Royal Tars

The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy, 875-1850
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Published:January 15, 2011
By Brian Lavery (Author)

With this work, one of the pre-eminent historians of the Royal Navy turns his analytical eye to the Navy's lower deck and explores a culture with its own distinct scale of values, language, and rituals. Based on diverse first-hand accounts, rare letters, primary documents, and an examination of changing practices and regulations, the book presents a social history of Royal Tars from medieval times through 1850. It examines the seaman's skills, daily routines, and living conditions, his attitudes toward officers and their regulations, and his battle experience.

Brian Lavery, the pre-eminent historian of the Royal Navy, turns his astute and wide-ranging analytical eye on to its 'lower deck' - the world of the seamen as distinct from the officers of the 'quarterdeck'. If not totally overlooked in the grand narratives of the Senior Service the lower deck is often only noticed when it is a problem. Seamen are difficult to recruit, sometimes they mutiny on board ship, they are liable to drunkenness and venereal disease, they tend to desert or behave in a feckless manner. For the first time in a dedicated volume The Royal Tars of Old England presents the authentic voice, life and social history of the lower deck - how, in the confines of a fighting ship, the men asserted their independence of authority and, as part of this, established a vivid culture with its own values, language and rituals. The volume conveys the character of the seaman, from the early medieval navy through to the post-Trafalgar long peace, his attitudes to those above him and the navy's regulations, and the experience of battle as seen from the gun deck or the fighting top.

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Product Details
  • Subject: Royal Navy
  • Hardback : 416 pages
  • Publisher: Naval Institute Press (January 15, 2011)
  • ISBN-10: 1591147433
  • ISBN-13: 9781591147435
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 X 9.5 in
  • Shipping Weight: 30.08 oz

Brian Lavery is the guest curator of the exhibition Victory 250 at Chatham Historic Dockyard. He has written more than thirty books on maritime history including the highly successful Nelson’s Navy and Empire of the Seas.

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Customer Reviews

1 Review
Average Customer Reviews
4.00 Stars
Altogether a most interesting and readable book.
Monday, January 2, 2012
By: CDR fraser McKee

Until this volume by the Curator Emeritus of the National Maritime Museum appeared, the best, or at least most readable to the general naval public, of general social histories of the Royal Navy were Professor Michael Lewis’s 1960 A Social History of the Navy 1793-1815 and his 1948 The Navy of Britain (both Allen & Unwin).  With this volume Brian Lavery not only expands on the time period, but makes greater use of actual quotations he has unearthed from a multitude of archives.  And of even more value are, oddly, his initial “Contents” pages.  For both here and throughout the text itself, he has not only his eight chapters and a “Conclusion” but titled sub-sections that make the whole an easily used reference text.  Such as, under “2. Civil War and Dutch Wars, 1642 to 1689” appear “”The Seaman and Parliament,” “The Civil War,” “The New Navy,” “Edward Barlow,” “Marines,” “Guns and Gunnery,” “Why did the Seamen Hate the Navy,” and so forth - 21 sub-sections in this chapter alone.  The other chapters are “1. The Early Seaman,”  “3. European War, 1689 to 1739,”  “4. Imperial War,”  “5. The Crisis, 1783 to 1803,”  “6. A Large Fleet in a Long War, 1803 to 1815,”  and finally “7. The Long Peace, 1815 to 1850.” 

    Wherever possible Lavery has used quoted letters, pamphlets or even subsequent broadsheets and memoirs to make and illustrate his points. Most of them do not come from seamen directly, who presumably only occasionally could read and write, although many do,  but from chaplains, officers of all ranks from Midshipmen to Admirals, and even civilians writing on naval conditions.  An example: “Henry Teonge, a naval chaplain, provides a vivid picture of life on board.... ‘You would have wondered to see here a man and a woman creep into a hammock, the woman’s legs to the hams hanging over the side..... half drunk or half asleep.’ ” This from the 1670’s.  Or by Lieutenant Edward Brenton in 1797 during the pay and conditions crisis: “On board the Agamemnon little suspicion was entertained of an intention to mutiny till the people had dined, when they were called by the boatswain’s mate, but none appearing, a petty officer came, and gave information that the ship’s company had retreated to the fore part of the lower deck and refused to come up.”  {Shades of the RCN some 150 years later!  It takes a while for lessons to sink in!}

     The illustrations are taken from a multitude of sources, 19 of them in colour, illustrating ship layouts, seamen’s and officers’ dress, cartoons of the day, harbour views and copies of actual muster book pages.  His glossary is extensive (Guarda Costa, Gundeck, Gunner, Gunport, Gunroom and so forth) and his “Notes” detailed enough to satisfy any academic.  The text, however, is tailored to the reader with a general interest in the development of the RN from pre-Norman days’ occasional “King’s ships” through the gradual formation of a more regular “Navy” under Henry V and VIII and Elizabeth, and the confusing loyalties of the Civil War of Charles I and Parliament.  Throughout there are small gems of rare detail:  Flogging, despite its wide use in the 18th and 19th centuries, was rare in the 17th.  Punishment usually consisted of a capstain bar through a man’s jacket sleeves with weights suspended from its ends while he stood for long periods, or “ducking” in a sling from a yard’s end or even keel-hauling under the hull.  And the transfer of young boys from the Royal Hospital School into the Navy: Lieutenant Rouse: “These boys at 15 years of age , when they are discharged into the Navy, are, in my very decided opinion, generally very superior on strength in comparison to other institutions of the same nature.... where we are bound to take those who are sent to us.” (1849)

    Altogether a most interesting and readable book.



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