Now that my series on spa and seaside resorts is done, I thought I’d reach a little further back into my travels to share something that’s very relevant to my series, which is creeping ever closer to the release of its third book (and as such, this post may contain some mild spoilers on the Constant Love series). Jane Austen’s novels are firmly centred within the parlours and landscapes of the English countryside: visits to other locations such as London, Bath, and the seaside are aberrations (although Sanditon, if finished, might have broken this mold).
And yet there was a whole other world going on outside any of these places, a naval world that Austen would have known well herself, with two naval brothers, and yet we never fully see. There are naval characters, certainly, in Mansfield Park and Persuasion, but they fit themselves into the existing landscape; Admiral Croft of Persuasion going so far as to lease Anne Elliot’s family home. Yet the world Admiral Croft had been used to would have been one far different from Kellynch Hall, and it’s the world vividly drawn in my favorite series, Patrick O’Brian’s 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin masterpiece. This was a world happening in parallel to that of Austen, and yet they seem set in entirely different universes.
What you don’t see in O’Brian is a female perspective. While I don’t necessarily fault him for that, as there were very few women on board these ships, there were women who could have given that perspective. Sophia Croft of Persuasion has lived on board ships with her husband for many years, and in real life, Austen’s brother Charles lived with his entire family on his ship for some time (Austen worried over her niece’s seasickness).
So that has been one of my goals in the series, to bridge the gap more between those two worlds, and in book three I finally get a chance to fully show that world from a female perspective. While I can tell the perspective with words, it is such a different world that it’s helpful to view it in pictures, and so below are a series of photos and videos from HMS Trincomalee, a frigate some years newer than the one I feature in my books, but quite close enough to serve as a model. The Trincomalee is in Hartlepool, in the north of England, and well worth a visit both for the frigate itself and the historic harbour that surrounds it; you may recognise them both from various costume dramas, most recently Victoria (for that show the ship was digitally manipulated to make it look like a larger ship of the line).
At the beginning of this video of the frigate’s main deck, you can see a large round thing in the middle of the deck. This is the capstan, and bars were inserted into the square holes you can see; seamen would push on the bars to exert needed force on something, either to bring up an anchor or to hoist up supplies that were coming on board. As I walk along, you can see two distinctly different types of guns. The thinner, longer ones are the long guns, which threw a lesser weight of shot but were more accurate and could hit a target at greater distances. The shorter, fatter ones are carronades, which were less accurate but could throw a greater weight of shot, making them more devastating at a shorter range. My walking route takes me from the quarterdeck at the stern (rear) of the ship to the bow (front), past the middle section where the boats are stored. This section could be opened up to the deck below it (giving it the name of weather-deck), or might be covered with a tarp in poorer weather (in a storm, they would “batten down the hatches” to prevent water coming in). In battle, if there was time, the boats would be lowered down and towed behind the ship so they were less likely to get damaged by enemy shot. Finally, my route ends at the forecastle (abbreviated fo’c’sle), where the mast sticking forward is called the bowsprit. In earlier days of galleons, both the quarterdeck and forecastle were much higher, and the forecastle was considered to be like something of a castle that would have to be penetrated; as fighting changed from hand-to-hand combat in boarding an enemy ship to a shootout with long guns and/or carronades, it was no longer useful for it to be that high.
We’ve gone a deck below now, to that weather deck, although I’ll refer to it from here on out as the gun deck, for obvious reasons. On a frigate, there would only have been one deck specifically for guns (although as we saw there were also guns on the main deck). During a battle this would have been a place of furious activity: men swabbing anything leftover from the last shot out of the guns, loading in more powder, wad, and shot (the powder run up from the magazine deeper in the ship by boys called powder monkeys), hauling on the ropes you can see to pull the gun forward, aiming the gun if necessary and then touching off the powder either with a sort of wand holding “slow match” through a hole in the top of the gun, or using more modern flintlocks built on to the gun. It would have been tremendously loud, too, as the guns went off, violently jumping backwards from the force of the charge. And let’s not forget about all of the enemy shot hitting both ship and men, throwing splinters everywhere.
One thing Trincomalee doesn’t do as good a job of as other ships is in showing the configuration of the captain’s cabins, at the stern of the ship. I think they do events there, and so what would ordinarily be three cabins is one open space:
As this deck plan from the Show the Colours Wiki shows, there were more commonly two smaller cabins, the day cabin (also called coach) and sleeping cabin, which led to the great cabin. Also as the deck plan shows, there were guns within the captain’s cabins, and when the ship cleared for action (a “clean sweep, fore and aft”), the bulkheads making up the captain’s cabins were removed, and all of the furniture was taken down into the hold.
The video shows how the cabin flows in to the gun deck, and you can see the captain’s bed, hung with curtains, which would have helped with warmth (no fireplaces, here, although they did use coal braziers to keep warm). Morbidly, if the captain died, a lid was fitted over his bed and it became his coffin, so he was sleeping in his coffin every night. Rather than that bunch of modern chairs (presumably for the events), there would have been a marine standing guard outside. The Royal Marines served as both an amphibious assault squad for the naval ship, and would fire muskets and swivel guns from the fighting tops on the masts of the ship in a naval battle, as well as a sort of police force for the captain, there to guard against any potential mutiny.
They all had to eat, of course, and ships might be many months at sea, with no refrigeration, before they could take on additional supplies. Scurvy, by now, was less of a concern unless a ship had run out of its supply of lemons or limes, for while they did not yet understand that it was caused by a vitamin C deficiency, they did understand that consuming lemon or lime juice, or other “antiscorbutic” vegetables prevented it. Officers often kept livestock (you can see a spit roast in the foreground of the picture), and could eat quite well while the supply lasted, although they were also opportunistic about what could be got from sea or sky (in A Season Lost, shark steaks and shark fritters form part of a Christmas dinner). For the seamen, who burned a tremendous amount of calories in the course of their duties, the fare was simpler, comprised largely of things like salt beef and pork, and dried pease. One member of their dinner table companions (“messmates”) was responsible for making dinner on a rotating basis, and would take in essence a bag filled with their food to the cook to be boiled (before this, anything salted had to be steeped, to try to get the salt out), which was boiled in a vat to cook it. There was a lot of fat, or “slush” left in the water after this, and the cook would skim it off to use or sell when he got to port: his “slush fund.” This was all washed down with “grog,” a mixture of water, sugar, lemon or lime juice and rum, which helped kill the little critters living in the water. About this time they started storing water in metal tanks in the hold, rather than wooden casks, which did help preserve the water better. There would also have been a seawater still, which could produce small quantities of distilled water, usually used for invalids; I’ve also opted to give the women in my story this water, too.
One more deck down, now, to the “berth deck,” where the men would have eaten and slept:
At the stern of the ship, in what’s known as the wardroom, you can see the table set for a higher class of dining. This is where the ship’s officers would have dined, and surrounding it you can see the cabins where they would have lived.
In the video you can see how the wardroom and the rest of the deck fit together, as well as additional cabins outside the wardroom, which would have been for lower-ranking officers. And you can see the square wooden plates used by the seamen (where they ate their “three square meals a day”).
There would have been one more deck below this one, the orlop deck below the waterline, and then below that the hold, where everything was stored.
I hope you’ve all enjoyed this little tour of HMS Trincomalee. If this whets your appetite on the Georgian Royal Navy, I have more posts on other ships on my personal blog:
If your appetite is really whetted, an epic 20-book adventure awaits you. And while the movie Master and Commander struggles to condense so much source material into one movie, I think they did a masterful job of recreating this nautical world. And of course watch this space for when A Season Lost, which includes my own recreation as one of its plotlines, will be released!