Reply To: Length of absence from home

Home Forums Nautical Research: 1500 – 1830 Length of absence from home Reply To: Length of absence from home

Nicholas Blake

    The first question is a surprisingly hard question to answer because at the beginning of the wars the RN could keep a ship at sea for a few weeks and by the end it could keep a ship at sea for several months. It would be theoretically possible to produce a mean figure but it would not be very meaningful. Some examples: the Victory is at sea in the Mediterranean from December 1795 to June 1796, and supplied from Corsica, which is ‘one of the longest cruises that was ever undertaken in his Majesty’s Navy’, Admiral James’ Journal, 281; but ‘My dearest Fanny, it is three year this day since I sailed from Spithead. I believe no person in England would have supposed any ship could have been kept so long abroad’. Nelson, Agamemnon, 11 May 1796, Nelson’s Letters to his Wife, p. 291. As an example from the middle of the wars, on 14 June 1804 the Navy Board told Portsmouth Dockyard that ships going off the French coast should have four months’ supplies, and ships going to the Western ocean or elsewhere on Channel service, eight months’ supplies, but by 1814 that was eight and twelve months, renamed as Home and Foreign supply because of the navy’s global reach.

    Seamen were allowed shore leave: in the records this is almost always for a particular purpose (e.g. to buy clothes and other necessaries) but this could just be because the unusual examples survive. A good example is this one:

    “Phoebe, Plymouth Sound, 19 May 1809:

    ‘I beg leave to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 2nd inst. conveying the commands of my Lords Commissioners of the Adm. relative to granting Michl. Gouran (seaman) of this ship three months leave of absence.
    ‘In reply I have to state, & submit to their Lordships, my objections to his request being complied with: he has applied to a Mr Mitchel of Dublin to apply through a Mr Beresford to procure his discharge; this request being found inadmissible, they have sought to obtain the unprecedented leave, required for a cruizing ship — Gouran has I am informed no family by his name, a fair ground for supposing that he is urged by other motives, than those of simply wishing to see his relatives & requiring three months leave for that purpose — he pleads not having been home for many years, some five or six, but as this period from home must ever be inseparable from public service in time of war, he is not more hardly dealt with than others, & I have no hesitation to add, that if their Lordships extend their indulgence to Gouran, they will have repeated applications upon as just grounds, of a similar tenor, before the ship sails from this port: this added to the little chance of his returning to H. Majesty’s service however inclined now, from the temptation that is daily held out by people empd. to procure seamen, & particularly in that country — satisfies me of the danger of establishing such a precedent.'”

    So it would be very few men, half a dozen or a dozen per ship, and only the trusted ones – the modern idea of half the ship’s company being given leave doesn’t apply. Since sailors belonged to the ship not the navy as such, it was common for a ship’s company on returning to port to be “turned over”, ie sent into, a ship leaving port, to prevent them just disappearing or signing on with a merchant ship, which was a source of grievance. Here’s an example of ten men at a time in a ship with an official complement of 165 men:

    “Edward Leweson-Gower takes command of the Prompte in 1795, and at Spithead ten men at a time are allowed twenty-four hours’ liberty, the captain ‘having said that his ship should never be called a prison ship’: the officers ‘seemed to signify that they did not expect to see us again’, but all the liberty men return at the proper time, ‘for we thought it would be very ungrateful now to desert, when we had got a captain who would give us liberty.’ Mariner of England, 119”

    Then there was the fact that with the navy’s global reach a spell in port might be days’ travel from a sailor’s home. So it’s entirely possible that a foremast hand might see his family after a few weeks or months or never see his family again. There was however a free and efficient postal service, which was not viewed favourably by everyone:

    ‘Making seamen’s letter [sic] free of postage has very much promoted the business [of the Great Mutinies]; every lazy fellow finds an excuse from work by writing a letter, and what kind of correspondence were you to expect from the correspondence of the gallows, and the purgings of a gaol, and such make a majority of most ship’s companies in a war such as this?’ Correspondence of Lord Collingwood, 1797, p86