunic and the black bone buttons on the corporals tunic.  Both the MAA and the corporals wore a branch badge which showed the initials NP [Navy Police] not as now - Navy Patrol - with a crown in the middle.

A PRÉCIS OF AN ADMIRAL'S STORY ABOUT CONDITIONS IN THE ROYAL NAVY IN 1907 after he had spent  virtually all his long and august career in Victoria's Navy.

The British Navy is the only uniformed fighting service of any civilised State that has the very doubtful honour of paying for its own uniform.  How long the British Public will be relieved of a very obvious duty towards its naval defenders is hard to say, but the bluejacket is very loud and very persistent in his demand to  be relieved of what he considers an unfair tax on his scanty earnings.
In fact, this uniform question stands today in the very front rank of necessary Naval reforms.
And yet less than twenty years ago there was no uniform question, and men were quite content to pay for their clothes without looking on it as any injustice that they should have to do so. What had brought about the change?  Authority says, "The growing grumbling tendency of the bluejacket." The bluejackets says "The stupid red-tape regulations of authority."
It is of course, a startling anomaly that our naval seamen have to pay for the uniform they wear, yet if we go back only just over one hundred and fifty years we can see how simply this came about. 
In the 17th century, a "slop-chest" was in use on board man-of-war vessels where sailors could buy rough, warm, articles of kit the cost being debited  against their pay. By Nelsons time, that "slop-chest" contained more sophisticated articles of clothing which included blue coats, waistcoats, trousers, blue and white checked shirts, hats etc. At the beginning of the commission and the first few months at sea, sailors wore more or less what they wanted, but as time rolled on, they needed a change of clothing, so off they went to the "slop-chest". Eventually, the ship arrived back in port and all the crew were dressed in "slop-chest" clothing. The first ratings 'uniform' was borne out of necessity and not by profound wisdom. Shortly after war broke out, and our sailors were marked 'DD' {discharged dead} their replacements were coerced into the Navy via the press-gangs and the emptying of prisons by magistrates. The latter type were usually filthy and ragged and the former had only the clothes they were wearing when press ganged. So the Navy clothed them from the "slop-chest" and the result looked as though it was an attempt to standardise their dress. The men were forced to sacrifice two months pay in return for this clothing, clothing they didn't want. The very reverse was the truth as captains didn't care what the men looked like but how well they would fight on first meeting the enemy, and the "slop-chest" uniform did not catch on. However, when the so called permanent peace came, after 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, minds turned to more mundane things, and a uniform or sorts for sailors was introduced. Needless to say that it was based on the clothing to be found in the "slop-chest" and since the men had to pay for articles when they wanted them, they should continue to pay when we, the Admiralty, say they should have them. This terrible system of making the men pay for their own uniforms lasted until 1853 nearly forty years and men continued to owe up to two months salary to start off with, but thereafter, despite their appearance, they made sure that they kept that coat, hat, shirt whatever, for their full careers.
In 1853 there was a major reorganisation and the training services were introduced putting boys into training-ships.  These boys were the first people in the Navy to receive part of their kit on joining free of charge as well as free bedding. But no changes were made for the men and anyway, the boys too would have to pay for the replacement kit when due.

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See also photographs in SciFi Themeset [Old Navy Album]

See also BOYS TRAINING IN THE LAST HALF OF THE 19TH CENTURY

See also The story of the RN Warrant Officer

The apathy of Their Lordships is best illustrated in the very small pages of the Navy List of 1868 when out of 464 pages, it devote 4 to uniform: 3¼ to officers and ¾ to ratings. For ratings it introduced a blue jacket plus other articles of kit, and from this jacket, came the name for royal sailors, 'bluejackets'.  The men made up their own uniforms [make and mends] from rough patterns and raw materials supplied [for payment] and providing it was the right colour and looked the part, the many variations were accepted despite the odd appearance of the ships company. At this stage, although not decreed, white duck material, being cheaper and easier to wash than serge, was agreed for working rig. 
In May 1879 more space was devoted to uniforms in the Navy List {10 pages}, but apart from issuing actual patterns, it didn't alter the way uniforms were made or worn, but it did put duck as a working rig, on an official basis. Men continued to buy material from the Navy and make their own clothes. This was extant until September 1890, and it was during this period that uniform, for the VERY FIRST TIME WAS TAKEN SERIOUSLY and the anchor, the gun, the torpedo etc etc, was replaced by the RPO and his tape measure!
At this point the records show that men were not too upset by the maintenance costs of maintaining their kits because cloth of all types, of the finest quality, could be purchased from the paymaster at very reasonable rates. Providing the men stuck to the measurement shown on the pattern, the cut of the suit didn't matter and was overlooked. The system of non-interference enabled the men to look on their kits as their own private property - as indeed they were - and encouraged them to take a great amount of interest in their personal appearance.
There was no reason why this happy state of affairs should not have continued but sadly it didn't. In home port depots the tape measure ruled [pardon the pun] and if your uniform wasn't exact in every detail, all item of your kit would be inspected - a full kit muster. The object of these musters built up the requirement that firstly we have a common uniform for the Queens Navy ; it is all of one colour {navy blue}; it is all of one Admiralty pattern, BUT is it all exactly to within an eighth of an inch of the regulations. There was a witch-hunt designed to seek out the tidily suit and accessories, and a new charge was configured namely "was out of uniform....." Keep remembering that sailors still made their own clothes and bought the raw materials from the Navy to do so.

Just as a breather, as it were, do you remember the 'flap' on your bell bottoms? It was handy wasn't it? Well do you know that ratings got this 'flap' about 100 years AFTER officers first started to have it on their uniforms. The next two pictures show, on the left trousers from 1805 and on the right, trousers from 1774.

This is an example of what making one's own kit entailed, in this case the making of badges. This is a hand stitched [in wool] 1st class Petty Officer badge with two good conduct badges [stripes] beneath.


At sea, things were very different and a laissez faire attitude was taken towards uniforms. Bright work, painting and chipping were the important things in harbour, and at sea, training, gunnery, boat work. Only towards the end of the commission when the men would return to the depot did the MAA and ships corporals address the need of good kits.
In the depots, the ships corporal had been given full rights to do the most exacting tests on mens clothing often destroying articles which did not pass, despite knowing that the man had paid for them out of his own wages. 
The men started to look at their kits and separated the articles into useful and ornamental, thereafter demanding that their kits be reduced by getting rid of the ornamentals. The ornamentals {for example serge frocks, drill frocks with collars] were the most expensive items of kit. It was ordered that more and more kit musters were required both ashore and afloat in order to tighten up on dress regulations. Young officers saw a good adherence to kit standards as being a way to certain promotion and spent all their time making sure that it was. Ships corporals multiplied and everybody in authority went uniform mad. The sailor soon found that his kit was a most undesirable possession, made the more so when he himself was paying for it. No 10A punishment became so common for kit misdemeanors, that half the ships company were running around the parade ground. At sea, there were recorded instances where all the officers in the ship were keen on training except for one or two who were each keen on uniform and the captain had to take side choosing efficiency over dress.
As part of the kit, each sailor had a 'check shirt with collar' - a type of white front or sea jersey with the blue collar built into it.  It was hated by all because it was difficult to wash, took overlong to dry and was grossly uncomfortable to wear. Sailor bought, or made a shirt which looked the same and then made a separate 'dickeys' blue collar with three stripes and tie-taps which could be worn and washed independently. Whole teams of ships corporals supported by other petty officers were engaged in seeking out these articles of unofficial kit, roaming in drying rooms, lockers, under mattresses and any other hiding place.  Woe betide anyone found with one or admitted to own one found by a ships corporal.  During the past thirty years [1860-1890] hundreds of thousands have been confiscated. 

 Things got so bad that there was no appeal against the decision of an irrational and dictatorial ships corporal, with the result that it was made known to them, that should they go ashore for local leave, the sailors would give them a 'kit muster' and little mercy would be shown.
It was at this time, 1907, that the Service began waking up to the call of war with Germany, and that the efficiency of the Fleet was suspect: therefore all effort had to be concentrated on training and none wasted on trifling administrative routine.  {My words.....if you could have seen the faces of the ships corporals......}
{Again my own words.....but wait, can I believe what is happening despite my former gloat....}
Instead of the depots moderating their routine on 'through draftees', their routine became more and more aggressive and oppressive until their [the barrack stanchions] modus operandi caused a public scandal and question were asked in the House of Commons.  The Admiralty [losing yet again] were forced into a position of having to ask the sailors what, in the kit list did they want listed for presentation, stating that when and how the kit muster was ordered was not up for grabs.  They responded by stating that the blue serge suit should have four functions: duty, review, inspectional and landing purposes. This resulted in a further change of uniform regulations.  The cost of the kit to men was thus reduced from £9 5s to £6 15s [valued at current {1907} issuing prices].
It should come as no surprise to you that so fragile were the relationships between the 'fighting officers' and the back-room boys in the Admiralty, that the Admiralty were reluctant to 'bother' the sea captains with mundane things like uniform regulation changes when gearing-up for war polarised the minds of all but the admin freaks.  Additionally, the country had shown, through the press that it was heartily tired of the system of harassing the men on petty points of detail, and in May 1907, when the Naval Estimates came up for discussion, a number of Members of Parliament complained very strongly; to which Mr Lambert, a Civil Lord of the Admiralty, replied that "The Admiralty had no idea of a stilted or wooden-headed system in dealing with the men; all that they desired to do was to add to their comfort."
It didn't take a Parliamentary debate to change the minds of the depot staff, who, though I know not why, change their attitude and came in on the side of the 'builders of efficiency' for the thought-to-be forthcoming war. 
[My words....know your enemy; for believe it or not, the Admiralty re-introduced the 1864 measurement criteria of those pieces of kit issued to sailors on, or after, the 1907 kit agreement]. Whilst the Navy were coaling at Scapa, Portsmouth, Sheerness, Portland, Devonport, Rosyth, the London dandies were endeavouring to recoup some of their losses - losses against the common sailors as explained above. To enforce this rule they would henceforward withdraw the sale of all raw materials used by sailors to make their own uniforms.  Ready-made clothing would now be issued and the days of the home-made uniform were at an end.
We all know from experience, whether officer or rating upon entry, that service issue clothing fits only Mr Average, and Mr Average never joins up. [My words.....it always amazes me that the Admiralty, including  Lord Nelson had he been there,  is always out of touch with the lower deck, even though they purport to represent them. I ask you....if the sailor is denied the opportunity to purchase raw materials from the paymaster to make his own uniform, would he or would he not seek an alternative supplier? Of course he would, and this he did]
The sailor, in retaliation, went ashore to seek out the raw material he needed. The result was that every ship and depot in the Royal Navy were stocked to the deckheads with ready made uniform that no sailor wanted, and didn't buy. The Admiralty, loathed to and by culture impossible to stop, accepted the sailors need for a tidily uniform and slashed the prices of its ready made stock down to one third of the original price. Thus the tax payers money was and had been wasted, and moreover, was to be thus for many years hence right up until the second world war. Rigidly to force these unpopular garments on the men at their expense would be a dangerous expedient, and there is little doubt that the only way finally to settle the question is for the nation to place the Navy on the same footing as every other uniformed service, and supply and maintain the kit free of charge, the extra cost of which to the country would be approximately £300,000 per annum, though with a few further common-sense reductions that sum  might easily be reduced by £50,000 per annum.
The seaman of thirty years ago [1860] was un-harassed with all these "garnishing's of peace,"  and was undoubtedly a smarter and cleaner man than the seaman of today [1907], though of him it can be truthfully said that in spite of regulations, punishments, confiscations, and blackmail he still continues to make his trousers "tight at the waist, and of the ordinary naval pattern," as he was allowed to do without let or hindrance thirty years since.