HMS Bellona 1760 – question regarding crew’s duties

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    Malcolm Lewis

      Brian Lavery’s book The 74-Gun Ship Bellona, (Conway Maritime Press 1985), page 17, lists the duties of the officers and crew of this ship-of-the-line. I am interested to establish the less obvious duties of certain members as listed, namely:
      ‘Midshipman ordinary’ – in addition to ’16 Midshipmen’. These are not the (6) Captain’s or (15) officers’ servants who are listed separately.
      ‘Trumpeter (1)’ and ‘Ordinary trumpeter’. Not mentioned as marines. What would the trumpeters do, as I thought instructions passed around the ship were made by bosun’s call?
      ‘Shifters’ – any suggestions?
      ‘Swabbers’ – heads duties perhaps?
      ‘Gunner’s tailor’ – why specific to the gunner?

      Also, what is the definition of a ‘topsail breeze’ and how does it relate to the Beaufort Scale?

      David Hepper

        Definitions from Falconer’s Dictionary of the Marine ([revised edition] 1815):
        Trumpeter : in ships of war a person who sounds the trumpet or bugle horn every morning and evening after drum beating. The person rated as trumpeter was originally employed to pass the word of command from the man at the cun [sic the early spelling for ‘con’] through the hoses which encircle the tiller ropes to those at the tackles, when steering the ship by the tiller in the gun room, after the tiller ropes had been shot away, or the steering wheel disabled by shot.
        Shifter : a person appointed to assist the ship’s cook in washing, steeping and shifting the salt provisions.
        Swabber : a man appointed to use the swabs in drying up the decks; he is sometimes called the ship’s sweeper but commonly the captain’s swabber (n.b. definition of a swab : a mop formed from a bunch of old yarns and used for cleaning).
        The definition of a Topsail Breeze may be found in John Harland, Seamanship in the Age of Sail (1984), page 53:
        ‘equivalent to a Beaufort Scale 5, what today would be termed a ‘fresh breeze’, about 15-20 knots; a ‘stiff topsail breeze’ would be Beaufort 6, ‘a strong breeze’, 20-25 kts.’

        Malcolm Lewis

          Thank you for the information about the crew’s duties. The details about the trumpeter’s role are intriguing. Falconer says he was ‘originally employed’ to pass orders to the men below manning the jury tiller tackles used when the steering wheel had been disabled in battle. Falconer says this was transmitted ‘through the hoses which encircle the tiller ropes’.
          There was much logic in using a loud trumpet to pass orders in the deafening noise of battle and presumably there was a code system to do this.
          I cannot see reference to the use of ‘hoses’ aboard Victory, whose wheel and tiller ropes were shot away at Trafalgar. To my knowledge the tiller ropes were not encased in any way down to the tiller flat on the lower deck. Bellona was built slightly earlier than Victory. Maybe her tiller ropes were passed through ‘hoses’.
          Peter Goodwin, Victory’s former Curator, says there is evidence that Victory had voice tubes from the wheel to the tiller flat. I can appreciate the advantage of using a trumpet to pass orders using such tubes. Is anything recorded in this regard at the time of the battle?
          Has any member suggestions concerning my queries about the rank and duties of ‘Midshipmen ordinary’ and of the ‘gunner’s tailor’ please?


            The term Midshipman Ordinary is rarely found in naval histories and there appears to be some confusion about its derivation, if not about the post itself.
            In essence, a ‘Midshipman Ordinary’ was a junior form of midshipman, apparently either one of the young ‘gentlemen’s’ or ‘officer’s servants’ who would rise to become a Midshipman on their way to the quarterdeck, or from 1729, those apprentice officers who entered a ship from the Royal Naval Academy, Portsmouth.1
            In the latter category they were young men who had spent three years at the Academy learning by teaching and illustrated textbook (sic), and thus when joining their ship were deemed to be less experienced at practical seamanship than those Midshipmen of a similar age who had spent up to three years at sea. The years at the Academy, however, counted towards the mandatory minimum six years ‘sea-time’ a Middie had to have in order to go for the Lieutenants’ Board.
            Midshipmen Ordinary were paid considerably less than Midshipmen – in my (1772) copy of Naval Instructions this is given as £1.4.0d a month (the same as an Able Seaman or a Coxswain’s Mate amongst whom they are listed), compared with £2.5.0d per month for a Midshipman in a First Rate ship down to £1.10.0d in a Sixth Rate.2
            Apparently a captain could appoint a Midshipman Ordinary to full Midshipman if his ship’s complement – and presumably the individual’s merits – allowed.
            Brian Lavery discusses various aspects of Middies in Part IV (‘Officers’) of Nelson’s Navy.3

            1. Rodger, NAM The Wooden World, 1988, page 25 (paperback edn) and Appendix I
            2. Regulations and Instructions relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea, 11th edition, 1772, Part V Article IX (pages 146 and 148).
            3. Lavery, Brian Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization, 1989, from page 88

            Chris Donnithorne

              With the Naval Biographical Database, I am starting to explore the early ship’s company in rather more detail than has previously been possible. I am currently working with representative pay books for the first half of the C18th, and come across the Midshipman Ordinary infrequently.

              Entick’s New Naval History, p.xxx1, describes this individual thus: ‘None are to be rated Midshipmen Ordinary, but such as have served as Voluntiers [sic] per Order; and they who are so rated, shall receive the Pay of an able Seaman, upon their producing a Certificate from their Captain …’

              In practice, it seems that Captains did what was necessary in the prevailing circumstances.

              Numbers allowed varied from 4 in a 3rd rate to 1 in a 6th rate

              Nicholas Blake

                Midshipman Ordinary “n. now hist. a rating introduced in 1676 to accommodate Admiralty-sponsored candidates (regarded as supernumerary) as well as the protégés of senior sea officers, and until 1816 held by deserving men who each replaced an able seaman, whose pay they drew.” (OED)

                Trumpeters gave signals between ships, announced the captain, etc. Trumpets were also sometimes used for night and fog signals.

                Shifters assisted the cook with heavy tasks, especially in filling and emptying the coppers and collecting the meat.

                Swabbers cleaned the decks. Cleaning the heads was usually a temporary duty assigned as punishment for minor antisocial crimes.

                Gunner’s tailors made and repaired the cartridge bags.

                More details in my Steering to Glory (Chatham, 2005).

                Malcolm Lewis

                  Thank you all for the various interesting answers. One small question for Nicholas Blake: why did the cartridge bags need repair? Was this because of damage during storage or mishandling?

                  Nicholas Blake

                    It was probably more making than repairing. Flannel cartridges were only universally introduced by order of 3 January 1816 (PRO: ADM 7/226), before then they were often parchment or paper. Parchment cartridges did not last more than three weeks; paper was more durable and less expensive, Shipboard Life and Organisation, 30; R&I, 1790, p. 102, art. VII; he is to keep only three rounds filled at a time.

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