As part of the research for the book I’m currently writing, which is set in the Arctic during the age of exploration, I have been researching life in the British Royal Navy during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In doing so I came across the Royal Hospital, Greenwich, (the naval equivalent of the army’s Chelsea Hospital) and a recent archaeological excavation there that threw light on the lives of the pensioners living there.
The Royal Hospital was a retirement home for “seamen worn out or become decrepit by age and infirmities in the service of their country.” At least 93 men who served at the Battle of Trafalgar lived there. Interestingly one of the facts about Trafalgar that I had not realised before was the number of different nationalities who fought alongside the British, including 28 Americans. Veterans became in-pensioners at the Royal Hospital only in old age or if they had no family to care for them. Hospital food was plentiful if basic. Each man had 1lb of meat a day, boiled or sometimes roast beef on three days of the week, mutton on two days a week, 4oz cheese a day, 1lb bread a day and half a gallon of beer a day. On Wednesday and Fridays they were given pease pottage, a stew with peas and bacon, 8oz cheese and 2oz butter. Tea joined the rations in the early 19th century, as it did in the Navy; also chocolate at breakfast, potatoes, and other improvements. Even then, cabbage was the only green vegetable, for two months in summer so maybe there was scurvy on shore as well as at sea!
Archaeological excavations at the site bear out the suggestion that life in Nelson's Navy was tough. Work was hard, discipline brutal, accommodation dark, cramped and unhygienic and food often uneatable. Disease was rife. The Navy tried to keep its ships clean but with so many men in such cramped and fetid conditions, fever could spread fast and only the strongest survived. 60% of the bodies examined by the archaeologists had broken noses, either from falls – or fights! Fractures were common, from falling out of the rigging to being crushed by the proverbial “loose cannon.” However the Greenwich Pensioners were a hardy lot. Many survived into their 70s, eight of the Trafalgar veterans were over 80 and one was over 90 years old!