Coaling Warships with Naval Labour, 1870-1914: ‘I wish I could get hold of that man who first found coal.’

By Steven Gray, published May 2015


The expansion of a steam-powered Royal Navy in the period 1870−1914 made vessels utterly dependent on coal. Getting this coal aboard warships was dirty, exhausting, and dangerous work. Even in 1914, it was still largely done by hand and, increasingly, it was the job of the ships’ crews to perform this task. Thus coaling was a regular task for sailors, usually occurring every 7–10 days, and one that could last all day. This article examines the different methods of coaling warships, particularly focusing on the use of sailor labour and colliers to reflect their increasing use as the period progressed. In addition to examining the roles of each of the ships’ crew in coaling, it also assesses sailors’ attitudes towards the task. In doing so, it shows that such a hated job required coping mechanisms, such as fancy dress, music, and competition, as well as the promise of alcohol and shore leave afterwards. Finally, the article examines the dangers of coaling, showing that a regular need for fuel frequently exposed sailors to serious danger, often suffering broken bones and, all too frequently, death.

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Filed under: Other (Twentieth C) | Other (Nineteenth C) | Health at Sea | Other (location)
Subjects include: Manpower & Life at Sea | Navies

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