The British Navy 1793 – 1815

By Alaric Bond

Alaric Bond, the well known and respected author of books about the sea, delivered the talk entitled “The British Navy 1793-1815 “ to Wadhurst History Society on Thursday 13th June 2019.  When Mr Bond was introduced to the audience it was shared that although his given name is Alaric, he is always known as ‘Jim’ and Jim proceeded to give a fascinating and interactive insight into life in the Navy period he was speaking about.

Beginning with a brief resume of his background, Jim shared that his father had been a writer responsible for, among other works, the stories in ‘Eagle’ comic and later for BBC scripts including ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’.  Encouraged in his love of books, Jim grew up with the sea stories of C.S. Forester and the character of Horatio Hornblower, which began his depth of interest in the Georgian Navy.   Jim explained that although 200 years have passed between the Georgian period and today, in his view, people have always been the same it is only circumstances that change.  Therefore many of the issues which seem unthinkable today were much more reasonable when seen in the context of the time.

The talk began with the audience being supplied with multi choice questionnaires, which were challenging but actually great fun, and dealt with information associated with the Navy, reference to which still have relevance today.  It was by following through this ‘exam’ as Jim described it, that the talk took shape.  Before beginning on establishing the correct answers to the questionnaire, Jim made clear that the Navy was vital to the work force of England at this time.   A large proportion of the population, were engaged in work that supported the Navy. Food had to be grown, ropes and sails made and of course the trees, which provided the timber for the ships, had to be grown and managed. It took 100 oak trees to construct the frame for one vessel!  In this area ropes were made in Marden, Chatham and Hailsham, and cannon were forged in Ashburton.

As he went through the questionnaire, Jim covered a vast number of topics including Naval jargon which is now a part of the English language; the function of the Press Gang; the age of the average sailor; the function of the role of ‘Powder Monkey’; the presence of women on the ships (and babies being born) and many more aspects of Georgian naval life.  Jim pointed out that Hollywood’s use of naval stories for films, has frequently concentrated on certain aspects of naval life at the time, which to the 21st century, mind appear deplorable.  These aspects have frequently been exaggerated and shown out of context of the time, which tends to colour modern perception of conditions in the Georgian Navy.  While some things were indeed very harsh, it is necessary Jim pointed out, to put things in perspective, retain an understanding of the current social context and to be aware that there were definite plus points to being in the navy.

For example, the sailors were far better fed than the average workman on land. The calorie intake for the average sailor was 3000-4000 calories a day and included plenty of meat. Another major advantage was the provision of free medical care. This was certainly not something available on land. The majority of medical intervention required resulted from illness or injury and the treatment would have been immediate, again not available on land.

Jim had brought with him an impressive array of artifacts from the period.  These had been arranged for viewing on the table at the front of the hall but as the talk proceeded they did not remain on the table.  Cannon balls rolled around the floor, a sword, a pistol and a musket passed from hand to hand and the job of the ‘powder monkey’ became incredibly real as the container, that would have weighed 42 pounds and had to be carried to guns in a battle situation, was handled by members of the audience.

Jim also spoke about the sharing of information in the England of 200 years ago.  The Times circulation in the early 1800s was only 300 and that would not have been daily.  So information was limited and often out of date and not always accurate.

Fascinating facts emerged in abundance throughout the talk. For example, probably the best known British sailor, Admiral Nelson, did say ‘Kiss me Hardy’ as he lay dying and that requested action was perfectly acceptable in Georgian England.  It was the Victorians who could not deal with the idea of Nelson asking to be kissed and so changed the word to ‘kismet’.  Actually Nelson said ‘thank God I have done my duty’ as he died.  Nelson was a national hero and his funeral was attended by many thousands of mourners who considered him the nation’s saviour.

There are apparently indications that Nelson was not always a pleasant person.  Jim said there is evidence that shows that he was a hypochondriac, that his behaviour to his wife was appalling and that he lived with Lady Hamilton but never married her,  however  these issues have never detracted from his fame.  Jim pointed out that there were other brilliant naval officers in post at the time but Nelson’s overwhelming fame has resulted in their frequently being overlooked.  And did you know that Nelson had a cat called Tiddles?

While he spoke, Jim was using the artifacts that he had brought with him to enable the members of the audience to relate far more closely to what he was describing.  The cannon balls were rolled around the hall, and they were incredibly heavy.  The sword, which would have been a boarding weapon for an officer, was also unexpectedly weighty as were the pistol and the musket. As these items passed from hand to hand it made it possible to understand how physically fit those sailors needed to be, just to manage the weapons of the time.

This interactive approach enabled a very lively rapport between speaker and audience, particularly as Jim welcomed questions as he went along, and was very happy to engage with points raised. Lots of questions and lots of laughter accompanied the talk throughout and the audience was riveted by the extent and depth of the knowledge Jim displayed.  The speech of thanks to Jim included the comment ‘it was such fun and we have all learned such a lot’, and the members of the audience demonstrated their complete agreement with that.

Judy Alexander