Feeding the fleet: Royal Navy victualling

Provisioning a boat, even for short sea passages today, is an essential aspect of any skipper’s plan. The 18th century Royal Navy had the challenge of keeping their men fit and healthy during long and treacherous voyages to far flung parts of the world. During the 17th and 18th centuries, there were six Royal Navy dockyards in England , Plymouth, Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham, Sheerness and Portsmouth.

Naval victualling

From 1793, the Victualling Board was responsible for feeding both the Navy and other militias in Britain and overseas. The numbers are estimated to reach a peak of 400,000 men scattered from the Americas to India. The official scale of provisions is illustrated by the total issued to each man per week. Imagine a diet based on this ration: 7lb. of biscuit and 7 gallons of beer with 4lb. beef and 2lb. pork, 2 pints of pease, 3 pints of oatmeal, 6oz. butter and 12oz cheese.

To feed the complement of one 74-gun ship for a week required two tons of ‘bisket’ (hard bread), over a ton of salt beef, a quarter of a ton of cheese and 4,480 gallons of beer. In 1805 there were 87 such ships in commission. By 1815, Wellington’s army in the Iberian Peninsula numbered 100,000 men and required forty tons of ‘bisket’ every day.

In recognition that it was not possible to procure everything that was needed all the time and on all stations, a complex array of substitutions for the main provisions were admissible – for instance, a pint of wine or half-pint of spirits in place of the beer, a pint of ‘calavances’ (chick peas) or ‘dhol’ (lentils) for a pint of pease, and so on. Moreover, it was customary that ships in port should receive fresh beef instead of salted, and fresh vegetables were also provided when possible. In some places, too, contracts had to be made for water, where local conditions made it difficult for ships to refill their own casks.

Contractors were involved at all levels of this large and complex operation. They supplied raw materials and processed provisions to the Victualling Board’s bases in London, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Chatham and Dover (in roughly that order of importance) as well as overseas yards at Gibraltar and Port Mahon, and they took away the waste products.