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Fitting out a Man-of-War
From Chambers's Journal (1854)


One does not go to the Highlands to shoot partridges; yet it so happened that on the 6th day of September I found myself some twenty miles north of Inverness, waking up these birds from the turnip-fields, the corn being still uncut; and with the assistance of my companions, I managed to make up a pretty good bag.

Such a confession cannot be made without an apology. Here it is. I had been staying some weeks with kind friends; and what with short excursions to places of interest in Ross and Sutherland, salmon and trout fishing, shooting deer both roe and fallow, to say nothing of wild-duck, with an occasional snipe and wood-cock, the time had passed as pleasantly as rapidly. Yet it so happened that on this particular 6th day of September, there was no chance of a fish rising or of getting near a roe. Grouse there were none. There was nothing particular to do, so we waked up the partridges until it was time for luncheon. Visions of a pleasant close to the day enlivened the walk home.

There had been some talk of music for the evening, and a return-match at four-handed chess. There was a certain sunny corner where a volume of Scott was wonderfully appreciated in the afternoon. Dinner must not be forgotten, with its accompaniments of roe-deer soup, fresh caught fish, game-pie, and venison chops hot from the gridiron, and in one of the kindest, most cheerful, and friendly parties that ever crossed the border. But, alas! the inexorable post anticipated the well-earned luncheon. A letter of ominous official form was put into my hand. The seal was broken, and I read—

‘Admiralty, 4th September.

‘Sir—My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty having appointed you----------— of Her Majesty’s sloop the Saucy, it is their Lordships direction that you repair immediately to the superintendent of Sheerness Dockyard for your appointment, and that you report to me the day on which you shall have joined the ship. I am, sir, your very humble servant,
W. A. B. Hamilton.

P. S.—It is desired that you acknowledge the receipt of this letter?

This was not the first time that a like sudden stop had been put to favourite plans by the calls of the service. So putting a good face on the matter, and scarcely knowing whether to ask for condolence or congratulation, a few things were hurried into a portmanteau, a biscuit into the pocket, a hasty good-by exchanged, and within an hour from the receipt of my letter, I was waiting at a turnpike two miles off for the northern mail to give me a passage to Inverness. This gave me an opportunity of shaking hands with an old friend, who was hurrying off with his bride to Dunrobin as fast as post-horses could carry him; and what with this and the glow produced by a fast drive through the sharp, bracing air, on a bright Highland day, I was quite inclined to look on the light side of things by the time I was seated before a round of beef in the Caledonian Hotel at Inverness.

A visit to Mr M‘Dougall at his Clan Tartan Warehouse enabled me to defy the cold of a night on the Grampians; so in another hour I was again behind four horses for a fourteen hours drive on the mail to Perth. Skirting the Moor of Culloden, lighted by a bright moon, enlivened by a cheerful fellow-traveller, nothing could have been more pleasant than this drive, had it only been a little warmer. The dark hills looked out majestically in the moonlight, the deep shadows adding immensely to their effect; while, to crown all, about midnight a magnificent aurora borealis lighted up the northern sky, shooting up its gigantic rockets from the horizon. Then came the drive through Blair-Athol and Dunkeld, and nine o'clock saw us at the city of the Fair Maid of Perth. From this to Edinburgh, the route was easy; thence twelve hours by express-train conveyed me to London, and in due time I found myself at that most detestable of all our ports, Sheerness, looking at my future home as she lay near the pier.

The time of fitting out a ship is the most unpleasant part of the commission. One must either live in a hulk, and go backwards and forwards in boats several times a day, or take up quarters in some dirty inn ashore, until the ship is made habitable. What I wish to tell, however, is what the fitting out of a ship of war is, and I flatter myself the information, taken as a whole, will be new to most readers.

It generally surprises any one who sees a ship of war at anchor in one of our harbours, when he is told that 1000, 500, or 150 persons, according to the size of the ship, live on board her. A corvette, with a crew of 150 men, does not appear, and really is not, larger than an ordinary merchant-ship of 500 or 600 tons, yet all these persons are boarded and lodged comfortably in their floating-home. But this is not all. The ship must carry a quantity of stores and provisions, which, if they were laid out on the shore, would fill a good-sized barn, and which any one would be apt to bet heavy odds could not be put on board the little ship. In the first place, water and provisions for the whole crew must be carried for some months, to make the ship efficient In our case, we carried a complete supply for five months: we had fifty-three tons of water, and the weight of the tanks containing this water was eleven tons. Then the weight of beef and pork, biscuit, peas, and flour, sugar, tea, and cocoa, with other provisions, amounted to nearly twenty-five tons, the casks containing them weighing two tons and a quarter. In addition to this government supply of food and drink, the captain and officers take about seven tons of private stores for their own particular nourishment. Four tons of coal and wood; two tons of clothing, soap, candles, tobacco, &c.; two hundredweights of medical stores; and a ton and a half of rum; with more than a ton of holy-stones and sand for cleaning the decks, would fill a moderate-sized warehouse. Then when we consider the weight the good ship has to carry, we must calculate upon twenty tons of ballast, and upon sixteen or seventeen tons as the weight of the men and boys, with their clothing and bedding. The bowsprit, masts, yards, and booms weigh more than twenty-four tons; the rigging, twenty tons; and there are more than four tons of blocks only, or what are better known to landsmen as pulleys. The sails weigh two tons and a half, and there is the same weight of spare sails. There are sixteen tons of iron cable, and three tons of hempen cable. Four anchors weigh together more than seven tons; the boats more than three tons and a half. Then come the eighteen guns, which weigh together twenty-seven tons; and the stores taken by the gunners for working their guns, amount to about four tons and a half. The stores taken by the boatswain and carpenter to keep the ship and her rigging in working-order, weigh more than seventeen tons. Lastly, we have three tons and a half of powder, two tons and a half of case-shot, nineteen tons of cannon-balls, two tons of shells, and two tons of musket-balls and small-arms. If all this be added together, the reader will at once see that when our little vessel floated out of Sheerness Harbour to the Nore, she carried with her more than 300 tons of valuable property.

But as a friend of ours exclaimed when we were endeavouring to impress this upon him: ‘Where, in the name of all that is wonderful, can it all be put? How can you live amid such a heap of incongruous matter? Where do you all live? Where is the kitchen? Where do you sleep, and where do all the men sleep? — These are all very natural questions, and it will require some little time to answer them.

To commence with the space 'under hatches', as it is called, or beneath the floor of the deck on which men and officers live. Any one who knows the shape of a ship, will see, on a little reflection, that this space will be broad and deep in the centre, gradually becoming narrower and more shallow towards both head and stern. At the extreme after-end, there was a space for the captain’s stores; and beneath his cabin, the breadroom, capable of holding 100 bags of biscuit, each weighing a hundredweight. Then advancing forward, and beneath two of the officers’ cabins, is the slop-room, where all the cloth and duck, shoes, flannel, hats, and other articles for men's clothing, are kept. Parallel with this, and beneath the gun-room, extending also some way into the centre of the bread-room, is the shell-room and magazine. Each of the shells is packed in a separate box, and treated with such care that no one felt uneasy, although sitting every day at meals with 110 of them only separated from his feet by a plank, with nearly three tons of powder in the magazine close by. In a space corresponding to the slop-room, on the opposite side, was the officers’ storeroom for provisions. Further forward, in the centre, are the lockers for shot, holding 1260 of these gentle persuaders of thirty-two pounds of cold iron. On either side of them, and of the shell-room, are holds for provisions and spirits. The nineteen tons of iron ballast are arranged just above the keel and round the lowest parts of the inside of the ship. Immediately upon these are the iron water-tanks, corresponding in shape to that of the vessel; those in the centre fitting square; those towards the sides circling at different angles. Six of the largest of these tanks hold each 600 gallons; two smaller ones, each 400 gallons; two of 200; twelve of 375; and eighteen of 110: making together forty tanks, holding 11,280 gallons, or more than fifty tons. These tanks occupy the central part of the ship, except a space reserved for the chain-cable and a small store of provisions for daily use. Further forward is a hold for the beef and pork, with another for coal and firing. Beyond this is the sail-room, where all the spare sails are kept; and, lastly, quite in the bows, the store-rooms, as they are called, but really a sort of dark cupboard, where the boatswain and carpenter keep their stores. All this is under hatches— that is to say, a hatch must be raised to get into any of these spaces. A hatch is a square piece of the floor or deck cut out, so that it can be lifted by a ring, and furnished with locks, and so made as to keep all the lower part of the ship water-tight, or nearly so.

Next comes the inhabited portion of the ship. Commencing as before, from the after-part, we had first two cabins for the captain, each extending the whole breadth of the ship. The after one was small; but with a couple of arm-chairs and a portable fireplace, was a perfect little snuggery for him in winter, to lounge with a book or play a game at chess with one of us. The fore-cabin was much longer. At one side, doors opened into a sleeping-cabin and a large cupboard, where the charts and chronometers are kept. At the other, was an open sofa-bed place and a cabin where the steward kept all the glass, crockery, &c., for the table. The open space of the cabin was some seven paces by six, and between six and seven feet in height, being lighted by a sky-light on deck. In the centre, was a forge square table, where many a jolly party of eight or ten have sat down to as good a dinner as was ever given afloat. Some well-filled book-shelves, a writing-desk and a few chairs, with a barometer and compass, completed the furniture.

Next came the gun-room, where the gun-room officers, namely, two lieutenants, master, surgeon, purser, assistant-surgeon—mess. This is also a square cabin, lighted by a sky-light, six paces by five, of the same height as the captain’s cabin, furnished simply with a square table, a few chairs, lockers for wine, which converted into a sort of sofa by a cushion, and drivers and glass-stands for the furniture of the table. At one side, are two cabins for the two lieutenants; at the other side, are doors opening into a narrow pasage which leads from the captain’s cabin, past the room, on to the lower-deck, and separates the guner from the cabins of the master, surgeon, purser and assistant-surgeon; which correspond with those of the lieutenants on the opposite side of the ship, but is carried further forward. All these cabins are about six feet square.' There is a bed-place with drawers beneath it, a wash hand-stand, a flap which can be raised to form a table, book-shelves, a chair, and chest of drawers; and this completes the home of each officer. Yet it is surprising how much is stowed away in so small a space, and how much taste is often displayed in setting off one’s own particular corner of the ship to the best advantage. Pictures and looking-glasses, Turkish rugs and Greek lace, velvet and gilding are all brought into play; yet room is still found foi clothes and books, the cumbersome cases of uniform, gun-cases, telescope, sextant, and the curiosities picked up at different ports, to prove our remembrance of old friends when arriving again in England.

The midshipmen’s berth is on the same side as the lieutenants’ cabins, just abaft the main-hatchway. It is merely a cabin some five paces square, nearly filled by a table, over which swings a lamp, and is lighted, like all the officers’ cabins, by what are called bulls-eyes— prisms of glass let in through the deck. Around the table are square lockers, and on the top of these the middies sit. Of course there is no room for chairs Some shelves above receive the sextants, glasses, desks, and books; a recess is fitted up for crockery, and the berth is complete. In this we had two mates, five midshipmen, a clerk, and a master’s assistant. None of these officers sleep in cabins, but are slung at night in hammocks like the men, in a part of the lower-deck, just outside their berth, where each has his chest arranged. In this chest he must keep the whole of his dress and property, and a drawer for his washing utensils.

The lower-deck, or the space where the seamen live cook, eat, and sleep, was 54 feet long, 6 feet 6 inches in height between the beams, and 28 feet in breadth at the broadest part. In this space, 130 seamen had t< find accommodation; not only for themselves, but for the galley or kitchen, and for all the mess-tables and stools—to live by day when not on deck, and to sleep by night. It was as well supplied with light and all as is any ship of the class, but still susceptible of improvement in these respects. Along each side a number of mess-tables are arranged, each capable of accommodating a dozen men, six on each side, seated on a stool of the length of the table. Shelves arranged on the sides of the ship receive the plates and ‘mess-gear,’ as the cookery of the men is called. There is a good deal of pride in the show the men can make in this way and a little rivalry between, different messes. All along the beams are rows of hooks, fourteen inchei apart, to which the hammocks are slung at night for the men to sleep in. The hammock is simply an oblong piece of canvas, with holes at each end, through which lines are passed, brought together, and the hammock thus hung to the hooks. It contains a hair mattress and pillow, and a blanket or two for the men, the officers adding the luxury of sheets. In the morning, every hammock is rolled up, tied into a fixed size and shape, and arranged around the bulwarks of the ship, being uncovered in fine weather, but protected when necessary, by a covering of tarpaulin. Then there is no sign of a sleeping-place on the lower-deck during the day, all the hammocks being above.

The galley or kitchen would sadly puzzle a shore-cook. No fire is to be seen; no joints are seen roasting. All is enclosed in a square iron case; there is a furnace below, surrounded by water, and into this sauce-pans of all shapes and sizes are let in—from the caldron which boils the soup for the whole ship’s company, to the sauce-boat for the officers’ fish — all boiling, baking, roasting so called, toasting, stewing for the meals of the captain, the two officers’ messes and the whole of the men, are thus done in an iroi box some five feet square, and in ipany ships distilled water is prepared at the same time. In some of the large troop-ships, 800 gallons of distilled water are thw prepared every day.

Such was our craft below. On deck we had eighteei 32-pounders; and aloft, the usual sails of a three masted, square-rigged vessel. This was our Fitting Out. We were now ready for sea; and, with the usual complement of officers and men, we sailed where our duty called us.


Philosophical Transactions
XV. On a new principle of constructing His Majesty's Ships of War. By Robert Seppings (1814) (pdf)


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