Ask BigJules: Sailors’ pay

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Portsmouth Point, Rowlandson

Soon to set sail!

The first Ask BigJules question comes from Pete Dean: ‘In Kydd’s day, the crew were at sea for months at a time. How were the wives paid and supported?’

‘Thanks for the question, Pete. It was a hard lot for many seamen’s wives, especially if they had children to feed and clothe!

Seamen’s wages were paid irregularly, usually six months in arrears (to prevent men from deserting!). Sometimes it was a lot longer, even years, before they had any ‘rhino’ in their pockets. Sailors did have the right (since 1758) to have some of their accrued pay deducted at source once a year and sent to dependants at home – but this was not taken up to any real extent. Jack Tar was probably rightly wary about the money really arriving…

And the pay wasn’t all that high. Until 1797 the common seaman hadn’t had a rise since 1693! A further increase in 1806 brought the monthly pay for an ordinary seaman to 23s 6d, after deductions.

The 1797 Navy Act made it easier for seamen to allot a portion of their wages to their wives and children, or mothers, and the law stipulated that this should be paid every 28 days. For many women, however, collecting this money involved a considerable journey as they had to apply in person to various nominated places.

There was no tax taken out of a seaman’s pay each month but there were other deductions – the cost of slops (articles of clothing) bought from the purser, six pence per month towards Greenwich Hospital, 1 shilling for the Chatham Chest (out of this shilling, four pence was for the chaplain and tuppence for the surgeon).

Navy Pay Office, London

Navy Pay Office, London

Seamen sometimes asked trusted officers to help them send money home to their wives. Admiral Boscawen, for example, was known to transfer money to their wives using his own banker, but this was not common.

Seamen ‘turned over’ (transferred to another ship without any shore leave) were issued with a ‘ticket’ in lieu of wages, which could be signed over to a named individual to be cashed in by the navy or sold to private individuals at a discount. There was a considerable black market in these pieces of paper!

Of course, there was always prize money if you were very very lucky. After the capture of Hermione in 1762 seamen received £485 each! A fortune in those days. But quite a lot of any prize money was spent on rum before it got to the long-suffering wives…

Do you have a question for Ask BigJules – fire away via the comments form below. I’ll answer as many as I can in future posts.

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Image: Thomas Rowlandson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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9 Comments on “Ask BigJules: Sailors’ pay”

  1. Some of your books have nice portraits of the admirals that served in the RN. Have you considered conjuring up one for Admiral Kydd? Actually two, one as an AB, the early days and one as an admiral later in life?

    • Well he’s not quite an admiral yet… Actually some of the UK editions of the paperbacks had an image of Kydd on the cover. Could make an interesting blog at some point – ‘the face of Kydd’ – I’ll bear that in mind!

    • I responded to a similar question in the FAQs, which I hope answers your query – I grew up enthralled with C S Forester, the only writer in the genre at that time, but was also captivated by the atmosphere in R M Ballantyne (“Coral Island”) and found Marryat hard going for a small boy, but rewarding. The most evocative sea books to me were Conrad, which I now realise were written by someone who was a professional seaman who deeply related to the sea’s mystery. At sea I read all I could lay hands on that could amplify my experience. And while I was at sea C S Forester died, and I recall the deep sense of finality that I felt that there would be no more great sea stories of the kind he pioneered so masterfully. I have a deep admiration for Patrick O’Brian, and thoroughly enjoy his work, but of course we necessarily write from different perspectives.

  2. My question relates to a type of sailing vessel that I cannot even guess at as to why it so designated… I refer to the “snow”. There are others that sound somewhat unusual but this is a strange one, to me, anyway.

    • That rig was also called a snaw. I think the difference between a snow and a brig was mostly that the snow had a second mast, or snawmast, stepped just abaft the mainmast.It was used to set a gaff rigged “kicker” on.

    • The name ‘snow’ is from the German ‘schnau’ (have no idea what it means!) but is nothing to do with cold weather! The craft had a strange trysail mast which ran down from the tressel-trees of the main to the deck. This allowed parrel bands of a small loose-footed trysail mizzen to be laced directly to it. It’s of interest that it was considered the largest two-masted vessel at sea in Kydd’s day and was a popular merchant rig – although I’ve never heard of its use in the Royal Navy.

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