I’m currently researching naval life in the Regency period for a series of books I’m starting to write. So a trip to Portsmouth was absolutely essential. We are so lucky that HMS Victory has been preserved, essentially as she was. Writers can get a real feeling for what life on board might have been like. The only thing that hasn’t been preserved is the chaos of war — and the smell. Sailors apparently preferred to have the gunports closed, and to live in the dark and the fug!
Life on board was exceedingly cramped, unless you were the Admiral, or the Captain. Nelson’s cabin, on the upper gun deck, occupied about a quarter of the length of the ship. In his dining cabin, you can see the polished mahogany table laid for 20, with room to spare. The Captain’s cabin, on the quarterdeck above, was about half that size. There were guns everywhere and the sailors’ quarters, in particular, were dominated by them. Everything else — eating, sleeping in a hammock in 14 inches of hanging space — had to be squeezed in between.
Photography isn’t allowed on board HMS Victory, but here is a shot of an officer’s cabin on board HMS Warrior, launched in 1860, which was actually much more spacious than HMS Victory. In HMS Victory, officers’ cabins were smaller and the guns took up far more of space. When a ship cleared for action, everything was dismantled and stowed away, leaving guns and crews.
The museum at the historic dockyard includes some interesting exhibits of the reality of warfare. I’d learned at school about how the young Napoleon Bonaparte dispersed a Paris insurrection in 1795 with a “whiff of grapeshot” but I didn’t actually know what grapeshot was. Given the name, I’d imagined shot about the size of a grape. Wrong! This is grapeshot as used in naval canon. Each of the balls is about the size of a tennis ball and as the shot is fired, the canvas bursts and the balls fly in all directions. Terrifying. No wonder the Paris mob was dispersed.
It’s all grist to the writer’s mill and I am thoroughly enjoying becoming immersed in naval life. Though I really don’t think I’d have enjoyed living it! Would you?