Ask BigJules: Sailors’ pay
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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).
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.
Image: Thomas Rowlandson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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