Monday, June 15, 2009

Fourteen inches and fug

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?



Joanna Waugh said...

When I visited London in 2001, I made the train trip down to Portsmouth so I could visit the naval museum, tour the Victory and the Warrior and see the restoration work underway on the Mary Rose. It was the highlight of my trip!

Jan Jones said...

Ah, grapeshot as in "looks like a bunch of grapes".

There go my preconceived notions, then.

Anonymous said...

A word to anyone who's interested in the Mary Rose. Thanks for reminding me, Joanna. The Mary Rose exhibit will close in September this year while she's dried out and the new museum is built round her. She'll be open again about 2012, if I remember rightly. So if anyone wants to see her, you need to get there soon.

Jan, it does sort of look like an upside-down bunch of grapes. Just extremely large (and rather nasty) grapes...

Anonymous said...

"Grapes" that pack a POW!

Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Fabulous, Joanna! Life must have been pretty tough aboard ship.

At least we don't have to re-create the smells in our books!

Anonymous said...

My books won't actually smell, Melinda, but I shall try to recreate something of it as I write. Rather like a submarine nowadays after a very long voyage, only much worse, I imagine.

I blogged about the fug, but I forgot to say that the sailors weren't allowed to smoke, for reasons of safety. That's why they chewed their tobacco instead, spitting into spitoons, of course. Spitting on the deck would have been punished since the ship had to be kept very clean and tidy at all times.

I'm told that holystoning the deck, in a freezing gale, is not a pleasant experience.

HMS Warrior, by the way, has just had a complete new upper deck at a cost of £3 million! Beautiful, but what a price.