The first thing that should be noted is that when we talk about specific
measurement, what was really received by the sailors was actually less.
There was a tradition that pursers took a cut of everything. The "Purser's
Eight" (or '14 for 16') meant that of every pound of food that was designated
for the sailor, only 14 ounces was actually given. The purser was allowed
to keep one-eighth (12 ½%) of the bulk of his stock and 10% or 5%
of the rest as his commission. This was supposedly to make up for the waste,
leakage and shrinkage. This waste, was caused by insects such as weevils,
cockroaches, maggots and by rats and mice and by time. Twenty pounds of
biscuits when initially weighed in at time of loading could weigh as little
as 10 pounds 6 months later. So remember anytime you see a measurement
of food or drink it is actually smaller than it appears.
The quality and variety of the food was certainly found lacking. The meat was frequently rotten and the bread was full of weevils.
The standard allotment of food for the week was as follows:
4 pounds of salt beef
2 pounds of salt pork
2 pints of pease
3 pints of oatmeal
6 ounces of butter
12 ounces of cheese
There was also a daily allotment of a pound of bread and a gallon of beer (or some other type of alcohol depending on the availability). Other variations included once a week flour, suet (beef fat) and currants or raisins being issued so a "duff" could be made as prevention against scurvy.
Fresh vegetables were issued when available and substituted for the pease. One of the more common, and probably the least popular, of these was cabbage. It was prepared in the German manner, with water and salt, because it would keep for a long time and prevented scurvy. It was called "sour krout" and was the favourite dish of the King. Seamen tended to dislike it because of the smell, which was very strong when the casks were first opened. It was normally boiled in sea water, then washed with fresh water to clean it, and then served as a salad with vinegar.
The meat was served on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday 2 oz. of butter and 4 oz. of cheese was served. If cheese was not available, then a double issue of butter was issued. On hot stations, where butter would not keep, then a sweet oil would be issued.
If a ship was in port, the crew could expect fresh meat twice a week. Beef and pork were slaughtered in the victualing yards and each ship would send one of their boats to retrieve their allotment of fresh meat. Each man was allotted 4 pounds of fresh beef and 3 pounds of fresh pork. These were true measures, without the normal purser's cut. The officers were allowed to take which ever cut of meat they liked so an extra one pound for each seven pounds was issued in addition.
When the meat was issued, a ritual was followed: the cask of meat was opened on the deck under the watchful eyes of the Master or one of his mates and the purser's steward. Together they watched the pieces be counted out to see if the actual number matches the number and weight the contract provider wrote on the lid of the cask.
When (not if) there was a discrepancy, was between the purser and the contractor, not between the purser and the Victualing Board, the purser would make a claim against the contractor (providing they were still in business) at the rate of 8d for each piece of beef and 6d for pork.
The water went bad soon after leaving port, the beer (small beer) was basically water with hops floating on top. It had the tendency to sour within a couple weeks of leaving port.
As you can see, provisions going bad was a real problem. And being a large organization, there were specific rules on how to dispose of bad provisions or those provisions that had become damaged or tainted. These rules required a "Board of Survey" consisting of 3 officers, preferably from other ships if feasible, which inspected the offending items and found them inedible. All this was done in accordance with instructions (It is interesting to note that these instructions were usually found in privately published books which had samples of the letters and certificates needed by the officers and Warrants of a ship. One such book was "The Seaman's New Vade Mecum".) Once judged inedible, there were strict rules on how food could be disposed of.
Most items must be returned to the Royal Navy stores with the exception
of butter and cheese. Butter, provided the captain issued a written order,
could be charged to the boatswain who would then use it to waterproof the
ropes. The cheese had to be thrown overboard because "…in a corrupted state,
it is a nuisance to the ship's company, and cannot possibly be kept in
the close confined space where stowed…"
The cooking and serving of food aboard a King's ship is done like many things in the Royal Navy, by custom. The crew is divided into small groups of 4 to 8 men called "a mess" and assigned a number. These numbers were stamped on metal tags attached to nets and bags used to cook the food. The men of the mess sat at the same table and the number of their mess became part of their identity. When a man died, it was frequently said that he lost the number of his mess.
A man could change his mess at the beginning of each month. The mess mates tended to be close and if any of them didn't get along it was very noticeable and uncomfortable. Few changes in the mess book meant a settled ship's company. With the right reading it could tell the Captain or 1st officer who were the trouble makers, and who were unpopular with the crew. Most men stayed with the same mess the entire time the ship was commissioned.
Each mess had a bread box, "a bread barge", where the bread, nets and bags, were kept. Each week a different member of the mess would serve as the cook. This was a job in which no skill was needed, the most difficult job was mixing the flour, suet (animal fat) and currents for the making of "duff". The exact ingredients are delivered to the "cook" and all he has to do is put them in the sack and mix them. He would also have to make sure the table was kept clean, cared for a small wooden tub known as a "kid", a tea kettle and a vinegar keg.
At 4 a.m. he would deliver the bags to be boiled to the ship's copper so they would be done by 11:30 a.m.. At 11 a.m. he would be on the after deck to collect his mess's grog issue. Sugar, bread, flour, butter and pease would be issued at 8 a.m., sugar and tea at 3 p.m. Vinegar was issued once a fortnight (2 weeks) and kept in the mess's vinegar keg.
The mess cook was also the one who would make complaints for the mess for the size or quality of the provisions. If there was a legitimate complaint about the meat, the mess cook would be allowed to choose the piece for his mess on the next meat day.
An additional duty included getting the candles (also known as pusser's
glims) from the purser and returning them the next morning.
For any true sailor, drink means only one thing: Spirits. And when you mention spirits and the Royal Navy, you naturally think of rum. While rum was a very popular form of spirits among the crew, it was not the only spirit issued. In fact it was considered for use only when beer was not available.
There were two forms of beer issued on ships, small beer and strong beer. A small beer was a weak form of beer, while the strong beer had malt add to aid in the ferment process. The small beer was cheap to procure but had a limited shelf life, it would go sour within weeks. For this reason it was primarily used for short voyages only. The strong beer, because it had more alcoholic content, lasted longer but was more expensive. For this reason it was primarily used on longer voyages. The standard ration of beer was a gallon per seaman per day.
Wine was another commonly issued spirit, especially for ships assigned to the Mediterranean. While not as loved by the crew as rum was, several white fiery Spanish wines were favourites. The crews were very fond of Mistela, which they called Miss Taylor, and of Rosolio. But did not like the red wine known as Black Strap, which is why being sent to serve in the Mediterranean was called being black-strapped. Wine was issued at the rate of a pint per day.
Sometimes Brandy was available, though usually from a French source. It was issued at the rate of a half-pint per day. Another liquor used was called Arrack, made from rice and sometimes cocoa sap. It was available to those ships serving in far eastern waters. It was issued at the rate of 2 drams per day.
Then there was rum, rum was not issued on British ships until 1655 when Jamaica was captured. Once a fleet was establish in the West Indies it was necessary to victual these ships. There was no beer or wine produced in these islands and the only hard spirits available was one made from molasses. The name rum derives from the Latin saccharum meaning sugar. It was also known as rumbustion, which is believed to have originated on 17th century sugar plantations.
Rum was actually a by-product from the sugar process. After the bulk of the sugar is removed from the cane, the cane was then made into a "wash" which was fermented and distilled. The strength or proof of the rum that was delivered to the ships is not know but it is believed to be a higher proof than can be purchased today. The method of measuring the strength did not come about until after this period.
The method used by the pursers to check the quality of rum was to mix pure rum it with a little and a few grains of gun powder. Then using a magnifying glass they would let the sun heat it until it ignited. If just the gunpowder ignited then it was good rum, but if all ignited it was too powerful. If nothing ignited then the purser would be punished for watering the rum down.
And rum was explosive. It was found early on that a barrel of pure rum could have the same explosive effect on a ship as gunpowder. The ships started using similar precautions, a specially constructed room, no open flame, etc.
Rum had some very good qualities for sea duty, it did not go bad while it was stored for extended periods. In fact it became better with age and stronger. It was found that it aided the fight against scurvy when mixed with water and lemon juice sweetened with sugar.
The rum allotment, a half pint of rum mixed with 2 parts water, was served half in the morning and half after dinner. The rum was mixed in a rum tub (Shown right) and then issued to the men. The rum, practically pure rum, when mixed with
water is the equivalent of 2 bottles of modern rum. Some men would
try to save their morning ration and drink it with their evening ration.
Other men would use it to barter with, since they rarely received any of
Officer's Food and Drink
The Royal Navy provided food, not only for seaman but for officers a like. But being such poor quality in the first place, and since officers usually came from the privileged classes, their food and drink was usually supplemented or replaced with items of their own purchase. Officers of the wardroom (lieutenants, master, surgeon, marine officers and purser) were formed a mess, paying funds to a treasurer who acted as caterer. He was responsible for laying in supplies of food, often live animals, which were kept on the forecastle or the waist, fresh vegetables when available, sugar, tea and, of course, wine. The first lieutenant served as president of the mess and presided over the meals.
Meal time was one of the few times when all the officers were together. All were seated at a long table in the wardroom with their servant behind them. On some occasions, the wardroom would play host to the captain or master mates and midshipman. Entertaining was one of the ways used to break the monotony of long voyages or blockade duty.
Their food were prepared either by the wardroom servants or personal servants of the individual officers. They prepared the food on the forward of the ship's galley stove. They were able to grill, bake or use a spit, unlike the crews food, which was always boiled.
The captain maintained his own food and drink. He would sometimes
go in with the officers mess on live animals but the rest of the food was
usually separate. His food, prepared by his cooks (he was allowed to an
unspecified number), was served to him in his dining room where he ate
alone or with invited guest. Most captains occasionally invited members
of the ward room and midshipman's berth or if travelling in the company of
other ships, he would invite other captains and their officers.