The life of the sailor revolved around meals. The mess, typically 4 to 8 men, constituted the social organization aboard ship and meals provided the high points in days filled with monotony. Each mess was assigned a number, HMS Victory, for instance, had 165 separate messes. As a former infantryman, I can attest that the single hot meal we received daily on extended deployments was a similar high point.
Meal times were sacrosanct. According to Janet MacDonald in Feeding Nelson’s Navy, when Sir Edward Pellew took over the East Indies squadron in 1805 all meal times were dictated by signals from his flagship and Nelson’s standing orders stated musters and drills could not take place during meal times.
Whatever meat it may have been, the salt beef was certainly abomin- able. It could, perhaps, have been made eatable by long soaking in the steep tub, but no meat for the messes was ever soaked for more than twenty-four hours. The salt pork was generally rather better than the beef, but the sailors could carve fancy articles, such as boxes, out of either meat. The flesh is said to have taken a good polish, like some close-grained wood.
Sea Life in Nelson’s Time
Before I’m thought to be making a case that I’m most assuredly not making let me stipulate that the diet provided to British sailors was grimly monotonous and in some cases provisions were spoiled. As I was taught some time ago while attempting to become competent in operations research, “the plural of anecdote is not data.”
By the standards of the time, the British sailor had a much more wholesome diet than he would have expected in most trades earning the same wage and the food was not necessarily the stuff of which horror stories are told, despite the quote from our old friend John Masefield above.