Reply To: Leaguers (water casks) in Nelson's Navy

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Nicholas Blake

    I looked into water storage in ships-of-the-line in some detail in my “Steering to Glory” (Chatham, 2005). This is what I discovered about wooden barrels and leaguers:

    Lavery (Arming and Fitting, p. 190; Bellona, p. 19; Nelson and the Nile, p. 136) states that a butt for water is 108 gallons, measure not stated, but meaning beer measure (this can be demonstrated by calculation): the Victualling Board’s precedent book contains a table of tunnage that shows two butts make a tun/ton (ADM 30/44, f. 260), and there is various evidence that supports this in practice, for example a letter from the Victualling Board to the Admiralty in 1800 stating that 150 tons is equal to 300 butts of water (NRS 141, p. 481, and this is assumed at p. 496 of Rodger, Command of the Ocean, citing several statements of weights of provisions. These tons are weight not capacity. Macdonald (Feeding Nelson’s Navy, p. 175) states that a butt is 108 gallons wine measure and 126 gallons beer measure, according to content, which is wrong; she also equates beer/ale measure with Imperial measure (Feeding Nelson’s Navy, p. 174), which is incorrect for the period under discussion, being equated only in 1819, when the ale gallon was made to ‘contain exactly ten pounds Avoirdupoids of distilled water, at 62° of Fahrenheit, being nearly equal to 277.2 cubic inches’, instead of the customary 282 cu. in. (Beer gallon and ale gallon are synonyms.) This standard gallon was redefined in 1834 as 277.274 cu. in., and the modern Imperial gallon was defined most recently (1985) as exactly 4546.09ml. Leaguers are even more problematic: they are not multiples of the successive sizes and were not always used (they are not given in the printed forms supplied to the dockyards to record the ‘Account of the Draught of Water . . . and the Weight and Quantity of all Provisions’ of ships sailing on Channel and Foreign service, and many ships sailed without any); Lavery claims in Arming and Fitting that a leaguer for water is 150 gallons and in Bellona that it is 189 gallons (Macdonald is certainly wrong in her belief that a leaguer meant a tun, English measure – this is based on a misreading of her source); John Edye’s Calculations relating to equipment and displacement of ships of war (1832, at, gives it as 190 wine gallons, containing water weighing 1,592lb); Admiral Smyth, referring to the period before water tanks, gives it as 159 imperial gallons. Edye’s figures work out to be correct to 4½oz per leaguer, equivalent to the product of rounding, and if Admiral Smyth’s figure is a misprint and the Arming and Fitting figure an oversight, ships typically sailed from the Royal Dockyards with their barrels about 95 per cent full. In the Seven Years War ships only used the ground tier in an emergency (Rodger, Wooden World, pp. 91–2). During the French Revolutionary Wars they slowly became used to drawing on it, as is evident from a letter Admiral Bridport wrote to the Admiralty on 31 July 1798, advising them that ‘keeping three deck ships cruizing nine weeks [blockading Brest] to occasion them to begin upon the ground tier of water causes great time and trouble in the refilling them’ (NRS 141, p. 322). It was characteristic of the navy of the period that as the war progressed and ships became expected to keep their station for months or even years this labour became part of the daily routine. Breaking up the ground tier remained a major evolution, however: in 1810 Sir Charles Cotton gave an order to Captain Pearce of the Royal Sovereign to proceed to Gibraltar to refit and complete with water, writing ‘you are at liberty to break up your ground tier for the purpose of examining into the state of your water casks, and making good the defects in the same, to effect which the coopers from the ships and vessels that may be at Gibraltar are to be employed, in addition to your own & those belonging to the victualling department’ (ADM 7/50, 28 May 1810).

    Since it was published, Roger Morriss wrote ‘The Supply of Casks and Staves to the Royal Navy, 1770–1815’, MM vol. 93 no. 1, p48, but he just uses Admiral Smyth’s definition of a leaguer.

    THE OED has a quotation “1800   Naval Chron. 3 66   The largest casks are called leagers, and are of the following dimensions: Length..4 ft. 6 in., Diameter of Bouge..3 ft., Diameter of Chine..2 ft. 5 in” from which anyone skilled in the mathematics of volume can work it out, more or less.

    The problem with documentation about water is that it was all so obvious to contemporaries they very rarely defined anything. For example the Minerva transport left Cadiz for the fleet on 26.09.1801 with “Water, 272 tons: in 197 leaguers, 11 butts, 270 puncheons, 110 hogsheads”, from which it should be possible to calculate the volume of a leaguer, but Roger Morriss in his article says a puncheon is from 72 to 120 gallons and doesn’t specify which gallon; though in Steering to Glory I conclude that water was measured in beer gallons I have seen no evidence for that.

    If anyone can demonstrate with a contemporary source which gallon was used they will win a prize.